I will be writing a lot about permaculture here. And since usually, before I’m five words into talking about permaculture, someone will ask: “What is permaculture?” I thought I would introduce the concept to those of you who are not yet familiar with it. Permaculture is notoriously difficult to define, but the following—culled over time from teachers, friends, and my own experience—works for me.
Permaculture is a system of ecological design in which the focus is on designing human settlements that have the stability, productivity, and resilience of a natural ecosystem. It is rooted in the observation of natural ecosystems and seeks to mimic nature to meet critical human needs—food, water, shelter, energy etc.–in a way that is not only sustainable, but regenerative and restorative. The name is derived from the concepts of “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture,” coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who initially developed this design methodology in Australia in the 1970s.
The observation of natural ecosystems is a key principle in permaculture. Think about a natural forest ecosystem: nobody needs to go there to till, fertilize, irrigate and weed. Yet the trees and other plants keep growing, the animals, insects and other organisms keep living. They do this because the living organisms in a healthy forest have formed symbiotic and mutually supportive relationships with each other so that they don’t need many external inputs. A permaculture designer looks at such a forest and asks: how might we grow food for humans in this way?
The goal of permaculture design, then, is a garden (or a farm or any other system) that, in time, comes to care for itself and need less human input. One way of achieving this is considering what plants are planted next to one another. There is no place for monocultures in permaculture–after all, nature itself does not grow in that way. Instead, groups of plants are designed carefully so that their properties are mutually complementary and supportive. Trees provide shade and moderate the microclimate. Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil. Taproot plants are dynamic accumulators, accumulating minerals and yielding them for the plants growing around them. Other plants attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. Yet others have very deep roots and draw water from deep in the ground closer to the surface, helping the plants around them during a drought. Once established, a healthy permaculture garden provides as much of its own irrigation, nutrients, soil health, and pest-repelling elements as possible. To return to the forest analogy, permaculture gardens often feature a “food forest” or an “edible forest” which tries to mimic a healthy natural forest: food is grown on several vertically stacked layers (e.g. tall trees, medium and small fruit trees, berry shrubs, vines, herbs), in plant guilds whose members support each other, attracting a vibrant animal and plant life.
Because they are designed on the basis of functionality rather than appearance, and incorporate incredible diversity, permaculture gardens can often seem a little messy and chaotic to someone who is accustomed to more conventional veggie gardens. Rows won’t necessarily be neat and straight and weeded; bare dark soil is rarely in sight because garden beds are mulched with straw or grass; compost piles, rainwater barrels, chicken runs and so on are integrated in ways that make sense rather than hidden away. But if you look closely, the system thrives.
A New York Times article last year described permaculture as
a simple system for designing sustainable human settlements, restoring soil, planting year-round food landscapes, conserving water, redirecting the waste stream, forming more companionable communities and, if everything went according to plan, turning the earth’s looming resource crisis into a new age of happiness.
What are some of the tools that permaculture uses in designing and implementing a system? The initial observation process takes into consideration factors such as sun and shade, soil, climate and micro-climates, existing elements etc. A permaculture designer observes the contours of the landscape and designs earthworks, such as swales (berms) and ponds, to catch and direct rainwater to where it is needed instead of letting it erode the soil. In placing any element in the system, one considers what its functions are, what its needs and yields are–for example: what are the needs and yields of an apple tree? A chicken? A fish in a pond? And how is that element going to interact with the surrounding elements?
Everything is seen as interconnected, as part of an integrated system. Close the loops, minimize waste, place elements based on the frequency with which you need to access them, catch and store available energy (whether in the form of sunlight, rain, manure, or scrap building materials your neighbor is going to throw away). Much of it is common sense, really, but a common sense we have tended to lose as we have moved further away from traditional societies.
Lastly, permaculture is based on the ethics of earth care, people care, and fair share. Recognizing that we live on a finite planet with finite (and quickly dwindling) resources means recognizing limits to human consumption and economic or industrial growth,and designing with that in mind. This is where the social and personal aspects of permaculture come in… but more about that later!
(Photos from the lovely Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, California, where I first studied permaculture in 2011).