Permaculture

Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that is modeled on the relationships found in nature. It is based on the ecology of how things interrelate rather than on the strictly biological concerns that form the foundation of modern agriculture. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs; it's a system of design where each element supports and feeds other elements, ultimately aiming at systems that are virtually self-sustaining and into which humans fit as an integral part.

Permaculture as a systematic method was developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s. The word "permaculture" originally referred to "permanent agriculture", but was expanded to also stand for "permanent culture" as it was seen that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system. Mollison has described permaculture as "a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single project system."

Permaculture draws from several other disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, sustainable development, and applied ecology. "The primary agenda of the movement has been to assist people to become more self reliant through the design and development of productive and sustainable gardens and farms. The design principles which are the conceptual foundation of permaculture were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use."

Early influences

Franklin Hiram King coined the term permanent agriculture in his classic book from 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. In this context, permanent agriculture is understood as agriculture that can be sustained indefinitely.

In 1929, Joseph Russell Smith took up the term as the subtitle for Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, a book in which he summed up his long experience experimenting with fruits and nuts as crops for human food and animal feed. Smith saw the world as an inter-related whole and suggested mixed systems of trees and crops underneath. The definition of permanent agriculture as that which can be sustained indefinitely was supported by Australian P. A. Yeomans in his 1973 book "Water for Every Farm". Yeoman introduced an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940s; and the keyline design as a way of managing the supply and distribution of water in the 1950s.

Stewart Brand's works was an early influence noted by Holmgren. Brand is an advocate of systems thinking and was a major figure in the counterculture movement of the Sixties and Seventies. Systems thinking proposes to view systems in a holistic manner. Other early influences include Ruth Stout and Esther Deans, who pioneered "no-dig gardening methods", and Masanobu Fukuoka[5] who, in the late 1930s in Japan, began advocating no-till orchards, gardens and natural philosophy.

Mollison and Holmgren

In the mid 1970s, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started developing ideas about stable agricultural systems on the southern Australian island state of Tasmania. This was a result of their perception of a rapidly growing usage of industrial-agricultural methods. In their view these methods were poisoning the land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of topsoil from previously fertile landscapes. A design approach called "permaculture" was their response and was first made public with the publication of their book "Permaculture One" in 1978.

By the early 1980s, the concept had broadened from agricultural systems design towards complete, sustainable human habitats. After Permaculture One, Mollison further refined and developed the ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and writing more detailed books, notably "Permaculture: A Designers Manual". Mollison lectured in over 80 countries and taught his two-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC) to many hundreds of students.

By the mid 1980s, many of the students had become successful practitioners and had themselves begun teaching the techniques they had learned. In a short period of time permaculture groups, projects, associations, and institutes were established in over one hundred countries. In 1991 a four-part Television documentary by ABC productions called "The Global Gardener" showed permaculture applied to a range of worldwide situations, bringing the concept to a much broader public.

Core values

At the heart of permaculture design and practice is a fundamental set of core values or ethics which remain constant whatever a person's situation. These ethics are often summarized as;

  • Earthcare: recognising Earth as the source of all life and recognising that mankind is part of Earth, not apart from it.
  • Peoplecare: supporting and helping each other live in ways that harm neither ourselves nor the planet and develop healthy societies.
  • Fairshare : using Earth's limited natural resources in ways that are equitable and wise.

Sustainable designs

Permaculture design emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. It asks the question, “Where does this (element) go? How can it be placed for the maximum benefit of the system? Permaculture draws on the practical application of ecological theory to analyze the characteristics of a farm, garden or home site. Each element of a design is carefully analyzed in terms of its needs, outputs, and properties. Design elements are then assembled in relation to one another so that the products of one element feed the needs of adjacent elements. Synergy (two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable) between design elements is achieved while minimizing waste and the demand for human labor or the input of energy. Exemplary permaculture designs evolve over time, and can become extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.

The key to the permaculture design model is that useful connections are made between components in the final design. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather on the relationships created among them by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture is also about careful and contemplative observation of nature and natural systems, and of recognizing universal patterns and principles, then learning to apply these to one’s own circumstances.

Permaculture is a form of polyculture agriculture. Polyculture is agriculture using multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems, and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture. Perennial plants are often used in permaculture design. As they do not need to be planted every year they require less maintenance and fertilizers. They are especially important in the outer zones and in layered systems.

Design tools

Modern permaculture is a system design tool. It is a way of:

  • looking at a whole system or problem;
  • observing how the parts relate;
  • planning to mend inefficient systems by applying ideas learned from long-term sustainable working systems;
  • seeing connections between key parts.

Holmgren's 12 design principles

The core of permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems interact.

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Patterns

Permaculture design focuses heavily upon natural patterns. All things, even the wind, the waves and the earth moving around the Sun, form patterns. In pattern application, permaculture designers are encouraged to develop an awareness of the patterns that exist in nature (and how these function) and how patterns can be utilized to satisfy the specific design needs of a specific site. "The application of pattern on a design site involves the designer recognizing the shape and potential to fit these patterns or combinations of patterns comfortably onto the landscape".

