The focus of The Permaculture Handbook is primarily on food production systems of ¼ acre and above, linked to the size of larger US suburban and peri-urban gardens. For those of us who are interested in this scale and type of design, this book has a lot to offer. Despite the title, permaculture only plays a supporting role in the book, with the main focus on 'Garden Farming'.
I got a real sense that the author understood the practicalities of creating and running a garden farm. He notes that there is a significant difference between 'dabbling in the garden evenings and weekends' and the effort, planning, dedication and sheer bloody-mindedness needed to create a productive system on this scale. Peter Bane's suggestion that a small garden farm (¾ to 2½ acres) needs three adults for labour is a reality check for anybody looking to do the same. He offers some sensible suggestions for getting help, and identifies the inherent difficulty in trying to build and develop the infrastructure of a project at the same time as doing the routine work needed outside. This is something that many of us have had to learn. The four case studies presented are interesting, useful, and show what is possible at this scale. I would have preferred to have more detail, but acknowledge that a book like this will not be able to replicate the detail contained in more site-specific books like Bioshelter Garden (Frey) and Restoration Agriculture (Shepard).
Bane devotes attention to the functions and types of spaces needed for a garden farm. Spaces for drying, preserving, and storing produce are covered. I loved the suggestion of an outdoor 'summer kitchen' to take the heat and steam generated in food preservation out of an already warm house. The idea that a porch or veranda has another function as the 'edge' between the public space of 'outside' and the private space of 'inside' is interesting, as was the need to plan for receiving visitors or customers when selling from the premises. Much of the thinking behind the functional spaces is introduced in the author's own garden farming 'pattern language', based on the work of Christopher Alexander. I found this chapter a bit long for an introduction, but lacking in the detail I was looking for. Although some of the patterns are touched on later in the book, I was left wanting more information, and some practical examples.
Unlike UK permaculture design processes/frameworks, Bane advocates having a design aim, or set of aims for a household. The gap between the aims and what is already in place becomes the focus for the design, and design strategies. He also suggests developing a concise statement of your aims, and a list of all of the functions that you want the farm to perform, setting priorities. I like this a lot. He also has an interesting interpretation of the 12 Holmgren permaculture principles.
There are a few drawbacks to this book. The largest (middle) section of the book covers basics such as soil, plants, trees etc. This is ideal if you want or need an introduction or overview of these topics, but not so good if you already have a good grasp of them. Despite my reservations, the author manages to present a lot of information in a well organised and methodical way, displaying an admirable level of permaculture geekdom.
The author is primarily looking at spaces that start at a little under ¼ acre. This may be reasonable in a US setting, but very few UK homes have this much space available. However it does highlight the difficulty in providing sufficient quantities of staple foods in a UK urban setting.
Bane joins the legion of writers/permaculturists who insist that we should grow perennials, and then proceeds to write a growing section dominated by annual vegetables. I also think that he has misunderstood the high calorie/high biomass part of the Grow Bio-intensive system of John Jeavons. This leads to the assumption that it is possible to grow food for a person on far less space than you actually can.
If you have no interest in food production at larger than allotment scale, already have a good understanding of soil and plants, and no interest in pattern language, don't read this book. For the rest of us this is a worthwhile addition to your book collection.
Deano Martin is a smallholder and blogger at: http://sustainablesmallholding.org
This weighty tome is available from Green Shopping for £28 (p&p free int he UK).