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Michael Pilarski

Permaculture design can be applied at all scales from small to large. Most permaculture design is applied to yards or single properties. Here is a report on permaculture design applied at a larger scale. Kauai is one of the Hawaiian Islands with a land mass of 353,000 acres and a population of 65,000. This highly-dissected, mountainous, volcanic island has spectacular scenery. Being 2,500 miles from the nearest continental land mass, it is particularly vulnerable to disruptions in the supply of outside inputs. Currently it imports over 90% of its food needs as well as most of its fuel, building materials, etc. In the old days the economy revolved around sugar cane, but the industry is now almost gone. In recent decades tourism has been the dominant income source peaking out several years back at 1,250,000 annual visitors. Tourist numbers are dropping fast and the worsening global economic crisis is leading to an island-wide unemployment crisis.

On April 4, 2009, 250 people came together in Lihue on Kauai to update Kauai’s master agricultural plan. The Kauai Agricultural Forum brought together a wide range of farmers and agriculture stakeholders (including agencies and local government). The unique thing about this public, agriculture planning process was that permaculturists had a major role in planning and directing the event. Michael Pilarski gave the keynote address to set the tone for the day and was one of the main facilitators. Dozens of the participants were permaculture design course graduates. The mission for the day was to collaboratively plan the future of agriculture in Kauai. The plan developed at the Forum strongly reflected a permaculture outlook and sustainabilility was the stated goal. Local food self-reliance based on local inputs was a major focus.

To my knowledge this is the first county-wide, agricultural planning event co-directed by the permaculture community. The event was very successful and already has a broad range of public support. It will take years of effort to implement the plans and build even broader public support. We didn’t use the term “permaculture” a lot during the process but rather focused on the term “sustainainability”. The success of this forum makes me encourage permaculturists everywhere to become more involved in public planning processes. We have lots to offer and the public is increasingly open to permaculture ideas in this time of deepening crisis. In the future I hope to hear of many other examples of permaculture design being applied at the county level.

For further information on the forum, the planning documents developed, and follow-up activities please go to

While on Kauai I taught the “Activate Kauai Permaculture Design Course” with local teachers Ray Maki and Gary Seals. This was my 4th course I’ve co-taught in the Hawaiian islands. The course was held from March 21 to April 1 plus each student has to attend 20 hours of hands-on permaculture workshops offered over the following weeks. It was the largest permaculture course held thus far in the Hawaiian Islands. We averaged feeding 75 people per meal (including two lu`aus) and graduated 57 students (most of them from Kauai). More than 125 people were involved.

The 2nd half of the course was held at the Waipa Ahupua`a center, which is a 1600-acre, Hawaiian cultural and agricultural restoration project. In pre-contact times all of the Hawaiian islands were divided up into self-governing districts based on watershed boundaries which extended from the headwaters to the ocean so that each ahupua`a had access to all the eco-zones on the island and extending into the ocean. This was the first permaculture course based at a Hawaiian-managed Ahupua`a. The course included Hawaiian people, guest speakers, and spiritual leaders. We were very privileged to have had this opportunity. The ancient Hawaiians developed some of the world’s finest examples of terraced agriculture as well as top-notch salt-water and freshwater aquaculture systems. They also had well-developed spiritual traditions.

We held a special workshop after the course focused on Kauai whole island design. The ideas illustrate some of the things to consider when doing permaculture design at the county level. The whole-island design ideas are available from Michael P. Future courses will be planned on Kauai. For further details you can check out

Michael Pilarski is a permaculture educator, practitioner and community organizer based in Washington State.


Michael Pilarski

Hugelkultur (in its various spellings) is a traditional German agriculture technique developed long, long ago. Its name translates roughly into “mound culture”. The main technique is to pile up rotting forest vegetation, including logs, into long mounds which are topped off with soil and planted. It is, in effect, a long-term raised-bed. It becomes a high-fertility, well-drained, yet moist, sponge of biological activity. It is particularly appropriate for situations with poor soil, shallow soil (can even be built on pavement), heavy clay soils, waterlogged soils and areas with high rainfall and fast leaching of nutrients.

I just returned from Kauai island where I was teaching and consulting. We built one hugelkultur during the permaculture course and I recommended them while consulting for several landowners. Hugelkultur is a good technique for many situations in the Hawaiian islands since some parts of the island have high rainfall, infertile soils and organic matter quickly burns out of the soil. Hugelkulturs are also useful in the Pacific Northwest.

A hugelkultur is a layered system. Many materials can be used, but predominantly it is forest biomass of various sizes from large to small. High nitrogen material(s) are also needed as well as the final topping of soil. The final topping is ideally weed-free topsoil, but these two attributes seldom go hand in hand. Subsoil can be used, or topsoil with its seed bank, or finished compost or forest humus/duff layer.

In some cases it is useful to dig a long trench first. Set any decent soil aside for the top layer. Or the pile can be built directly on top of whatever exists. A pit is particularly valuable in dry climates to enhance moisture retention. On waterlogged sites pits are counterproductive as the bottom layer may become completely saturated and hence anaerobic and unavailable to root growth.

Most hugelkulturs built by hand tend to be 6 feet wide at the base or so and 3 feet wide at the top and about 3 feet high (and as long as materials allow). Large scale hugelkulturs built with heavy equipment can be quite large. Albert Postema of Snohomish Washington has built them 15 feet tall , 100s of feet long and 30 feet wide at the base. Large stumps and tree trunks are incorporated. Whole food forests are planted on them.

The largest material is placed on the bottom layer followed by consecutively smaller materials in the following order: logs, large branches, small branches, twigs, litter layer, duff, soil. Old boards can also be used, but avoid any treated wood. Avoid cedar, eucalyptus or other tree species which are known for their high levels of allelopathic substances.

It is important while building the pile that the voids between the woody biomass be filled with fine, nitrogen-rich material. There are two reasons for this. 1) Nitrogen material has to be added to help balance the high carbon, woody material. The more rotted the woody material is the better. Try to avoid fresh wood if possible. It takes years to break down to the point that roots can utilize the material. Plus the more rotted the material the better is the existing carbon/nitrogen balance. 2) We wish to avoid too many air pockets in the hugelkultur. Manures (fresh or composted) is the best high nitrogen material to use. Seaweeds are also good as are any manner of green plant materials. Avoid weeds which will root from the stem (though they can be used deep in the pile). Kitchen wastes can also be used or what have you.

The pile needs to be wet down as it is built if the materials are dry. The end result being like a moist sponge.

A well-built Hugelkultur can be planted immediately after finishing. Small hugelkulturs are usually used for high value vegetables, herbs, etc. Large ones can also be used for shrubs, trees, etc. Because it is a labor and material intensive technique it is usually used in zone 1 or zone 2 situations. Hugelkulturs mature and improve with age. After a few years they store the rainy season’s rainfall in its mass and can carry a crop through without irrigation. The interior becomes like a moist sponge but is also well aerated. Plant roots love the medium and can grow exuberantly. The nitrogen to carbon balance becomes better over the years. Depending on the climate and materials used the hugelkultur will be around and producing for decades. If the crop plants in the first year show signs of yellowing or N deficiency then apply a nitrogen-rich compost tea, manure tea, fish fertilizer or something similar.

Hugelkulturs are a productive way to use waste woody material which are too far gone for use as firewood or other higher-end uses. Turning rotting forest biomass into food! Bon Apetite.

Questions, comments contact Michael Pilarski, Friends of the Trees Society.

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Page last modified on May 05, 2009, at 09:16 PM