The Basics of Permaculture: Our Story
Where Did It Come From?
The term "permaculture" is a conflation of "permanent" (as in sustainable) and "agriculture" that can also imply permanent culture. It is basically a movement for creating sustainable ecosystems.
The concept was developed in Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s in response to increasing pollution caused by industry and agriculture, loss of plant and animal species and natural resources, and a potentially destructive economic system.
The basic ethics of permaculture are:
- Care for the Earth
- Care for people
- Share resources and use them wisely.
Permaculture promotes organic, chemical-free gardening and livestock production, recycling, buying and selling locally, and the use of renewable energy whenever possible.
Our Patch of Earth
My wife and I, despite being limited by finances (or maybe thanks to that), have developed an increasingly fulfilling and semi-self sufficient lifestyle. We built our own livable shed on 40 acres of paradise and have progressively planted a variety of herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, and flowering plants in that time.
Permaculture requires that everything on a site has multiple uses therefore we have tried growing plants that fulfill that need, such as rosellas (the fruit of which can be made into jam and cordial; we are even experimenting with wine) as well as dried for tea, and can also be eaten as a salad green. The seeds can be sold or saved for the next season's crop. They are drought-tolerant and virtually pest-free. Fibre can be obtained from the stems to turn into rope, etc.
The shed uses gas for the hot water and stove, and solar power for lights, TV, fridge, freezer, stereo, and computer, with a diesel generator for backup. We built a cob oven for outdoor meals (the main ingredient in the construction being a termite nest).
Gardening, chopping wood, and renovating keeps us busy, but we somehow find the time for making jams and cordials from the rosellas and melons, as well as pickles and chili sauces (the world's hottest, and some slightly milder for the faint-hearted).
We have about 14 chickens now, and in the warmer months an abundance of eggs as well as great fertiliser for the garden and the occasional rooster for meat (though this tends to happen infrequently as it is a process neither of us enjoys).
Avoiding the use of any poisons or pesticides, we find that our crops adapt and become more naturally resistant over time. Wise companion planting also helps repel the nasty bugs and attract the beneficial ones.
There is still a long way to go, but we are learning all the time and enjoying the process.
Permaculture is a complex field of study and wasn't just developed overnight. It takes a lot of study and dedication to understand it fully and to be able to put it into practice successfully.
The best idea is to read as much as you can on the subject, and if the opportunity arises, attend one of the many courses or workshops on the subject. These can be on-site, intensive practical trainings that go for a week or more, or you can learn by correspondence or online and work at your own pace.
The course I completed through the Eco School used the book by Bill Mollison (the founder of permaculture) as the main textbook. It is the most comprehensive guide available on the subject and is an invaluable resource. Permaculture: A Designer's Manual
It is difficult to squeeze all the info into the confines of an article, in fact, it's impossible. Even with this short summary, I have written here I am in danger of overloading the reader with too much technical stuff (I just hope it's not too boring). Please note before reading on: I am writing this from a Southern Hemisphere perspective, so for those readers from the Northern Hemisphere, you will have to change North to South and East to West to suit your different global perspective.
Permaculture Design (An Overview)
Permaculture design principles are a set of strategies that enable us to achieve the basic ideals and take care of our own needs without harming the Earth we rely on. It is all about working smarter, not harder.
Multiple uses: It is ideal for most things in a permaculture garden to have more than one use—some may even have three or four. For example, pigeon pea (also known as gandule bean, tropical green pea, kadios, Congo pea, or gungo pea) provides edible seeds for humans and birds, attractive flowers, a shelter for young fruit trees, and fixes nitrogen into the soil. The fallen leaves also rot down to create a nitrogen-rich mulch which we can use to enrich the rest of our garden.
Poultry is usually placed reasonably close to the house, as they lay eggs on an almost daily basis and require a constant supply of food and clean water. A seasonal fruit tree (such as an apricot) would be placed further from the house because it produces its entire crop over a short period of time and requires less frequent watering and maintenance.
How to Landscape and Plan for Permaculture
Zones: By dividing the property/garden into zones based on their proximity to the house, we can reduce effort while receiving maximum returns. The placement of plants, animals, and structures in the zones depends on their yields, functions, and maintenance requirements.
- Zones can be thought of as a series of concentric rings beginning with Zone 0 (the house) and working outwards.
- The kitchen garden containing herbs and vegetables would be in Zone 1 because it is used constantly.
