“Though the problems of the world are increasingly more complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple…” – Bill Mollison, co-founder of the permaculture movement
What is permaculture?
The term “permaculture” (a conjunction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture”) was coined by an Australian ecologist named Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren in 1978. The theory of permaculture explains that by observing and applying lessons from nature, we can design new systems with the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems, thus meeting human needs while healing damaged ecosystems at the same time. Permaculture is about viewing problems as opportunities for solutions. It is a whole systems framework based on elements within a system interacting harmoniously with each other.
According to Graham Bell, author of The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-Sustaining World:
“Nature does not waste. It is a complete system in which each element produced by one part of the process is indisputably needed elsewhere as a resource…Each plant, animal, bird and micro-organism is placed within the natural system at a point where its needs can be met and its wastes supply someone else’s needs” (22).
As Graham implies, humans would benefit by mimicking nature’s efficient, symbiotic system. By consciously designing so that each thing is in the right place, humans can stop working too hard to produce more than we need in the first place. Permaculture is about working with nature instead of fighting against it and subsequently reaping the most benefit at the lowest cost. It is a way of thinking – a name for an ancient process of conserving resources and living in a sensible, constructive way.
For a clear example of the theory of permaculture, consider the relationship between a bird and a tree. A bird benefits from the tree by eating its fruit, enjoying its shade and breathing the oxygen it emits. A tree, meanwhile, benefits as the bird eats harmful insects and emits carbon dioxide necessary for photosynthesis. By designing a system that encourages the bird and the tree to interact, everyone is better off at no added cost. This concept can be expanded to much grander systems. We can apply permaculture theory to solve many of the world’s problems by merely placing the right things in the right places and letting them interrelate.
- Integration and interaction: all of the elements within a system should interact with each other. By putting the right things in the right place, elements will develop mutually supportive relationships.
- Multi-functionality: every element in a system should fulfill multiple functions, and every function should be performed by multiple elements. This increases efficiency and reduces vulnerability.
- Practical and efficient energy use: collecting resources at peak abundance and storing them for times of need; aiming to have no waste
- Use of natural and renewable resources: reducing our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources
- Designs based on patterns: stepping back to observe patterns in nature and society and using these patterns to form the backbones of design, filling in details as you go
- Utilizing and shaping natural processes and cycles: observing carefully and intervening at the right time
- Supporting and using edge effects: realizing that the interfaces between things are often the most interesting, valuable and productive parts of a system
- Intensive, slow systems in a small area: small and slow systems are easier to maintain, make better use of local resources, and produce more sustainable outcomes.
- Diversity instead of monoculture: diversity reduces vulnerability and takes advantage of the unique nature of your specific environment.
How can you apply permaculture in your life?
You can apply permaculture principles in every area of your life, from your individual home and garden to your community and beyond.
“‘Think globally, act locally’ means that the best place to start any sustainable approach to life is at home” (Bell, 83).
- Reduce energy consumption: basic actions to increase energy efficiency fall within the theory of permaculture. Turn off lights when you’re not using them, close windows and doors to prevent heat loss, and buy energy efficient light bulbs.
- Buy second hand furniture and other items. Many of them are good quality, and this way they’ll be recycled!
- Try to use as much of waste products as possible. Compost organic materials such as vegetable waste to create high-quality fertilizer:
Sepp Holzer’s directions for an unconventional and easy-to-maintain compost heap:
Position two raised beds parallel to each other, close enough that you can just walk between them. Build the beds at as steep an angle as possible (60-70 degrees). Leave organic waste between the two beds each day. Each time you add organic waste, cover it with a layer of earth, straw, leaves, or similar material. Once the pile is about 60% of the height of the raised beds, cover it with soil and plant vigorous vegetables like pumpkins, cucumbers or turnips. Start at the furthest end of the bed and keep going until it is full. The following year, once the compost is rotted down, you can place it on the two beds on either side of the pile and begin again. This method allows you to compost, breed earthworms, and grow vegetables all within a very small space. By placing it between the raised beds, the compost will retain heat and be protected from drying out. The plants on the raised beds should do well with partial shade, because that is the optimal condition for decomposition and the creation of high quality manure.
- Consider using a wood stove for heating and cooking. Though wood burning does release greenhouse gas and is not necessarily the most efficient fuel, wood is renewable. By growing plants and trees, we can hopefully contribute to the input/output cycle. The most important thing about a stove is knowing how to run it efficiently. An enclosed stove, freely viewed from the largest possible floor area will most efficiently heat a living space.
- Plan your plot according to zones: permaculture uses the concept of “zones” based on the idea that things you do most often should be closest to home. Zone 0 is the home itself, while zone 1 contains those plants and areas that you tend most frequently and should therefore be closest to your house, like your immediate garden. Zone 4 typically requires the least amount of attention, and zone 5 represents the wilderness. This concept of zoning requires the least amount of energy and ensures that plants get the care they need.
- Build a Greenhouse: greenhouses are a great way to preserve energy and extend the growing season. They are most beneficial when placed directly beside your home, because they increase solar gain and provide a garden within “zone 0.”
- Use your home as a garden: sprout seeds on the window sill, grow plants on your roof, or have climbing food plants on your external walls that reduce heat loss from your building and provide food in zone 0.
- Use fences and boundaries: Fences provide a wonderful permaculture opportunity. They’re great for climbing squashes, peas, beans, fruit vines and more.
- Arrange your garden so that plants are in environments in which they will thrive (honor whether plants prefer sun, shade, moisture…etc.)
