The best definition I’ve found for permaculture comes from a book called Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.
Permaculture uses a set of of principles and practices to design sustainable human settlements. The word, a contraction of both “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture,” was coined by two Australians.Toby Hemenway
Those two Australians were Bill Mollison and his student, David Holmgren, who expanded Mollison’s scope, taking permaculture beyond a purely agricultural movement to a cultural movement.
The “motto” of permaculture is Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share. It is about building a sustainable culture, not just sustainable landscapes. Without a change in attitude among today’s human beings, our future here is NOT sustainable.
As caretakers of the earth, we need to provide the environment for all life systems, including ourselves, to flourish. This involves stopping future degeneration of ecosystems and rejuvenating damaged ecosystems. As part of the life on this earth, we need to provide for ourselves with the least amount of disturbance to the earth as possible.
We are part of the ecosystem of this earth, so care for us is part of the care of the earth. We need to care for all of humanity, making sure we all can live a healthy existence on this planet.
We need to live in a way where we only take what we need and give away any surplus we may acquire in the process. Part of this involves investing in the future, but in such a way where we aren’t hoarding or taking more than we really need. Then there will be enough to go around for all.
Permaculture Design Principles
There are a lot of permaculture design principles and they are articulated in different ways by many different people. I will touch upon the ones I have learned and assimilated during my education for my PDC (Permaculture Design Certification). I am also going to list them with respect to ecological design, but you may notice how some of these could be applied to societies as well.
To maximize efficiency and use of material inputs, you should consider designing so that each element in your design performs more than one function and preferably more than three. An example of this from my own property was growing a grape arbor over a chicken pen.
- Just by adding cross pieces on top of the pen, using a structure we already had created, we had a grape arbor;
- The now-covered pen protects the chickens from overhead predators like hawks;
- Grape vines are leafed out by the heat of summer, allowing the chickens to experience the warmth of the sun in the spring while providing shade for them in the heat of the summer;
- Any falling grapes become food for the chickens, which also keeps fruit from rotting on the ground. This food source also contributes to reduced feed costs.
Basically, this is a backup plan. If a crop fails, you have a backup crop. I never plant one of any vegetable and I overplant seeds so that if some fail, I always have at least one plant. For instance, one prolific zucchini plant is plenty for us, but I always plant two, because one year my one zucchini plant got diseased and died.
You could also think of this as “companion planting” or “plant guilds.” There is a book called Carrots Love Tomatoes that lists some of these cooperative plantings. A famous one used by Native Americans is called “The Three Sisters.” Corn is planted with pole beans (the beans supply nitrogen, the corn stalk supplies the “pole”) and pumpkins (squash) whose large leaves and meandering growth help suppress weeds. This can be done for perennial plants as well, creating a healthy ecosystem that supports itself. Interplanting plants with different root depths and maturing vegetation also allows you to space plants closer together, minimizing bare, sunny soil where weeds will grow.
Scale of Permanence
This involves planning the placement of plants as they grow into a mature landscape. The landscape will evolve over time and plants that will be a part of a mature landscape are positioned with that in mind. This could include things like the proper spacing of mature trees, filling in the empty spaces between young trees with sun-loving, shorter-lived, or easily transplanted plants. As the trees mature, they will provide more shade and different plants may do better under them.
Thoughtful observation and planning keep you from wasting labor on things that won’t work or will need to be redone. Also, looking to nature and studying how things grow help you see patterns and relationships and how to work within them. An example of this is noticing natural predators and encouraging them to help you with garden pests. For instance, ducks eat slugs. A classic permaculture line is “you don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency problem.”
Choose tools wisely
Consider the environmental impact of the tools and resources you use. Whenever possible, use biological resources in your designs. An example of this is creating a deer-resistant fence by weaving together plants deer don’t like. It is not an immediate solution, but a long-term solution. Until then, you can set up an invisible fishing line between trees or poles that will surprise them and scare them away. Another example is building a chicken wagon and moving your flock around to till new soil for garden beds, etc. I also used to let a couple of chickens mill around my more mature gardens for pest control (they’ll scratch up young plants so this technique won’t work for just-planted gardens).
The Zone System
Your property has zones from zero to five. Structure your property with the zone system and you will save yourself work.
Zone 0: your house
Zone 1: where daily things happen. This zone also requires the most care. This is where you’d plant things you harvest every day, like herbs, tomatoes, peas, etc. You may place your chickens and/or compost in this zone or zone 2.
Zone 2: where less intensive things happen. This is where you would grow longer-term produce that you would harvest and store—like root vegetables, squashes, etc. Smaller fruit and nut bushes live here, too. You might also place smaller livestock in this zone along with their dwellings, or on the edge between zone 1 and 2. Here you could find a greenhouse or a woodshed.
Zone 3: more of a farm zone—your pastures, your larger fruit and nut trees, your larger livestock, and their pens.
