What is Permaculture?

The word ‘Permaculture’ is derived from a combination of ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ to signify living in a sustainable manner while conducting human activities, especially around food production. The term was coined by two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, to describe human settlements, agriculture, behavior patterns, and cultures based on natural ecosystems. They worked for decades to evolve an agricultural system that views human land activities through a much more holistic lens than the more specialized, resource-depleting “green-revolution” system that now dominates so much of the planet. The principles of permaculture are now applied to a wide variety of land-use contexts, such as the proper siting of buildings.

Utilizing permaculture principles helps to reconnect people with the land that sustains them, empowering ordinary individuals with the tools and information, and perhaps most importantly, the networking of community needed to reduce the impact of each individual’s “ecological footprint” on the planet. The permaculturist becomes sensitized to the natural forces at work in a garden and looks for patterns and solutions that flow with the seasons and indigenous soil, flora and fauna. As Heather Coburn puts it in Food Not Lawns: Peace Through Permaculture:

“Permaculture, the design system developed by Bill Mollison and others in the early 1970’s, is a way for people who have forgotten their instincts to move toward the peace on earth that is our birthright and our destiny. Permaculture combines practical, systematic design, ancient instinctual practices, and good ol’ common sense, toward more sustainable, ecologically thriving human settlements.”

The basis of Permaculture is cooperation, and it involves increasing the thinking we do about our surroundings and decreasing the actions we take that disrupt natural systems.

The Permaculture ethic is all about earth care, people care and fair shares. According to longtime horticulturist Jude Hobbs of Oregon:

“The fair shares part of the permaculture ethic brings earth care and people care together. We only have one earth, and we have to share it – with each other, with other living things, and with future generations. This means limiting our consumption, especially of natural resources, and working for everyone to have access to the fundamental needs of life – clean water, clean air, food, shelter, meaningful employment, and social contact. Permaculture does not provide prescriptive solutions to the problems facing the world – nobody is going to demand that you put an herb spiral in the bottom left corner of your garden, or wear only hand-knitted recycled non-bleached organic fair trade clothes. It is about allowing you the freedom to observe your surroundings, and make decisions that will work for you, in your situation, using the resources you have.”

Industrial societies can become so entrenched in the old paradigm of profligate resource use that our collective trance and disconnect from the natural world may seem an impossibly enormous juggernaut to overcome. However, many thousands of individuals and communities are turning to more sustainable methods and discovering their associated benefits in the process. There is a revolution underway that has no need or use for guns or massive amounts of money. Our hearts and human connections are enough for cooperation to take place. As Bill Mollison says:

“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. Yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.”

The next time you take a bite of food, try, as the eminent Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn suggests, to do so mindfully, paying close attention to not only the flavor, the texture and temperature of the food, but also bearing in mind the beings that made it possible for this food to reach your table. If you don’t have any idea what was involved, ask questions, do some investigation, and find out. This can be quite eye opening. You may find yourself planting an apple tree or visiting (hopefully by bike or by foot!) the farmer’s market when you discover how many gallons of fossil fuel it takes to transport your New Zealand apple to your local supermarket. You could say it’s revolutionary…or you could say it’s just common sense.

Permaculture Design and NGO’s by Richard Zook,
Written in 2005 for Gravis (Jodhpur, India) Non-Government Organization

