So What’s Permaculture?
by Penny Livingston-Stark
Is it possible to create more abundance in our lives, develop an intimate relationship with the natural world and, at the same time, address our ecological crisis? Does “permaculture” offer a key?
Permaculture is a practical set of ecological design principles and methods for human settlements which can be applied to the urban, suburban and watershed scale. Permaculture principles provide a way of thinking that enables people to establish highly productive environments that provide for food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs. These principals are rooted in careful observations of natural patterns and can be applied to all climates and a wide variety of cultures from indigenous to technological.
Bill Mollison from Tasmania and David Holmgren from Australia developed the concept of permaculture in the 1970′s. As there was no term at the time for sustainable culture they coined the term “permaculture” to articulate the notion of “permanent agriculture”. It evolved into the notion of “permanent culture” as culture and agriculture reflect each other. In other words, how do we as a human species sustain ourselves, provide for our needs and the needs of the environment for an indefinite period of time? Permaculture was first taught as an applied design system by Mollison in 1981. Permaculturists design agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the stability, diversity, and resilience of natural ecosystems.
The permaculture designer gradually discerns optimal methods for integrating water catchment, human shelter and energy systems with tree crops, edible and useful perennials, self-seeding annuals, domestic and wild animals and aquaculture.
The excess or waste products from plants, animals and human activities are used as nutrients to benefit other elements in the system. Plantings are arranged in patterns that can catch water, filter toxins, absorb nutrients and sunlight and block the wind. Particular associations of trees, perennial vines, shrubs and ground covers known to nourish and protect one another, are clustered together. Ponds and other elements are constructed in patterns which maximize their edges to take advantages of the increased biological activity at the intersection of two ecosystems.
The implementation of a design requires proper sequencing and flexibility so that changes can be made as observation and experience bring new understanding. Creating a permaculture environment is a gradual and long-range process. Permaculturists also use “quick-start” techniques like covering weedy or compacted areas with a “sheet compost” – laying on newspapers, cardboard and straw, watering thoroughly, then making little planting holes in the mulch, inserting soil and seedlings and letting the worms, bugs, fungus, micro-organisms and roots do the rest.
(After dead turf was removed the area was sheet mulched. You can see the layer of cardboard covered with a thick layer of mulch.)
Permaculture adopts techniques and principles from disciplines and traditions, old and new, such as indigenous land use and food systems, natural building materials like earth, straw, stone and bamboo as well as renewable energy systems.
Permaculture is based on the following three ethical principles:
- Care of the earth- In essence this means we preserve or rehabilitate ecosystem functions. All life depends on these functions including human systems. By protecting and repairing these functions we make the care for people easier. In fact, if we don’t have healthy ecosystems we can’t care for people adequately.
- Care of the people- Once we have healthy ecosystems we can more easily care for the human population.
- Sharing the surplus- This can mean sharing within the human community such that if one person has a surplus of one type of food they can provide that or trade with someone else who needs that food. In essence, this builds community making it easier to be resilient and productive. It can also mean sharing with other species to help maintain ecosystem function. For example, we put mulch and compost on the soil to return nutrients to the soil food web. This makes the soil healthier, more resilient to stress like drought, and makes growing food easier.
Some Key Permaculture Principles
Observation – One must have a clear understanding of their immediate environment and the surrounding bio-region to create appropriate designs. Micro-climates (warmth, sun, moisture etc.) and other unique features of an area can be discovered and used to enhance the design.
Native Plants – Since native plants are bested adapted to and integrated within the local ecology, they are preferred over exotic plants. However, carefully selected “exotic” plants can and should be used for particular purposes such as food production when there are no equivalent native species.
Perennial Plants – Where possible, perennial plants are favoured over annuals as they can become long term members of an urban plant community and generally require less labour and resources than annuals. In addition to the many species of fruit, berries, nuts, and herbs that do well in Edmonton, there are also numerous perennial greens that can be harvested throughout the growing season to be eaten in salads, soups, stews etc.. Annual vegetables and herbs, however, also have an important place in an urban permaculture system.
Relationships – Plants in a permaculture design are carefully selected and situated for the relationships they will have with other plants and other elements in the system. Diverse plants with diverse relationships are desired. These relationships will create a “synergistic” effect, creating a thriving ecological community.
Elements – All elements of a permaculture design will have multiple functions. For example, a selected tree may provide shade for a sitting area, berries for food, habitat for birds, screening of an undesirable view, and may build the soil by fixing nitrogen, thereby supporting the plants grown around it.
