Sepp Holzer's Permaculture

This post is about Sepp Holzer's book Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale Intergrative Farming and Gardening, 2011

Sepp Holzer is a 'rebel farmer' that lives in Lungau, Salzburg, Austria.  He developed his family farm, Krameterhof, through experiementation, through observation, through thoughtful design.  He has developed these methods over 40 years to mimic nature. He has struggled against agricultural norms and regulations, and thus has received the reputation of being a rebel farmer.  He says " The fact that it is actually necessary to become a 'rebel' to run a farm in harmony with nature is really very sad! "(pg xvi)

He tries to imitate natural cycles so to do a little work as possible and still achieve good yields. Sepp says " What aspect of nature could I improve upon when nature already functions perfectly?  Every time I tried to improve upon nature I quickly realised that I had only created more work for myself and the loss in yield was greater.  So I always returned to the natural way, which, as far as I am concerned, has proved to be the only right one." (pg xvii)

Sepp Holzer on Landscape Design:

"Permaculture landscape design essentially involves restoring a partially destroyed natural landscape.  It is about returning to small-scale landscapes based on natural ecosystems.  It offers us a viable alternative to the monoculture system that destroys our soil and pollutes our ground water." (pg.5)

Sepp Holzer's permaculture is known and celebrated for his earthworks, water capture, raised bed design, and creation of microclimates at high elevations.  In his book he goes into depth about creating terraces, ponds and raised beds ('hugelkultur' beds).

The beginning of a hugelkultur bed at Know & Grow Community Farm in Creston.
Usually hugelkultur beds are dug down to access to soil and sod underneath.
We didn't do this here because there is mostly just rocks underneath the grass.
We put cardboard to act as a weed barrier for our new raised bed.


Hugelkultur is all the rage in permaculture circles (see these blogs about hugelkulture 1, 2, 3 ).  It basically means 'mound culture' and involves making a mound with woody debris and then burying with soil and compost.  Sepp Holzer started using hugelkultur beds in 2002 when a wind storm took down some spruce trees and he needed to find a use for the fallen trees.  The wood and debris used in hugelkutlur beds are usually excess wood that is not suitable for building or heating and would otherwise just rot or be put in a burn pile.

Add wood!  We got some birch wood from a friend of the garden  We placed hay
bales because this bed is on a bit of slope and we wanted to contain it

How Hugelkultur works

The buried wood decomposes slowly releasing nutrients slowly while creating a water sponge.  Think of a mossy, decomposing log in the forest, they are spongy, wet and usually provide habitat for new trees.  In ecological terms, these fallen trees are often called nurse logs.  The roots of the perennial (and annual) plants that are planted in the hugelkultur bed will reach down towards the decomposing wood to access water and nutrients stored in the decomposing wood. As such, these hugelkultur beds require very little watering and maintenance.  Hugelkultur beds also provide the same benefits as other raised beds by being easier to pick and plant, because you don't have to bend over so much.  Sepp Holzer usually makes his beds in a pyramid shape, about 1-1.5m tall and 1.5-2m wide.  Sepp Holzer takes advantage of the microclimates created by the sloped shaped of the hugelkultur bed to plant shade loving plants on the shaded side of the bed, and sun loving plants on the other side of the bed.  He also uses the height of the beds as windbreaks on his farm.

Add smaller branches and other garden wastes on top of the logs. You can do multiple layers of wood so that your bed is higher.  Sepp Holzer does his 1 to 1.5m high.  We had limited access to large waste wood so we made a shorter raised bed.

Add soil, manure, greens, compost and other materials to cover the wood.

We mulched with hay to protect the soil over the winter,
until spring planting, stay tuned for updates in 2014!

Sepp Holzer on Alternative Agriculture

 Here is Sepp Holzer's opionion on conventional agriculture: "In my experience, a great deal of the problems with conventional agriculture are caused by the dependence of many farmers on subsidies, the government and cooperatives..... In the majority of cases, the specialization and modernization of farming practices has not given farmers the advantages they hoped for.  It has only forced farmers- who were still well respected when I was a child- to rely on subsidiary income to keep themselves in business." (pg 53)

If you want to learn more about the complexities of agribusiness subsidies, Michael Pollan does a great job of dissecting the consequences of corn subsidies in the USA on the farmers, the environment, the health of Americans, and agribusiness in his book 'The Omnivore's Dilemma'.

"The beneficiaries of industrialized agriculture are cooperatives, companies and lobbyists for agrochemicals and agribusiness, but not farmers.  We are now familiar with the full consequences of this: intensive livestock farming, ground water pollution and contaminated food to name but a few.... The ones who suffer from this development most are the farmers' families who often cannot cope with the strain any more..." (pg 54)

Farming is hard, the margins are tight, land is expensive and the risks are big.  Will it rain?  Will it hail?  Will blight kill all my tomatoes? Uncertainty is high in farming.  In some ways, farmers have tried to mitigate some of this risk through subsidies, through technology but are finding that it is just another stress factor.  Will I need to take out another bank loan to pay for my new tractor? There is joke that says- 'How do you make a small fortune farming?'  The answer: 'Start with a large fortune.'

