Whenever people ask me, what is Permaculture? Especially to a newcomer, I'm always trying to keep my answer as simple as possible. "It's regenerative gardening" I'll say, or "It's sustainable living". While these are true, they are specks of sand amongst an endless beach. In truth, the word Permaculture is an inter-disciplinary study and a plethora of practices, organic gardening, natural building, mycology, community building, agroforestry, hydrology, microbial science, herbalism, and oh man I could go on. The reason all of these practices come under the same umbrella of 'Permaculture' is because it is a combination of the words, "Permanent" and "Culture". All of these practices are indicative to a culture that stewards the land.
The way we live in our modern societies is very fast and loose, treating the world around us as expendable. Our food is grown remotely in assembly line fashion, often with chemicals that leave our topsoil barren, poisoning our waterways. Most of our products come packed in plastic, from polluting factories transported from far flung corners of the earth. Our cars run on dinosaur bones, those that don't, run on electricity fueled by more dino bones, and require the mining of rare earth metals. Our healthcare is based on treating symptoms and profitting off of sickness, rather than tending to the root of our unhealthy patterns and working to prevent dis-ease. In a society run by greed and corporate interest, Permaculture offers an alternative. We live in a society run by profit, but we live in a WORLD run by ecological regeneration, healthy food and medicine, and a diverse community of earthlings that live as companions and as teachers. The practice of Permaculture, among all of it's disciplines, is about aligning our lifestyles with the flows and cycles of nature. Put simply, Permaculture allows us to live lifestyles invested in our ecology, growing our own food, medicine, and gathering in community to reinvest in those ends. By now, I may have peaked your curiosity. If so, read on as I let myself geek out on Permaculture, its history, and permaculture techniques related to food systems.
Now let's pretend you just asked me,
"What is Permaculture?"
Permaculture is a design process for land stewardship and living sustainably, based on the ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Basically every decision in a system (home, work, etc) is what is best for the earth, her earthlings, and well-distributed among her earthlings. Permaculture is based on observing patterns in nature and integrating them in agriculture, water harvesting, energy systems, natural building, and community building. The practice of permaculture aims to eliminate ‘waste’, promote biodiversity, and establish environmentally resilient and productive systems. I’ll be talking about the history of Permaculture, it’s foundational principles, and techniques that are ubiquitous to Permaculture.
The Birth of an Ecological Revolution
The term Permaculture was established by Bill Mollison, a biologist and professor at the University of Tasmania. In his earlier years, he worked as a scientist for the ‘Wildlife Survey Section’ for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Tasmania. During his time observing marsupials browsing in the Tasmanian rain forests, he was inspired by the rich, inter-connected, and life sustaining systems that he saw in motion. He believed that humans could establish ecological systems that were just as abundant in sustaining life for a biodiverse community of life. He later went on to design systems that established connections between perennial food production, hydrology, biodiversity, natural building, and community building in ways that mimicked the self-sustaining nature of ecologies. While the concept of Permaculture was established in the early 1970’s by Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren, the practice of Permaculture can be found in prominent civilizations all over the world, before the word permaculture was even ‘coined’.
Permaculture throughout Indigenous History
Bill took much of his inspiration for his permaculture techniques and systems from indigenous cultures throughout the world. Indigenous cultures, especially those that weren’t nomadic, established techniques for long-term land stewardship, food production, biodiversity, and hydrology. The cultures throughout Central and South America used terraces to harvest rainwater along mountainsides, as well as catch nutrients and eroded soil into their crop production. In Mesoamerica, many cultures built Chinampas. In wetland environments, the people would build piles of organic matter as small islands that would essentially be gardens out in the middle of the water. The famous, Tenochitlan of the Aztecs built their whole city around Chinampas and waterways so that commerce could happen while maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Southeast Asian cultures used a similar practice with their wet paddy system for cultivating rice. This system caught and stored the rainwater from the monsoon season and hydrated the soils for rice cultivation. Some cultures employed ducks in their rice paddy cultivation, they would let the ducks eat all the weeds and fertilize the paddies with their poop.
Silvopasture and perennial hedges were integrated in food production across Europe. In Spain, a Silvopasture method called Dehesa was practiced as a form of early woodland food forestry. A Dehesa was a woodland area that was lightly managed through coppicing of tree species to collect firewood as well as cork during appropriate seasonal times. The coppiced wood would also yield mushrooms and the pigs that would graze in the understory of the woodland would yield wild game. European perennial hedges between agricultural fields acted as habitat for many bird species while also catching any soil erosion. All of these sustainable food systems are designed for long-term inhabitance. They steward an environment for all organisms to thrive while yielding food, medicine, clean water, and shelter. The same can be said for most of these cultures as far as their building techniques, medicine, community traditions, etc. The way that all of these cultures lived was appropriate for their climate and allowed them to lead sustainable and resilient lives. The lessons that we can learn and apply to our own communties can be game-changing to empowering our communities, establishing long-term food resiliency, and actively facing the climate crisis.
