What is Permaculture?Permaculture is the practice of establishing a micro-ecology of suitable plants, soil environment, beneficial insects and watering systems that allows an area to produce food-bearing plants in a natural way.
It is based on leveraging a blend of natural processes, in contrast with industrial or other forms of agriculture that depend on synthetic inputs, such as chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
What plants are used in permaculture?Often fruit trees and native edible plants are the species of choice for practitioners. The plants and methods chosen for a permaculture project would depend on the natural characteristics of the land and biosphere available.
What does the word itself mean?The term "permaculture" is a portmanteau that combines the words "permanent" and "agriculture." This refers to a strong preference for selecting perennials. However annuals, either planted seasonally or naturally reoccurring through their self-reseeding, are also key elements of an eco-friendly micro-environment.
How is permaculture practiced?Permaculturalists employ different formats to achieve their results, although all revolve around using the self-generating capacity of nature to nourish the garden. Sometimes different terms are used interchangeably or they are used to specify a particular strategy.
Some people cultivate food forests, also known as forest gardens or understory gardens, in which there is a vertical organization:
- at the top the canopy provides nuts or inner bark crops;
- the understory is home to bushy types of crops, such as elderberries;
- ground cover crop can include mushrooms or mints,
- root crops, such as ginger or appropriate species of onions, provide the bottom layer
How Does Permaculture Relate to Natural Resource Challenges?
Food SecurityAny sustainable agriculture practice seeks to produce food with minimum use of synthetic inputs and maximum integration with nature. Thus, a good food forest or meadow-like orchard is designed to draw upon nutrients and water supplies that are indiginous to its own locale. This helps keep the perma-garden immune from disruptions to the economy.
Further, sustainable techniques also help soils retain moisture, protecting the plot from periods of dryness or drought and making them more self-sufficient than conventional farms or gardens.
WaterMany practioners engage in active rainwater harvesting. Some use rain barrels to catch, store and disperse water to the plants. Other construct swales, or small water-channeling ditches, to direct rainwater towards plants that thrive in moist soils.
Also, the use of trees is crucial in a watering strategy. The crown of a tree, with its branches stretching out in all directions holding healthy leaves, will act as a catchment for rain falling on the tree. The rainwater will drain down the leaves and branches to the trunk of the tree, which leads the water to the thirsty roots. Thus, fruit and nut trees, popular choices for sustainable perennial gardeners, serve as their own water funnels during times of normal and heavy precipitation.
Eco-friendly gardening is being studied more thoroughly as a method of addressing persistent drought and other water issues throughout the country.
CompostingA major sustainability technique is composting, or the using of properly decomposed food products as nutrients for the perennial garden. A good practioner knows how to transport and store materials hygienically and allow them to decompose so that the elemental nutrients are readily available for the crops of the sustainable gardening.
Composting is an important natural resource control method in two respects. First, it takes food out of the urban waste stream and deprives rodents of their ungainly feasts. Second, it is a method of reducing the extremely high rate of food waste in the country. Agronomists say that more than 20 percent of the food in the US is wasted.
Erosion ControlSoil stewardship is a key part of sustainable agriculture. By planting perennials one avoids tilling or breaking the soil frequently, thus keeping the earth in tact and making it less likely to wash or blow away.
Further, great care and thought is given to establishing a firm root system. This subterranean network of living matter not only serves to nourish the foodstuff above ground, but also holds the soil in place and adds to the dynamic micro-organism biosphere that fosters good healthy sustainable gardens.
Ground cover is another aspect that fits into integrative gardening. Low-lying vegetation such as clover, comfrey, flowers or herbs will add to the fine mesh of roots near the surface. Their leaves will shade the soil and retain moisture. These practices also provide models to develop alternatives to turf for lawns.
Land ManagementAlthough some parts of the United States are seeing a return of forest cover after two centuries of farming and developmental clearing, other parts are seeing a loss of woodlands. This is especially acute in rapidly populating areas. Ironically, when trees are cut down for human habitat it deprives those people of the many eco-services provided by forest cover and trees.
Well-integrated food forests have helped reverse that trend, putting trees near people in ways that help those people. In addition to providing edible products, the food forests also cool the local area with the shade of the trees, control stormwater runoff and provide habitat for wildlife.
How Do I Learn More?
Permaculture Design Certificates (PDC)Many practioners obtain special certificates after completing courses on the practices of sustainable agriculture as it relates to perennial gardening and eco-integration. These certifications can be earned through 72 hours of training. The certification is recognized internationally
Online ResourcesThe Permaculture Institute is a major actor in the field that provides the training and awards the certification.
Permies.com hosts a robust forum for discussion among asprining, new and very experienced sustainable gardeners. It has sub-channels on eco-villages and intentional communities as well as agro-technical topics, such raised bed gardening, soil, mulch and species identification.
The National Agricultural Library maintains a list of universities and colleges that offer courses and programs in sustainable agriculture.
The Urban Sustainability Research Group of the University of Michigan provides an overview and points to good reading lists.
Below are more news stories and online resources to help you in your study of the topic.
Permaculture - Stories, Links and Resources
Permaculture expert to lecture in Texas on making the most of rare rains
Big Bend Now - 2014-10-04
Permaculture advocate says work with nature, not against it
Alberta Farmer Express - 2014-10-04
Global Resources News stories
Links for the search term: Permaculture
AbundanceStudios.org - permaculture communities
A meeting place for people or groups who want to engage in the sustainable agriculture in community or as collectives or cooperatives.
Permaculture Voices Podcasts
An audio description of the design certification course. It has a written introduction that gives the history of PDC, starting with Bill Mollison in Australian. In the hour-long audio the narrator discusses how the practice and the training helps reframe their approach to horticulture and food. The podcast interviews eight well-respected instructors on basic concepts of PDC courses. It discusses how a PDC goes beyond gardening technique, although it does study natural principles at work in a broad range of activity of which horticulture is very important. This page is part one of two parts discussing the courses.
The page of this Illinois-based institution describes the course work and the topics covered in their permaculture design certification (PDC) course. Among those topic are designing for climatic zones, guilds and polycultures, eco-building, and homesteading, among others.
The page also recites the 12 principles of permaculture ethics: 1 Observe and interact; 2 Catch and store energy; 3 Obtain a yield; 4 Apply self-regulation and accept feedback; 5 Use & value renewable resources and services; 6 Produce no waste; 7 Design from patterns to details; 8 Integrate rather than segregate; 9 Use small and slow solutions; 10 Use and value diversity; 11 Use edges and value the marginal; 12 Creatively use and respond to change.