- Use raked up leaves as mulch. The famous alternative farmer and author Sepp Holzer provides a great example of mulching as permaculture. He says: “In nature this works in exactly the same way. In autumn the trees shed their leaves and they collect on the ground like a blanket…I am convinced that this protective effect of nature is intentional and important…the biomass remains where it has fallen and turns into valuable humus there, exactly where it is needed” (173). Using leaves as mulch is a great way to apply natural processes, recycle organic materials that would otherwise be wasted, and add nutrients to soil.
- Create a Rain Garden! Rain Gardens are a great example of permaculture. They serve multiple purposes: absorbing storm water runoff, recycling water within your property, providing habitat for pest-controlling insects, looking beautiful, and contributing to your whole, closed system. For more information on rain gardens and RainWise rebates in Seattle, see: http://villagegreenpn.com/2012/11/14/rain-garden-facts-and-resources/
- Hugelkultur: Hugelkultur (which from German translates to “hill-culture”) is an excellent permaculture technique of using fallen logs and branches to create an irrigation-free plant bed. It mimics a natural woodland, in which woody debris soaks up rainfall and releases it slowly into surrounding soil, providing moisture for plants. Hugelkultur applies these natural principles, recycling woody debris and using it to build soil fertility and retain moisture on site.
Hugelkultur is a great option for areas that are usually problematic for gardeners. Because it improves drainage and soil fertility and retains moisture, negating the need for irrigation, hugelkultur is ideal for urban lots.
Here is a great set of instructions for building a hugelkultur garden bed, written by Melissa Miles at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia (http://permaculturenews.org/2010/08/03/the-art-and-science-of-making-a-hugelkultur-bed-transforming-woody-debris-into-a-garden-resource/):
“Creating a hugelkultur garden bed is a relatively simple process:
1. Select an area with approximately these dimensions: 6 feet by 3 feet
2. Gather materials for the project:
- Fallen logs, branches, twigs, fallen leaves (the “underutilized” biomass from the site). Avoid using cedar, walnut or other tree species deemed allelopathic.
- Nitrogen rich material (manure or kitchen waste work well and will help to maintain a proper carbon to nitrogen ratio in the decomposing mass within the hugelkultur bed).
- Top soil (enough to cover the other layers of the bed with a depth of 1 – 2”) and some mulching material (straw works well).
3. Lay the logs (the largest of the biomass debris) down as the first layer of the hugelkultur bed. Next, add a layer of branches, then a layer of small sticks and twigs. Hugelkultur beds work best when they are roughly 3 feet high (though this method is forgiving, and there is no fixed rule as to the size of the bed. That is where the “art” comes in!)
4. Water these layers well
5. Begin filling in spaces between the logs, twigs and branches with leaf litter and manure of kitchen scraps.
6. Finally, top off the bed with 1 – 2” of top soil and a layer of mulch.
The hugelkultur bed will benefit from “curing” a bit, so it is best to prepare the bed several months prior to planting time (prepare the bed in the fall for a spring planting, for example, in temperate northern climates), but hugelkultur beds can be planted immediately. Plant seeds or transplants into the hugelkultur bed as you would any other garden bed. Happy hugelkulturing!”
Here’s a link to a great video about hugelkultur entitled: “Hugelkultur: the ultimate raised garden beds”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sso4UWObxXg
Applying Permaculture when building a home:
- Use local, natural materials like wood, stone, wax, water-based paints and natural fabrics.
- Live close to work, recreation and water, food and fuel sources to reduce energy needed for traveling.
- Make homes and buildings accessible to public transit, bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers and walking paths.
- Use local, small-scale, quality water systems, such as rain catchment and recycling.
- Consider sanitation systems that use as little water as possible, for example, flushing toilets with water that’s been used for hand washing.
- Pay attention to sun and shade and design your house accordingly. For example, build shaded porches over sunny entrances to keep a house cool during the summer, and place rooms where you spend the most time (kitchen and living room) where they will have natural sunlight.
- Consider risks of fire when designing your home. Since fire runs uphill with wind, protect your downhill, windward sides with fire-resistant foliage, a pond, or a tree-free belt around your house.
- Understand the behavior of wind in your location. Build windbreaks to prevent wind-chill and reduce heat loss and thus energy needed to compensate for it.
- Insulate the whole “envelope” of your house, meaning all the external walls and under floors, to minimize draught. Finally, take advantage of solar heat, and use warm materials that don’t lose as much radiant heat.
Applying Permaculture in your Community:
Permaculture is based on every element working together for the good of the whole system. This includes people within a community.
- Buy local! Buying locally-made products at locally-owned businesses keeps money within your community, which benefits everyone – including you. It also discourages the pollution involved in shipping products over far distances.
- Use community banks and credit unions. This allows for reinvestment within your own community, thus aligning with permaculture’s closed-system framework.
- Take public transportation, carpool, bike or walk instead of driving.
The American Society of Permaculture: http://www.permacultureusa.us/
“The Art and Science of Making a Hugelkultur Bed – Transforming Woody Debris into a Garden Resource” by Melissa Miles, The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, August 3, 2010 http://permaculturenews.org/2010/08/03/the-art-and-science-of-making-a-hugelkultur-bed-transforming-woody-debris-into-a-garden-resource/
“A Beginner’s Guide to Permaculture Gardening” from The Ecologist: http://www.theecologist.org/green_green_living/gardening/451581/a_beginners_guide_to_permaculture_gardening.html
Lisa DePiano, certified Permaculture designer/teacher and co-founder of the Montview Neighborhood Farm: http://lisadepiano.org/about/
The Permaculture Institute: http://www.permaculture.org/nm/index.php/site/index/
Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening, by Sepp Holzer, a world-renowned alternative farmer
The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-Sustaining World by Graham Bell
This post was written by Risa Waldoks, “wwoofer” at the Village Green, November 2012