So you’ve heard about permaculture living and reckon it sounds great, but aren’t quite sure how to get started while you’re living in a rental? Today, Anna Matilda from The Urban Nanna is going to show us 15 simple things you can try right away, no matter where you live – no garden required either. Take it away, Anna…
For lots of people, the image that springs to mind when thinking about permaculture living is large thriving veggie gardens, composting toilets and perhaps even a goat or two. All of which can be tricky to do when renting in cities or suburbia.
It’s often not possible to make major alterations to a rental property, such as installing solar panels to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, or double-glazing windows to regulate household temperatures.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t integrate the permaculture principles into your home – you just have to get creative with your thinking.
I’ve lived in eight different rentals over the last 10 years, which has forced me to apply self-regulation and accept feedback (permaculture principle 4) in lots of areas of my life.
Luckily, permaculture is about much more than growing food and composting. The foundational ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share remind us that living a sustainable and eco-conscious life involves all aspects of our existence.
These ethics call for us to consider how we interact with others and the world around us – and we can do this at all times, whether we live in a rented city apartment or a sprawling farm.
So – here are 15 things I consider every time I have to move to a new rental property. I’ve found it easier and easier to live by permaculture principles as these things become ingrained in my thinking, so hopefully they can help you on your journey too.
1. Be realistic about your needs and requirements
When you start looking for a rental, be honest with yourself about how much space you really need for things you know will make your life easier for permaculture living – space for air-drying clothes, cupboards for empty jars and preserved food, compost capacity and proximity to public transport, work, greengrocers, bulk food stores and foraging opportunities.
If you have the things around you that you want and need to live more sustainably, you will find it much easier to do so.
As much as you might like to believe you will ‘do all the things’, it pays to apply self-regulation and accept feedback (principle 4) about how likely you are to fit everything into your existing schedule.
A property with a huge space for growing food is all well and great, but if it goes unused, it becomes a wasted community resource.
2. Build your rental team
This actually begins before you’ve even signed a lease. Find out about the rental agency if you’re using one. Some are more dedicated to tenant quality of life and sustainability than others. Do they have useful information on their website? Or a newsletter? Do they seem like the type of people who are going to support you in your endeavours to live a permaculture lifestyle?
My current agency doesn’t have much on their website, but I found out that their monthly tenant’s newsletter always contains articles about how to live more sustainably as a renter: they’ve covered composting, ways to reduce your heating bill, growing food, saving water and more.
Chat to the agent – find out if they know the landlord well (often yes), and suss out if they think the landlord would be open to things like gardens, watertanks, changing showerheads or toilet cisterns to be more water efficient, or perhaps even permitting you to keep chooks or quail. A goat’s probably a bit much for most suburban landlords, but you never know until you ask, right?
Once you’re settled into a rental, keep these channels of communication open – it’s great to do semi-regular email check ins, so it’s not just when you ‘need something’ that you contact them. This helps create a sense of community around your living place.
3. Choose ethical electricity, gas and internet providers
In suburban Australia, you generally don’t have a say over who your water provider is, but when it comes to gas, electricity, and internet, you get to decide who to spend your energy-bucks with. So, when it’s time to set up a new rental, it’s worth doing a little homework first.
Different providers have different commitments to environmental sustainability, and while most now have a carbon-offset billing option, there’s potentially more positive change you can do with your choice. Compare your providers on a site such as Canstar Blue and do a bit of reading on the individual providers’ websites too (just keep an eye out for greenwashing).
The Green Electricity Guide of 2022 ranked all of Australia’s electricity providers in terms of environmental impact, and you can use this Canstar Blue site on ‘green energy providers’ to help you learn a bit more about your options.
Oh, and if you’re in a share-house situation, you could always do some research and then start a discussion with your housemates about the possibility of transitioning to a better provider if you aren’t keen on the one they’re with already.
4. Set up a simple DIY waste management system
Have you ever done a household waste audit – really looked at how much waste you generate on a weekly basis? It can be so useful as the springboard for setting up an efficient waste-management system. One bin is so 1980s!
