What is Permaculture?

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a philosophy.

A philosophical view of the natural ecosystems in our world. Permaculture is a contraction of the words ‘permanent’, ‘agriculture’ and ‘culture’. For some, it is an essential way of life, for many an idea within their grasp and for others a dream to work and strive for.

The beginning of permaculture is hard to unearth, but the essence of modern permaculture can be traced all the way back to the 1920s. The term ‘Permanent Agriculture’ was coined by Joseph Russell Smith in 1929. His book ‘Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture’ detailed experiments with fruit and nut crops and introduced an inter-connected world view where trees and crops grow in mixed systems. The influence of Toyohiko Kagawa, who developed forest farming in 1930s Japan, also cannot be ignored.

Bill Mollison

P.A. Yeomans’ 1964 book ‘Water for Every Farm’ introduced an examination of land and water use in Australia. In the late 1960s, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren began became the brainchild of stable agriculture systems in Tasmania. An important facet of their observations was that natural systems are sustainable, they provide their own energy and recycle their own waste. Each component in the system plays an important role; from bees pollinating flowers to trees absorbing carbon dioxide. Motivated by an increase in industrial agriculture, a dependence on non-renewable resources and a poisoned ecosystem, Bill, and David, developed an approach which, in 1978, they would name ‘Permaculture’.

The Permaculture Design Manual is a foundation framework that is designed to evolve and adapt to a multitude of different climates and needs. The original focus of Permaculture was sustainable food production, economic and social systems, however, in recent years, some practitioners are adding spirituality and personal growth that aligns with their own personal philosophical and spiritual beliefs.

David Holmgren

The foundation of this is that Permaculture can encompass everything which sustains and gives back and spirituality. It must be pointed out that neither Bill or David has embraced this.

Permaculture philosophy can be traced back many years, to before it was even named permaculture, and has developed and is developing into a design science. Monoculture cropping has been shown to deplete the soil of natural nutrients, leading to an increase in artificial fertilizers. From its humble beginnings, permaculture has always been about mimicking the natural systems we find in nature. It has been about the symbiotic relationships between plants, animals, fungi, trees, insects and the earth. It is only when we realize that nature has been growing for longer and more perfectly than we have, that we can begin to assume the permaculture mindset.

When we think about some of the core principles of Permaculture, we are led to these three tenets:

Care for the earth

Care for the people

Return of surplus

We have a system which provides for life systems and helps with growth, we have a system which provides people with the necessary resources to survive and we have a system where surpluses are reinvested to provide for the systems and the people.

Permaculture is all about the landscape, the functions of the individual elements and the assembly of individual species. It is concerned with the maximum benefit to the local environment which can be achieved by these elements, what connections can be formed and how can the individual components come together in a harmonious and mutually beneficial way. When we are thinking about implementing permaculture in our system we do not focus on the separate elements alone, rather we create relationships where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

In a permaculture system, we seek to minimize or even eliminate waste, human labor, and energy input. We achieve this by building systems which provide the maximum achievable benefit between the elements. Our system will be an ever changing, evolving one. As the system becomes more complex or more elements are added then we change and tweak to maintain the balance. Success or failure is a learning tool for us, a way for us to validate or refute our findings. Either way, we are driven on to create more balance, more synergy, less waste and a better way of life.

But what is Permaculture?

We have talked a lot about the philosophy and history of permaculture without really discussing the details of this philosophy. If we take a look at David Holmgren’s book ‘Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability’ we are introduced to the twelve permaculture principles:

1. Observe and interact: if you take the time to be with nature and engage with it then you can find the solutions to apply to our individual situation.

2. Catch and store energy: if we have systems which produce or collect resources then at peak times we can store those resources for times of need.

3. Obtain a yield: to have a permaculture ecosystem then we must be able to be rewarded for the work we are doing.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: we should be constantly seeking feedback from the system, from ourselves and from others so that we can encourage our system to function well.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services: it is imperative that we respect the abundance we receive from nature and reduce our consumption.

6. Produce no waste: by valuing nature and making use of the resources available to us, we can ensure that nothing goes to waste.

7. Design from patterns to details: by taking the time to be in nature and stepping back we can observe the natural patterns in the world and out societies. This forms our design, the details will naturally follow.

