What is Permaculture?
If you look up the definition to permaculture, you are bound to find a myriad of definitions from the last 50 years. In the simplest terms, permaculture is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. What began as a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture” has since bloomed into a philosophy-led conscious design practice that focuses on working with, not against, nature.
Permaculture was formed to address issues in our current food systems – mainly waste – and to return our food system to a more holistic and natural approach. It is believed that all elements in the food system should work in favor of one another. The waste from one element can be input for another! This practice strives to close the loop in agriculture, creating a self-sustaining harmonious system.
“Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.
It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”Bill Mollison, founder of Permaculture together with David Holmgren
What makes permaculture unique is its emphasis on strategic design. In an ideal set up, there are 5 zones, with each zone requiring less input and time than the previous one. Though commonly depicted in a ring format, the placement of each zone is flexible, and real life applications tend to be more clustered. Remember, the key is to work with the land, not against it!
Not every self-sustaining food system can be considered permaculture. At the heart of the movement are core principles that guide the holistic system.
The Three Ethics
Despite its broad definition, permaculture is guided by three foundational ethics:
- Earthcare – care for the earth. This principle focuses on environmental stewardship. It recognizes the mutualistic relationship in which a healthy planet is essential to our survival and that we have a responsibility in caring for the health of the earth.
- Peoplecare – care for the people. This principle is concerned with all people having their needs met by having equal access to resources (such as food and a clean environment). In order to care for the earth, we must also care for the people on it.
- Fairshare – share abundance. This two-part principle ensures that we do not take more than we need and redistribute the surplus. There is an emphasis on setting limitations and boundaries in order to avoid exploiting others or the planet. The other emphasis is on returning surplus back into the cycle, instead of wasting it. This cradle-to-cradle approach reduces the need for external inputs, thus creating a self-sustaining loop. An example of this is using waste from one plant to create compost for another or recycling rainwater.
Origins of Permaculture
Modern permaculture was founded by Australian biologist Bill Mollison and environmental designer David Holmgren. It was during field work that Mollison saw the potential for a controlled food system that lived in harmony like the ecosystems he observed. The pair spend years developing the foundation as we know it today. Mollison went on to establish the Permaculture Design Course, which is still available for anyone who wants to learn the art of permanent agriculture!
Though the term “permaculture” has only existed since the 1970s, we can find examples from earlier in human history. Native Americans developed the Three Sisters technique, which is an example of early permaculture farming. The three sisters method focused on strategically planting corn, beans, and squash together in such a way that one plant could benefit from the other. The beans would provide nitrogen to the soil, the corn stalk provided structure for the beans to wrap around, and the squash would protect the soil and suppress weeds. This intercropping technique capitalized on the mutualistic relationship between plants to enhance their success. In addition to being practical and resourceful, the planting technique also holds cultural significance for tribes.
Benefits of Permaculture
By adhering to the three ethics of permaculture, people, the planet, and the community can benefit!
- Agricultural Autonomy – growing some of our own food allows us to independently sustain our needs. This alone has many benefits, such as controlling what chemicals go (or don’t go) into your food and catering crops to our liking!
- Enriched Community – that’s right, along with newfound independence, permaculture also enriches the local community. This goes back to the Peoplecare and Fairshare principles.
- Good for the planet – by mimicking natural ecosystems and working with nature, permaculture has minimal negative impacts for the environment its in. Most commercial agricultural practices, like monocropping, can cause damage to soil and use harmful chemicals that run off into surround ecosystems.
- Fresher food – like any small-scale local farming practice, permaculture allows for easy access to freshly grown produce! This means the food is tastier and more dense in nutrients when you eat it!
- Less Inputs – let’s be honest, no farming is easy work, but with permaculture there is slightly less work. This is possible because of the closed-loop system that allows for waste from one thing to be used as input for another. One example of this is manure used to fertilizer plants, and then those plants are used to feed the livestock.
Permaculture in Our Community
This practice is not limited to rural areas with large plots of land. In fact, we have our own example of permaculture in an urban setting here in Northern Virginia! In 2013 George Mason University built the Innovation Food Forest, which utilizes permaculture design. According to their website, the food forest, “serves as a living lab for academic and research endeavors, it also inspires and engages community members, sparking their interest in becoming citizens invested in their immediate environment and the world”. Students can volunteer to maintain the garden or stop by to harvest!
How to Practice Permaculture in Your Home Garden
Now that you know how incredible permaculture can be, are you ready to give it a try? For those of us who don’t have a green thumb, the idea of starting our own food forest may seem far-fetched. But, there are small ways to integrate the practice into your life! Don’t worry, you don’t need acres of land to reap the benefits of it! In fact, it began as a backyard garden between Mollison and Holmgren!
Perhaps the easiest way to begin is using a similar practice to the Three Sisters technique. If corn, beans, and squash are not high on your list for backyard crops, there are plenty of other plants with mutualistic relationships that you can use! Looking for ideas? Check out this blog on companion planting! When designing your garden, be sure to ask yourself some questions.
- Does this serve more than one function?
- Does it improve efficiency?
- Is it functional and practical?
- Does it make use of another resource or benefit from something else?
When in doubt, turn to the 12 Principles of Permaculture:
- Observe and interact
- Catch and store energy
- Obtain a yield
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
- Use and valuable renewable resouces and services
- Produce no waste
- Design from patterns to details
- Integrate rather than segregate
- Use small and slow solutions
- Use and value diversity
- Use edges and value the marginal
- Creatively use and respond to change
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail and try again!