When I learnt about permaculture in Graham Burnett’s book, ‘Permaculture – A Beginners Guide’, my mind was utterly blown.
Discovering permaculture was almost like reconnecting with a long lost bundle of knowledge and skills; answers that had been in front of our noses all this time. It was the first concept I had come across that, rather than being focused on problems, was highly solution-based, and adaptable enough to be applied to your own life, community, region and even on a global scale, for a wide variety of situations.
Permaculture (taken from the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture‘) is a holistic, sustainable, regenerative, design system for growing food. More of a loose framework than a strict set of guidelines, permaculture is based on doing things in harmony with nature and the world around you, using the strengths and patterns we see in nature to create resilience, diverse, highly productive systems that are well adapted to their environment.
Permaculture may mean something different to everyone, and many people will tell you a different answer when asked what it actually is. I see permaculture as an entirely organic approach that focuses on observation and feedback of your surroundings, making use of local (or ‘waste’) materials, planting a diverse array of crops that assist each other with growing or attracting / repelling insects (companion planting), focusing on enhancing soil health and many more key aspects. You could say it’s all about ‘closed loop’ systems, in that nothing is wasted, everything has a place and function, and you are continually observing and incorporating that feedback into your way of doing things – adapting and tweaking as you go.
The video below is a really nice example of permaculture in action on a tiny piece of land in France:
Core Permaculture Principles
Several core aspects of permaculture can be seen in this useful diagram below. Originally developed by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison.
Image source: https://www.permaculture.co.uk
Surrounded by the three core principles of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share, let’s unpack the main principles:
Observe and Interact
Observation is key for both growing food and life in general. It allows for us to take stock of what is already there and adapt accordingly. If you’re lucky enough to have a piece of land, it’s recommended to first watch it for a full year before planting anything at all. This means we can look at weather patterns, what grows there already, wildlife activity, frost pockets, microclimates, shade, sun, and so on. By doing so, you get to know your land and can assess what would grow best where.
Catch and store energy
In other words: make hay while the sun shines. Make use of what you have, while you have it. For example, harvest your food while it’s abundant and plentiful. Collect seeds on dry, sunny days. We can also design our environments so that they maximise the conditions and space they are situated within; making sure that plant systems are enhancing the soil as they grow.
Obtain a yield
Everything is done for a reason, so be sure to reflect on whether you’re getting out what you wanted to put in (whilst being realistic!). What kind of yield were you hoping for? It doesn’t necessarily have to be related to edible produce; perhaps you wanted to achieve improved mental health, more time outdoors, or creating a sanctuary for wildlife.
Self regulate and accept feedback
Often forgotten in daily life, it’s not easy to accept if we’ve made mistakes, could’ve (or should’ve) done things another way, or are clinging to dysfunctional behaviours. It’s important to learn to critically reflect, making adjustments where necessary. If we cannot accept feedback, then we will never improve! Nature gives us loads of feedback – things may look unhealthy where you’ve sited them, get decimated by slugs or not grow at all. This feedback tells us things need to be changed.
Use and value renewables
Utilise the free resources we are given: consider ways of cycling the earth’s energy in methods such as solar panels, solar thermal energy, wind energy, rainwater collection, and so on. We need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and our contribution to climate change.
Produce no waste
Everything can be incorporated back into a closed loop system. Your kitchen scraps, old plant material and much more can be composted and turned back into soil. Think creatively about re-purposing old items into something new, such as making them into growing containers or pieces of art. In wider life, we can live in much more sustainable ways, by consuming less in the first place, only buying what is truly necessary, and trying to repurpose as much as possible – through recycling, charity shops and so on.
Observe from pattern to detail
Permaculture keeps a close eye out for nature’s patterns — they’re there for good reason. We can incorporate patterns into ‘big picture thinking’, looking at our designs as a whole. Zoning in permaculture is one such example (but we’ll get to that later!)
