Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable and ethical way.
History of Permaculture
Permaculture was created in the late 1970’s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a solution to our unsustainable agriculture and social practices. The first book, Permaculture One, was published in 1978. A follow-up book, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, was published in 1997. Since then, many permaculture books with various focuses have been published.
What is Sustainability?
A sustainable society strives for personal fulfillment, economic security, social harmony, and a healthy environment while promoting the well-being of all species and guaranteeing the ability of future generations to enjoy an equally vital existence.
Achieving this somewhat idyllic vision, means giving back to our community more energy and materials than we consume. The vast majority of organisms in nature in one way or another give more than they consume, which is why our environment has been so sustainable, resilient, and abundant for several billion years. In the current culture we reap tremendous rewards for hyper-individualism and voracious consumption—incentives for giving back are miniscule by comparison.
Questioning the Rat Race
Americans are beginning to question the advantages supposedly provided by the traditional rat-race we have been engaged in since the Industrial Revolution. We give our time, energy, and souls away to the economy and gain little in return. We are beginning to ask whom or what our energy and work primarily benefit. We want to stop choosing between our livelihood and the health of our environment. We are told that happiness and fulfillment are found through constant consumption and a growing economy, but just the opposite appears to be true. We no longer view life as a curious and beautiful existence, but see it as something which we have been condemned to endure, always looking for high points in the next day, month, year, or life.
We are beginning to hear the call for a more authentic and fulfilling life; a life based on our values rather than social paradigms; a life of simplicity; a life that works toward achieving our full potential; a life built upon connections to community; a life where our actions are consistent with our beliefs. Re-establishing, understanding, and strengthening our connections with community and nature will result in a dramatically different way perceiving and living in the world. This new worldview can help us live more authentic lives with a better understanding of place and worth. In this context, sacrifice can lose much of its meaning, and a life of consumption can change to one of contribution.
But how do we get there? How do we make changes? What will the changes look like? Where do we focus our efforts? How much effort will it take? Solutions can be found by mimicking the enduring patterns and principles found in nature.
Solutions Found in Permaculture
Our environment has been “sustainable” for several billion years. During most of this time it has gone way beyond sustainability and has created overflowing abundance for all species on the planet. Permaculture provides a framework for learning how to mimic the abundance-building patterns and processes found in nature. Just as we see patterns in nature replicated at the microscopic and universe level (e.g., spirals in snail shells and galaxies), these solutions can scale from a backyard garden, to neighborhood community, to a city, and to an entire nation.
Patterns and Principles
Our society does not formally teach us how to live sustainably—how to give back more than we consume. Permaculture conveys this understanding through guidelines in the form of patterns and principles found in nature. By mimicking these patterns and principles—by actually being a positive part of nature—our actions create the same abundance created by all other species.
An example of a permaculture principle is using waste as a resource. In nature nothing is “pollution”; that is, nothing is wasted. Every piece of waste produced by an animal or a process is in some way efficiently reused by some other animal or process. We too should strive to recycle and reuse every piece of material produced by our society. Without this effort and mindset, our pollution problems will continue to worsen and our health will deteriorate right along with it.
Examples of other principles include making the least change for the greatest effect, creating self-maintaining systems, ensuring every element in a system performs multiple functions, and starting small and scaling outward. Some have said that permaculture principles are common sense. This may be true, but they are certainly not yet common practice.
Food forests are often touted as a good example of permaculture in action. If you let your backyard garden “go wild” for a few million years, eventually it would turn into a mature forest (or a prairie). By constantly tilling, pulling weeds, replanting, and harvesting we keep this natural process of succession in check. Restricting this succession not only requires a large expenditure of our energy, but it also works directly against natural processes practiced for billions of years. Our gardens and lawns want to “grow up” and we prevent it from happening. By following permaculture principles to design and maintain garden spaces, we mimic the processes and patterns found in forests. Our actions speed up the garden’s evolution and yield while simultaneously decreasing the maintenance. How many forests have you visited that require weeding and fertilizer?
Changing Our Worldview
Even with high-yield perennial food forests, the land within urban communities may not supply all the food needed to feed our residents. But how would our desire to accumulate wealth and material possessions change if we were constantly surrounded by food? How would our worldview change if much of our summertime food came from gathering it while walking down the street? Our thoughts and perspectives are heavily influenced by our surroundings. What would being surrounded by abundance of food do to our perspective?
Permaculture is not a silver bullet that can solve all our problems. It is not really even a solution in itself. It is a methodology and framework for finding solutions. It offers a fresh way of thinking that can help break us out of paradigms and look upon the world with new eyes.
People: Nature in Action
Permaculture reminds us that every action we take has an affect on our natural environment; we are nature in action. In one way or another every organism in nature attempts to form a beneficial relationship with other organisms. Competition is minimized because the competitors fail to really thrive—often the goal is to establish some form of mutually-beneficial collaboration. When we improve the soil and habitat of our yard, we are increasing the resiliency of that space and forming a positive relationship with it.