8. Integrate rather than segregate: if we have the right things in place, relationships will inherently form between those things and they will begin to work together and support each other.

9. Use small and slow solutions: nature takes small steps in an ecosystem and so should we, small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, allowing us to make better use of local resources and produce sustainable outcomes.

10. Use and value diversity: much like a society thrives and flourishes with diversity, so an ecosystem does too. Diversity reduces vulnerability and takes advantage of nature and the environment.

11. Use edges and value the marginal: the interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. Pay special attention to these areas as they are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements of the system.

12. Creatively use and respond to change: even when we have unexpected change our impact can be positive with careful observation and intervention.

Not only are these principles fundamental to guiding us in permaculture, but they can also be applied to many areas of our lives and societies. Now that we have our twelve guiding principles we can start to dig down into what makes up a permaculture ecosystem.

Oregano, lettuce and vegetable marrow growing and supporting each other.

Layers are one of the many tools used to design and implement functional ecosystems which are sustainable and of direct benefit to humans. Mature ecosystems have a large number of relationships between the component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects and animals. Because trees, plants, etc grow to different heights it is extremely easy to grow a diverse community of life in a small space. The seven layers of permaculture are generally accepted as being:

1. Canopy/Tall Tree Layer
2. Sub-Canopy/Large Shrub Layer
3. Shrub Layer
4. Herbaceous Layer
5. Ground-cover/Creeper Layer
6. Underground Layer
7. Vertical/Climber Layer

With two more layers added to the list by some (though this is still open for debate):

8. Aquatic/Wetland Layer
9. Mycelial/Fungal Layer

Every forest in the world has a minimum of seven layers. (Some tropical and subtropical forests have up to nine layers and depending on how we classify layers). If we look at this natural system as designed instead or organized chaos then it makes our efforts to build our permaculture systems a lot easier. We are able to design a system where we can plant a large percentage of each layer with edible food while also planting species which give back to the local environment.

We also break down our permaculture ecosystem into zones. Zones are a great way of breaking down the elements in our design based upon the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. Elements which are attended to frequently are located closer to our house or dwelling and those that need limited contact or thrive in isolation are located further away. The zones are numbered from zero to five:

Zone 0: The house, or home center

Permaculture principles would be applied here to reduce the amount of water consumption and energy needs. We can harness natural energy sources such as sunlight and the wind, creating a harmonious, sustainable environment to live and work in.

Zone 1: Frequent attention (soft berries, greenhouses, compost, etc)

The zone which is closest to the house and contains those elements which need frequent attention. Can contain herbs, salad crops or berry bushes. Elements such as worm compost or raised beds.

Zone 2: Less frequent (perennials, bushes, orchards, bees, etc)

Less maintenance is required here, infrequent weeding or pruning may be needed. A great place for beehives and larger scale composting bins as well as orchards.

Zone 3: Main crops

This zone usually contains crops, both for domestic use and for trade. The set up of this zone can take some time, but when done it needs minimal interaction and care. Common tasks are weeding and watering and can be done once a week.

Zone 4: Semi-wild

A great place to forage and collect wild food and can be used to harvest wood.

Zone 5: Wilderness

An area of wilderness which requires no human intervention. A place where we can observe the natural ecosystems and cycles which exist. Through this, we can build up a natural reserve of bacteria, mold and insects integral in the maintaining of the other zones.

Bill Mollison talks about the care of the earth (provisions for all life systems), care of people (provisions for people) and setting limits to population and consumption (setting aside resources or a share of the surplus). David Holmgren, while echoing these sentiments, expands on these some more to include observation, feedback systems, design patterns, waste limits and the idea of slow and small solutions. Both are in agreement that we should first treat the earth and its creatures as our friends, showing respect to the systems in place. We should be concerned with resources and surplus; the life systems and people should have access to the necessary resources to survive within the system.

Building a surplus is a sensible practice. But when we look at the earth as a living system, should we expand this idea of ‘surplus’ and ‘resource sharing’ to a grander scale? The interpretation of theses two authors and pioneers has led people to argue that they have a right to the surplus of others. This article will not discuss the validity of this claim.