What is Permaculture?
Permaculture, or permanent agriculture, began with the experiments of Joseph Russell Smith who, in 1929, published a book titled Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. Smith’s book contained information about his experiments with fruits and nuts to be used as human food and animal feed. The Australian P. A. Yeomans supported the definition of permanent agriculture as that which can be sustained indefinitely in his book, Water For Every Farm, published 1964. The book influenced Ruth Stout and Esther Deans to pioneer no-till gardening, the process of gardening with minimal alteration to the landscape. Masanobu Fukuoka developed no-till gardening in Japan in the late 1930s. Interaction of all of these methods eventually led to the modern practice of permaculture.
Permaculture focuses around three basic principles: Care for the earth, care for the people, and return of surplus. The first principle focuses on the provision of life systems and the health of the planet because, without healthy land, humans cannot thrive. The second, care for the people, emphasizes the value of human life, and the third, return of surplus, says that we should never take more than we need, and to reinvest the extra back into the ecosystem so that it can thrive. These three core principles work together to create a natural system that focuses on the relationship of one principle to the others. Thus, through the practice of permaculture, surpluses can be created with minimal effort that allow the ecosystem and its dependants to not only survive, but to thrive. Permaculture is also commonly applied to housing design and landscaping, integrating techniques like agroforestry and natural building, in the context of the principles and theory of permaculture.
The practice of permaculture can be explained by twelve design principles of the theory of permaculture. They were articulated by David Holmgren in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Those principles are:
- Observe & Interact: Effective solutions for one’s particular situation can be found by engaging with and observing the local environment.
- Catch & Store Energy: Resources can be used in times of need when harvested at peak abundance.
- Obtain a Yield: Be sure that the work being done is worthwhile by ensuring that the rewards gained are truly useful.
- Apply Self-regulation & Accept Feedback: Accept and consider criticism while avoiding inappropriate activity to ensure that systems continue to function efficiently.
- Use & Value Renewable Resources: Use nature’s renewable resources first, and use them to their full potential to reduce consumption and reliance on nonrenewable resources.
- Produce No Waste: By using resources to their full potential and reinvesting surplus back into the environment, waste is not produced.
- Design from Patterns to Details: First observe patterns in nature and society by looking at both from a broader scale. These observations can form the design’s backbone, and details can be filled in along the way.
- Integrate, Not Segregate: Ensure that everything is where it should be. From that point, relationships develop between various things, and work to support one another.
- Use Small, Slow Solutions: Resources can be better managed and more sustainable outcomes produced when smaller, more easily-managed solutions are used, rather than large ones.
- Value & Use Diversity: By valuing and encouraging diversity and cross-breeding, protections against multitudes of threats can develop and make for a greater abundance of viable harvest.
- Use Edges, Value the Marginal: Between two things is where many interesting events occur. These can often be valuable and productive occurrences in the system.
- Use & Respond to Change: Eventual change is inevitable, and can become positive when interfered with at the right time and in the right way.
These principles can further help in one’s understanding and application of permaculture. They can also aid in the understanding and application of various layers.
Layers of Permaculture
A self-sustaining, space-efficient food forest can be created by applying the core principles and design theory principles of permaculture. Different plants grow at different heights, and it is for this reason that plants can be layered to create a high self-sufficient food forest. When working in permaculture, there are generally seven essential layers, although some consider fungi to be a final eighth layer.
- Canopy: The tops of the tallest trees or plants will make up the canopy. These plants are dominant, but will not saturate the food forest. There will sometimes be areas completely barren of a canopy.
- Understory: Plants that grow to this height enjoy the light that leaks through the canopy, making up the second layer of the food forest.
- Shrubs/Bushes: The third layer is typically made up of a diverse group of perennials. These plants are normally berry bushes in a food forest.
- Herbaceous: The plants in this layer include many culinary and medicinal herbs. They will generally be softer, and will fall to the ground in winter when the temperature is low enough.
- Soil or Ground Cover: The ground cover consists of plants that grow close to the ground that work to reduce soil erosion as well as create a natural fertilizer of dead plants that put many nutrients back into ground, like nitrogen. There is typically some overlap between this layer and the herbaceous layer, and the plants that cover the majority of the open ground can tolerate foot traffic.
- Rhizosphere: The rhizosphere is made up of the actual soil that makes up the floor of the food forest, as well as vegetables like potatoes and other tubers, fungi, plant roots, and organisms that live in the soil like worms.
- Vertical Layer: This final layer is made up of climbers and vines, like runner beans or lima beans.
An alternative to the creation of a food forest is performing permaculture by utilizing placement of plants and animals into zones around a central location in order of most frequently used to least frequently used or those organisms that benefit from isolation, like wild species. Zones are identified from 0 to 5 as rings around the central location.
- Zone Zero: Zone 0 is the home or the central location of the zoning area. In order to provide a positive or minimal impact on the other zones, the home uses the twelve design principles of permaculture in order to take the least amount of resources possible.
- Zone One: The first zone is located around Zone 0. This area is made up of plants or resources that require frequent visitation and care, such as soft berries like raspberries, a propagation area, a worm composting bin and, in urban areas, raised beds for salad crops and herbs.
- Zone Two: This area should include perennial plants that require less maintenance than the plants in Zone One, such as potatoes, pumpkins, and other plants that require only occasional pruning or weeding.
- Zone Three: In Zone Three, many of the main food source or cash crops are grown. Minimal maintenance is required in this area providing that mulch or a similar substance is applied to the top of the soil, needing attendance perhaps once a week.
- Zone Four: Firewood and foraging occur in this zone. Other renewable resources such as timber are also harvested in this area. Little to no maintenance is required and plants are allowed to grow wild.
- Zone Five: This final zone is a wilderness area. Human interaction is limited to observation of natural ecosystems and cycles. Because there is no physical alteration in this area, wild organisms can thrive that will later aid the plants in the inner zones.
Sum it All Up
Through the application of the three core principles of permaculture, humans can develop a true a meaningful respect for the environment and a desire to not only preserve it, but to help it thrive. In applying the twelve design principles of permaculture, one can create a small, self-sufficient food forest to sustain oneself and one’s family. Or, for larger-scale sustainable permaculture, zoning can be used to properly place resources where they will be the easiest to access and maintain, as well as allowed to thrive and support one another.
By utilizing all of these ideas and having them work together with one another, an easily maintained and sustainable environment can grow, thrive, and make the planet a healthy place to live.
Did you enjoy this article? Here are some more on other forms of sustainable farming!