Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the purposeful design of agricultural systems that mimic natural ecosystems in their diversity, stability, and resilience. One of the aims of permaculture is to create harmonious integration of landscapes and the people who manage them. In response to thoughtful management, the landscape provides abundant food, energy, shelter, and beauty in a sustainable and ethical way. Permaculture was created in the 1970’s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a solution to issues surrounding unsustainable agriculture, economics and social norms.
Three decades later, Mollison and Holmgren’s ideas are even more relevant than ever. Current interest in sustainability, coupled with growing dissatisfaction with the cultural status quo, are driving a groundswell of participation in the Permaculture movement and its ideals. People are beginning to reject the idea that happiness and fulfillment are found through constant consumption and contributing to the materialistic economy, when just the opposite seems to be true. It seems that in our quest to achieve greater economic success, we have lost much of the beauty and mystery of life, and are left to endure the grueling rat race relieved only by moments of joy, awe and rest.
No longer will we collectively quench the desire for a more authentic and fulfilling life. The call is rising for a life based on what we believe and value, rather than fitting into cultural paradigms; a simple life that works toward achieving our dreams; a life that is connected with nature and community; and a lifestyle that is sustainable for both humans and the environment.
But how do we get to this place? Becoming a sustainable society does not mean that we cease to strive for personal fulfillment, financial security, or social harmony. But, perhaps we can begin to meet these pursuits while also promoting a healthy environment and ensuring the ability of future generations to enjoy an equally vital existence.
Solutions for achieving this somewhat idyllic vision can be found in the enduring patterns and principles that we see operating in nature. It starts with giving back to our community more energy and materials than we consume, and creating regenerative designs in which each element supports the health and longevity of the system.
Is this possible? Yes! But how do we humans do this?
The majority of our earth’s organisms give back more resources and provide more services than they consume, which is why natural ecosystems are so sustainable and resilient. Additionally, many ecosystems go way beyond sustainability, overflowing with abundance for all species that call them home. Permaculture provides a structure for observing and mimicking the natural patterns and systems that produce fruitfulness so that we can apply them to our human endeavors. In so doing, we can become contributors to nature and to our community, giving back more than we consume and creating abundance for those within our sphere of influence.
Permaculture is not a panacea that can solve all our problems, but fresh framework for finding solutions. Twelve guiding principles equip Permaculture practitioners to discover solutions, and assist us to see the world with new eyes. These principles include protracted observation, creating systems that maintain themselves, including elements in systems that perform multiple functions, and starting with small and slow solutions. An introduction to the principles, ethics and scope of Permaculture can be found at PermaculturePrinciples.com.
Here are some examples of Permaculture in action:
The typical model for gardening is extremely labor intensive and requires lots of inputs, from fertilizers to pest and disease control. Constant tilling, weed removal, pruning, planting, and harvesting keep the garden under control. But the natural tendency for botanical systems is to go wild! Our neatly trimmed gardens and lawns want to grow into spaces that appear to be out of control, but are actually very productive, self-sustaining systems. Permaculture principles assist us to design and maintain garden spaces that mimic the patterns found in forests, producing high yields with little maintenance.
Edible Perennials: Building Your Personal Food Forest
Permaculture design assists homeowners to view their property in terms of zones that make the landscape inviting and easily maintained. The landscape draws the homeowner to linger and enjoy nature. In effect, outdoor areas can invoke a sense of solace and fulfillment, and provide a ‘getaway’ right in our own space. Connection to our own land and to the people who enjoy the landscape with us can evoke lasting satisfaction that consumption or travel can only temporarily provide.
Use Zone Analysis in Permaculture Landscape Design
Also known as sheet mulching, lasagna gardening is an easy way to create highly productive garden beds with minimal labor or expense. Using onsite resources, healthy soil is created by the natural decomposition of waste products that would otherwise be thrown away. It works by spreading grass clippings, weeds, and vegetable scraps between layers of cardboard, newspaper, straw and compost, and allowing them to break down into compost.
Plant guilds are a method of companion planting that groups plants for their ability to meet the needs of the other plants around them. Guilds function like natural landscapes in their stability and high yields. These systems stand in contrast to monocultures, in which only one type of plant is grown in a space.
One of the oldest and best known guild systems is called the Three Sisters Guild, in which corn, beans and squash are grown together. Corn provides a trellis for climbing beans; the beans add nitrogen to the soil for the heavy-feeding corn; the squash shades the ground, providing living mulch that retains moisture in the soil. Herbs and flowers are often added to the guild to attract pollinators and deter pests.
How to Plant the Three Sisters
Rain gardens catch rainwater and allow it to slowly soak into the ground, where it becomes useful for growing plants. The excess filters down to the water table, restoring aquifers instead of flowing into the sewer. Rain gardens require little effort or expense on the part of the homeowner, passively directing moisture to the soil without the need for barrels, pumps or labor. And they are not only functional, but beautiful, too!
Building a Rain Garden