So – visit your local council’s website to find out what is recycled and collected in your area. List the types of things you use regularly that routinely need replacing or go into generate waste.
Then, set up a recycling station, separating these things out into suitably sized containers. Label them so everyone in the house can put things where they belong, and find out where your closest drop-off/collection point is so you know where to go once it’s time.
Here’s some common ‘waste’ items and ideas for managing them with a permaculture approach:
- Food scraps – creatively cook with them, make stock, give to chooks or other pets, add to a worm farm, bokashi bin, compost or Sharewaste composting if you don’t have a garden.
- Cardboard & paper – reuse for notetaking, craft box for kids, repurposed as signs or labels, compost, firelighting, worm farm, sheet mulching, recycling.
- Glass – reuse for preserving; storing food in fridge, freezer and pantry; use to sort seeds, tools or craft materials; use for gifting homemade treats; make lanterns; donate to local op-shop or sharing stand; offer to others on online sharing spaces; recycle.
- Soft plastics can be recycled via REDcycle, which now has collection points at most major supermarkets.
- Bottle tops – plastic can be recycled through Precious Plastic via your local collection point. Metal can be saved in a container until they fill an aluminium can: squish it shut and put in regular recycling.
- Aluminium foil – save in a container until it can be scrunched into a tennis-ball size, then add to regular recycling.
- Plastic bottles and containers – reuse for storing food in freezer; use to sort small objects; cut up and make reusable plant markers or learning games for kids; use to sow seedlings; rinse and recycle.
- Light globes, batteries, mobile phones, printer cartridges – recycle via specific drop-off points. These can be found free at lots of places now, including local waste-transfer stations and major supermarkets or hardware stores.
EXTRA TIP: Pens, plastic toothbrushes, medication blister packs, razors, makeup and toiletry tubes, toys, coffee pods, and many other things you wouldn’t imagine are recyclable can actually be dropped off at various Terracycle collection points for recycling. So create separate bins or containers for the things you use, and you’ll be set up for success.
5. Dress your home to better cope with heatwaves and cold spells
In the same way we dress for the weather, dressing your home space can make it much better suited to permaculture living. Historically, Australian homes weren’t designed to cope with the weather we have here, so renters (particularly in older buildings) often feel the brunt of winter chills and scorching summers.
Bringing your own curtains, rugs, and quilts can really help with this. When you move into a new place, replace the existing curtains with your own to help reduce heat transfer via windows. You can often find really good quality curtains at op shops or in online swap groups, and additional fixings can be found at hardware stores if they’re required. This also makes your exit-clean cheaper, as you won’t have to steam clean the original curtains when it’s time to vacate.
Likewise, rugs reduce the amount of chill rising from the floors (and also reduce wear and tear on the original floor coverings). And you might think quilts are just for snuggling under, but just like a good coat, they can also be used for keeping the chill away in your home. Hanging quilts or blankets from a doorway can keep heat more effectively trapped (or excluded) from a room, and if you can McGyver a hanging system with a pole and some hooks, you can even use them as wall hangings to add warmth in the winter months.
6. Connect with your local sustainability community
Get to know your local area, and the existing community groups around you. Ask at the local library or community neighbourhood house if they know of any gardening, cooking, building or otherwise permie-friendly groups and see if you can join up. Look for things like crop swaps, community gardens, neighbourhood greening programs, wildlife protection groups and the like.
While you’re at it, find out what kinds of programs the community house offers – more and more, community spaces are offering free or very affordable classes on practical skills such as preserving, gardening, mending, baking and so on. Get yourself on their mailing list and keep an eye out for ones you’re interested in, and don’t be afraid to suggest some either: organisers are always keen to hear what their community wants to learn about.
Councils are also a great place to learn about what’s happening around you. Check out the sustainability page of your local council’s website to stay abreast of local events and initiatives. They will likely have information on ways to reduce waste and may even have special deals on worm-farms or composting systems for local residents.
