Permaculture is way of thinking about designing your home, homestead and life to produce what you need. Permaculture encourages you to work WITH nature instead of against it. This requires observation of the environment, plants and animals around you, so understand how they can all work together to achieve your objectives.
Where did permaculture start?
Permaculture was developed in the 1980s by two Australians: David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. They had begun to realise that the increasing trend towards chemical-based monoculture farming was not sustainable. Constantly fighting against nature would ultimately be a losing battle and we needed to start to think differently about agriculture. They described a system of “design thinking” in which all elements and their functions are considered and carefully placed to reduce human effort and maximise production.
Permaculture is now practised all around the world in different climates and locations. Some of the foundational ideas that led to permaculture have also led to concepts such as holistic management and natural sequence farming.
How can you use permaculture?
This system can be applied at all scales, whether you live in an apartment, a suburban block or a large farm. Anyone can use permaculture to improve their productivity. You must first start with a clear vision of what you want to achieve. For me this was growing enough in my garden that we could reduce our reliance on supermarkets.
Without permaculture, this may have meant buying garden soil and fertiliser, buying seedlings, buying chemical insecticides and fungicides and constant effort to maintain my garden. This would have been expensive and hardly worth the effort. I would have been fighting nature and getting less return each year.
Through permaculture design, I have been able to reduce the inputs to my garden and reduce the overall cost and effort required. The examples I give here are how I’ve used permaculture to solve my design problems. The value in permaculture is not in replicating another design, but in using the process to solve your own unique problems in different climates and living situations.
Permaculture relies on observation
This observation includes your environment, climate, the native plants and animals around you and using those observations by gradually trying different solutions. For example, I observed my climate to understand the temperature fluctuations and risk of frost. This helped me to understand that in my sub-tropical climate I need to grow different species at different times compared to a temperate climate. I’ve tried different vegetables to find out what will grow well, and I’ve saved seeds to keep adapting to my local climate.
Elements and functions in permaculture
Observation also leads to analysis of elements and functions and their interactions. An element is any part of the system, for example, the garden, the orchard, the worm farm, chickens or chicken pen. Functions are anything that the element needs as an input or produces as an output. In my system, the chickens need food and water, they produce eggs and manure. The garden needs fertiliser and water, and produces vegetables and weeds. This is a simple example, but you can already see the links – the manure can be used to fertilise the garden, the weeds can be used to feed the chickens.
This analysis starts to inform other design requirements:
- what you need in the system (i.e. water is a critical input, we need to plan to harvest water),
- where you could benefit from diversity (ideally you have more than one element for each function, i.e. another source of food for the chickens) and
- where the elements should be located (i.e. due to the links between the chickens and the garden, they would ideally by close together to save the work required to haul manure and weeds).
When you realise the power of permaculture you can choose to apply it to food production, design of your farm and home, and to your entire community.
If you want to find out more, some excellent and practical books are Gaia’s Garden and The Permaculture Home Garden (reviewed on my blog), and for more detail on the philosophy my favourite book is Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
Liz Beavis is a small-scale cattle farmer and soap-making beekeeper in rural Queensland, Australia. On her Eight Acres Farm, she sells beef-tallow soaps, honey and beeswax, and is the author of Our Experience with House Cows, A Beginners Guide to Backyard Chickens and Chicken Tractors, Make Your Own Natural Soap, and the Solar Bore Pump Handbook. Connect with Liz on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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