- Zone 2 could house the poultry and possibly an orchard area of grafted, high yielding fruit trees.
- Zone 3 requires less maintenance and would contain hardier, self-propagating plants and trees such as nut forest, large scale orchard, or grain crops.
- Zone 4 would usually contain large animals such as cattle or be used for sustainable timber growth, etc.
- Zone 5 is the conservation zone and wildlife reserve.
Small blocks of land, such as suburban gardens, will probably only have Zone 1, possibly Zone 2. The more land you have, the more zones can be incorporated.
How We Employ Other Tenets of Permaculture
- Sectors: This part of the design principle is concerned with where all external energies (wind, sun, fire, water, and amenities) come from and how they affect us. For instance, it means planting shade trees on the western side of your house to protect it from the hot afternoon sun in summer, or using deciduous trees or vines on the northern side to provide summer shade but allow winter sun.
- Relative Location: this is actually smart placement—putting things in relation to other elements so that they are beneficial to each other. An example could be to place a fruit tree that drops fruit over the chicken coop, or planting strawberries on the lower edge of a paved area, so they benefit from the stored heat and water run-off.
- Elevational Planning: We need to look at our land in profile so we can use the dynamics of elevation to aid our design. Even on a flat site, tall things affect available sunlight, so placing smaller plants to the north and taller plants to the south can ensure a reasonable amount of sunlight for all. On a sloping site, you could place the compost pile above the garden, allowing gravity and rain to leach nutrients down to the veggies.
- Energy Cycling: It is important to recycle our resources before they can escape from our systems. This reduces the amount of resources we need to bring in from outside. After harvesting and eating our food, we can give the food scraps to the chickens or place them in the compost. The poultry will recycle the scraps into manure to fertilize the garden. If the compost heap is above the garden, the nutrients from these scraps will, in turn, feed the vegetables. So the cycle continues.
- Natural Succession: You could call this the evolution of a system. With careful planning and the placement of fast-growing, short-lived plants between slower growing ones, we can ensure short, medium, and long-term yields from our garden.
- Diversity: A wide variety of plants provides interesting food year-round and also offers protection from plant-specific pests. By planting different varieties of a certain plant, we can also ensure a longer yield from that particular fruit or vegetable.
- Homemade Insurance: Try to have more than one way of fulfilling crucial needs such as water storage, food production, and fire protection. With water, for instance, unless you have a permanent stream, you should have both dams and rainwater tanks.
- Biological Resources: By understanding Nature, we can use her gifts wisely and put her to work for us. There are millions of workers ready and willing to help with our gardening, and they'll work for nothing! We just have to provide for their needs.
- Patterns: We can use the patterns created by Nature to influence our designs and weave them together.
- Edge Effects: Be aware that at the edges of any system, the places where two areas meet (e.g., beach or forest edge) are more productive and support more species than either one of the systems they lie between. For example, if you make wavy edges when building a dam (see Mexico's chinampa systems), you'll greatly increase productivity.
- Solutions, Not Problems: If you have a problem, don't sit and mope. Find a way to transform it into something positive. Bill Mollison has a classic saying, "You haven't got a snail problem; you've got a duck deficiency."
Reclaiming Food Freedom!
New laws are being passed everywhere, supposedly for our benefit, which limits our right to healthy, nutritious food, from raw milk bans to hidden GMOs to the criminalisation of seed-saving.
The reality is that our once universal right is being robbed for corporate profit. As the food supply concentrates into fewer hands, not only is our health and food sovereignty at stake, but so is our food security, the health of the environment, and the livelihoods of countless farmers.
We must reclaim our food freedom whilst we still can.
About the Author
John Hansen took a short, hands-on course called Beginning in Permaculture with Carol Payne, and it spurred his interest in the subject.
This was followed by studying permaculture design under Tom Toogood, PDC, BA+Science subjects, DipTerEd, Dip Total(Holistic)Health, and Director of Eco School and Consultancy, Gateshead NSW.
He has successfully completed a Permaculture Design Consultancy Certificate (PDC) and is qualified to design and provide consultation on Permaculture systems, as well as conduct External Certificate Courses on the subject.
Coverty Creek Permaculture Design and Consulting: "Working with Nature, not against it."
If You Enjoyed This, You May Also Like:
- In Search of Self-Sufficiency
A simple guide to help you become more self-sufficient, Earth conscious, and in your attempts to rely less on items produced in today's throw away society.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 John Hansen