We've become so used to devouring large quantities of food at this time of year that it's hard to connect with the idea of seasonal shortages - but that's what the midwinter solstice essentially announces. These end-of-year feasts, until fairly recently, celebrated the return of the sun - the lengthening of the day and the shortening of shadows. After this date, the darkest night is over, but the depth of winter is still to come. From this point our ancestors faced a time when there was little food available outside, a period when they had to rely heavily on their stores, using them carefully and keeping the best seed for sowing and animals for breeding in the year ahead. These days we give over most of the responsibility for that to the supermarkets - a convenient arrangement, but ultimately a risky one.
Permaculture encourages to keep our stores closer, where we can be more in control of them, either in our own gardens, or at least in our towns and villages. Gardening is more work for us certainly, but offers us much more resilience too. People queueing for food outside empty shops in New Orleans should have taught us that, but no, it seems we didn't get the message.
One of the secrets of nature's success (and a permaculture principle) is having 'many elements for each important function' - to have many different grazers, pollinators, photosynthesisers and so on. For us it means having several ways of meeting our needs for food, water, warmth, etc. giving us more options should our usual supply run dry. That doesn't mean we all need to grow all our own food (permaculture was never about 'self-sufficiency'), but knowing that we could (if we had to), along with having access to fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables, that gives a sense of security that money could never buy.
My teaching programme often takes me away from home in the warmer months, so growing annuals, with all their attendant needs, is challenging. We do however have a garden full of perennial food plants, including vegetables like Yacon (pictured, right), and an abundance of soft fruit bushes and fruit trees. We had an especially fine crop of Halls Giant Hazelnuts this year (pictured below) - a large nut cultivar (I'm hoping the local squirrels will continue to not notice them). Such 'minimalist gardens', as Patrick Whitefield would call them, are very easy to maintain, especially if we give attention to where we place the different plants and trees. Putting plants in their preferred microclimates and grouping them into guilds - mutually supporting groups - means that nature does most of the work, leaving us little more than the job of harvesting.
Ultimately, when we are designing a permaculture system, we are looking to identify the key vulnerabilities in our system and finding ways of making them more resilient. For many of us, especially those of us who live in cities, this is our food security. Those supermarket stores are replenished on a 'just-in-time' basis, meaning that only a couple of days of stock are ever in the shop at any one time. That, and the fact that we share that stock with most of the other residents of our town. Much better then to create stocks close by, where we can access them more easily and manage them with full knowledge of what we have left.
If reading this makes you feel a little vulnerable, well you can change that. If all there is to know about gardening seems a little daunting, then start small. Find something easy to grow - begin with sprouting some beans (e.g. adzuki, mung, etc.), a good indoor winter crop that deliver plenty of fresh nutrients at a time when there's little in the garden. Then start outdoors with a few herbs (pick those you like), some salad leaves (which produce more leaves in the cooler early spring months), and perhaps some quick crops like radish. All of us who garden, regardless of how much we know now, all started off knowing nothing. Start growing a few things and you'll soon get the bug.
Oh, and permaculture - yes, that really changed my life. Perhaps it will change yours too.