Permaculture is a creative design process based on whole-systems thinking informed by ethics and design principles based on nature’s strategies. This approach guides us to mimic the patterns and relationships we can find in nature and can be applied to all aspects of human habitation, from agriculture to ecological building, from appropriate technology to education and even economics. Bill Mollison, the Tasmanian son of a fisherman who first coined the term 1978, defined “permaculture” as: “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” In other words, permaculture is a holistic, living-in-harmony-with-nature worldview, as well as technical approach for how to do so.
By adopting the ethics and applying these principles in our daily life we can make the transition from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible producers. This journey builds skills and resilience at home and in our local communities that will help us prepare for an uncertain future with less available energy. The techniques and strategies used to apply these principles vary widely depending on the location, climatic conditions and resources that are available. The methods may differ, but the foundations to this holistic approach remain constant. By learning these principles you can acquire valuable thinking tools that help you become more resilient in an era of change.
Here are five of its more well-known principles to help you understand what permaculture is all about.
Closed Loop Systems
Any system that provides for its own energy needs is inherently sustainable. This concept can be extended beyond things like biofuels and solar power to what permaculturists call “inputs,” like food and fertilizer. For example, rather than importing fertilizer to a farm or garden, the system could be designed to provide for its own fertility needs—perhaps from livestock manure or cover crops. And if you’re raising livestock, you should certainly aspire to provide all the food for your animals from on-site, whether raising grain, forage crops, or recycling kitchen waste as animal feed. Any permaculturist worth their salt would remind you that a successful closed loop system “turns waste into resources” and “problems into solutions.” “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency,” Mollison was fond of saying, which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever seen how gleefully ducks wolf down snails.
Permies aren’t the only ones to recognize that tilling the ground once or twice a year isn’t particularly good for the soil. Which is why they advocate using perennial crops that are planted just once, rather than annual crops which require constant tillage. Agroforestry, the cultivation of edible tree crops and associated understory plants, is emphasized—think shade-grown coffee or cacao plantations in South America. The only problem is that few crops that most of us eat are perennials; but there is no doubt that if we could replace all the monocultures of corn, soy, and wheat in the world with agroforestry systems (while still feeding the world), agriculture which be much more sustainable.
One of the more original ideas of permaculture is that every component of a structure or a landscape should fulfill more than one function. The idea is to create an integrated, self-sufficient system through the strategic design and placement of its components. For example, if you need a fence to contain animals, you might design it so that it also functions as a windbreak, a trellis, and a reflective surface to direct extra heat and light to nearby plants. A rain barrel might be used to raise aquatic food plants and edible fish, in addition to providing water for irrigation. Permies call this “stacking functions.”
Water conservation is a major focus on permaculture farms and gardens, where the earth is often carefully sculpted to direct every last drop of rain toward some useful purpose. This may take the form of terraces on steep land; swales on moderately sloped land (which are broad, shallow ditches intended to capture runoff and cause it to soak into the ground around plantings); or a system of canals and planting berms on low swampy ground. The latter is modeled on the chinampas of the ancient Aztecs, an approach to growing food, fish, and other crops in an integrated system, often heralded by permaculturists as the most productive and sustainable form of agriculture ever devised.
Let Nature Do the Work for You
The permaculture creed is perhaps best captured in the Mollisonian mantras of “working with, rather than against, nature” and of engaging in “protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.” On a practical basis, these ideas are carried out with things like chicken tractors, where the natural scratching and bug-hunting behavior of hens is harnessed to clear an area of pests and weeds in preparation for planting—or simply planting mashua under your locust trees. Locust trees are known for adding nitrogen to the soil, while mashua, a vining, shade tolerant root crop from the Andes, needs a support structure to grow on. Thus, the natural attributes of the locust eliminate the need to bother with fertilizer or building a trellis, while providing shade, serving as a nectar source for bees and looking pretty.