Why battle against the Earth to force it to produce products that naturally wouldn’t flourish? As a different approach, permaculture mimics natural ecosystems to maximize food production as well as create sustainable human settlements. Extending beyond farming practices, permaculture is a philosophy and set of ethics for how we can beneficially coexist with the environment.
The roots of permaculture trace back to Australian Bill Mollison, who grew up in a small village where self-sufficiency was a way of life. He worked as a scientist for the CSIRO Wildlife Survey Section and the Tasmanian Inland Fisheries Department, and later became active in protests against the destruction of the environment.
In 1974 while teaching at the University of Tasmania, Mollison—along with student David Holmgren—developed a system for sustainable agriculture they called “permaculture,” meaning both permanent agriculture and permanent culture.
Permaculture is a blend of environmentalism, philosophy, agriculture, ecology and ethics that involves designing human habitats that can produce food in a synergistic way with the area’s ecology. The living quarters and food-producing land are integrated in terms of energy, water, soil, plants, animals and microorganisms.
Each part of the system has multiple functions and intensive recycling results in one component’s waste benefiting another. For example, a chicken may be a source of eggs for food, but is also used to fertilize crops and control insects in the garden.
Most farming systems, even organic, can negatively impact the environment by depleting the soil of nutrients, removing topsoil or contributing to the threat of monoculture. In contrast, permaculture takes cues from the natural ecosystems, considers the relationships between components, and then blends traditional and modern technologies—resulting in a sustainable food-production network.
There is also a significant ethical component behind permaculture including protection and care of the planet, as well as for other people. Building of communities is just as important as environmentally friendly practices.
- Maximizing space in garden beds with circular, spiral or keyhole shapes
- Companion planting
- Edible landscaping
- Rainwater catchment systems
- Greywater reuse
- Chicken tractors
- Soil and water management—hedgerows, trellising, wind breaks, etc.
- Passive solar, active solar and wind power
- Low-power lighting and energy-efficient housing
- Composting toilets
- Trees and perennial crops
- Microclimate management in the soil and water
There is no set formula for developing permaculture systems since they must be custom designed for the location, culture and individuals. Permaculture can be used on large tracts of land as well as on apartment balconies; in fact, a goal is to enable the growing of food within cities.
Establishing a full-scale permaculture system takes planning and knowledge of the local ecology. Books and training courses are available to help, or components can be added slowly over time using trial and error to develop optimal results.
Suburban Permaculture Practices
The main focus is replacing lawn and ornamental plantings with productive plants, while retaining an attractive landscape. This can include:
- Building a small greenhouse
- Employing a rainwater catchment system
- Replacing ornamental trees with fruit or nut trees
- Installing a trellis system for vine crops and shade
- Replacing ornamental shrubs with herbs or berry bushes
- Planting edible flowers
- Replacing lawns with garden beds and trees
- Using colorful vegetables as landscaping
- Incorporating chickens or ducks if allowed
Urban Permaculture Practices
The same principles apply, just on a smaller scale. Possible locations include: balconies, patios, rooftops, vacant lots, community gardens and city parks. Here are some examples:
- Create a small rainwater catchment system
- Plant in containers
- Use window sills for hanging plants or a window box greenhouse
- On porches and patios, create tiers of plants with a trellis containing vines at the back, followed by rows of containers that decrease in height
- Compost kitchen scraps
- Grow a micro-garden inside for a year-round supply of sprouts
Working with nature instead of against it is the fundamental tenet of permaculture. Forcing the Earth to produce products not well suited for a location wastes both resources and labor. Instead, permaculture utilizes the natural balance of an ecosystem to create synergistic, sustainable human habitats. This is a way of living off the Earth without depleting it, so it can sustain future generations as well.