Paul Wheaton

Paul Wheaton, the "Duke of Permaculture", takes advantage of some downtime in his signature overralls.

Permaculture guru Paul Wheaton’s first garden failed. So he went to the library and checked out 100 books on gardening. His next attempt went better. Such is Wheaton’s attitude toward life: The more you know, the more you can do. 

Permaculture is an idea developed in the ’70s by Bill Mollison. It’s an agricultural method, a lifestyle choice and a philosophy.

The idea focuses on building sustainable, resilient systems in balance with nature that maximize productivity. Wheaton said a permaculturalist does not irrigate, fertilize or weed his gardens. They simply reap the benefits. The concept seems too good to be true, or else more people would know about it. 

“Permaculture is a more symbiotic relationship with nature so I can be even lazier,” Wheaton said.

Wheaton is the self-declared “Duke of Permaculture” and the most widespread voice in the blossoming counterculture movement. He lives in Missoula and received his Master Gardener certification from the Missoula County Extension Services. 

He discovered permaculture among the books he checked out to fix his garden. Before founding permies.com, Wheaton was the primary architect of the spacecraft that takes pictures for Google Earth. He channeled his technical savvy into building the largest permaculture website in the world, which draws 1.4 million visitors a month and triples traffic each year. He has produced 160 videos and 230 podcasts to help people become less energy dependent, grow their own food and save money. His quest is to make permaculture a household word.

 “Permies.com is an asset to anyone interested in learning and sharing information on landscape and livelihood and the space in between,” said Michael Billington, a student, educator and practitioner of permaculture who works on a permaculture farm in Dayton, Mont.

“In everything I do I feel an immense heart connection for the landscape and my response to that landscape is to give it a massage, not build a brick house,” Billington said. 

Permaculture seems like benign subject matter, but Wheaton manages to stir up controversy in his field. He tries to convince  farmers that permaculture will increase their profit while improving productivity, but it’s not always an easy pill to swallow. 

“I want to present permaculture as an amazing set of techniques and step around people tuning out because of the hippie factor,” Wheaton said.

Permaculture is a vast array of ideas and ideologies under one umbrella. Wheaton is a proponent of permaculture techniques, but doesn’t subscribe to the political and theological elements of the movement.

Michael Pilarski is a senior permaculture teacher in Hot Springs, Mont., who has been studying American agriculture for the past 40 years.

“It’s not all science, its culture,” Pilarski said. “Notice the word is permaculture and not perma-science. Permaculture is much more than science and making money.”

Wheaton is a large man with a booming voice and colorful vocabulary. He scares off some of his hand-holding, song-singing brethren with painful bluntness and rationality. 

“Some people find his disposition abrasive,” Billington said. “Nature has a prominent tendency to rectify our illusory fantasy of thinking we know it all.” 

Although Wheaton might offend the higher sensibilities of some permaculturalists, he’s the movement’s best chance to dig out a foothold in mainstream agriculture.  He knows how to bridge the gap between materialism and activism, and hopes to sell it to everyone. 

“You’re not going to save the world by telling hippies what they want to hear,” he said. “You have to carry the message to everyone.”

riley.pavelich@umontana.edu