Functions – All functions are supported by multiple elements. For example, food will come from many plants, not just one or two. Many different plants will be used to attract a variety of pollinators and other beneficial insects. Water will be harvested and retained in a variety of ways, thereby reducing demand on city water and ensuring that the system will continue to thrive during times of drought.
Zones – As a tool for site analysis and planning, permaculture considers every system to be comprised of five “zones”. In brief, “Zone 1” is closest to the house and includes those elements that are needed most on a day to day basis (i.e. kitchen herbs and vegetables) . Zones progress away from the house to less intensively cultivated or harvested elements all the way to Zone 5” which is “wildland” left for birds and other local wildlife.
Resource Use – Permaculture systems strive to use as few external “inputs” as possible and to produce as little “waste” as possible. Natural resources such as sunlight and water are absorbed and maintained within the system as long s possible. Composting and mulching are used extensively to maintain and increase soil fertility. When outside “inputs” are required, they are preferably sourced as locally as possible and are ideally “waste” from the surrounding environment.
Stacking – Plants incorporated into a permaculture landscape are “stacked” both in space and in time. Plants will be chosen to occupy the following 7 layers; below ground (i.e root crops), ground cover, herbaceous plants, shrubs, small trees, tall trees, and vines. Similarly, thought should be given into the long term development of the landscape over time, ensuring that the system will be thriving many years from now.
Home-Scale Examples of Permaculture
Permaculture is just as relevant and useful for the city-dweller as it for a small farmer or alternative community. Some very basic examples of how permaculture principles and design can be used in the urban setting include:
Water Harvesting – Collecting run-off water from roofs, redirecting it to trees, shrubs and beds, and storing it in rain barrels for later use is an easy, economical and highly beneficial practice. Water can be further retained within the home landscape by using mulches, close plantings and by ensuring a high level of organic matter in the soil.
Perennial Plants for Food – Most urban dwellers equate growing food with a square vegetable patch in the back corner of the yard. Nothing could be further from the truth! There are abundant possibilities for growing a tremendous amount of food-producing perennial plants in cities. Fruits, berries, nuts, perennial herbs and perennial greens can all be included in an urban permaculture landscape.
Composting and Mulching – There is no substitute for home grown compost! Intensive composting allows for the recycling of resources within one’s permaculture system and contributes greatly to soil fertility, structure and long term sustainability. Specialized composting techniques such as “sheet mulching” can facilitate the generation of larger amounts of compost within the growing beds themselves. Regular surface mulching also contributes organic matter to the soil, retains moisture, inhibits weed growth and reduces soil erosion and soil compaction.
Use of Microclimates – City dwellers are blessed with numerous microclimates within their own yards. South facing walls, for example, can provide an excellent location for heat loving plants like grapes, tomatoes, or peppers and can also be good locations for extending the growing season. Lettuce and other greens, for example, sown in a passive cold frame on the south side of a house can produce a harvest in late March or early April and as late in the season as the end of November or early December. Microclimates can also be created by such techniques as mounding up soil for an herb spiral which will have both hot and cool, wet and dry microclimates as well as creating additional surface area in the same amount of space.
Plant Selections and Placement – While the post card picture of suburbia includes a large lush lawn with 3-4 shrubs, 2 trees and a couple of flower beds, urbanites are discovering that their own yards provides them with enough space to incorporate many diverse plant species. In the permaculture design approach, all of these plants will have a particular purpose and will be placed in careful relationship with other plants.
A “nitrogen-fixing” caraganna hedge, for example, might be placed on the north side of a yard to provide a windbreak for the home, some privacy and a “heat trap” for tomatoes placed on its south side. The tomatoes will benefit from the nitrogen provided by the carragana and will also enjoy higher rates of pollination thanks to the number of bees that are attracted to the carragana flowers. The carragana hedge can in turn be cut (at least once per season as it is a very fast grower) to provide material for the compost pile. There are countless other inter-relationships like this that can be designed into an urban permaculture system.
Forest Gardens – Mature forests occupy all available space with lush growth. “Forest gardens” model themselves after natural forest eco-systems but focus on plants that provide food, medicines and other resources. Urban yards can also take advantage of the possibilities of using vertical space to make up for what they lack in horizontal space. All 7 layers (root, ground cover, herb layer, shrubs, mall trees, large trees, vines) can be occupied by plants that offer not only beauty but food, medicine, or other benefits as well. When appropriately designed for a particular bio-region, forest gardens provide an abundance of food in a way that is self-perpetuating, self-fertilizing, self-mulching, self-watering, self-pollinating and highly resistant to disease.