Permaculture is a word you’ve probably heard, coined by Bill Mollison as a combination of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’, as follows:
Permanent: from the Latin permanens – to remain to the end, to persist perpetually.
Culture: from the Latin cultura – the cultivation of land or intellect; the body of habits, beliefs, and activities of human societies.
Permaculture isn’t just a gardening technique; it’s an approach to sustainable design that is based on harmonious relationships between humans, plants, animals, and the Earth. It involves the cultivation of resilient systems that affect all areas of human society, including agricultural, intellectual, traditional, scientific, architectural, financial, and legal. When it comes to food systems, it is the conscious design and maintenance of productive agricultural systems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.
The principles and practices for designing sustainable human settlements are founded on working relationships between all people living things, expressed in three core ethics: 1) Care for the Earth, 2) Care for the People, and 3) Fair Share (Return of Surplus to Earth and People). They form the foundation for permaculture design and are also found in most traditional societies.
David Holmgren’s 12 Principles of Permaculture:
- Observe and Interact – By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
- Catch and Store Energy – By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need. “Make hay while the sun shines.”
- Obtain a Yield – Ensure truly useful rewards as part of the working you are doing. “You can’t work on an empty stomach.”
- Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback – Discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. Negative feedback is often slow to emerge. “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation.”
- Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce consumptive behavior and dependence on nonrenewable resources. “Let nature take its course”
- Produce No Waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste. “Waste not, want not.”
- Design From Patterns to Details – By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go. “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” “Look at the big picture.”
- Integrate Rather Than Segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other. “Many hands make light work”
- Use Small and Slow Solutions – Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” and “Slow and steady wins the race.”
- Use and Value Diversity – Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides. As they say, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
- Use Edges and Value the Marginal – The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system. “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.”
- Respond Creatively to Change – We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time. “Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.”
David Holmgren is well known as the co-originator of the permaculture concept, along with Bill Mollison, following the publication of Permaculture One in 1978. His passion about the philosophical and conceptual foundations for sustainability are highlighted in his book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
Permaculture is rooted in the integration of all biological processes and applies primarily to tangible systems: plants, soils, water, domesticated animals, wildlife, wilderness regeneration, biotechnology, agriculture, forestry, and architecture. The aim is a sustainable and harmonious integration of landscape and people that provides food, energy, shelter, and meets other tangible and intangible needs. By utilizing renewable resources and recycling waste, we can meet our basic needs and leave the Earth richer than we found it.
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”
~ Bill Mollison
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” Bill Mollison
Permaculture isn’t a garden or a technique, it’s the voluntary holistic management of our lives and how we impact our surroundings. It’s working smarter not harder. Permaculture takes many elements and combines them for efficiency and production with one caveat; it must produce without exploiting any system. It must return to the system, be it gardening, home building or anything else, the same amount of healthy energy that was taken.
The applications and benefits of permaculture are endless. Even just growing a small amount of your own healthy food, or contributing to a community garden, can make a significant impact on your quality of life and the world around you. Some people are more motivated by the money they save by producing their own electricity or needing less energy or water. Others are more inspired by saving the environment and providing habitat for beneficial insects, animals, and microbial soil life. Whether you’re into urban gardening, homesteading, or nomadic traveling and foraging, you can apply the principles of permaculture and enjoy the many benefits.
At the Costa Rica Fruit Festival, one of many applications we’re excited to share with you is food forestry, the cultivation of trees within a mixed agricultural system, including fruits, nuts, spices, hardwoods, nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees and shrubs, mineral accumulators, ground covers, and many other plants. Rather than planting a monoculture, which depletes soil nutrients and relies heavily on external inputs, our aim is to mimic a natural forest ecosystem of plants working together in a symbiotic union, which increases microbial activity and builds soil fertility. This approach not only increases the quantity, quality, and diversity of yields, reduces dependency on fertilizers, it also reduces unwanted “weeds” (as all soil space is being utilized) and minimizes “pests” by attracting beneficial insects (such as pollinators and larger insects that eat the bugs that eat plants). Once a fruit forest is well established, which can take just a couple years, it can provide many benefits for humans and other creatures with little to no maintenance.
The typical seven layers of a food forest include: 1) canopy trees, 2) understory trees, 3) shrubs, 4) herbs, 5) roots, 6) ground cover, and 7) climbers (vines). One might consider the 8th and most critical layer, the mycelial or fungal layer, along with aquatic or wetland layers in such systems.
Chop and Drop
Most conventional farms, and even large scale organic farms, are growing their fruit in poor quality, mineral deficient soil, and relying on fertilizers produced off-site. The “chop and drop” method involves chopping the branches and leaf matter from the nearby leguminous plants you and dropping around the base of your fruit trees and other plants. As this added biomass decomposes, you are literally creating fertile soil.
Another great way to pile organic matter for building soil is in the form of swales on even contours. These are not only great for planting in, they also catch, distribute, and store water. The idea here is to slow the water down and create places for it to sink in. Ponds are another way to do this. Hugelkultur is a method of building swales with decomposing logs at the core. By saturating the soil you can actually increase the water table and create an environment for plants to thrive with little to no irrigation or watering.
Because forest gardens include plants on all layers, they utilize more vertical space than single-crop gardens and can thereby produce far more food than standard gardens. Further, organic fertilizers and organic pesticides can be produced on site, and the garden will eventually thrive on just rainwater. Increasing yields and decreasing costs both contribute to greater productivity and profitability. Considering all the financial, social, and ecological benefits of permaculture, it’s truly a win-win-win.
For the last several decades, permaculture has mostly been about regenerative landscape care. The technologies developed and rediscovered in this endeavor will prove to be as important to our century as electricity and plastic was to the last. Dwellings built with permaculture principles allow you to be comfortable inside them, without an air conditioner or heater (or with very small ones) while the house collects rainwater, produces oxygen, and grows food, even on the roof.
While all these technical solutions are essential to our survival, to create a peaceful and prosperous future as a species, we also have a lot of non-technical challenges to solve, such as: how to engage in trade without exploiting ecosystems and other people, how to make decisions more equitably, how to heal from the centuries of brutal colonialism, economic disparity, and industrial diseases, how to transfer actual wisdom to our children, rather than government and media propaganda, and how to restore honor to nature-based cultures.
The good news is that permaculture ethics and design strategies can be applied to all of these challenges. This is the realm of what many practitioners regard as invisible structures; the intangible elements necessary for a system to function well. These include how we exchange goods and services, how we transfer knowledge, how we make decisions as groups, and how we take care of ourselves and others. The permaculture movement has long acknowledged the importance of these invisible structures, which are addressed in any comprehensive curriculum.
If there’s one single modality that can save the world, and the ecosystems that humans depend on, it’s permaculture. With it, we can restore the ancient food forests that have become deserts over the past 10,000 years of conventional agriculture. Whether it’s starting a personal garden, joining a tool-sharing coop, or supporting any business that utilizes permaculture systems, we can all find ways to co-create solutions for living in greater harmony with nature. By working in this way together, we can better care for ourselves, our communities, and all of life.