That’s a mouthful! In simple terms, Permaculture helps us to design sustainable places to live, to work and to grow, and it stresses positive action and cooperation with the earth.
By emulating nature, we can thoughtfully integrate all of the elements present on our properties while keeping the whole system in mind: soil, landforms, water, people, plants, animals, structures, technologies, and so forth. Permaculture design considers what makes each element thrive, what each element needs, and how each element affects the other elements in the system. Although it can be applied in many ways, our study here will be limited to urban farming applications.
We can begin to wrap our minds around Permaculture and whole systems thinking by studiously observing the world around us. Bill Mollison, originator of the permaculture approach, advises that before applying any particular permaculture design techniques, we should observe our properties for at least a year. Protracted and purposeful observation allows us to thoroughly understand our spaces before placing any permanent features in them, such as trees or hardscapes.
As an example, how does the water cycle function relative to the landforms, climate, structures and so forth on your property? Observing this through all seasons will give you a good idea of how you will need to design your property to capture more of that water and amplify its benefits. When every action is a response to what we are actively observing, our efforts become more effective and fewer mistakes are made.
Following protracted and thoughtful observation, the next step is to act on what we have learned during the observation period. This leads us to the first of 12 Permaculture Principles that will guide us into whole systems thinking. Although a discussion of all twelve of the principles would make for a very long article, you can read about each one at The Permaculture Association. The principles serve both as tools in the design process and as guides for properly placing elements in the systems that we create.
Permaculture is much more than gardening, but in the context of building an urban farm, understanding the importance of placing elements in their proper position will help us to create more beneficial connections and relationships within our farm designs.
But is it realistic?
I believe it is. When we study natural ecosystems, such as forests, we learn that elements in the system supply most of the system’s needs from within. The water cycle, food cycle, soil cycle and other processes keep the ecosystem in good health. This is what we call a closed-loop system. We can mimic closed-loop ecosystems, like the forest, on our urban farms. Though no completely closed systems exist, the goal is to design food-growing systems that are as self-sustaining and regenerative as they can be.
Systems form when individual parts are organized into relationships that serve one or more functions. In isolation, veggie gardens, fruit trees, compost bins, chickens, worms, water harvesting features, bicycles, solar pumps, and so forth, are not regenerative systems. But together, elements like these, when properly designed and integrated, can form a regenerative system. In Permaculture, each element that is added to the system should serve more than one purpose and provide beneficial connections to other elements. This strategy is called stacking functions.
Chickens: Chickens (and other poultry varieties) provide eggs, of course! But they have other functions, too. In the proper environment, they provide weed and pest control, as well as digging services. They also generate meat, feathers, entertainment and manure for fertilizer.
Compost: Useful for converting waste products in to organic matter for the soil, it can also generate warmth to heat homes or barns, and attracts insects and worms that are protein sources for chickens to eat.
Gardens: Besides providing food and flowers for humans, gardens are where many of the elements on an urban farm converge. For example, chickens provide the above-mentioned services to the garden. In return, the garden provides food, respite and the opportunity to fulfill their instinctive industriousness. Additionally, compost nourishes the garden and helps to hold moisture. In return, waste from the garden feeds the compost pile. By combining these three elements, we can create beneficial relationships that close the loops and begin to function as a regenerative system.
By putting 12 Permaculture Principles and the strategy of stacking functions to use, our urban farms can be designed in such a way that most of the expense and hard work is done during the initial set-up process, after which it will function as a regenerative system…meaning less work and greater benefit for US in the long run!
There are, in fact, unlimited ways to incorporate Permaculture into a garden or urban farm. Here are some resources to learn more about it!
Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
The Urban Permie
And, if you are in the Phoenix area, we are excited to present the Permaculture Design Certification Course, coming October 2015!