Russians make food from ‘permaculture’

Permaculture is a gardening technique that “uses the inherent qualities of plants and animals combined with the natural characteristics of landscapes and structures to produce a life-supporting system for city and country, using the smallest practical area.”
Russian families have shown the possibilities, using permaculture methods on simple cottage gardens or allotments called dachas. As Dr. Leon Sharashkin, a Russian translator and editor with a PhD in forestry from the University of Missouri, explains:
Essentially, what Russian gardeners do is demonstrate that gardeners can feed the world – and you do not need any GMOs, industrial farms, or any other technological gimmicks to guarantee everybody’s got enough food to eat. Bear in mind that Russia only has 110 days of growing season per year – so in the US, for example, gardeners’ output could be substantially greater. Today, however, the area taken up by lawns in the US is two times greater than that of Russia’s gardens – and it produces nothing but a multi-billion-dollar lawn care industry.
The Dacha Model
Dachas are small wooden houses on a small plot of land, typically just 600 meters (656 yards) in size. In Soviet Russia, they were allocated free of charge on the theory that the land belonged to the people. They were given to many public servants; and families not given a dacha could get access to a plot of land in an allotment association, where they could grow vegetables, visit regularly to tend their kitchen gardens and gather crops.
Dachas were originally used mainly as country vacation getaways. But in the 1990s, they evolved from a place of rest into a major means of survival. That was when the Russian economy suffered from what journalist Anne Williamson called in congressional testimony the “rape of Russia.” The economy was destroyed and then plundered by financial oligarchs, who swooped in to buy assets at fire sale prices.
Stripped of other resources, Russian families turned to their dachas to grow food. Dr. Sharaskin observed that the share of food gardening in national agriculture increased from 32% in 1990 to over 50% by 2000. In 2004, food gardens accounted for 51% of the total agricultural output of the Russian Federation – greater than the contribution of the whole electric power generation industry; greater than all of the forestry, wood-processing and pulp and paper industries; and significantly greater than the coal, natural gas and oil refining industries taken together.
Dachas are now a codified right of Russian citizens. In 2003, the government signed the Private Garden Plot Act into law, granting citizens free plots of land ranging from 1 to 3 hectares each. (A hectare is about 2.5 acres.) Dr. Sharaskin opined in 2009 that “with 35 million families (70% of Russia’s population) … producing more than 40% of Russia’s agricultural output, this is in all likelihood the most extensive microscale food production practice in any industrially developed nation.”
In a 2014 article titled “Dacha Gardens—Russia’s Amazing Model for Urban Agriculture”, Sara Pool wrote that Russia obtains “over 50% agricultural products from family garden plots. The backyard gardening model uses around 3% arable land, and accounts for roughly 92% of all Russian potatoes, 87% of all fruit, 77% vegetables, and 59% all Russian meat according to the Russian Federal State Statistic Service.”
Our Beautiful but Toxic and Wasteful Green Lawns
Rather than dachas, we in the West have pristine green lawns, which not only produce no food but involve chemical and mechanical maintenance that is a major contributor to water and air pollution. Lawns are the single largest irrigated crop in the U.S., covering nearly 32 million acres. This is a problem particularly in the western U.S. states, which are currently suffering from reduced food production due to drought. Data compiled by Urban Plantations from the EPA, the Public Policy Institute of California, and the Alliance for Water Efficiency suggests that gardens use 66% less water than lawns. In the U.S., fruits and vegetables are grown on only about 10 million acres. In theory, then, if the space occupied by American lawns were converted to food gardens, the country could produce four times as many fruits and vegetables as it does now.
study from NASA scientists in collaboration with researchers in the Mountain West estimated that American lawns cover an area that is about the size of Texas and is three times larger than that used for any other irrigated crop in the United States. The study was not, however, about the growth of lawns but about their impact on the environment and water resources. It found that “maintaining a well-manicured lawn uses up to 900 liters of water per person per day and reduces [carbon] sequestration effectiveness by up to 35 percent by adding emissions from fertilization and the operation of mowing equipment.” To combat water and pollution problems, some cities have advocated abandoning the great green lawn in favor of vegetable gardens, local native plants, meadows or just letting the grass die. But well-manicured lawns are an established U.S. cultural tradition; and some municipalities have banned front-yard gardens as not meeting neighborhood standards of aesthetics. Some homeowners, however, have fought back. Florida ended up passing a law in July 2019 that prohibits towns from banning edible gardens for aesthetic reasons; and in California, a bill was passed in 2014 that allows yard use for “personal agriculture” (defined as “use of land where an individual cultivates edible plant crops for personal use or donation”). As noted in a Los Angeles Times op-ed:
“The Legislature recognized that lawn care is resource intensive, with lawns being the largest irrigated crop in the United States offering no nutritional gain. Finding that 30% to 60% of residential water is used for watering lawns, the Legislature believes these resources could be allocated to more productive activities, including growing food, thus increasing access to healthy options for low-income individuals.”
Despite how large they loom in the American imagination, immaculate green lawns maintained by pesticides, herbicides and electric lawnmowers are a relatively recent cultural phenomenon in the United States. In the 1930s, chemicals were not recommended. Weeds were controlled either by pulling them by hand or by keeping chickens. Chemical use became popular only after World War II, and it has grown significantly since. According to the EPA, close to 80 million U.S. households spray 90 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides on their lawns each year. A 1999 study by the United States Geological Survey found that 99% of urban water streams contain pesticides, which pollute our drinking water and create serious health risks for wildlife, pets, and humans. Among other disorders, these chemicals are correlated with an increased risk of cancers, nervous system disorders, and a seven-fold increased risk of childhood leukemia.
That’s just the pollution in our water supply. Other problems with our lawn fetish are air and noise pollution generated by gas-powered lawn and garden equipment. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that this equipment is responsible for 5% of U.S. air pollution. Americans use about 800 million gallons of gas per year just mowing their lawns. […]

