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Permaculture – what’s that?

PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:53 28 March 2014

It's the nature of ducks to eat slugs, converting  the protein into eggs.

It's the nature of ducks to eat slugs, converting the protein into eggs.

Richard Bambrey presents an  introduction and overview of a system that works with nature

This was more or less my reaction when I first heard the term ‘permaculture’. I’d just finished telling an acquaintance of my desire to plant a woodland of mixed native hardwood and fruit trees. My vision was to have a woodland that was productive in many ways, fruit to eat, coppiced wood for crafts or firewood and standard trees to enrich the landscape. The response I received wasn’t one of surprise (as maybe I’d hoped) at what I thought was a new and radical idea, but rather one of familiarity, as if my vision was nothing out of the ordinary. My acquaintance just said: “Oh, I didn’t know you were into permaculture.” I was the one taken by surprise, for I’d never even heard the term before then. Yet it was the discovery that my vision was also shared by others which inspired me to look more closely into the principles and underlying philosophies of permaculture.

So what is permaculture?

The short answer is that it’s a design stratagem, the application of which will yield sustainable systems. These systems may be agricultural, as was the original application, or the techniques of permaculture may be applied to other social systems with equal efficacy. However, I’m going to consider mainly the land-based aspects and use appropriate examples.

It’s worth noting that although our culture has grown many diverse branches, it always has been and always will be, rooted in a stable agriculture. If agriculture fails, civilisation falls! That is why a permanent/sustainable agriculture is of paramount importance.

The fundamental tenet of permaculture is that it works with, rather than against, the grain of nature. Observing and imitating the patterns and pathways found in natural ecosystems produces more robust and sustainable agricultural systems. Thus, permaculture is the design and implementation of ecologically-based (and therefore ecologically sound) systems which ultimately fulfil some human need, while minimising their impact on the rest of the biosphere, because of their integration and alignment with it.

To show how all this cashes out in our daily life, I will need to place permaculture in its historical perspective and expand what I have said above with practical examples.

Where did it come from?

Permaculture was conceived and developed in the 1970s by co-workers Bill Mollinson and David Holmgren in Australia. Originally, the term was a contraction of  ‘permanent agriculture’, for that is what it was – the design and implementation of permanent (sustainable) agricultural systems. Systems designed in this way would tend to have closed energy cycles, being modelled on natural ecosystems, with minimal primary inputs such as chemical fertilisers.

They should also have a high degree of inter-linkage: ‘waste’ outputs from one part of the system are used as inputs for another part of the designed system. The ideal is a closed cycle, where outputs become inputs, requiring no primary inputs and producing no waste products. This won’t be found in simple, single output systems, and this is why permaculture design tends to produce multi-layered and highly interlinked systems, similar to natural ecosystems. 

It’s also useful to recognise the historical soil in which permaculture germinated. It was a decade since Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring with its dire, and subsequently validated, warnings about the threat DDT and other pesticides posed to the environment. Half a decade after James Lovelock had conceived and published his Gaia theory, proposing that to gain a true understanding of our planet, we should view the whole earth as a super organism (which he termed Gaia) with the same self-sustaining and self-regulating feedback mechanisms as are found in all other living organisms. At about the same time as Mollinson and Holmgren were working on permaculture, the Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess first published his concept of ‘deep ecology’ which ultimately calls for each individual to recognise their necessary connection with the world.

Thus, permaculture was conceived at a time when we were beginning to recognise that our actions could have a far greater impact on the biosphere than we had originally intended. Carson showed us that chemicals originally designed to kill ‘pests’ were less discriminate and more far reaching in their toxicity than we had foreseen. Lovelock showed that our local actions can lead to reactions on a global scale, due to Gaia’s feedback mechanisms: the phenomenon of global warming due to local CO2 emissions is a fine example of this. Naess proposed a philosophical framework by which we could understand our position as part of nature, rather than the predominant atomistic view where each individual is independent of all others and humankind is independent of nature. From this it’s not surprising to find that permaculture design tends to produce systems which avoid the addition of synthetic chemicals to the biosphere, look for multiple connections between various elements of the system and attempt to align, as far as possible, with the natural cycles of the world. However, having said all this, permaculture is not rocket science, it’s basically the application of common sense coupled with a few basic tools.

