What is Permaculture?

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What is Permaculture?

The word ‘Permaculture’ was coined in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two Australian academics. Their original intention was to create a ‘permanent agriculture’, but later they discovered that their design ideas were also creating the foundations for a more ‘permanent culture’.

Permaculture is primarily a system of ethical land use and design for sustainable human settlements. The study of Permaculture Design encompasses traditional knowledge, ecology, sustainability, organic food production, efficient energy use, natural home design, recycling, appropriate technology, ecological economics, and much more.

Permaculture Designers realize that the present systems of big agriculture and agribusiness, their use of harmful chemicals, GMOs and pesticides, the unnatural treatment of animals, and monoculture farming (corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans….) are all seriously flawed. Scientists speculate that these practices are responsible for the disappearance of many species, and are a main cause of disease in countries that still farm using these outdated methods. When humans fail to work with nature and instead impose their own will, economy and destructive methods on it, all humans and the rest of nature inevitably suffer.

The Permaculture approach is to work with nature through careful planning and design, and creating systems that nourish the earth and ourselves – with less work and more favorable yields.

“Permaculture is a dance with nature – in which nature leads.” – Bill Mollison

Some of the fundamental principles of Permaculture Design include the following:

  1. Working with rather than against Nature
  2. Planting diverse species rather than single crops
  3. Taking advantage of “microclimates” in the yard such as sunny, shady, warm, dry or moist areas
  4. Creating beneficial interconnections between plants, water, structures, insects, and animals
  5. An emphasis on low-maintenance perennial food plants and trees
  6. “Stacking functions” — each plant, animal or location has multiple uses (for example, chickens have the multiple functions of producing eggs and manure, eating unwanted insects, clearing a garden bed by eating weeds and scratching the soil to loosen it up, providing heat for a greenhouse, and providing education and entertainment for people)
  7. Gardening like a forest – in “layers” — root, ground cover, plant, bush, tree and vine layers. Hence the Permaculture concept of a Food Forest!
  8. Working with “zones” of use intensity — such as planting herbs and salad greens close to the house, vegetable beds somewhat further out, and orchard and wild areas even further, where visits are less frequent
  9. Water harvesting, conservation and management
  10. Use of solar, wind, hydro, and other renewable energy sources for home and farm

In light of the problems of global economic contraction, climate change, and the depletion of fossil fuels, Permaculture Design is an intelligent way for anyone to become part of the solution. Permaculture design can be implemented in any climate, and in suburban, rural, and urban settings.

Permaculture can be implemented at any scale depending on the time and resources you have to invest. Even if you just grow some herbs in pots, compost your kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, learn about edible wild plants, and buy as much as you can from local organic farmers’ markets, you are making a start; and if you think about it for a few minutes, you will realize you are making a difference by investing in regenerative and sustainable activities. The more you delve into the practice of Permaculture Design, the more you will discover a fun and satisfying way of life.

 

Key Concepts:

Gardens:

A Permaculture Approach

Gardens are often the first step for Permaculture applications at home, with focus on growing your own food, protecting biodiversity and seed sovereignty, encouraging wildlife habitat and native pollinators, and building soil fertility naturally. Permaculture teaches us to see life in the soil as the main focus of gardening. With high quality soil comes nutrient-dense food. High-quality soil begins with water conservation, nutrient cycling, and protecting the natural biodiversity of lifeforms in ecological systems. Permaculture works with plants that support beneficial insects – who in their larval stages predate on garden pests, and in their adult stage need host plants for nectar and protection. Only non-hybrid, open-pollinated seeds are found in Permaculture gardens, where food/seed security and genetic diversity are the main concerns for ethical land stewards.

Permaculture gardens are beyond-organic in their dedication to life-promoting practices and building of soil fertility using natural methods. Such gardens become more, not less, productive with age. The resources of soil, water, health and diversity are not depleted by use, but are increased.

 

Food Forests / Agroforestry

Food Forests mimic the architecture and beneficial relationships between plants and animals found in a natural forest and other natural ecosystems. Food forests are not “natural”, but are designed and managed ecosystems (typically complex perennial polyculture plantings) that are very rich in biodiversity and productivity.

Guilds – employed in Permaculture Design – are combinations of plants, animals, insects, fungi, and even people, that work together in a synergistic manner, resulting in highly-productive and healthy systems. Guilds can be found in all healthy ecosystems, and can be designed and planted to make your food forest, garden, pasture, woodlot, or community, healthier and more productive. Each guild participant contributes something valuable to the entire community. For example, most plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, other nutrients, and pest control for healthy growth. By combining food plants with nitrogen fixing plants, nutrient accumulators, and beneficial insect-attracting species, one can design and build a thriving edible ecosystem that reduces work and inputs on behalf of the gardener.

