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What is permaculture?

As concern grows over the damage to our environment and eco-systems caused by human activity, increasing numbers of people are seeking ways of reducing their impact. They are actively looking for sustainable methods of living that will help, rather than harm, the planet. But this can often seem a difficult task. depending on our circumstances and location. Some of us feel helpless to act, believing that many of the methods are beyond us, being perhaps too expensive or requiring too drastic a change of lifestyle or location. Some might appear too complex or technical, so we steer away from them, fearing that we might find them daunting or too difficult to understand. A good example of this is the term permaculture. It conjures different images in peoples' minds, sounding scientific and possibly even a little dull. But when you start to look into it, you'll find it pretty straightforward. And it's something that we can all do, whatever our circumstances.

What is permaculture?


The original term was a combination of the words permanent and agriculture but this last word was later changed to culture as it embraced a better idea of what was involved. The use of the word 'agriculture' implied that it was all about growing crops. Permaculture is much more than this, though.

The basic idea behind permaculture is to devise innovative ways of working with nature, rather than against it. While this will clearly take in elements of agriculture, it endeavours to encompass many aspects of our lives, including engineering and design, sustainable architecture, and efficient management of water resources.

Bill Mollison, who is regarded as the 'Father of Permaculture', wrote down three of the main ethics on which the movement was founded:

  • Care of the Earth - this focuses on ensuring that life systems continue to grow, flourish, and multiply
  • Care of people - making sure that all people have access to the essential resources necessary for life
  • Return of surplus - anything left over must be used to help others or returned to the Earth. Nothing must be wasted.

Though these are the general rules, a more specific set of guidelines is given below.
To answer the question 'what is permaculture?' we need to understand that humans do not live in isolation, separate from nature and the eco-systems of our planet. Although some believe that we have tamed nature, stamping our ownership of the land in the form of urban and industrial landscapes, as well as vast areas of intensive agriculture, we have instead caused massive damage. Our actions, especially since the Industrial Revolution, have consistently moved us out of synchronisation with nature, the planet, and the seasons.

In the early 20th century, certain individuals began to explore this, looking for ways to halt this dangerous and damaging course. One of these people was Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer and philosopher, who, from the 1930s to the late 1970s promoted Natural Farming. This endorsed traditional methods of farming but introduced further ideas that not only limited human impact but also minimised labour. In essence, he took the farming methods of indigenous people and developed them to include elements such as 'no-till farming'. Turning the soil, especially on sandy or sloping ground, can lead to erosion, whereas leaving it intact can help to retain organic matter, moisture, and nutrients.

During the 1960s permaculture experienced a surge of interest as environmentalism caught on. It remains popular today, seeming ever more urgent as dire warnings of climate catastrophe are given with alarming frequency.

The Twelve Principles of Permaculture

To give a better idea of what's involved, here are the guidelines for successful permaculture.

  • Observe and interact - spend time looking at the land and understanding it before acting. Engage with nature and create designs to suit the specifics of each location.
  • Catch and store energy - by thinking and planning ahead, we can make the most of resources while they're abundant, storing it for times when it is needed most.
  • Obtain a yield - try to ensure that whatever the process, it returns something in reward for the effort.
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback - the system to work well if it's to work at all. If a person acts inappropriately or incorrectly, then the process is flawed and the results will be unsatisfactory, pointless, or even damaging.
  • Use and value renewable resources and services - through the sensible and sensitive use of the abundance of nature, we can reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources and adapt our behaviour to lower our consumption.
  • Produce no waste - by using all the available resources we can ensure that nothing is wasted.
  • Designs from patterns to details - through careful observation of the patterns in nature, the seasons, and in society, we can form practical, sensible plans and designs. Details can then be added later.
  • Integrate rather than segregate - basically, this encourages 'sympathetic' relationships by setting the right thing in the right place, allowing them to interact positively and help each other to develop.
  • Use small and slow solutions - these are easier to manage and maintain than big solutions, and they can produce more sustainable results, using local resources wisely.
  • Use and value diversity - this applies just as much to human involvement as the botanical element. Biodiversity of species within an ecosystem is essential for its continued health and survival. Diversity within a human environment likewise reduces vulnerability and helps to develop a strong, healthy society. This point is central to anyone answering the question 'what is permaculture?'.
  • Use edges and value the marginal - this point draws attention to the interfaces between environments, often disregarded. But these can be the areas of most interest, diversity, and productivity.
  • Creatively use and respond to change - change is inevitable. But if we observe carefully and act at the right time we can have a positive influence.

We can all apply these to various aspects of our lives, whoever and wherever we are. And the sooner, the better, for the sake of our planet and for our own survival.

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