Edge effect

The edge effect in ecology is the effect of the juxtaposition or placing side by side of contrasting environments on an ecosystem. Permaculturists maintain that, where vastly differing systems meet, there is an intense area of productivity and useful connections. An example of this is the coast; where the land and the sea meet there is a particularly rich area that meets a disproportionate percentage of human and animal needs. So this idea is played out in permacultural designs by using spirals in the herb garden or creating ponds that have wavy undulating shorelines rather than a simple circle or oval (thereby increasing the amount of edge for a given area). Edges between woodland and open areas have been claimed to be the most productive.

Guilds

A guild is any group of species that exploit the same resources, often in related ways. Guilds are groups of plants, animals, insects, etc. that work well together. Some plants may be grown for food production, some to attract beneficial insects, and others to repel harmful insects. When grouped together these plants form a guild.

The end goal is to have a garden that requires little or no ongoing human maintenance or resource inputs. Everything that is added into the system either improves the system or degrades the system. Finding those plants or animals that complement each other, is the first step in designing a useful system. The Three Sisters of maize, squash and beans is a well known example. Guilds can be thought of as an extension of companion planting.

Zones

Zones are a way of organizing design elements in a human environment on the basis of the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. Frequently manipulated or harvested elements of the design are located close to the house in zones 1 and 2. Less frequently used or manipulated elements, and elements that benefit from isolation (such as wild species) are farther away. Zones is about positioning things appropriately. Zones are numbered from 0 to 5.

Zone 0 The house, or home center. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, and generally creating a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live and work.

Zone 1 The zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often, such as salad crops, herb plants, soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, worm compost bin for kitchen waste, and so on. Raised beds are often used in zone 1 in urban areas.

Zone 2 This area is used for siting perennial plants that require less frequent maintenance, such as occasional weed control or pruning, including currant bushes and orchards. This would also be a good place for beehives, larger scale composting bins, and so on.

Zone 3 The area where maincrops are grown, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal (provided mulches and similar things are used), such as watering or weed control maybe once a week.

Zone 4 A semi-wild area. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as timber production.

Zone 5 A wild area. There is no human intervention in zone 5 apart from the observation of natural ecosystems and cycles.

Layers

Layers are one of the tools used to design functional ecosystems that are both sustainable and of direct benefit to man. A mature ecosystem has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects and animals. Because plants grow to different heights, a diverse community of life is able to grow in a relatively small space, as each layer is stacked one on top of another. There are seven recognized layers in permaculture, although some practitioners also include an eighth layer, fungi.

  • The canopy: the tallest trees in the system. Large trees dominate but do not saturate the area, i.e. there exist patches barren of trees.
  • Low tree layer: dwarf fruit trees, citrus trees and other short trees
  • Shrubs: a divers layer that includes most berry bushes
  • Herbaceous: may be annuals, biennials or perennials; most annuals will fit into this layer
  • Rhizosphere: root crops including potatoes and other editable tubers
  • Soil surface: cover crops to retain soil and lessen erosion, along with green manures to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil, especially nitrogen
  • Vertical layer: climbers or vines, such as runner beans and lima beans (vine varieties)

Common design elements

Agroforestry

Agroforestry is an integrated approach of using the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock. It combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable land-use systems. In agroforestry systems, trees or shrubs are intentionally used within agricultural systems, or non-timber forest products are cultured in forest settings. Knowledge, careful selection of species and good management of trees and crops are needed to optimize the production and positive effects within the system and to minimize negative competitive effects. Forest gardening is a variation of agroforestry that is particularly popular with permaculture designers.

Animals

Animals are often incorporated into the site design. Chickens can be used as a method of weed control and also as a producer of eggs, meat and fertilizer. Some types of agroforestry systems combine trees with grazing animals such as cattle and sheep.

Some projects avoid the use of animals. However not all permaculture sites keep animals for meat, eggs or milk. Sometimes animals function as pets or are treated as co-habitats and co-workers of the site, eating foods normally unpalatable to people such as slugs and termites, being an integral part of the pest management by eating some pests, supplying fertilizer through their droppings and controlling some weed species.

Energy

In passive solar building design, windows, walls, and floors are made to collect, store, and distribute solar energy in the form of heat in the winter and reject solar heat in the summer.

Current industrial agricultural systems of food production are not fully renewable. Industrial agriculture uses large amounts of petroleum and natural gas, both to run the equipment, and to supply pesticides and fertilizers. Permaculture is in part an attempt to create a renewable system of food production that relies upon minimal amounts of energy.

Traditional pre-industrial agriculture was labor intensive, industrial agriculture is fossil fuel intensive, and permaculture is design and information intensive and attempts to be petrofree. Partially permaculture is an attempt to work smarter, not harder; and when possible renewable energy designs such as passive solar should be used.

Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. Mollison and Holmgren have both written extensively on the topic, and it is a much discussed concept amongst permaculturists. Applying permaculture principals means using fewer non-renewable sources of energy, and particularly petroleum based forms of energy.