And lastly, if you’re someone who’s into social media, hop onto Facebook and Instagram to see what permaculture groups are around. Search for ‘Permaculture [region]’, and ‘Buy Nothing [region]’ etc. Once you’re a part of those types of groups, you’ll quickly find out about every other interesting group around you, guaranteed.
7. Build your own community of like-minded folks
Get to know your neighbours and the people near where you live. Talk to shop owners, wave at the crossing person, strike up a conversation with people you see out in the park. Maybe bake something to share with your neighbours, or offer to take their bins out for them.
It doesn’t have to be anything massive: just making contact is the best way to start building community.
Having familiar faces around you does important things for mental health (as lockdowns taught us here in Naarm/Melbourne), and feeling the sense of connection you get when you receive a nod or a smile is the type of People Care that helps you feel grounded and inspired to look after the world immediately around you.
If you have the time and energy, you may like to start up some sort of community group of your own. It could be a sharing stand for books, toys, or produce; it could be a jogging group; or simply an arrangement to meet the same two dog owners each afternoon at the dog park.
Whatever you choose, just start small and keep it up. I like to create community because it makes me feel happy and safe. The connection I feel with the people around me allows me to settle in to my home more deeply, and gives me a sense of purpose, support and contentment.
8. Forage some of your food
Find out what edible plants are growing around you that could be added to your diet. Look for fruit trees overhanging fences and ‘volunteer’ plants growing along margins (principle 11: Use edges and value the marginal).
Make friends with locals who have fruit trees and/or herbs growing in their gardens; maybe you can swap some preserves, or baked goods, or offer to do some weeding for them in exchange for some of their produce.
Get to know which weeds and wild plants are edible. This is a great resource to get you started. We’re lucky enough to have an increasing number of excellent foraging guides available for Australian species, so get your thinking gear around some of it (check out the Resources list at the end of this post) and get out there.
9. Develop simple habits to eat more ethically and sustainably
There’s so much to consider in the discussion around ethical and sustainable eating, that it would fill an entire post in itself, so I’m just going to touch briefly on a few things that I found useful.
- Be realistic about your needs and preferences – this applies to homegrown produce, and foraged goods, and also any food that you buy. Experimenting with unusual ingredients is all well and good, but if you have absolutely no idea how to use an ingredient and you know deep down in your heart that you’re unlikely to try it before it goes off, then don’t bring it into your system in the first place. I think the Scared Weird Little Guys explained it best here…
- Use/buy things when they’re in season – they’ll be fresher, filled with more nutrients, they’ll have travelled less food miles, and they’re likely to be cheaper too.
- Apply self-regulation – just because ingredients are cheap doesn’t mean you have to rescue them – if there’s too much for you to use, it’s still gonna go off. No need for 20 mandarins now when you only really need one a day, and you’ll be shopping again next week…
- Consider eating more plant-based meals – and when you do eat meat, look for the option that’s as sustainable and ethical as possible.
- Learn to be creative – create recipes based on what you have available, rather than the other way around. Having an understanding of ingredient substitution is a good place to start, and you can also use recipe generators like this one, where you plug in what ingredients you have, and the site tells you what you can make with them.
- Create a household recipe index – jot down all the favourites, the simple ‘use-it-up’ recipes and special meals you love to cook. Refer to it when you have “nothing to eat”. This could be a physical list, or you might like to investigate one of the many recipe sharing apps available out there.
- Learn to use your scraps and leftovers – frittata, soup, stir fry, roast, toasted sandwich, fried rice, pie, crumble, cake, compote, smoothies, curry, tomato-based sauce, ferments – all of these can be made using all kinds of scraps and leftovers. I always include one of these types of food per week, so I can clear out the wibbly bits and pieces lingering in the bottom of the fridge or fruit bowl. Here’s a whole list of scraptastic recipes to inspire you.