Integrate rather than segregate
We are part of a complex web of ecosystems, intrinsically linked and interdependent. Permaculture tries to recreate similarly complex ecosystems, with various parts, components and members acting together (ideally in harmony). Just like in ecological systems, each function is supported by a wide variety of elements, making the overall system as a whole resilient if one part fails to function. It is also important to remember that each element of a system has more than one function; a big leafy vine may provide both fruit and shade, a bamboo area may provide useful materials, visual attraction, wildlife habitat etc, and so on.
Use small, slow solutions
Start small, and grow from there. Try not to take on too much at once, giving yourself time to observe and reflect. Permaculture is a slow process; building up soil, observing, encouraging wildlife all takes time, patience and trial and error.
Use and value diversity
My absolute favourite and core principle. Diversity is key to balance in life; when we have too much of the same, things get out of balance. Just like the fields of monoculture crops we see all around us — too much of one thing is bad news. It is diversity that creates resilient communities — both plant and human. Permaculture focuses on the use of grouping plants together – also known as ‘guilds’ – in beneficial ways. It could be, for example, one plant has a longer root system to draw up nutrients from the deeper layers of the soil to assist its neighbours, or plants that repel a certain insect which would otherwise notice and attack a plant.
The edges of ecosystems are often the most diverse and abundant. Think of a rivers edge for example, full of shrubs, plants, herbs an even trees. A woodland edge is also very diverse, with a wider range of plants due to the mix of conditions; shade and moisture from the covered forest canopy area, as well as light and sun from the exposed edge. Maximising edge in permaculture is also a good way to increase the surface area and allow for more growing space.
Creatively use and respond to change
Nothing ever stays the same; either we adapt or die. That is particularly poignant in the current times, with climate change poised as the current biggest threat to humanity. We are already experiencing great change, from unpredictable weather patterns to resource depletion. Using the above principles already allows for resilient systems, which can (hopefully) cope with uncertainty. We can also look at planning for known changes, in particular the seasons, utilising what we have in each and planning for growing during the right times, making best of each season.
Permaculture has many applications and uses, not just for the land, but for within our own lives, too. Overall though, it gives us a holistic, well-rounded way of looking at the world and living within it in a way which adds – rather than takes away, regenerating and improving what we do and use. In a world of increasing climate change, pollution, environmental destruction, violence and uncertainty, permaculture truly is a breath of fresh air.
- Permaculture Association | https://www.permaculture.org.uk/
- Food Systems Academy – great videos and information | http://www.foodsystemsacademy.org.uk/
- Spiralseed | https://spiralseed.co.uk/
- Whitefield Permaculture (includes residential and online courses) | http://patrickwhitefield.co.uk/
- Learn Permaculture | http://learnpermaculture.com/
- Permaculture for the People blog | https://permacultureforthepeople.org/
- Permaculture Skills | https://www.permaskills.net/resources/
- Healing Justice podcasts | https://www.healingjustice.org/
- Organic Research Centre – Information on agroforestry and plant resilience | http://www.organicresearchcentre.com/
- Plants For a Future – database of 7000+ plants | http://www.pfaf.org/
- Agroforestry Research Trust | https://www.agroforestry.co.uk/
- Agroecology Fund | https://www.agroecologyfund.org/what-is-agroecology/
- Global Justice Now | https://www.globaljustice.org.uk/agroecology
- Food Climate Research Network | https://www.fcrn.org.uk/
- Seed Co-operative | https://seedcooperative.org.uk/
- Tolhurst Organics | http://www.tolhurstorganic.co.uk/
- Charles Dowding No Dig | https://www.charlesdowding.co.uk/
- Permaculture – a beginners guide | Graham Burnett
- Permaculture: A designers Manual | Bill Mollison
- Miraculous Abundance | Charles Herve-Gruyer
- No Dig Organic Home and Garden | Charles Dowding & Stephanie Hafferty
- Permaculture design: a step by step guide | Aranya
- Earth Care Manual | Patrick Whitefield
- Agroecology – The ecology of sustainable food systems | Gleissman