What is permaculture?

What is permaculture?

Permaculture can be described as humans dance with nature where nature takes the lead. The word comes from ‘permanent agriculture’ and was later broadened to include ‘permanent culture’ – it is about living lightly on the planet and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature.

This combines three key aspects:

1. an ethical framework

2. understandings of how nature works, and

3. a design approach.

Permaculture diagram

Permaculture diagram

This unique combination can be applied to anything from a market garden design to a large farm or even a building. Its purpose is to support the creation of sustainable, agriculturally productive, non-polluting and healthy settlements and systems. In many places this means adapting our existing settlements; in other cases it can mean starting from scratch. Both offer interesting challenges and opportunities but some may look at permaculture and ask ‘have we not been doing this already for thousands of years?’

The history of permaculture

Given the mirror-like relationship between indigenous peoples and the natural world, it would appear so. We can see permaculture principles at play when we observe the innovative ways the Amazonians have created top soils despite the rapid ruin of rainforests or, the Aboriginal’s use of control burning techniques to germinate seeds and shape the landscape.

Amazonian top-soil

Amazonian top-soil [via purefixion.com]

However, in many ways permaculture has become a more essential practice after the intensification of agriculture post-World War Two and the ways it has allowed the world’s population to grow in excess of its natural capacity and resulted in a dangerous consumption of fossil fuels. Since then, permaculture has become an international movement; hundreds of specifically designed permaculture sites have been developed and it was endorsed by the White House in 2012.

How can it help you?

Permaculture is there to address our needs without producing a huge carbon footprint, mimicking the natural laws of nature and catching energy in multiple ways before it is dissipated. It can also be a way of observing the relationships between plants, which has in the past led us to further understanding how companion crops and undersowing in your garden can produce maximum yield, minimal waste. For example, the ‘three sisters’ are a good crop companion to try at home; a pea plant, squash and maize plant all work well to support each other as the maize offers the pea support to climb up, the pea fixes nitrogen in the soil for the maize and when the maize dies and decomposes it feeds the undersown squash.

'Three sisters' crop companions

‘Three sisters’ crop companions

Humans need to learn to live more reciprocally and reverse the alienation that mechanisation and industrial society has brought. Permaculture is a reaction to this alienation: a choice to restore and maintain the balance which keeps so many natural systems in delicate relatedness. A true working natural system produces no waste; everything gets broken down and used again. Why should it be any different in human settlements? The excess use of both fertilisers and pesticides in large scale farms has killed much of the microbial soil life and it also has a direct relationship with the existence of cancer in humans.

What can you do?

1- Think about where your food comes from. You can convert lawns to grow your own food, especially vegetables. Alternatively, you can try to source as much of your food from local and organic sources, or find out about local veg-box schemes.

2- Conduct a simple home energy audit. Permaculture is not just for the green-fingered among us; it can simply mean reducing waste energy and water use and instead harnessing natural resources. This isn’t as stressful as it sounds! It’s as simple as turning off lights when they aren’t needed, keeping the thermostat at a lower temperature and putting on a sweater, or choosing not to use machines like dishwashers or tumble dryers when air drying could be just as effective.

3- Watch A Farm for the Future to find out how else you can help. It’s an interesting documentary that looks at the problems with large-scale farming practices and addresses how permaculture can offer a real solution.

Permanence is not about everything staying the same. It’s about stability, about deepening soils and cleaner water, thriving communities in self-reliant regions, biodiverse agriculture and social justice, peace and abundance for all.

4-Free online permaculture course by Regenerative Leadership Institute –  72+hour course lectures free (mostly videos) at http://www.permaculturedesigntraining.com.

This post was written by Jennifer Condell who is the newest member of the Healthy Planet team and has studied Permaculture / Practical Sustainability in West Cork Ireland. http://www.kinsalefurthered.ie/courses/fetac-level-5/permaculture-2/

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