Permaculture Design

Permaculture is a design system to create regenerative, sustainable systems. Envisioned over 25 years ago by Bill Mollison and Dan Holmgren, from Australia, it has now spread to over 120 countries. Though its conception was as a land based system, its effectiveness has moved it into urban settings and to being applied in various social, political, and economic environments Permaculture was created through the synthesis of many design systems, with the emphasis on nature as the penultimate one. Similarly, the insights and value of traditional and indigenous practices and knowledge are acknowledged along with the necessity of melding these with our current understandings and the appropriate technologies of today’s world. What Permaculture seeks to do is to create three dimensional designs that are site specific and sustainable. By bringing together elements(orchard, water system, farmer, cow, etc.), techniques(organic farming, natural building, etc.) and strategies (microclimate, relative placement, etc.) a system is designed or altered based on regenerative relationships. It is these regenerative, beneficial relationships that give a system complexity, three dimensionality, and thus, resiliency. The world can be looked at as the convergence of many different flows. From ‘natural'(wind, water, soil, etc.) to human (social, resources, transportation, etc.) to invisible(economic, information, etc.) these interact and create patterns. These flows form our world. Recognizing this Permaculture teaches Pattern Literacy and Pattern Application. This, along with Sector Analysis(site specific flow mapping), Zonation (a tool for structuring time) and other techniques and tools, is how Permaculture focuses on creating regenerative relationships that are the key to resilient, sustainable systems. From its inception Permaculture quickly spread to over One hundred and twenty countries where farms and other sites are successfully applying its’ ideas, techniques and strategies. As further testament to its applicability Permaculture is now being applied in many urban and suburban areas. In many developed countries these applications hold much promise for dealing with the many issues associated with mass populations. Permaculture in the last few years has been moving into the invisible structures. In the United States a Permaculture credit union has been formed and ‘green’ investment firms are using Permaculture principles and ideas to create resilient, sustainable investment systems. Environmentalists and social activists are using Permaculture to give depth and complexity to their approaches to many issues we are dealing with today. These applications are possible because Permaculture is a design system that focuses on relationship and not so much on object. So if the system involves water, a field, and a farmer, or a disease, a vector, and a population Permaculture is a multi-faceted, in depth design system that will help us create appropriate, site specific designs that are both sustainable and regenerative.

Permaculture and NGO’S

Permaculture principles are a list of attitudes, approaches, and actions that are practical and not system specific. These along with certain tools and techniques allow for a holistic approach and interaction with any type of system. As a tool of analysis it is an excellent way to look at existing programs, strategies, and interventions to assess their interactions, linkages, and success’. It is a way to reach an understanding of the various influences and flows involved in a system, be it an SHG, village, or organization. Second, it provides insights and principles by which to intervene or interact with a system. As there is neither a truly independent system, nor sterile ‘environment’ this aspect is of significant importance. Thirdly, as we have already stated, Permaculture is an excellent approach for designing resilient, site specific systems, be it disaster preparedness, HIV/AIDS, or women’s empowerment. It is important to understand that Permaculture is not so much about giving you new and improved ideas, techniques, and strategies, though there is some of that. What Permaculture does is allow for a deeper understanding of the situation at hand and, with its principles and strategies, a more holistic, effective way to interact with or design a system. Much of what NGO’s are doing today have various levels of success. What Permaculture offers are skills and principles by which we build our awareness of why or why not something was successful. Through this insight we can build on what is successful and modify others to become more successful. Stepping up another level, Permaculture is an excellent way to weave together the different parts of an organization so that a unity and synergy can be created. In this way unforeseen benefits and ease will raise within the system.

Permaculture and Gravis

Gravis is an established and successful NGO, so how might Permaculture help them? It would be in several ways similar to what has been written in the ‘Permaculture and NGO’s’ section . First it would provide skills and knowledge by which to see and understand the impacts of various programs currently in affect. Gravis has built or improved many of the traditional water harvesting and storage structures. This has led to improved economic status for the poor and an increase in educational opportunities for their children. Gravis is aware of these associated benefits, however, is there knowledge, awareness, or a language by which the reasons for the success’ can be moved or applied to other programs, say HIV/AIDS or SHG’s? Permaculture offers a deeper insight as to why success or shortcomings happen, and a language and system by which the reasons for success can be applied to an infinite range of other ‘systems’. In addition, Permaculture provides an understanding as to how other programs or strategies can be coupled with Gravis’ water security improvements, thus expanding on that success. With the organization itself, Permaculture can be used to design new supportive and beneficial relationships between various parts of its workings. It would be a way to see if links could be created amongst the various programs and if strategies could be stacked to bring depth and affiance to a new level. And, perhaps most significantly, it is an excellent design system by which to create new interventions, programs and systems to address all the issue’s Gravis has chosen to work with. In this way it can increase the level of success(expected and unexpected), while lowering the risk of unforeseen consequences that are detrimental.

Permaculture and Relationship

The opportunities that Permaculture offers are not limited to those inside an organization or system. Permaculture is about relationship, within and without any system. Everything has smaller systems within it and is part of a greater system. What Permaculture espouses is working and building beneficial, regenerative relationships on all levels possible. With this in mind, there is great benefit to developing these types of relationships with other NGO’s and organizations. For Gravis this might mean correspondence and exchanges with an organization working with the same or related issues. This would be particularly true if that organization was likewise using Permaculture as a tool for better integration and creation of its programs and intervention strategies. In this way both organizations could learn from each other and gain insight on how to better apply its limited resources. Permaculture is both an umbrella that further unites various aspects and programs of an organization and a weave that strengthens and reinforces resiliency in a multi-level fashion, both from within and from without.