10 Responses to “Russians make food from ‘permaculture’”

  1. danceaway says:

    That food output is amazing.

    iEarlGrey mentioned the work ethic of the Russians; they work their regular job all week, and then go to their country house and work all weekend there. No sitting around watching TV! And he is expected to do the same, even if he does not have a country house! Work in the garden etc.
    It is just the way of life.

  2. ian says:

    Excellent article Tap’. I am a recent convert to this guy’s methods. It opens up methods I never thought possible or even likely. I only have a small veg plot of about 40m2, but my yeilds have rocketed, using his methods.

  3. Belyi says:

    I learnt about these in The Ringing Cedars of Russia series by Vladimir Megré. Many peole have left the city and work full time on their land. There are films about the dachaas and Sharashkin has written forewords to one or two of these books.

    By way of contrast, when I visited friends in California in 1996 they had sprinklers going night and day to keep their garden green. There was a water shortage even then.

    I suppose that when you’re used to living in a lazy-buy-and-throw-away society it is hard to change.

  4. Gordon says:

    I have two back lawns one of which I converted to raised beds early last year. It was a fairly expensive project and very labour intensive getting lumber and topsoil on site. I used my own garden compost to feed the raised beds soil and have had good success with planted vegies. I have just finished the last of the leeks this week and the garlic will be ready at the end of June to mid July.

    This year has been very disappointing given that most of the veg and flower seeds bought have produced little to no result and put this down to poor pollination of the parent plant.

    I’m looking at converting the second lawn to raised beds but to be honest it’s a lot of hard work for an auld codger like me and feel the cost and effort doesn’t really justify the means. Those that come after me will reap the benefit.

    • Gordon says:

      The flower garden in 1995

    • nixon scraypes says:

      The quality of bought seeds has been falling rapidly. I believe a lot come from India. My runner bean seeds are self grown and every one sprouts. I plan to save more of the other ones in future but I’m very disorganised. I don’t bother with raised beds, it’s easier and cheaper to just dig the soil.

  5. newensign says:

    A good article Tap. The UK government have been doing the exact opposite over the past years by pulling down large houses with big gardens and filling them with flats with little or no gardens. They have been paying farmers to set aside land and plant trees. They are also offering large sums to encourage farmers to retire from farming and promoting rewilding of farmland. They are removing large areas of arable land by building houses – often on a flood plain! The reduction of food growing in the UK and massive immigration with more mouths to feed – we can see where this is heading! I saw a good slogan – “Resistance is fertile grow a revolution plant your own food!”

    • ian says:

      In times of shortage, protecting your food could become an issue. Nobody will starve if they know that you have food.