However, there are examples like Sepp Holzer, Joel Salatin,  Eliot Coleman and Jean-Martin Fortier who had the courage to practice alternative, ecological agriculture and find the niche markets. These farmers have found the sweet spot where economic viability and growth does not come at the expense of personal and social wellness, or at the expense of the environment.

Grape arbour flourishing at Know & Grow, Creston, BC

Sepp Holzer goes into more detail about all the different aspects of alternative, ecological agriculture he does at the farm. Holzer relies on green manures and rotational grazing of animals to maintain the fertility of his soil. He also grows and maintains old, heritage breeds of grain and vegetables.  Rare, old breeds of pigs, poultry and ruminants are kept at Krameterhof.  These animals are rotated in paddock systems and sheltered in roundwood shelters  dug into the mountain.  Like Joel Salatin, Sepp Holzer has creative ways to let the animals roam free to do what they do best.  Sepp Holzer also cultivates mushrooms in all kinds of ways.  One of his ideas that I like alot is making an arbour out of logs and inoculating the wood with mushroom spawn to have a fruiting mushroom arbour.

Sepp Holzer also grows and sells hardy fruit trees: " As my trees are not sprayed with pesticides, fertilised, watered or pruned, they must develop into hardy and independent trees in order to grown and thrive under these conditions." (pg 105).  When he plants fruit trees he covers them with mulch or with stones.  He then sows the seeds of beneficial green manures around the trees to help the tree.  By letting the trees grow in their natural way without pruning or other interventions, Sepp Holzer says they have more resilience and hardiness.  This is a method I have never tried, but it's interesting...

Sepp Holzer's Stories

One of my favourite parts of this book are Sepp Holzer's stories of his childhood.  In the kitchen garden section, he tells stories of the bone salve man, and of the joy of winter treats and storage techniques.  These are amazing stories in that many of these know hows are missing from our 'modern' society, much to our detriment.  Instead of storing locally grown root veggies, apples, pears, etc in our root cellars, we go to a supermarket and buy un-ripe low quality food that came from who knows where.  Many groups and movements are now holding re-skilling workshops so that we can build on that obscured knowledge, and grow our communities in healthy, vibrant ways.

He talks about how "in late autumn the bone salve man (Beinsalbenbrennermandl, litterally 'bone salve burning man') came." (pg. 166)  Bone salve was made by saving up the bones from the cows and pigs through out the year.  The bones were then crushed and burned to separate the glutinous fat salve from the bones. "Then the Brennermandl ('burning man') laid wood over the covered pots and started a fire.  Experience was needed to do this, because there could not be too much or too little heat: it had to be exactly right.  Naturally, we children wanted to put more wood on the fire to make it as big as possible.  If we tried this he would rap us on the finger with a piece of firewood and tell us why we were not allowed." (pg 166).  This bone salve was then infused with different herbs and used to treat wounded livestock.

Learning how to make gates with woven willow,
Linnaea Farm, Cortes Is, BC

The family vegetable patch was used to provided food for the winter for the family and animals.  Sepp Holzer describes how he looked forward to traditional recipes that preserved the harvest into the fall and winter.  "We could hardly wait until mother finally put the first Krautspeck (bacon cooked and smoked with sauerkraut) on the table.   The whole house and surrounding area smelled of freshly cooked Krautspeck and sauerkraut.  When the postman came to the door he would cry loudly, "Ah, it's Krautspeck today!"" (pg. 169)

Preserving the summer harvest by making pickles, Linnaea Farm

The family had a rhythm of seasonal eating in which cabbages would be stored in the cellar and cut for special occasions like Christmas " After the cabbages were removed, the stalks would begin to sprout again.  They would turn completely yellow from the lack of light in the cellar.  As children, although we were strictly forbidden, we always wanted to get hold of them because they were so delicious." (pg 171)  I love this quote because when was the last time you heard of children eyeing up sprouting cabbage instead of cookies or other treats...

Sepp Holzer on the importance of children experiencing nature

"My childhood experiences have helped me always to come back from the wrong path and find a natural life in harmony with nature.  If you isolate children from nature, cut them off from their roots in a manner of speaking, they will not understand causal relationships and cycles within nature." (pg. 188)

This is why having a garden, going for walks in the park with children, and programs like the school field trips at Know & Grow Community Farm are so important.  Although some kids come and tell me all about their farm and how they muck out the horse or cow barns, not all kids have a connection growing seeds, getting dirty, interacting with animals, eating fresh food from the garden or forest.

Finding seeds at Know & Grow, Creston, BC

So grab a friend, child, sister, brother, loved one, and get out there and plants some apple seeds, try a hugelkultur bed, store some root veggies, make some preserves, inoculate a mushroom log, created a backyard frog hang-out, lie down and look at the sun filtering through the branches of a tree.  Get out there and get inspired by Sepp Holzer and the wonderful world around us.


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