- Set yourself a challenge – if you know there’s loads of bits and bobs in the fridge, or the pantry hasn’t had a deep clean in months, or the freezer is packed to the gills, or the garden is brimming with greens, set yourself a challenge for a week or two. See how long you can go without buying anything new to add to your meals. I like to call it “fridge/Freezer/Home Foraging”, and not only do I feel the deep satisfaction of having saved food from going to waste, I’ve saved money, and often I’ve come up with a new favourite dish. I allow fresh milk and bread (if I don’t have time to bake).
10. Conserve water and maybe harvest a bit of rainwater, too
In a country as dry as Australia normally is (La Niña has made things a bit different these past two years), water is a hot commodity, so seeing water as a ‘yield’ and working to catch and store it (principle 2) is important.
Lots of newer properties have rainwater tanks built into their system, but many older rental properties don’t. Milkwood has been harvesting rainwater in rental properties for over 15 years, and have condensed their knowledge in this awesome workshop replay for you.
If harvesting rainwater seems a bit beyond your capacity for now though, other things you can do in a rental to save water include:
- Use the half-flush button of your toilet, or add a closed, filled bottle of water to the cistern to reduce the amount of fill (if it’s an older, single-button toilet).
- Get a tub or bowl that fits your sink and use it to collect water when you’re washing fruit and veggies. Use that to water your garden.
- Pop a bucket in the shower when it’s heating up and use that to water gardens/fruit trees
- If you use a cup to rinse after brushing your teeth, keep a watering can nearby to tip any excess into rather than tipping it down the drain.
- Talk with your agent/landlord about replacing older shower heads with new water-saving ones.
- Time your showers and keep them to a minimum. Also consider not showering daily if you don’t need to – a quick basin-wash can be all that’s needed after a sedentary day.
- Investigate attaching a greywater hose to your washing machine (and only use septic-safe washing detergents) to water fruit trees and/or ornamental plants.
- Pop a tub or bucket under any dripping taps while you wait for them to be repaired.
11. Aim to sort out basic maintenance and cleaning issues straight away
Sorting out issues as and when they arise is something I’ve learnt to do after 22 years of renting.
When you notice a dripping tap, or a dodgy light switch, or there’s a funny sound coming from the oven, let your agent or landlord know about it. By alerting them straight away, it’s more likely that the solution will be a minor one that doesn’t require a large outlay of resources, time or money. Good for the environment, and good for your relationship with the landlord.
Similarly with cleaning, if you keep on top of basic routine cleaning – a quick wipe down, removal of rubbish etc – you’ll show your landlord and housemates that you respect the property which improves your relationship with them; you’ll be creating a living space that’s healthier for you to live in; and you’ll be reducing the need for harsh cleaning products when it inevitably comes to moving day.
A quick trick I like to use in cupboards is to line them – often with wallpaper I picked up cheap at the tip-shop, but sometimes just with saved wrapping paper – before unpacking my belongings into them. This makes the exit-clean super simple, and chemical free: I just need to remove the paper and give the shelves a light dusting and I’m done!
12. Make your own natural cleaning products
Start making your own cleaning products and toiletries. Most things can be kept clean with soap, acids or alkalis – acids include vinegar, citric acid and hydrogen peroxide. Alkalis include bicarb soda, borax and washing soda. And most body products contain an oil of some sort, a butter, a wax, and possibly some fragrance or colour.
You can make your own scrap vinegar for use as a general cleaner and hair conditioner. You can also use it in cooking (but not preserving as it’s not acidic enough), and it’s a great way to reduce food waste if your household eats apples. You can also use this scrap vinegar (or regular white vinegar) to make an effective citrus cleaning vinegar.
There’s some argument as to whether homemade laundry detergents are actually harmful to clothes and washing machines, so perhaps take a look into that before mixing up your own blends. Fortunately, there are lots of options around these days to buy eco-friendly cleaning solutions and powders with minimal packaging (more on that later).