By simple observation, we can see that each time we operate directly in opposition to nature there are unforeseen outcomes as well as the desired one, exactly as one would expect from Lovelock’s thinking, but if we use solutions which already exist within the pathways of Gaia, that are already part of nature, the unforeseen outcomes are less likely.

For any given problem, is there not a best solution?

It depends how you define the problem! Let’s consider a kitchen garden: imagine you and I both have an aversion to digging and so we start to investigate the possibility of using a ‘no dig’ system. We read books on it and talk to people who do it. However, to be successful, the final design which each of us will implement will have to take into consideration many local conditions: the soil, (mine is heavy loam over clay, what’s yours?), local climatic conditions, rainfall, summer drought, frost pocket, prevailing wind, aspect etc. Furthermore, other considerations could be: what is the existing state of the land? Where will the organic matter (animal manure, compost, seaweed) come from? Also, something which can be forgotten, the inclination of the designer: is it to be beautiful as well as useful? I might be happy to mulch with recycled cardboard, you might find this aesthetically unacceptable.

So even though both of us will implement some form of no dig or reduced dig system, its particular details will differ, to align itself to the local conditions and requirements. As can be seen, even from this simple example, no part of a design can really exist independently. The design of our kitchen garden included the requirement for organic matter which would link it to other parts of our design which, in their turn, would have other connections, ultimately producing a network of beneficial interactions such as are found in natural ecosystems.

So, clearly, knowing your land is of prime importance, and a minimum of one year’s observation is suggested before any design is attempted, to gain a familiarity with the landscape in all its seasonal guises. In fact, a longer familiarisation helps, as no two years will produce the same reactions from the land. The truth is, you never stop learning about the land unless you stop looking and you should never stop refining your design.

Working with or against nature?

I’m sure we’ve all felt the disappointment at seeing something ‘spoilt’ by a natural occurrence: a late frost kills the blossom, slugs eat the radishes. It’s easy at this point to see nature as an adversary to be overcome, and forget that it’s this nature which provides us with life and sustenance in the first place. The conventional response to the slug problem has been to put down slug bait – this is what I term ‘working against nature’. It sees a problem and takes it head on, and as such, is also a good example of linear thinking. There is a primary input, and a waste product, slug bait and dead slugs respectively (with certain types of pellets, the waste may be seen as toxic waste linked to bird and hedgehog deaths, exacerbating the original problem).

Another solution to this problem could be to keep ducks! This is an example of what I term ‘working with nature’ and it’s cyclic thinking. It’s the nature of ducks to eat slugs, converting the protein into eggs, the waste product from this process is duck dung which returns to the ground as a fertiliser and, of course, ducks have the potential to produce more ducks. These are only used as examples of the two forms of thought, linear and cyclic, working against and with nature respectively. Ducks may not fit into all designs, someone may wish to implement a vegan gardening design where the inclusion of ducks would be inappropriate, but another solution could, no doubt, be found with similar cyclic thinking.

Of course, it could be argued that we have only moved our confrontation with nature up a level. Now, instead of having a problem with the slugs, we  have a problem with the fox! Here we see the need for an ongoing design process. We must observe, design and implement our system, then start the process of observation again. The fox example is easily foreseeable, we don’t need to observe our ducks being eaten before we design in some protection for them. However, other aspects only become visible after we’ve implemented our initial design. I planted a row of willows as an environmental screen for fruit trees (to break the down hill flow of cold air that causes a spring frost pocket). It was only after the willows had grown for 12 months that I recognised how much more water there was in one part of the ground. At one point, the willows had grown to three times the height of the others. This showed me where to plant my quince trees.

Now we see that the whole process of permaculture design is cyclic and ongoing, producing ever finer details and subtle interconnections within our design. This process can ultimately yield systems which are self sustaining in the same way as those found in natural ecosystems. The challenge is to find the ones which are robust and self sustaining, but also productive, yielding food and other human requirements without the massive energy inputs of our present conventional growing techniques.

As permaculture is very practical and this article has been focussed on the history and philosophy behind it, let’s now look at a practical exercise.

Take a look at what you do in your daily life. Try to find an example of linear thinking, something which needs constant input from beyond your control and which produces waste products. Now see if you can convert this with cyclic thinking into something which is sustainable, not needing the constant inputs and yielding only useful outputs. It may not be easy, it may not be ideal, but such thinking is the first step in permaculture.


This article is from the April 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
<< To order back issues click the link to the left.

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