Rainwater Harvesting

In Permaculture Design, we strive to design landscapes that absorb rainwater. That approach is not only a good idea for dry climates, but is also very important in places with plentiful moisture. Rainwater is best maximized when allowed to infiltrate into the soil. There it is available to plants, is naturally cleansed and filtered by soil biology, and enters the groundwater to enrich the hydrological cycle. Rainwater harvesting is an alternative to designing our outdoor environments to shed runoff, where it rushes down hillsides, streets, and roadways, causing erosion and carrying pollution directly into waterways. Rainwater harvesting can be practiced by channeling runoff through earthworks into the soil, or capturing runoff from roofs or other hard surfaces to be stored in cisterns. The former is simpler and less costly; the latter allows you to have access to running water during dry spells.

 

Natural Building

What if the design and construction of a building could improve the ecological health of the ecosystem where it is sited? This is what permaculture strives to do through appropriate architectural design and siting of homes and structures. Built structures create their own microclimates, divert winds, cast shadows, increase the heat island effect, and reduce site permeability. Siting and design of buildings is a major contributing factor to the health of human ecosystems.

Using natural and local materials, Permaculture Design helps one design and build structures that are both strikingly beautiful and sustainable. Permaculture has a solid foundation in climate specific design, using biological resources before employing technological solutions. Properly-designed structures often use the sun for heating, and breezes and vegetation for cooling. A Permaculture-designed building might feature a wind blocking woodlot to assist in heat retention (through slowing wind speeds) and heat generation (through firewood), or a pond on the sun side to reflect sunlight indoors reducing needs for heating and lighting.

Understanding of building energy efficiency and climate-appropriate design allows for remodel of existing structures to reduce their ecological impact and resource use.

 

Backyard Animals

Animals (domestic and wild) are a critical component of any designed sustainable ecosystem, as without their participation and contribution ecological integrity is diminished or impossible. Foraging is needed to cycle nutrients, clear fallen fruit, keep weeds down, spread seeds, and keep pests in balance. By building timely and creative relationships between domestic/wild animals and food plants, much of the work of producing food can be accomplished through good Permaculture Design.

 

Ecological Landscape Restoration

Permaculture Design addresses the health of watersheds, as well as broadscale land restoration to reverse desertification, loss of biodiversity, and soil erosion. By reversing the processes of landscape degradation and pollution, Permaculture Design strategies repair watersheds, purify water, reduce flood danger, slow erosion, and increase water availability. The ability to accomplish these lofty goals lies in recognizing the patterns of the watershed and surrounding ecosystem. In Permaculture we say,”the problem is the solution”, and in degraded landscapes, the problem is erosion, which often exposes bare rock. This bare rock, rearranged in appropriate ways, is used as the solution to halt erosion, increase infiltration, and reestablish vegetation, leading to clear flowing water once again. With vegetation return other life forms and the land naturally re-starts its own restoration processes.

Ecological Economics

As Permaculture focuses on the connections between things more than on the parts, the design of resilient economies relies on each contributor to build a strong network. Many small businesses and contributors are valued over a few large corporations. Decentralization of money flow allows money exchange a chance to slow, spread, and infiltrate into the local community. Strong economies are built from empowered individuals who supply needs of the local community, while meeting many of their own needs in the same community. Local business alliances and alternative currencies are sometimes used to facilitate this web weaving.

 

DIYFoodSupply.com – Podcast Interview with Alan Enzo and Ben Bishop of Nashville Permaculture:

 

To learn more, see our Videos and Resources and Courses pages.

 

THOUGHTS ON PERMACULTURE:

“All of us would acknowledge our own work as modest; it is the totality of such modest work that is impressive. Great changes are taking place. Why not join us in the making of a better future. Ingenio Patet Campus. The field lies open to the intellect.
Bill Mollison

Permaculture is design for sustainable living and land use. From its Australian origins in the 1970’s permaculture has spread around the world creating positive and future-proof environmental solutions. Over more than three decades permaculture designers have pioneered many of today’s mainstream environmental solutions from land care to school gardens, from passive solar design to compost toilets, from ethical investment to farmers markets. But the autonomous, diffuse and decentralized nature of permaculture has tended to hide its great contribution to improving communities across the world. We continue to support permaculture projects and people that are building our sustainable future now.”
David Holmgen, co-originator of the permaculture design concept

“What Permaculture Designers are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet.”
David Suzuki, Geneticist, writer, international environmental researcher