The Urban Permaculture Homestead by Jude Hobbs:
Reprinted with permission from the author

Have you ever wondered how you could design your property to maximize efficiency and sustainability? Whether you live on large acreage or a city lot, permaculture is a type of science systematically offering practical, creative and positive techniques for incorporating sustainability into all aspects of ones’ life—from water harvesting, to gardening, to supporting local business.

The concept of permaculture started in the early 1970’s with a grassroots movement born in Tasmania Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. By observing patterns in nature they developed a strategy to create systems for a permanent agriculture and culture.

Permaculture is defined as whole-systems method of design that offers ways we can create a more permanent culture by conscious, sustainable use of resources in all aspects of living. It considers the “big picture” through thoughtful integration of water, land, plants, people, animals, shelter, technologies, and community. The goal is to design small-scale energy efficient rural and urban homesteads.

In 1990 Bill Mollison wrote Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future (Island Press). In this in-depth manual describing techniques to actualize Permaculture, Bill Mollison states, “Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit all life forms.” A follow up book and an easier read is An Introduction to Permaculture by Mollison and Reny Slay. In each book the principles and elements are clearly defined. Understanding these principles will act as a guide to the, sometimes, overwhelming nature of the design process.

By reading the land, observing and recording what is existing (site analysis) and what you want to include (needs assessment) you can start to prioritize what to do when and where. Permaculture turns problems into solutions, constraints into resources, and arranges as many functions as possible in every element of the landscape.

The first step is very simple—observing through the four seasons climatic conditions of rain, sun, wind, and frost patterns. During torrential rains how does the water flow on the land. What is the potential for swales, ponds or roof catchment systems? Once you are very familiar with your site you can sort out solutions and implement accordingly, as time and money allows.

Permaculture Techniques On Your Site

Holding water on the land, for as long as possible, is one of the most important principles in Permaculture. Soil and trees are wonderful sponges for holding water as are rain catchment such as, ponds, swales, tanks, and barrels. For example, one of my favorite ways to store rainwater that is intercepted off my roof, is with wine barrels. Since we are in wine country the oak barrels come available when they are no longer useful to the wineries. From off our house roof gutter, I direct the downspout into the barrel, put a tap on the barrel side bottom and an overflow on the side top. Water is easily accessible for use and when the barrel is full, the overflow goes into a swale or into the storm water system.

Many cities are now changing their policies for rain run-off and are researching water collection through swales, ponds, and wetland filtration systems. They are supporting the use of rain catchment to lesson the costs of storm water disposal, even offering credit for storm water mitigation.

A small lined pond is also a multi-functional urban resource. Ponds can provide irrigation, water for animals, aquatic crops, fire control, light reflection, livestock barriers, habitat for waterfowl, and a place for quiet reflection. Keeping sustainability in mind, incorporating as many functions for a single element is the key to successful design.

Is the sun beating down on your house all summer? The planting of deciduous trees on the southwest side will block the summer sun and allow light for winter. Do you notice strong winds that impede plant growth or add to chilling house temperatures—windbreaks can funnel air up and outward. These hedgerows or windbreaks are another way to create a diverse multifunctional guild by planting trees, shrubs, ground covers, vines and/or herbs. These planting strips along property lines, between fields, and/or along riparian zones can conserve water, lesson erosion, provide additional income, and furnish habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. Noticing frost pockets gives you early warning what not to plant where.

Permaculture is accessing each part of the landscape whether it be conditions you can “control” or outside influences like fire and floods. Permaculture not only considers the land but also the house (Zone 0). If you are building a structure consider solar orientation, using recycled materials or constructing with local material such as cob or straw bale. In your existing house is it well insulated? Is appropriate technology part of your operational system? Are you using environmentally safe products? Do you precycle/recycle? Do you buy bulk foods and support your local organic farmers through Community Supported Agriculture or farmers markets? Think of the many other ways to bring sustainability into your home.

Within a permaculture system relative location is essential for sustainability through efficiency and is defined in terms of zones I-V. It seems there is never enough time to do everything that needs to get done. If we locate the most often visited areas closest to the house (Zone I) then we will have walked less steps and saved more time.

