What is permaculture? It’s a question rarely asked by the people that I know. Still, in a world where we seem to be reaching the limits of perpetual growth and of the environmental degradation that the planet will allow, it will become an increasingly important concept if we are to avoid a bumpy ride in the future.
Permaculture is a method of designing agricultural systems that are sustainable in the long term, reducing waste, energy use and human labor as much as possible while maximizing output and generally living in harmony with nature. And in a fit of exasperation, I realize I may have inadvertently and anticlimactically answered my own question in the second paragraph. So.. let’s get to the details, shall we?
THE CORE TENANTS OF PERMACULTURE
There are 3 core tenants of permaculture. They are:
1) To care for the earth: permaculture aims to provide for all life systems to continue to live and grow.
2) To care for the people: permaculture aims to allow all humans access to the resources they need to survive.
3) To set limits to population and consumption: permaculture aims to create a sustainable existence for humans. This means limiting resource use to the extent where #1 and 2 can continue indefinitely.
The focus of permaculture is on synergy, with all elements of a system working together as much as possible to create the best possible outcome. This is a shift of thinking away from modern agriculture, where large farms grow a single crop and are often in a fight against nature to keep their production up.
THE DESIGN PRINCIPLES OF PERMACULTURE
The 12 design principles of permaculture that are widely followed. They are:
1) To observe and interact: by observing and being aware of how we interact with nature, we can create design solutions that are good for us both.
2) To catch and store energy: maximizing our resources so that we receive the most output for the minimum input.
3) To obtain a yield: ensuring that you receive a good reward for the work that is put in.
4) To apply self-regulation and accept feedback: discouraging unhelpful activity and ensuring systems function at their best.
5) To use and value renewable resources: making the best use of what nature supplies us, and reducing our dependence on non-renewable resources.
6) To produce no waste: creating systems that make use of all the resources available, ideally creating zero waste.
7) To design from patterns to details: observing patterns in nature that become the foundation of our designs, and then filling in the details as we go.
8) To integrate rather than separate: creating a system where the parts within it support each other.
9) To use small and slow solutions: maintaining small and slow systems is easier than large and fast ones, and they are generally more sustainable.
10) To use and value diversity: diverse environments offer more advantages and are less vulnerable to threats.
11) To use edges and value the marginal: The most valuable and productive parts of a system are often found at the margins.
12) To creatively use and respond to change: Observing and intervening at the right time when change comes.
Permaculture tries to align a system with the patterns of nature as much as possible. It utilizes various layers of an ecosystem, pairing plants an animals that work better together than they would apart (ie pairing a plant grown for food with a plants that either attracts helpful insect or repel damaging ones).
Permaculture also utilizes what is know as the “edge effect”: When two very different environments meet, there is an abundance of resources that tends to create a very productive area (the traditional example is where the sea and land meets there tends to be a higher than average percentage of plant an animal life). Permaculturists utilize this effect by creating designs where the edge effect is maximized.
AN EXAMPLE OF PERMACULTURE IN NATURE
Here’s an example of a synergistic system that occurs in nature, which permaculturists might model and eventually even hope to improve upon:
In a forest environment, there is a canopy of taller trees that provide a shield for the area below. It protects the area from violent weather, while at the same time is sparse enough to allow sunlight and water in. Below this, there may be a layer of smaller trees that grow fruit. Even below this, there may be a layer of shrubs that grow various berries. On the ground, there may be a layer of flowers, as well as various molds and fungi. Underground, there may be root crops such as carrots or potatoes. Various insects and animals would also inhabit the area, allowing for the spread of seeds and the delivery of various nutrients.
Because of the various plants in the area, the constant falling of organic matter and the frequent visits from animals that eat these plants and leave their waste, the soil stays rich in nitrogen and other nutrients. Since the various layers of plants protect the soil from wind and rain, and reduce the chances of flooding, the soil doesn’t erode. The system is to a large extent self sustaining, and it is such systems we must create as humans if we wish to maintain our standard of living long term.
PERMACULTURE IN PRACTICE
Agroforestry combines different trees, plants and livestock to create a sustainable wood harvesting process. It aims to reduce the soil erosion and general environmental degradation that comes from the clear cutting process. Forest gardening is an example of this, as well as sheet mulching.
Natural building aims to create buildings that, through clever design, minimize energy use and waste production. Some methods might be positioning windows to either maximize or minimize heat absorption; rainwater harvesting; effective insulation; or others.
This is a topic that I find very interesting, and would like to cover in a lot more depth in the future.
Good luck and stay prepared!