Recognizing that we are part of nature and understanding where we fit in this scheme can be very empowering because it can help us see new ways that we can contribute to the health of our environment. Since we are part of that environment—since we are a part of nature—our health is subsequently increased.
Permaculture in Action
What does a permaculture design look like? How exactly can permaculture help our community become resilient?
Permaculture designs often resemble lush landscapes seen in nature, but they weave in human elements, such as wide pathways and easily maintained perennial food crops. The significant difference in their design is the amount of background research that is done to deeply understand the goals of the homeowner. The needs of the land and all its critters are also considered. Mutually-beneficial interactions between humans, plants, insects, and animals are carefully examined and designed to create an abundant and self-sustaining landscape that mimics healthy, natural ecosystems.
The goals of the homeowner for their outdoor space are paramount. By meeting these goals, the landscape draws the homeowner in, compelling them to linger a bit longer and regret having to go elsewhere. We typically seek such solace in faraway places and only manage to visit them on infrequent vacations. When our own outdoor areas invoke this same deep sense of satisfaction, we become much more fulfilled in our own space. This connection to our land and community makes us much less compelled to partake in unsustainable practices by fruitlessly searching for fulfillment through consumption and travel.
Sheet mulching is a good alternative to tilling and is a more natural way of creating garden beds. It turns a space of turfgrass and weeds into valuable fertilizer through the layering of recycled materials such as cardboard, newspaper, straw and compost. Sheet mulching embodies the Permaculture principles "use the least change for greatest effect" and "use onsite resources".
Sheet mulch patches of your yard in the fall to create fertile ground for planting in the spring. Some vegetables can be planted directly into sheet mulch—try throwing some potatoes or onions in the mix and see what happens!
Plant Guilds and Polycultures
Plant guilds are consciously designed groupings of plants chosen for their ability to enhance one another while minimizing competition for sun and nutrients. By planting species together that inherently meet the needs of the others around them, the need for continuous inputs is decreased, resulting in less work for the grower. Guilds act and feel like natural landscapes and are designed to mimic the stability of a local native ecosystem. Each plant serves multiple functions while all functions are supported by more than one plant. This confers stability and resilience on the plant community and provides robust and diverse yields.
A common example given is an apple tree guild. With just a few species, the guild will:
- balance pests
- improve soil fertility
- control weeds
- attract beneficial insects
- retain moisture
- diversify yields
- improve the overall health of the ecosystem
- increase the aesthetics of the area
Polycultures are dynamic, self-organizing plant communities composed of several plant species. These stand in stark contrast to a monoculture where only one type of plant is grown which maximizes competition and makes the plants more susceptible to pests and disease. A great amount of effort and input is required by the grower to mitigate such effects. As with the consciously designed planting of a guild, species in a polyculture provide support to one another in mutually beneficial ways and minimize competition by occupying different niches.
A classic annual guild of corn, beans and squash is called the Three Sisters Guild. Corn provides a trelis for the beans; the beans fix nigrogen in the soil for the corn; the squash shades the ground giving the corn more consistent soil mosture. More “sisters” can be added to fulfill even more roles in the plant community: dill and borage attract beneficial insects to the garden and are edible as well.
Using plant guilds and polycultures are examples of permaculture principles “work with nature”, “obtain a yield”, and “one element performs many functions.”
Rain barrels are a great way of capturing rain water from your roof to use in your lawn or gardens. This simple, homemade device can be created from a 50 gallon, food grade barrel—often found at creameries—and can be equipped with hose attachments and overflow tubes from simple parts found at your local hardware store. They can also be purchased at online retailers. Rain barrels are simple, smart and effective.
Rain gardens make an important contribution to our community by holding rainwater from the roof and allowing it to slowly filter into the ground instead of flowing directly into the sewer. This retention reduces the amount of water surging into urban streams and helps keep them from becoming eroded and undercut. Mary's garden is filled with native plants which provide food and habitat for insects and other visiting wildlife.
Water is a form of energy in an ecological system. When we become good at using natural ways to capture, use, and reuse water, less energy is spent by us (via our labor) and our community (via non-renewable fossil fuels) in maintaining our systems. Rain gardens and rain barrels are excellent examples of the permaculture principle “catch and store energy”.
Composting, compost tea brewing, and sheet mulching are some of the simplest and most effective tools available to the ecological gardener. In addition to building healthy soil-life and diversity these techniques work to create stable soil structure, cycle nutrients, and remediate poisoned soil by breaking down or locking up harmful toxins. Employing these gardening methods is also a good way of taking “dead” materials—such as paper, cloth, cardboard, newspaper, tea bags, food scraps, leaves, and garden debris—and turning them into living gold.
Composting is an example of permaculture principles “use onsite resources” and “work with nature”. The consumption of fossil fuels that would have otherwise been used to haul this “waste” to the landfill or recycling center is eliminated.