You might consider an attached greenhouse on the south side of your home with vines (Kiwis or grapes) covering it to offer summer shade. Whether you live in the country or an urban setting providing some edibles by the house saves time and can provide year round beauty. For instance, planting the salad and herb garden near your kitchen door provides salad for dinner and also culinary herbs to season the soup. The kitchen garden is considered an element. Within this element, design in as many functions as possible. In the herb garden you might wish to have some chives, parsley, coriander, oregano, thyme, and/or other plants that taste good and attract beneficial insects. You could also include fragrant flowers; a bench for resting and/or a birdbath made from an old tree stump and a recycled garbage can lid.

Here are a few other examples of edible landscaping near our house. I have a fig tree in a protected spot in amongst some larger trees, at the base are perennial flowers and herbs. The blueberries, with strawberries below, are planted along the edge of the vegetable garden and are a transition into another perennial flower and herb garden. In this area is a thriving “Frost” peach and “Italian Prune” plum tree. I have found in my partly shaded large yard blueberries, thimbleberries, lingonberries, strawberries, honeyberry, an apple tree, Rhododendrons, sword fern, hardy fuchsia, and camas grow well even under my huge black walnut tree. Mini-dwarf fruit trees are tucked in throughout the yard as are many bird attracting plants. As we go further from the house into Zone II a larger vegetable garden may be located, as well as small domestic animals, some dwarf fruit trees, out buildings, and small ponds. A greenhouse could also be placed in this area.

The other day I took a walk around a friend’s garden where he had built a small green house using recycled wood for the main structure, metal for the roof and straw insulation from the neighbors field. To maintain heat he included large black 55-gallon drums filled with water on the north wall. This structure kept his chili pepper collection frost-free all winter.

The idea of including chickens or rabbits in the urban homestead seems to be catching on. Having manure for the garden and protein for us increases one’s self-reliance. I started raising rabbits when our young daughter was begging for a dog. We decided we wanted a quieter less demanding pet so we visited a friend who had rabbits. Gabrielle immediately fell in love with the soft furry critters and forgot all about the dog. Now, fourteen years later I still include rabbits as part of our permaculture system.

Zone III will be the place for the commercial farm crops, forage foods, larger orchard area, nursery plants, and windbreaks. In Zone IV are the forest and pasture areas managed for wildcrafting and fuel needs. Woven into each zone could be plants for wildlife, soil conditioning, windbreaks and water storage. There are often overlaps within each zone. Zone V is the uncultivated wild sanctuary area.

Within sustainable practices biological resources are used when available to balance energy in and out of the system to conserve resources. Well thought out management in the beginning stages will yield as a long term investment. Some ways of achieving this are using animal manures, leaves and other plant debris for mulch and compost, trees for fuel, maintaining piles of prunings for wildlife habitat, planting nitrogen fixing cover crops and plants, utilizing chicken or pig “tractors” for scratching, fertilizing and digging up the ground for insects and roots, and Indian Runner ducks who are voracious slug eaters.

The area between one microclimate and another is defined as an edge. It is a well-utilized principle in permaculture that encourages diversity and stability. If one thinks about what grows at a forest edge or along a stream we observe a wide variety of insect, animal and plant life.

Those of us who live in sub/urban areas can encourage the planting of fruit and nut trees in city parks and general tree planting wherever possible. Also, community gardens, bicycle paths, mass transit, and the decentralization of shopping centers are important in urban development. Become involved with city planning and encourage new housing to face south and include appropriate technology.

Apartment dwellers can use balconies and window sills for growing herbs and salad greens. There are many exciting ways to become involved in the passage into self-reliant ways. An excellent resource for sub/urbanites is Toby Hemenway’s, Gaia’s Garden A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.

In permaculture the economic, political and social elements are also considered, as well as community networking. Cooperating with neighbors, bartering for goods and labor, supporting local businesses, being involved with political activism are some ways to affirm sustainability. The ethical basis of permaculture rests upon care of the earth, care for each other and distributing surplus goods, knowledge and time. Every permaculture site is unique, as unique as its inhabitants. There will be a wide range of style and techniques that can be utilized in every environmental condition and within any culture.

Bill Mollison is often quoted, “If you set out to solve the worlds’ problems, at some stage you will become a gardener. If you set out to become a gardener, at some stage you will see that you are working to solve the world’s problems.”

Jude Hobbs is a horticulturist, permaculture designer and instructor, who has provided environmental design solutions for urban and rural settings since 1982. The author of A Guide to Multi-Functional Hedgerows, Jude tends a forest garden in Eugene, Oregon and has taught permaculture workshops and courses throughout the West for15 years. hobbsj@efn.org