I first became aware of the word permaculture when I attended a local community tree stewards meeting. While I was introducing myself, describing my interests, principles and experiences, one of the tree stewards said that sounds a lot like permaculture to me. One of the tree stewards had attended a permaculture design course and has obtained certification. Since that time I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to learn as much as I can about permaculture as its principles and ethics are in alignment with my own.
In 2013 I took Geoff Lawton's 1st online permaculture design course an then set out to take what I had learned and apply design elements to our property.
Permaculture is a design system that Bill Mollison has been given credit for its introduction, in the 1970s, and is a mechanism whereby we can develop a sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship within nearly all terrestrial ecosystems on earth. This system actually offers us the opportunity not only to survive in a sustainable manner but to thrive without collateral damage or at the expense of others.
Some people describe permaculture as a permanent culture where the needs of all creatures, including humans, are met. This system offers solutions to our current problems that meet all our needs and benefit our environment, while producing abundance.
At the very core of the design system are the ethics of permaculture:
- care of the earth and its living and nonliving systems
- care of the people is essential in the design so that the system is successful and sustainable
- return of surplus (including time, energy, resources, products, waste, etc.) the elimination of waste is a principal goal and all that is not needed is returned to either care of the earth, all living things including people
if these ethics are adhered to then we can all thrive in a healthy and mutually beneficial way that helps to heal our precious planet.
The observation and study of natural systems is at the core of permaculture design. If the design you develop is not sustainable it is not a permaculture design. Some people might argue that the laws of thermodynamics, a tendency towards disorder defies a sustainable design. Whereas, I believe that the entropy merely feeds subsequent systems.
Through careful observation one can see patterns and layers in nature and by mimicking these patterns and layers a system can be developed that is mutually beneficial and sustainable. In nature there is great diversity, multiple factors and interdependence amongst each of these factors that is essential to support an ecosystem.
Another essential component of permaculture is time. Geoff Lawton describes Time Stacking whereby as we look at natural systems and understanding how succession over time affects a design. It’s an understanding and appreciation for the sequence of initial pioneer species and then subsequent species occupy a specific site that you are designing. Once one understands the natural development and evolution of a habitat one can design and develop a food forest that produces surplus.
So this is not a simple organic gardening or square foot gardening technique. This permaculture design incorporates perennial and annual plants in an ecosystem that can grow closely together and be mutually beneficial. Of course there are supportive species of plants, such as nitrogen fixing plants, that are not indirectly beneficial to us, and that are directly beneficial to the species that we wish to propagate. Actually many of the support species within a food forest are grown to provide mulch which in turn is a resource for the soil which is ultimately responsible for the nutrient density of the plants within the food forest. Our plan is to mimic a natural forest and it will take years to become a climax forest. However, through proper planning one can begin to reap the benefits of the forest within the first couple of years.
Permaculture is also about energy conservation and efficiency. Whereas modern agriculture is monoculture where farmers plant large fields of densely packed crops such as corn, soybean, etc. Monoculture is plagued with many problems energy inefficiency, pollution, soil loss, pest control, petroleum dependency, and the development of genetically modified species that pose a significant threat to our environment and those that eat the products produced from GMO crops.
One benefit of the polyculture aspect of permaculture are multiple small yields throughout the growing season. Whereas monoculture, if successful, yields a huge yield once a season. Unfortunately the nutritional value of all plants begins to degrade at the time of harvest and therefore not only is there an additional cost for storing and preserving the monoculture crop, there is also the cost of nutritional degradation of that crop.
Regardless of the design (modern agriculture versus permaculture) one should always take into account the costs and benefits of each design system.
- produces multiple yields multiple times throughout a growing season or seasons (almost every day throughout a growing season)
- the cost and energy required to maintain a permaculture designed food forest is less
- the land area necessary for food forest is far less than the monoculture system
- the soil is enhanced and fed by a permaculture design system whereas the monoculture system results in soil loss.
- water is captured and retained within a permaculture design system whereas irrigation is necessary for many monoculture systems
- permaculture design systems can help to remove pollutants from the water whereas monoculture systems often contaminate our groundwater systems through nonpoint sources of pollution (animal waste runoff) as well as pesticide (herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides)
Permaculture requires mindful observation, investigation and contemplation to result in the conservation of time and energy whereas the modern farmer’s work starts before sunrise and is famous for the long hours of hard work, and the worries associated with the weather, the high cost of fuel as well as many other problems that have forced most smalltime farmers out of the business.
I also believe that the amount of stress is much less with a permaculture design.
Above I mentioned the importance of multiple factors and their interdependencies. This has become the central and core understanding throughout my life and career. Understanding that there are no silver bullets that is a cure to whatever ails us and that there is no single cause to a disease. There are multiple factors that interact to determine our relative health status or disease state. We are what we eat, think, believe, breathe, do, bathe or come in contact with. Therefore it behooves us to design a system that can feed and nurture us in such a way as to promote optimal health.
In permaculture design some of the factors include time, techniques, strategies, relationships, patterns, species, lifespan, structures, functions, layers, flow and multiple dimensions. Each of these factors or elements are dependent upon each other and therefore need to be considered in the design. We need to carefully consider the needs and the output including waste for each one of these elements or factors within the system that we are designing.
For example, let’s evaluate the needs, products, relationship of the chicken:
- chicken needs include nutritious food, grit, fresh water, fresh air, shelter, protection from predators, warmth in northern climates, other chickens to reproduce and to reduce social stress, dust for a dust bath, perches to roost on, nest boxes
- chicken products include eggs, meat, feathers, excellent manure for composting, and heat
- chicken behaviors include scratching the soil, eat pest larvae, weed seeds and insects
- there are also breed characteristics, for example the Rhode Island red chicken is cold hardy, a good egg layer, hardy, good forager and as a quiet disposition
All elements listed above (animals, plants, structures, and lifespan) should be carefully evaluated to determine its needs, products and intrinsic factors.
The permaculture design has many subsystems that all are integrated and meet each elements needs. All of the needs must be anticipated and met and the products must be removed, consumed, distributed or fed into another subsystem.