Permaculture is an approach to land management that creates high-yielding, low-energy, self-perpetuating systems by which the functions of animals, plants, humans, and Earth are integrated to maximize their value and create sustainable human habitats. Permaculture brings together disciplines relating to food, shelter, energy, water, waste management , economics, and social sciences. It aims to maximize a site's productivity, while maintaining ecosystems and restoring damaged land to a healthy, life-promoting state. Bill Mollison has written five books on this topic: Introduction to Permaculture, Permaculture: A Designer's Manual ; Permaculture One ; Permaculture Two; and Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future. Several permaculture organizations and model projects exist around the world.
The term was first coined in 1972 by Bill Mollison of Tasmania, Australia , by merging the terms, "permanent" and "agriculture." Although originally developed for small subsistence farms, the practice has expanded to apply to gardens and urban settings. Some consider it a lifestyle as much as a design approach.
Permaculture principles focus on designs for small-scale intensive systems that are labor-efficient and use biological resources instead of fossil fuels . These designs stress ecological connections and closed energy and material loops. The core of permaculture is integrating working relationships and connections between all things. Each component in a system performs multiple functions, and each function is supported by many elements. Key to efficient permaculture design is observing and replicating natural ecosystems. Designers maximize diversity with polycultures, stress efficient energy planning for houses and settlements, and use and accelerate natural plant succession . The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with rather than against nature , looking at systems in all of their functions, and using systems for multiple purposes. It is a method of agriculture that aims to endure without constant human inputs and does not deplete the land.
According to Mollison, permaculture has several distinct characteristics. It makes the most of small landscapes, using intensive practices. Ideally, nothing is wasted, and everything is arranged so that the least amount of effort is exerted and the highest yield from the systems is gained. Systems are designed that use and complement the natural systems that are present. For example, storm water is controlled with planted swales (marshy depressions), not concrete drains. The design harvests the natural flows of energy through the landscape (such as sunlight, rain, and plant and animal behaviors). Diversity is promoted in plant species , varieties, yield, microclimate , and habitat . Permaculture maintains that, in a monoculture , a single species cannot make full use of all of the available energy and nutrients. Wild or seldom-selected animal and plant species are used. Each element performs many functions in the system. For example, a fruit tree provides not only a crop, but also wind shelter, a trellis, soil conditioning, and shade and roosting for birds. The long-term evolution of the land is recognized, and those changes are incorporated in planning. All activities involving the land—agriculture, animal husbandry, extant forest management , animal cropping, and landform engineering—are integrated. Difficult landscapes (rocky, marshy, marginal, or steep) not typically suited to other systems are utilized. Permaculture involves long-term and evolving landuse planning, using diverse flora and fauna in various ways at different times, recognizing that different species use different nutrients and resources.
Permaculture systems typically feature: passive energy systems and minimal external energy needs; on site climate control; planned future developments; on-site provision for food self-sufficiency; safe on-site disposal of wastes; lowmaintenance structures and grounds; assured and conserved water supply; and control and direction of fire, cold, excess heat, and wind factors.
Permaculture originated as a strategy for designing systems for "permanent" or perennial agriculture, by creating agroforestry systems using tree crops, shrubs, vines and, herbaceous plants in highly productive symbiotic assemblages. The practice was originally oriented to subsistence farms in Tasmania, which typically were small and on poor land. It was then extended to include other landscapes, urban settings, and climates worldwide, and has even been applied to other systems such as houses and factories.
Permaculture as a Life Philosophy
Some consider permaculture a life philosophy. In this context, permaculture emphasizes putting oneself into a symbiotic relationship with Earth and one's community. Permaculture is oriented to place, with reliance on native plants and a close awareness of the ecosystem . It revolves around self-reliance, growing food and building attractive energy-efficient structures from local materials. Designing a permaculture landscape begins with assessing a site's native features (such as soil structure, microclimates, cycles of decay, and existing flora and fauna), in order to take advantage of existing resources. This assessment also helps in selecting and adapting technologies to the site. These technologies might include methods of composting , gardening, irrigating, or generating electricity. Multifunctional living systems abound in a typical permaculture design.
Examples of Permaculture Practices and Approaches
Animals are raised for their value as producers of food, skins, and manure, and as pollinators, heat sources, gas producers, earth tillers, and pest controller. For example, rabbits raised in a rabbit hutch are fed kitchen scraps. Their droppings fall into worm bins (vermiculture) as fodder for worms, and the resulting worm castings are used to fertilize gardens. In the winter, the rabbits are harvested for their meat and fur. As another example, movable chicken hutch can be used to place chickens in gardens where they effectively till and fertilize the soil.
Particular varieties of trees are chosen for their fuel, forage, material (for fences, structures and shelters), heat reflector and windbreak values, as well as for crop diversification. When they are young, the trees may act as hedgerows, then grow to serve as a fuel source. Plants provide many services for other plants. They act as trellises, for other screen and shade them, provide nutrients, cross-fertilize them (as happens with varieties of plums and nuts), help to repel pests, prevent erosion , and provide spare parts (grafts) for other plants. Fruit trees and vines are planted strategically around a house to provide shade. In a home's front yard, attractive gardens feature high-yielding food, medicinal and culinary plants where they are easily accessed. Some crops are planted for their self-propagating patterns, such as leeks, onions, potatoes, and garlic.
Water harvesting is an essential function in a permaculture landscape, and is supported by as many components as possible. Filtration of water for animals may be provided with shells and water plants. Water pathways are traced, and systems are created for collecting it. Swales may direct rain water and run-off to fruit trees. Run-off water from culverts may be directed to ponds where water plants and fish are raised, and where it can be used for irrigation and firefighting. Water can be collected from roofs. Composting toilets and septic systems with planted leaching beds can be employed.
Insects and crops are used to aerate the soil. Mulching, growing green crops, composting, and strategic planting are employed to build soil health. Permaculture grows forests and shrubs to protect the soil, and uses plows that do not turn the soil. Food crops, such as corn and legumes, are chosen for their low-maintenance qualities and their ability to fix nitrogen in the soil.
Permaculture emphasizes reactive homes, sheltered from cold winds with windbreak planting. Such homes are oriented on an east-west axis facing the sun, usually with a greenhouse, and are well-sealed. They should use few resources not found on site. Shelters can be built into the earth, with living turf roofs. Sometimes, living trees and plants are used to create shelters.
Permaculture offers an environmental design practice for making better use of resources in a variety of growing settings. What started as a method for cultivating desert land has grown into a system that integrates living systems, fostering greater consciousness of ecosystems and helping to ensure economic and ecological sustainability for its practitioners. Contact: Permaculture Resources, 56 Farmersville Rd., Califon, N.J. 07830; phone: 800-832-6285.
[Carol Steinfeld ]
Barnes, L. "The Permaculture Connections." In Southeastern Permaculture Network News.
Mollison, B. Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, Permaculture One and Permaculture Two. Australia: Tagari, 1979.