I’ve come across the term ‘permaculture’ a lot over the last few years without really understanding what it means or what permaculture is really about. In fact, I thought it was more or less a gardening concept that embraced organic growing principles and companion planting – and that was about the extent of my knowledge.
Permaculture, I’ve discovered, is so much more than that.
I thought I would share some of the things I’ve been learning recently in my quest to understand and put into practice the principles of permaculture (ah, I love alliteration).
Definition and description
Permaculture is a portmanteau of permanent culture / permanent agriculture. Developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970’s, permaculture is a systematic method of sustainable living which emphasises a harmonious integration of landscape and people.
While many of us think ‘gardening’ when we think permaculture (at least I did, anyway), and certainly, there is a large emphasis on food production in permaculture, it also encompasses animal production, human dwellings and their sustainability, ways of living, community planning and development, and social and economic structures that support a holistic and ecological way of life.
“Permaculture is a theory of ecological design which seeks to develop sustainable human settlements and agricultural systems, by attempting to model them on natural ecosystems” [source].
One of the fundamental principles of permaculture is that of design, specifically creating (or recreating) systems of synergistic elements that meet human needs but that are based on natural systems – working with nature rather than against it in order to live sustainably and reduce our environmental impact. It’s about understanding and recreating the relationships between elements that make up a whole system.
For example, in nature there is no waste and everything is recycled: dying plants, plant parts or animals provide compost for the living plants; bacteria, worms and insects assist this process. In nature different plant species and animals have a symbiotic relationship where they rely on each other to survive and thrive (think bees cross-pollinating flowers as they collect pollen to make honey).
Permaculture is about using this knowledge to create systems that mimic these natural relationships as opposed to forcing agriculture, for instance, into man-made systems of mono-cropping, chemical fertilisation and chemical pest control and tillage that causes soil erosion. As far as our lifestyles go, permaculture is about living harmoniously within our ecosystem, rather than polluting it.
“[Permaculture is] the art of maximising beneficial relationships.” [source]
Starting out in permaculture
Because permaculture is a holistic approach to living sustainably, you don’t have to go out and start a garden to take your first steps down the permaculture path. In fact, if you’ve already made simple changes in your everyday living, like switching from chemical cleaners to natural ones for example, then you have already taken your first steps to living a permaculture lifestyle. Here are some ideas for starting out in permaculture:
- Read a permaculture book. Your local library is the best place to begin looking for books on permaculture. Or you could read one of the many resources on the web (some listed at the end of this article).
- Eat less meat and more locally grown vegetables. Visit a local farmer’s market as a family day out.
- Reduce your energy consumption around the home.
- Reduce waste.
- Buy ethically / second hand more often. Or just buy less.
- Take a permaculture course or go to a local permaculture talk (your local community garden or local library is a good place to look for information sessions).
- Start a permaculture inspired garden (more below).
starting a permaculture garden
One of the fundamentals of permaculture gardening is good design (and this goes beyond the garden bed to include the whole yard / balcony eco-system.
For further information about permaculture design, check out the resources below or your local library; this beginner’s guide on permaculture design principles and this article on starting a permaculture garden make for an excellent introductions.
Here are a few things to think about when getting started in permaculture gardening.
1. Observation. Permaculture design is based on observing the specific conditions of your own unique eco-system, so the best place to start is to observe your gardening space over the course of the year. You don’t have to wait a whole year to get planting, but understanding sun, shade, rain, temperature and wind patterns (direction and strength) in your little part of the world (which could be a tiny inner city balcony or large acreage) is an important aspect of permaculture gardening.
Grab a notebook and start taking notes on your garden space. Maybe you would like to draw diagrams as to where shade falls at certain times (morning, noon and late afternoon for instance) of the day throughout the year so that you can use this information in designing your garden. Maybe you would like to analyse rainfall and temperature patterns (the BOM observations page is very useful for this – click on your state and then the observations tab in the left side bar, then go to your region. The observations table gives readings on temperatures, humidity, wind and rainfall every half hour) – this would be a great project for kids as well. You don’t need to do this every day, but this information gathered over the course of the year will impact your garden design.
Permaculture design stems from “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour.” [source]
2. Design. Design is very important in a permaculture garden, but each permaculture garden will be different, designed specifically to suit local (think micro) conditions. Things to consider when designing your garden include:
- Your observations and local conditions
- Zoning and function
- Practicalities suited to your own situation (for instance, whether you will be growing plants in pots on a balcony or whether you want a raised bed, a no-dig garden, a square-foot garden or large backyard garden). This also encompasses the idea of creatively turning problems into solutions.
- What you will grow and when you will grow it
- Composting, mulching, recycling, organic weed and pest control, diversity and companion planting
If you’re anything like me, then all this can seem overwhelming. If that’s the case, start small, do one thing at a time, learn as you go and take notes on what you learn. Think of permaculture as a journey – you don’t need to get everything perfect right away.
3. Build it. The next step is to build your garden, nurture it, watch it grow and enjoy the harvest.
4. Learn and grow. I said this above, but it is worth mentioning again. Don’t aim for instant perfection. Instead enjoy the process of trying different things, making mistakes, making adjustments, making notes and learning as you go (or grow).
Permaculture is much more than a way of gardening, it encompasses a whole philosophy based on sustainable living practices. Changing the way we live to something that is the antithesis of the modern lifestyle takes time and effort. Think of it as a journey rather than a destination or ‘ideal’, and look for ways to take small practical steps regularly that suit your own unique circumstances, rather than thinking of it as an all or nothing kind of lifestyle.
“[Permaculture is about] saving the planet and living to be a hundred, while throwing very impressive dinner parties and organising other creatures to do most of the work." [source – quoting Permaculture author Linda Woodrow].
- Wikipedia page – a very good introduction to the history and basic principles of permaculture.
- The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia
- The Permaculture Research Institute of America
- The Permaculture Association (UK)
- Permaculture (website and magazine UK)
- Permaculture Information (UK)
- Permaculture Principles
- Permaculture visions (AUS)
- Permaculture Institute (US)
- Holmgren Design Services – here you can download a free eBook introducing the permaculture design system
- Permaculture Pathways – Australian blog
- Tropical Permaculture – lots of great information on permaculture on this site.
- Permaculture Two (book) is the original permaculture bible written by Bill Mollison. It is currently out of print but you may be able to find it in your local library or second hand bookstore.
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