Deodorant, moisturiser, even soaps are all relatively easy to make yourself with ingredients bought from a bulk-food store. But if that’s not something you’re up to or interested in, do a little light searching and you’ll almost certainly stumble across someone locally who’s making low-waste options for you to buy. Or maybe your local community house would be interested in hosting a workshop with an expert and you could go to that.
However you go about it, the key takeaway here is that there are loads of ways to reduce your impact on the planet when it comes to cleaning and body products. Perhaps just start with one, and see how you go.
13. Preserve some of your food to reduce wastage
Learning to preserve food helps you reduce food wastage. This begins with learning how to store fresh food effectively so it doesn’t ‘go off’ quicker than it should. Different methods include using glass jars, containers with good seals on them, damp tea towels, vases of water, or simply placing cut fruit and veg flat on a plate.
If you’re looking to catch and store energy (principle 2) in food form for longer periods, you can do so by all sorts of methods. Freezing, dehydrating, jamming, pickling, water-bath canning and fermenting are all ways of preserving food, and most of them are simpler than you think.
I like to remind people that humans have been using many of these methods for hundreds of years with no specialty equipment and very little training, so don’t be afraid to just have a go.
I’ve listed a stack of good resources at the end of this article, but I’d also encourage you to check out local learning spaces (community houses, local businesses, etc) for workshops to attend, as there’s been a real revival in these traditional arts of preserving in recent years, and there are loads of people wanting to share that knowledge.
14. Choose to buy in bulk or plastic-free, if you can
Many places are now supporting package-free grocery shopping – ranging from dried goods to oils and nut butters, and sweet treats to cleaning and body products – which is great to see. Bulk food stores allow you to buy what you need, and use your own containers which reduces not only packaging waste, but also food waste, as you’re not forced to buy excess.
Some major supermarkets are now also offering bulk-food shopping options, but for now, they mostly require you to use their (largely plastic) packaging to do so. It’s a step in the right direction though!
If you don’t happen to have a bulk store you can access, there’s still a bit you can do. Looking for products that are concentrated (so you need to buy them less often); come in recycled packaging (that is also recyclable); or are made from recycled products is a great start. Also look for products with fewer ingredients that are known to have less impact on the environment than others (RSPO approved palm oil for example), and that are actively contributing to fair trade, organic and cruelty-free production.
As with anything in the commercial world though, watch out for ‘greenwashing’ – just because it’s in brown packaging, doesn’t mean it’s any better for the environment than it used to be.
15. Look for second-hand items first
Reducing consumption is part of the much larger conversation around waste, but it doesn’t just mean using less energy or avoiding plastic packaging. Reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ you bring into your living system is something you can do no matter where you live. Think clothing, tools, utensils, furniture, toys, sporting goods, books…. the list goes on.
Huge amounts of resources go into the production of Stuff – physical materials, money, energy and time – so buying or using secondhand is an important way of preventing those resources being wasted by keeping Stuff out of the waste stream. It also means there’s less need for new Stuff to be manufactured, thus neatly reducing the future drain on resources as well.
Where to source second-hand Stuff:
- Op-shops of thrift stores are a great way to source many of your Stuff needs on the cheap.
- Many tips or waste-transfer stations also have a shop attached to them, where you can find all manner of treasures that were too good to be scrapped.
- Likewise, you can check out roadside collection (called hard rubbish collection in Australia) piles outside neighbours’ houses: some councils even release maps of which areas are being collected at specific times of the year, so you can concentrate your efforts.
- Neighbourhood houses and community centres sometimes arrange swap-meets, where you can bring items you’d like to rehome.
- Little Free Libraries have sprung up all around Australia during the pandemic, and they’re a lovely way to engage in community connection whilst sharing books.
- Obviously regular libraries are great resources for books, but did you know that many libraries also keep magazines, newspapers and DVDs that you can borrow as well? And then there are toy libraries – brilliant for providing diversity in toys for young kids who grow tired of developmental toys as they mature.