Permaculture has 12 design principles that act as a framework for the design process.
These design principles guide the design process:
1) Observe and Interact grounds the designer to the present ecological context and allows solutions based on the situation.
2) Catch and Store Energy ensures that the designer collects resources through the system so they can be used.
3) Obtain a Yield ensures that the system is productive and useful.
4) Apply Self-Regulation gives the Permaculture system flexibility to adjust and change when the system requires revision.
5) Use and Value Renewable Resources focuses the designer to use available renewable resources that don’t harm the environment and make them available for others.
6) Produce No Waste ensures that all ‘waste products’ are reused or recycled or composted for further use in other systems.
7) Design from Patterns to Details uses the biomimicry of nature to produce efficient patterns that fractal harmoniously with the landscape.
8) Integrate rather than Segregate reminds the designer to always find ways to integrate elements rather than exclude them, reinforcing nature’s way of ‘producing no waste’.
9) Use Small and Slow Solutions allows the designer to make small changes to a system for greater effect.
10) Use and Value Diversity reminds the designer to increase biodiversity and interactivity as a boon to the system.
11) Use Edges and Value the Marginal is an ecological principles that finds that the most abundance and diversity in natural system is found at the edge of two or more elements (pond edges, forest edge, etc).
12) Creatively Use and Respond to Change ensures that the Permaculture system is adaptable and resilient in the face of changing circumstance.
These principles underly the many techniques and methods through the Permaculture design process.
Perennial Food Systems
Techniques that pervade Permaculture strive towards the same theme of long-term sustainable systems. They yield food, water, shelter, biodiversity, and ecosystem health. Perennial food systems such as fruit and nut tree crops are central to Permaculture food systems. The use of a diversity of plant polycultures create guilds that help to establish symbiotic benefits between plants and fungi. These benefits include building soil, increasing fertility, attracting beneficial insects, and deterring pests. In practice, Permaculture is mimics ecosystems to tap into the regenerative forces of nature.
Plants that yield many functions are favored in these systems as they are layered in what is called a Food Forest. Food Forests are a system similar to the Dehesa model referenced earlier. Food Forests are layered tree systems that mainly include edible perennial plant and fungi species that fill out layers of a forest including ground cover, herbaceous layer, shrub, tree, canopy, etc. In nature, forests take the forces of nature, wind, water, sunlight, and allow these energies to improve biodiversity, fertility, and water replenishment in the soil. Permaculture Designers design ‘food forests’ to be a biological shock absorber to the forces of nature. While food forests produce food and habitat for humans as well as animals, birds, insects, etc, food forests are designed to be resilient to environmental instability (drought, floods, fires, etc).
Insectary gardens are established habitats to host beneficial insects, bees, birds to increase biodiversity. These guilds of beneficials are designed to act as the army against insects that feed on the main stay crops. Besides pest control, they also yield increased cross pollination for greater yields.
If necessary, swales on contour are established on sloped landscapes to catch, guide, and store rainwater in soils. Swales are basically level ditches on contour that run along a landscapes to catch rainwater. Swales are designed to grow tree crops on the berm side of a swale, allowing mountainsides to be hydrated during the rainy season rather than just allowing water to runoff along with soil fertility. Swales are similar to the wet paddy terraces of SE Asia.
Finally, in Permaculture Design, closed loop systems are integral to self-sufficiency. As much as possible, inputs to the system are grown or fed in from the system itself, much like how an ecosystem runs in nature. In other words, water is harvested and used on site (ponds), while also recycled cleaned and reused (through wetlands). Compost ingredients are grown on site (leaves, grass clippings, etc). And building projects are supplied by timber and building materials from the property (adobe, bamboo, timber, etc).
Permaculture is truly a large umbrella term that encompasses many practices of indigenous cultures throughout the world. What these practices all had in common is that they all preserved the ecology and all of their inhabitants. The principles and techniques that arose from them all weaved together with Bill Mollison’s three ethics of earth care, people care, and fair share. Permaculture is an inspired legacy of indigenous land stewardship, biomimicry, and a set of principles that seeks to integrate the abundant self-sustaining nature of our ecologies with human culture.
Thank you for spending this moment with me. I will be talking more about Permaculture and its many disciplines. I'm honored to share with you.
Stay well, Juan Cruz Padilla