Permaculture is essentially a design system that attempts to mimic patterns and relationships found in nature, and use these to design a system that will provide the food, energy and shelter needs of people. Permaculture can be applied at any scale, from dense urban settlements to individual homes, to farms and to entire regions. It can be applied uniquely to different local systems using available knowledge and resources.
Permanent Agriculture and Permanent Culture
Permaculture reflects the meanings of three different words: permanence (meaning = sustainable in the long-term), agriculture and culture. Permaculture is often only associated with growing food, however it is also a complete approach to living sustainably. It includes techniques for appropriate house design, transport, community development, communication techniques, alternative economy and ethics. The idea of permaculture was originally conceived in Hobart in the mid 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who both shared an interest in ecology and the relationship between humans and natural systems, and a concern about the impact of industrial human society on the earth. Since then it has spread to become a global movement. At the heart of permaculture is a fundamental set of core values. These are:
Care for the Earth: Recognising that the earth is the source of all life and our valuable home, and that we are part of it, not apart from it.
Care for People: Supporting and helping each other to change to ways of living that do not harm ourselves or the planet, and to develop healthy societies.
Fair Share: Ensuring that the earth? limited resources are used in ways that are equitable and wise.
Learning from Nature: Interconnectivity and Diversity
Natural ecosystems are diverse, multi-layered, complex and self-sustaining and self-regulating. There is no need for external inputs and no waste is generated. Natural systems contain an unlimited amount of inter-connectivity between all elements. For example, birds nest in tree hollows and eat the insects that eat the leaves of the tree.
In contrast, man-made industrial farms have a huge need for input, especially fertilisers and non-renewable fossil fuels to power technology. Usually, each farm specialises in producing high yields of a single crop. These monocultures are highly susceptible to diseases and insects. Pesticides are sprayed to kill the insects, and/or millions of dollars are spent designing genetically engineered crops, which only ever keep us one small step ahead of nature, if that.
In contrast, a permaculture farm attempts to mimic the diversity of a natural environment to reduce pest damage. High biodiversity is encouraged, both in plants that are directly useful: such as food crops, as well as plants that are indirectly useful: such as trees that provide nesting hollows for insectivorous birds. Diversity allows for more resilience in the system. If ten varieties of potatoes are planted, natural variation will ensure that some are more resistant to insect attack while others are more resistant to frost or drought, so the chances are that at least some of your potato varieties will survive the ravages of a particular growing season. Different plants in a garden can also benefit each other. Two examples of Bill Mollison's are an old Greek lady who plants roses amongst her grapevines and a Filipino man who plants chillis and beans with his bananas:
Well, if I go to an old Greek lady sitting in a vineyard and ask, "Why have you planted roses among your grapes?" she will say to me, "Because the rose is the doctor of the grape. If you don? plant roses, the grapes get ill." That doesn? do me a lot of good. But if I can find out that the rose exudes a certain root chemical that is taken up by the grape root which in turn repels the white fly (which is the scientific way of saying the same thing), then I have something very useful. Traditional knowledge is always of that nature. I know a Filipino man who always plants a chilli and four beans in the same hole as the banana root. I asked him, "Why do you plant a chilli with the banana?" And he said, "Don? you know that you must always plant these things together." Well, I worked out that the beans fix the nitrogen and the chilli prevents beetles from attacking the banana root.
In a natural system, there is no need for external input, apart from solar energy and rain, and nothing is wasted. For example, when an animal defecates or dies, fungi and bacteria break the matter down and nutrients return to the soil to be taken up by plants. Permaculture also aims to minimise waste. Output of one system is designed to become input of another system. Backyard composting is a prime example of this. Food scraps, manure and toilet waste, which are usually removed from properties via the garbage or the sewage system, can be composted to become an extremely valuable material that improves the nutrients and texture of the soil. The compost provides nutrients for growing fruit and vegetables, which are eaten and provide compost all over again.
Every element that is included in a permaculture design is likely to have several purposes. For example: fruit trees provide shade as well as fruit. Chickens can produce meat, eggs, feathers and manure, while helping break up the soil with their scratching, and eating insects and other pests.
More Output for Less Work!
Permaculture designs systems that need the least amount of work to maintain, as these are the most sustainable: for example to save digging worms are encouraged in the garden. Worms naturally turn and aerate the soil. Permaculture seeks to harness natural energies wherever possible, such as wind, gravity and solar: a watertank will ideally be located up slope from the garden so the energy of gravity is used to water the garden. Solar energy can be harnessed by creating a rock wall and locating plants that are cold-sensitive next to it, as the rocks will absorb sunlight during the day and radiate it out at night, moderating the climate. The aim is to produce a high density of food and a beautiful environment with minimal input.
Bill Mollison says:
It takes you less time to grow your food than to walk down to the supermarket to buy it. Ask any good organic gardener who mulches how much time he spends on his garden and he?l say, "Oh, a few minutes every week." By the time you have taken your car and driven to the supermarket, taken your foraging-trolley and collected your wild greens, and driven back home again, you?e spent a good hour or two plus you've spent a lot of money.
Observation and Learning
Permaculture cannot be learned overnight. Reading books can provide inspiration, ideas and information on tried and true methods, however success in your garden may come slowly and by trial and error. Taking advice, listening and learning are important, as is planning and then constant observation, monitoring and adjusting methods. Find a mentor and discover yourself evolving along with your garden!