Tao's Travels: The Path of Permaculture

by Laura Babbitt

Tao [pronounced “TAY-oh”] lived in a busy little town. She shared a comfortable house and a little garden full of flowers and veggies with her mate and two cats. She worked from home doing what she loved, and visited neighbors and friends at church on weekends. But Tao wasn’t happy. She was troubled by the news. Every day brought a new story of people dying from severe weather, plants and animals disappearing forever from land or the ocean, and people suffering from lack of food, water, houses or medicine. There was no lack in Tao’s town. Her neighbors and friends talked happily about their work, their houses and their little gardens. Finding no friends who shared her unease at comfort amid suffering, Tao took to wandering.

One day not long ago, Tao traveled to the home of Carrot and Sunflower, famed in her region for their permaculture garden. Tao had gardened for as long as she could remember, but hoped to learn how to grow more in her little space.

As Tao walked up the sidewalk, she spied familiar herbs and flowers right away—marjoram, oregano, calendula, lavender, salvia, borage, fennel, chives and onions—but marveled at their attractive placement in Carrot and Sunflower’s front-yard cottage garden.

“We planted our herbs in front to make them easy for neighbors to harvest,” Sunflower explained as she answered Tao’s knock. “You can step anywhere that isn’t green, so it’s easy to walk around and see all the plants.”

As Tao entered the side garden, Sunflower pointed to a long row of five-gallon buckets edging the house. “Our neighbors take these buckets and bring them back filled with kitchen scraps. We turn the scraps into compost. Every so often, someone takes home a bucket of compost, but most of it gets used here.”

At the kitchen window, Sunflower paused to plan dinner with Carrot. Although talk of heirloom beans, fresh bread and a garden salad made Tao’s mouth water, she was abashed accepting Sunflower’s dinner invitation without a dish to share.

As Tao stepped into the back garden, discomfort yielded to delight. The tilled rows of her childhood and raised beds of her adulthood were absent; the garden appeared as harmonious as natural woodland. As Tao looked close, she could see that every plant and feature either made food or supported other plants, bees or the gardeners. Never had she seen a garden that was at once as productive and pleasant to be in as Carrot and Sunflower’s.

Sunflower smiled at Tao’s intense concentration. “When a friend first saw my garden, her first remark was, ‘I don’t know where your garden bed stops and your yard starts,’” she said. “That caused consternation for my friend, but to us it was the greatest compliment.”

Tao slowly circled the garden, exploring, as Sunflower harvested herbs and flowers for the salad, offering insights on whatever captured Tao’s eye. “Those cylinders are portable compost bins,” Sunflower explained as Tao scribbled in her notebook. “When the compost is done, we’ll lift them up, and work the compost into the planting bed it sits on.”

“That tree is a black walnut,” she said as Tao looked toward a quiet corner near the back fence. “The squirrels get the nuts, but we get shade in the summer, and we use the leaves. But the big pile you see under the tree isn’t just from the walnut. In the fall, we gather leaves our neighbors put out for curb collection to use in our compost.”

Tao crouched near the chicken coop, watching the hens. The alpha hen Fluffy was first to venture close, pecking at the cabbage and mustard plants shading the run, vocalizing softly to herself. Fluffy rewarded Tao’s attempts at mimicry by foraging slowly back and forth in front of Tao’s perch, occasionally cocking her head encouragingly at the big ugly chick bawking off-key.

The lure of good scratch near the compost overcame beta hen Fancy’s wariness of intruders, and she gave Tao an up-close lesson in her dietary preferences. Fancy ignored the tiny sowbugs her powerful scratching uncovered, but eagerly snapped up a rare, plump black soldier fly grub escaped from the compost. Tao reflexively approved, “Good hunting, Fancy!” Fancy followed with close spaced bawks and head bobs.

“Fancy seems excited that I noticed her skill at finding bugs,” Tao said, not quite trusting her interpretation.

“Yes, the girls do appreciate positive attention from us,” Sunflower affirmed. “It’s another beneficial exchange. They like our approval, and they provide us endless entertainment. Our garden seating is close by their house, so we can relax and watch ‘chicken TV.’ The neighbor kids even stake out the house waiting for us to come home, so they can play with the chickens.”

Tao reluctantly left the hens and the garden to wash for dinner. She cheered up when she was greeted by Tee and Jay, friends who appeared to like Carrot and Sunflower’s company as much as Fluffy and Fancy.

As Tao sat down at the table, Carrot brought out a dish of four fresh artichokes for the group of five.

“I’ve never had an artichoke, and I don’t even know how to eat it, so I can share one,” Tao said.

“If this is your first time, you should really have one to yourself,” Carrot said. “Tee and I are used to sharing, we’ll split one.”

As Tao watched the others pull the first petal from their buds, she remembered sitting at a candle-lit table curiously watching her date pluck petal after petal without offering a single taste. Sighing, she plucked a petal, dipped it in the melted butter Carrot offered, then scraped the soft flesh off between her teeth. She understood at once the satisfied look she’d seen on her date’s face years earlier. Tao kept pace with the others, and they soon ate down to the chokes.

“Pull the choke off like this,” Jay said. “You don’t want to eat that, it’s tough and picky. Then you scoop out the heart. That’s the lobster of the vegetable world.”

Tao followed Jay’s lead, cut the heart in half, cut one half in quarters, then slowly ate her first bite of veggie lobster, listening to Carrot and Tee debate how to fairly share their heart since Carrot had eaten more petals. Tao lifted the half heart on her knife, and slid it onto Tee’s plate.

“Here, you can have half of my heart,” she said.

“No, no” Tee said. “This is your maiden flight for artichokes; you should get to enjoy the whole thing.”

“This is the first time I ate an artichoke,” Tao said. “And I want to remember that I shared.”

No one spoke, but murmurs of assent made Tao feel like a favored chick in a circle of hens clucking approval.

The meal continued with lovingly grown and prepared beans, salad, bread and preserves. Tao happily drenched everything with Carrot’s homemade dressing, listening to how the others had gathered foods from a CSA, a farmers’ market, an Ayurvedic healer and an heirloom bean buying club, and how they planned to share them around. The company at the table so filled Tao’s longing to connect with others who acted to counter the daily bad news, she finally lowered her gaze from their faces, sated.

When many hands had quickly tidied up after the meal, Tao said her goodbyes then meandered home, stretching the journey to prolong the gratitude she felt. Carrot and Sunflower had shown her permaculture wasn’t just technology for making a garden produce more, it was a culture of sharing to ease imbalance and suffering, that permaculture was a path of the heart.


Susan and Christel, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Gardening Gals that inspired this story, are real life fairy godmothers of suburban permaculture gardening. Read more about their permaculture adventures at The Gardening Gals archives on Earth Action Mentor. But the best way to launch your own permaculture practice is to wander the garden of a local gardener to see, taste and feel the abundance and harmony of permaculture for yourself. If you don’t already know one, Paul Wheaton’s RichSoil website is a good place to start exploring. Happy trails!

Laura Babbitt is an independent editor and communications manager, a climate activist and a grateful reader of The Holy Universe. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two cats, redwood tree, and an unreckoned number of California Towhees, salamanders and sowbugs. Someday, she’ll have chickens.


Additional Resources

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway

Backyard Permaculture: Starting at home (VIDEO, 1:12:54)

The Permaculture Research Institute

Worldwide Permaculture Network

The Gardening Gals archive



For Your Delight: Another Beautiful Video

Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective

Filmmakers Costa Boutsikaris and Emmett Brennan are creating a documentary on permaculture. Their Kickstarter campaign trailer is a work of art in itself.

Leave comments or questions