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Many permaculture designs begin in the garden with the simple act of growing food and fuel.

I t can be tricky to pin down exactly what permaculture is. Though it has been described as a “creative design process based on whole-systems thinking informed by ethics,” that doesn’t tell us a whole lot.

For the sake of simplicity, we can try to define it as a holistic form of agriculture and also lifestyle that tries to best balance the needs of people with the needs of the planet. How to work in harmony with, rather than opposed to, nature.

It’s like a form of horticultural Judo, where we seek maximum effect with minimum effort. This is done by close observation and imitation of our environment’s natural self-sustaining cycles.

In truth, the ideas behind permaculture are much larger than just gardening and its principles can be applied to many different facets of our lives. This is part of what makes it so fascinating and why it can be so hard to define.

For many people, it is a starting point for asserting control over their own lives – a gateway to becoming thoughtful producers rather than uninformed consumers.

History

Originally devised in Australia in the 1970s as a reaction to harmful conventional farming practices, permaculture was created as a method of replicating our planet’s resilient ecological systems.

The founders recognized the need for a low-impact form of agriculture that would keep the earth in the same condition, or better than it was when they found it.

Permaculture has since grown to encompass more than just agriculture. The word permaculture was initially a contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture”. Over the years, this has been expanded to also cover permanent culture, in recognition of the social aspects it now encompasses.

An example

Many permaculture designs begin in the garden with the simple act of growing food and fuel for the occupants. This can then be expanded to the home with water catchment and composting systems to reduce household waste.

The garden can be integrated into the home by planting trees or vines close to south facing windows, where the shade will naturally cool the house throughout the warm summer months.

The idea is to build a somewhat self-supporting system which requires very little extra input creating as much as possible a “closed loop” of energy and resources. Unlike common agricultural methods which require the constant addition of water, fertilizer and pesticides but leave the soil in a depleted condition, permaculture is a logical approach.

Many people are then inspired to go on to build houses, create food forests, social garden projects and many more using their newfound skills based on the philosophies of permaculture.

Permaculturists often extend the basic principles, such as placing value on resources by reusing and recycling, to other parts of their lives in an effort to live as lightly as possible.

12 Principles

Though there are no strict rules, there are 12 basic permaculture design principles. These were defined by David Holmgren in his 2002 book “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.”

These principles are based around:

  • observation and action when needed,
  • collection of energy and resources to use in times of scarcity,
  • recognizing the need for results,
  • prioritizing renewable resources,
  • producing no waste, and
  • the value of diversity to reduce the danger of pests.

Observation

The ability to observe is a key tool for budding permaculturists. Observing the way nature deals with particular problems and the relationships between the different elements in natural systems, such as plants, animals and minerals, can help us create our own solutions.

When we monitor and understand our environment’s natural patterns, we also realize when it is best to intervene. Intervention is necessary on occasion because if we leave things entirely to nature, we won’t necessarily get the results we want.

permaculture-forest-unsplash

Photo by Alenka Skvarc/Unsplash

Diversity

If you are a gardener, you will probably know the heartbreak when a plant you have lovingly tended is devoured by insects. This is amplified in traditional monoculture farming, where a single crop variety is favoured per field.

Without pesticides, monoculture crops can be impossible to protect from swarms of pests.

Alternatively permaculture favours polycultures, where different plant species and varieties grow side by side. This makes it difficult for groups of pests that favor one crop to be sustained.

Incorporating plants that naturally repel certain insects is another pesticide-free way to protect your prized fruits and vegetables.

Collecting energy

The common phrase “make hay while the sun shines” is a great and literal example of this. Why waste energy when there is no need?

Something that we often forget within our busy modern lifestyles is that each time we turn on a tap or cool or heat our homes, there is a price to be paid. It’s in the form of our energy bills but also ecologically.

We accept that in the production and distribution of energy, there will be environmental consequences. However, mostly we are not in a position to control them.

If we cannot be entirely self-sustaining, then we can at least minimize the amount of energy we waste. The solution to this is often just a case of smarter design.

For example, many people are already taking advantage of solar panels to provide power to their homes. The power could be used to run an electric boiler for hot water, but a smarter alternative would be to combine the solar panel with a water tank.

The water is naturally heated by the sun and all the power generated by the solar panels is still available to use.

A starting point

Permaculture may be considered by some as an idealist philosophy. It is not by any means perfect. It’s best to think of it not as a movement or an ideology, but, as many have said before, a toolkit.

If it is ideological, it is also practical with many online videos, articles and books on the subject to guide you in how to implement the principles yourself.

That said, there surely can be no harm in thinking about ways of reducing our waste and unnecessary energy consumption. It would be a positive step forward if more of us were actively organizing our lifestyles to be kinder to the Earth.

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