What is Permaculture?
Formalized in the late 1970s in Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture combines sustainable agriculture, landscape design, and ecology (the name is drawn from the terms permanent agriculture and permanent culture). It is an approach that encourages the home gardener to work with nature rather than against it to design a garden that thrives with minimal intervention.
Permaculture has much in common with organic gardening, but it is a different approach. Natural ecosystems are the model, so plants are placed in mutually beneficial plant communities. There is an emphasis on perennial plants over annual ones, and permaculture gardeners grow many crops at the same time in the same location. There are ongoing recycling and re-use projects throughout the garden, such as water harvesting. And permaculture does not advocate plowing and digging the soil, but rather building it up over time with no-till methods.
In addition to the practical aspects of this system, it is important to realize that permaculture is more than just a way to grow plants. It’s an ethical approach to growing food that reconnects us to our farming traditions. Although it’s a newer system, it’s based on cultural traditions that have been supplanted by industrial agriculture and fast food. It can be said that permaculture is a ten-thousand-year-old, cutting-edge technology that teaches us to grow crops in a sustainable way. The beauty of permaculture is that it embraces both traditional pre-industrial agriculture and influences from other cultures. It returns us to the model of small-scale growing, when resources were shared in the community, and the garden itself is part of the larger ecosystem.
Permaculture is built on a foundation of three ethical principles: caring for the planet (earth care), caring for others (people care), and sharing abundance (fair share). These community-based principles reflect the values of many traditional cultures that look out for the interests of everyone in the group, as well as the interests of the overall community and of the planet itself.
One way in which permaculture differs from other methods of gardening is that it is not just a set of practical techniques; it is a way of thinking and of adapting to a particular ecology. Each garden, each family, and each community is different, so permaculture relies on observation and local knowledge. That’s why, in addition to the underlying concepts of earth care, people care, and fair share, permaculture is built around twelve guiding principles. Whether you are starting a new garden, or introducing permaculture practices to an existing garden, these principles will help you to understand the design process.
1. Observe and interact; 2. Catch and store energy; 3. Obtain a yield; 4. Apply self-regulation and respond to feedback; 5. Use renewable resources; 6. Produce no waste; 7. Design from pattern to details; 8. Integrate rather than segregate; 9. Use small and slow solutions; 10. Use and value diversity; 11. Use the edges; 12. Creatively use and respond to change.
— excerpts from The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem by Christopher Shein with Julie Thompson