Natural building

A natural building involves a range of building systems and materials that place major emphasis on sustainability. Ways of achieving sustainability through natural building focus on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful or renewable resources, as well as those that, while recycled or salvaged, produce healthy living environments and maintain indoor air quality. Natural building tends to rely on human labor, more than technology.

The basis of natural building is the need to lessen the environmental impact of buildings and other supporting systems, without sacrificing comfort, health or aesthetics. To be more sustainable, natural building uses primarily abundantly available, renewable, reused or recycled materials. In addition to relying on natural building materials, the emphasis on the architectural design is heightened. The orientation of a building, the utilization of local climate and site conditions, the emphasis on natural ventilation through design, fundamentally lessen operational costs and positively impact the environmental. Building compactly and minimizing the ecological footprint is common, as are on-site handling of energy acquisition, on-site water capture, alternate sewage treatment and water reuse.

Rainwater and greywater

Rainwater harvesting is the accumulating and storing of rainwater for reuse before it reaches the aquifer. It has been used to provide drinking water, water for livestock, water for irrigation, as well as other typical uses. Rainwater collected from the roofs of houses and local institutions can make an important contribution to the availability of drinking water. It can supplement the subsoil water level and increase urban greenery. Water collected from the ground, sometimes from areas which are especially prepared for this purpose, is called stormwater harvesting.

Greywater is wastewater generated from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing, which can be recycled on-site for uses such as landscape irrigation and constructed wetlands. This wastewater contains no fecal matter (human feces). Greywater differs from water from the toilets which is designated sewage or blackwater to indicate it contains human waste.

Sheet mulching

In agriculture and gardening, mulch is a protective cover placed over the soil to retain moisture, provide nutrients, suppress weed growth and seed germination, and reduce erosion. Sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural processes occurring within forests, sheet mulching mimics the leaf cover that is found on forest floors. When deployed properly and in combination with other permacultural principles, it can generate healthy, productive and low maintenance ecosystems.

Sheet mulch serves as a "nutrient bank," storing the nutrients contained in organic matter and slowly making these nutrients available to plants. It also improves the soil by attracting and feeding earthworms, and adding humus. Earthworms "till" the soil, and their worm castings are among the best fertilizers and soil conditioners. Sheet mulching can be used to reduce or eliminate undesirable plants as placing a sufficient level of mulch over unwanted plants will destroy them, and may be more advantageous than using herbicide or other methods of control.

Trademark and copyright claims

There has been contention over who if anyone controls the legal rights to the word "Permaculture", meaning is it trademarked or copyrighted, and if so, who holds the legal rights to the use of the word. For a long time Bill Mollison claimed to have copyrighted the word permaculture, and his books reflected that on the copyright page, saying "The contents of this book and the word PERMACULTURE are copyright." These statements were largely accepted at face-value within the permaculture community. However, copyright law does not protect names, ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something; it only protects the expression or the description of an idea, not the idea itself. Eventually Mollison acknowledged that he was mistaken and that no copyright protection existed for the word "permaculture".

Mollison explained that the word "permaculture" was copyrighted to protect the quality of teaching, particularly with relation to the Permaculture Design Course (PDC), a 72 hour course usually taught over a period of 14 days. The PDC is a formal means of training an individual the ideas and techniques associated with permaculture. Mollison's argument was if the word was copyrighted, then only those who had been trained and shown to have a reasonable level of proficiency would be allowed to teach the PDC. However, some of those who taught the PDC wanted to adjust the curriculum to better reflect the local conditions of where it was being taught. For example, should a course taught in an urban setting such as New York City be unchanged from what is taught in rural Australia? Mollison was adamant that the curriculum should be taught as he had designed it, without being altered.

In 2000 Mollison's US based Permaculture Institute sought a service mark (a form of trademark) for the word permaculture when used in educational services such as conducting classes, seminars, or workshops. The service mark would have allowed Mollison and his two Permaculture Institutes (one in the US and one in Australia) to set enforceable guidelines as to how permaculture could be taught and who could teach it, particularly with relation to the PDC. The service mark failed and was abandoned in 2001. Also in 2001 Mollison applied for trademarks in Australia for the terms "Permaculture Design Course" and "Permaculture Design". These applications where both withdrawn in 2003. In 2009 he sought a trademark for "Permaculture a Designers' Manual" and "Introduction to Permaculture", the names of two of his books. These applications where withdrawn in 2011. There has never been a trademark for the word Permaculture in Australia.

Criticisms

John Robin has been one the strongest critics of permaculture, criticizing it for its potential to spread environmental weeds, reflecting a divide between native plant advocates and permaculture. Another criticism of permaculture is to be found in a book review of Hemenway's Gaia's Garden, published in the Whole Earth Review. In it, Williams critiques the view that woods are more highly productive than farmland on the basis of the theory of ecological succession which states that net productivity declines as ecosystems mature. He also criticized the lack of scientifically tested data and questions whether permaculture is applicable to more than a small number of dedicated people. Hemenway's response in the same magazine disputes Williams's claim on productivity as focusing on climax rather than on maturing forests, citing data from ecologist Robert Whittaker's book Communities and Ecosystems. Hemenway is also critical of Williams's characterisation of permaculture as simply forest gardening.


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