What is Permaculture?
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
The word “permaculture” is starting to pop up more and more even in mainstream vocabulary, but there’s a lot of confusion around its meaning. Since we at Gardens of Eatin’ draw on permaculture design principles in our work, we thought it might be useful to give a brief summary of permaculture and how it shows up in the landscapes we design.
Permaculture is a set of design principles for creating human settlements that are as stable, productive, and resilient as a natural ecosystem. A fundamental assumption in permaculture is that, by mimicking nature, we can meet critical human needs—food, water, shelter, energy and so on—in a way that is not only sustainable, but regenerative and restorative.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who initially developed permaculture in Australia in the 1970s, coined the term as an abbreviation of sorts of “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture.” Permaculture is now an international movement: people from all walks of life flock to study it, whether in 2-week residential Permaculture Design Courses (PDC) or in shorter workshops. Around the world, gardens, farms, and entire neighborhoods have been established based on permaculture design.
Permaculture is not simply another gardening technique. Rather, it is a toolkit of ecological solutions—a design process. The same design steps can be applied to just about anything: a residential landscape or a farm, yes, but also an urban subdivision, a refugee camp, an alternative currency system, or a city-wide festival.
Having said that, permaculture is still most commonly used to design human settlements. Through careful and intentional design, we create landscapes and habitats that conserve water, build healthy soil, incorporate year-round edible landscapes, turn waste into a new resource, catch and store energy such as sunlight, and are conducive to more equitable, healthy communities.
Here are some of the key principles that make it possible, and that Gardens of Eatin’ incorporates in its design and installation work:
Start with observation.
Instead of imposing an arbitrary design onto the landscape, we start with careful observation of what is already happening on the site: tracking the movement of sunlight across the landscape, observing water flows and contours, getting to know the soil and existing plants, and taking note of any other energies or resources that exist or pass through the site. All of this information then allows us to intervene only in the most strategic ways, building upon how nature is already working on the land.
Permaculture design considers carefully how elements in the landscape are placed in relation to each other. This is to minimize wasted energy and time, on the one hand, and to maximize beneficial mutual relationships, on the other. Plants can be arranged intentionally and strategically so that they support each other: nitrogen-fixing plants next to plants that needs a lot of nitrogen; aromatic herbs to repel pests away from vulnerable vegetables; a fruit tree to provide shade for a shade-loving understory plant while its trunk serves as a trellis for a vining fruit. Similarly, human-built structures such as the garden, the chicken coop, and the compost bin should be placed close together so that hauling materials from one place to another is as easy as possible.
Closed loop systems
Closed loop systems minimize the need for external inputs and turn waste into resources. This means, for example, harvesting rainwater and storing it either in the porous soil, or in water-catchment tanks, to irrigate plants later on. Rather than bringing in fertilizers from outside, the system provides its own fertility through methods such as cover crops, layering on of organic materials, and the integration of livestock. Aquaponics systems are a great example of a closed loop system: the fish in tanks naturally fertilize the water, which is then used to irrigate plants, which together with soil filter and clean the water, which is returned to the fish tank, and the entire system produces abundant food in the form of both edible plants and fish.
More perennial plantings.
Rather than annual plants, which require re-tilling and re-planting every year, permaculture promotes the incorporation of perennial crops, such as fruit trees, nuts, and perennial vegetables. A “food forest” is one of the most delicious concepts in permaculture: it means growing food on several vertically stacked layers (e.g. tall trees, medium and small fruit trees, berry shrubs, vines, herbs), in plant guilds whose members support each other, attracting a vibrant animal and plant life. A mature, well-designed food forest is a multi-story system of perennial and annual edibles and requires minimal maintenance. There are communal food forests being developed in the U.S. are 5+ acres in size.
Once established, a healthy permaculture garden provides as much of its own irrigation, nutrients, soil health, and pest-repelling elements as possible. Much of it is common sense, really, but a common sense we’ve started to lose as we have moved further away from traditional ways of meeting our needs and tending to the natural world.