Zone 4: a zone of minimal care. It’s where you would forage for native plants. Some of your pastures might exist here. This zone supports grazing animals. And this is where you would collect lumber for firewood.
Zone 5: this is the wilderness zone. You don’t manage this zone, but you still might forage here. Wild animals live in this zone.
As you can see by these zones, this is a bit of a fluid system. What you need to remember is that zone 0 starts where you live, and zone 5 is the edge of where you live. On my 4-acre property, our back yard with its garden, and our front yard and woodshed are zone 1. Further down our driveway is our zone 2—our barn is there. Our chickens, when we had them, were there. Our front garden is there. Beyond that space is our orchard, zone 3. We don’t have grazing animals, but if we did, the orchard would do double duty as a pasture. We consider the wooded area within our stone wall our zone 4. Even though it is close to one side of the house, we don’t frequent it. And the woods beyond the stone wall are zone 5. They are still our property, but I’ve only explored them less than 1/2 dozen times since we’ve been there. There is a stream and lots of fallen trees in this area, along with very many ticks.
Dandelion Forest Permaculture
There is so much more to permaculture if you really dive in. Oh, how I would love to be off-grid, have a composting toilet, catch rainwater, have black and gray water systems that recycle wastewater, have a greenhouse, use black locust wood in place of pressure-treated. But I live with a conventional guy to whom taking things to this level would seem super weird. I’ll take his support of no more toxic lawn products, help with garden construction work, tilling the compost bin, deferring to me when it comes to areas to till, and cutting and stacking our firewood. The rest is up to me, and here are the things I have done and steps you can take to transition to permaculture gardening, which is also called lazy-man gardening because you are working with nature instead of fighting against it.
3-bin composting and composting-in-place
We created a wooden structure that has 3-bins and compost is ready in the 3rd year. This eliminates the issue of adding fresh material while the existing material is brewing. So bin 1 is the tossing bin, where you throw your compost. Bin 2 is the brewing bin, where compost is “cooking.” This is the bin you turn periodically. My husband does it with a tiller (he also tills the tossing bin at the end of the season). You could also do it by hand. Bin 3 is the ready-compost bin, from which we pull our “black gold.” As you can guess, the bins rotate and this year’s brewing bin becomes next year’s ready-compost bin and this year’s ready-compost bin (which we’ve pulled all the soil from to use on our gardens) becomes next year’s tossing bin.
Composting-in-place involves leaving plant material from your garden in your garden. You can even do this with weeds as long as they haven’t gone to seed. (When I had chickens, I would bring them the weeds that had gone to seed.) Composting in place puts nutrients back into the soil. It also can block out future weeds by acting as a mulch. At the end of the season plant material acts as a home for insects that overwinter. Lastly, lazy-man benefit, it cuts down the hauling of plant material to the compost bin and hauling compost and mulch to the garden beds. In the spring I will dig in material that is partially decayed and remove the larger material. That’s when I also add compost from the bins to the garden beds.
I put plants closer together than a traditional garden, combining shallow-root-system plants with deep-root-system plants; taller sun-loving plants with shorter plants that like things cooler (e.g. lettuces, which helps them not to bolt); and intermingling herbs that have natural pest resistance throughout the traditional garden plants. I record what I planted where, and what worked (or didn’t), and I change things up each year, practicing crop rotation. The real goal is to NOT have to move things, but I haven’t figured that out yet, because I still love the traditional garden plants (there are things like perennial kale and walking onions that can take the place of traditional varieties). Another purpose of interplanting is to have more plants I want in the garden and fewer weeds. Mulching helps with this, too. Weeds look for bare soil.
Lots of Vertical Spaces
My gardens are fenced. And beds line the whole fenced perimeter minus the garden gates. Inside of that are a couple of rows of beds. The beds along the perimeter give me lots of places to trellis my vegetables and the ability to move trellis-loving vegetables around in subsequent years. Making use of vertical space gives more room for additional vegetables. You can grow squash on fences and things like pole beans, cucumbers, peas, and more. You can even use fences to tie up tomatoes rather than staking them. Fencing in the garden also keeps most of the critters out.
The Garden is Your Teacher
Whenever anybody asks me gardening advice, I tell them what I’ve detailed in this article. But I end with this comment: “the garden is your ultimate teacher and you learn more every year. I’m still learning!” I don’t even think of myself as having figured things out. But, as my father said to me, once, “you are going to be a lifelong learner.” He was a teacher by profession, and he wasn’t talking about gardening, because at that time I was living at home and hadn’t had my first garden. But he was right. I am a lifelong learner in all things. My permaculture course changed my life and turned a lot of things I thought I knew (and believed in) on their head. The permaculture principle of observation has become my guiding light and I’m excited for all I have still to learn.
Now it’s your turn. Happy gardening and never stop learning!