- “Stuff libraries” are becoming a bit more well-known now too – community places where Stuff is kept and loaned to members when needed. It means people can use better quality items on loan rather than spending money on cheaper items that will likely break faster.
- Online groups such as Buy, Swap, Sell; Buy Nothing New; Minimal Waste, and Good Karma Networks are great for sourcing just about anything you can imagine. It’s also worth looking into your area’s local permaculture groups online, as they often have facilities to share and rehome Stuff.
- Food is Free and Grow Free stands for sharing food are becoming more and more prevalent in suburban areas, as are honesty stalls. Milkwood’s own Koren has shared info on how to start up your own honesty stand, and I’ve been sharing some tips on how I started up a free fresh produce sharing space on The Community Corner.
There’s so much more to share, but hopefully this list helps encourage you to start permaculture living in your rental: it’s totally doable if you start small and build on your successes. Remember – from little things, big things grow.
- Milkwood – Nick & Kirsten
- Less Stuff and The Less Waste No Fuss Kitchen – Lindsay Miles
- A Family Guide to Waste-free Living – Oberon & Lauren Carter
- Use It All – Cornersmith
- Wild Fermentation – Sandor Katz
- Ferment for Good – Sharon Flynn
- Wildcrafted series – Pascal Baudar
- The Weed Forager’s Handbook and Let’s Eat Weeds – Adam Grubb & Annie Raser-Rowland
- Eat Weeds – Diego Bonetto
- Futuresteading – Jade Miles
- The Good Life – Hannah Moloney
- Costa’s World – Costa Georgiadis
- How to build or renovate a worm farm – by Milkwood
- A free foraging guide – by Milkwood
- Scraptastic Cooking – how to use up scraps in the kitchen. The Urban Nanna
- Rental Permaculture: Fermenting – The Urban Nanna
- Rental Permaculture: Making Jam – The Urban Nanna
- Rental Permaculture: Dehydrating Food – The Urban Nanna
- No-Dig Gardening – crash course from Very Edible Gardens
- No-Dig Gardening – more details from Local Food Connect
Websites and hashtags
- Here’s all our articles on Permaculture Renting
- The Urban Nanna – recipes, rental permaculture articles, workshops & more
- Pascal Baudar – my all-time favourite forager. In California, which has many wild food species in common with Australia, so much of his content is very useful to Aussie foragers
- The Weedy One – Diego Bonetto, one of Australia’s top foraging educators
- Compostable Kate has your answers around compost.
- Treading my own Path – Lindsay Miles’ inspiring daily life living with less waste
- Brenna Quinlan – Brenna’s cute and thought-provoking illustrations really gets you thinking about how to effectively make sustainable changes
- Redcycle – recycling of soft plastics in Australia
- Share Waste – match scraps with composters around the world.
- Terracycle – recycling of various unusual items. Locations around the world.
- Precious Plastic – turning plastics into functional items
- The Source bulk foods – bulk food stores across Australia
- Thrive – bulk food stores in Victoria
- CERES organic grocery & bakery – a beautiful social enterprise in Brunswick VIC
- Biome – a chain of shops who stock all sorts of eco-friendly goods, including bulk body products
- If you’re an Instagram user, you can explore content and meet like-minded permies by using hashtags #NoDigGardening, #RentalPermaculture and #PermacultureRenting, #Permaculture and #PermaculturePrinciples
About the author: Firmly steeped in permaculture ethos, Anna Matilda – aka The Urban Nanna – showcases and teaches traditional skills, crafts and methods of sustainable living in the framework of the modern-day, unpredictable rental market. Find out more via the The Urban Nanna website and social media.
Interesting to see the comment about the perils of homemade laundry ‘detergent’. Surely it depends what it is you are making. As we use wood heating (country dwellers) I recover wood ash and use it to make a simple laundry liquid. It might not produce the spectacular whiter than white effects of some supermarket products but I’ve never had the problem described in the linked post of gumming up the washing machine or making the clothes dirty!