“Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony, opposition to them brings disaster and chaos.” Bill Mollison
*please note this page represents my personal understanding of Permaculture and not an absolute view*
Permaculture is about having a conversation with the land and with each other. It ́s an interactive process, that helps us to find effective and integrative solutions for a sustainable use of land.
In an approach that considers the basic needs of humans (food, water, shelter, health and community), Permaculture Design utilises elements from earth works, regenerative energies, water management, sustainable building, live stock and mimicking of natural systems, in order to create a living situation where both humans and nature can coevolve and thrive together.
There are three fundamental ethics that substantiate the movement of Permaculture.
This ethic emphasises our own interdependency as a species. People Care is about finding ways to live harmoniously with our selves and each other. Taking care of the people includes developing a situation which provides shelter, food, community and medicine for everyone. When people´s basic needs are met, this care-taking can expand naturally through other areas, like the environment.
Taking care of the earth means to nourish the planet we all live on. Not only us, but all the other living beings too. We want to protect the soil because it is the base of all our food. Soil is the one very resource, next to water, we all depend on. Healthy soil is a living organism with bacteria, fungi and intervertebrates. This web of life underground is indispensable for healthy plants that contain minerals and vitamins. Plant roots communicate via networks of fungi and the connectivity of the earth life web with plants is only beginning to be understood by science. Taking care of the web of life in the soil is a premise for growing healthy food in continuation. The ethic of Earth Care is closely related to People Care and Fair share, as we can better produce abundance of food for humans to be shared with healthy soil. By taking care of the earth we also stand accountable for the generations to come as we can leave behind fertile soil for them.
In principle, this ethic is about getting conscious of what it is that we really need and what it is that we can share. This includes surplus of yield, resources and experience. It also includes the awareness that we will not harvest 100% of the yield and that there is a predictable amount of crops that will be eaten by other creatures than us. We can use this knowledge to stabilise the ecosystem we help to create.
The word permaculture is an aggregate from “permanent” and “agriculture”, given to the concept by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who are the founders of this movement. Later on Holmgren developed the 12 Permaculture Principles which function as guidelines and inspiration for living according to the three ethics.
1. Observe and Interact
This principle is an expression of how we approach a piece of land that is to be designed. An observant view is without evaluation and interpretation first. Having an open mind while observing the site, including soil conditions, sun angles, wind, fire hazards, shades, smells and slope, helps us to establish a basic set of data to work with. On the basis of detailed observation, interaction with the land becomes possible.
2. Catch and Store Energy
Energy comes in many forms. It comes in form of water, sun and wind and it also comes in form of life. For example, water saved uphill is stored energy. Water catchments can also serve to create microclimates and therefore niches to many animals which then are serving as a form of energy. Living beings are an expression of energy. Working with and storing these energies in our systems is an essential step towards sustainability.
3. Obtain a yield
Looking at industrial, modern agriculture yield is measured only in how much produce per acre is obtained and how much money it is worth. Factors like the salification in the soil, loss of the humus layer, dying of insects indispensable to life (like bees) the diminishing of biodiversity through monoculture, and pesticides and the amount of fossil fuels used in the production of the crop, are not counted into the equation. If you look at modern agriculture with all these factors included, it is not possible to call the end product a real yield. Yield in permaculture has many faces. Amongst obvious ones as crops, yield can be end products, healthy soil, biodiversity, diversity in niches, energy sources, knowledge gained through experience, jobs created and community formed. An evolved permaculture project should create a positive, or at least no negative money balance.
4. Apply self regulation and accept feedback
To apply self regulation means to be honest with ourselves about what we really need. It is about really considering. It is also important to consider self regulation during the design process. When we have ideas which oppose the conditions the land offers us, it is useful to reconsider these ideas. The application of a design demands the openness to listen to how things are actually working. It is an evolution in progress and we are able to adjust only when willing to listen first.
5. Use and Value renewable resources and services
Renewable resources are energies like wind, sun, water and, also human manure. By considering human manure as a resource, we can save water that is normally used to flush and then needs even more processing after that, wasting a lot of energy. Converting our manure into compost to use for bushes and trees is lifting something, which is easily misjudged as waste, up to something valuable. Other easily overseen systems of renewable services can be plant guilds and chop and drop systems that provide nutrients for each other and continue to regrow.
6. Produce no waste
This principle goes hand in hand with the one before. With seeing elements as resources, which usually would be considered waste, we already reduce waste. This principle also concerns reusing material as often as possible. It also means considerate researching, when planning for projects that require the use of materials. Where could these materials that we need (like wood, plastic or metal) have already been at use somewhere else, and how can we recycling them from there. Producing no waste is also searching for ways to reintegrate our own waste into the system.
7. Design from patterns to details
Independent from the size of the project, it is useful to have a general outline of the zoning and elements that are to be implemented. The zones in permaculture are created by considering the frequency of how often certain elements need our attention. By zooming into the zones we then get more and more detailed. This principle is about seeing the tree for the forest. In reality we are always going in small steps, but we do not want to get lost in the details, instead, we want to have the whole plan in mind.
8. Integrate rather than segregate
This principle is an expression of separation being more costly than integration. Whenever segregation is sought, it costs us effort. Fencing and the transition from lawn to garden beds are perfect examples for this. The principle is emphasising working with the land, opposed to wanting to control the land. Combining and stacking elements and integrating the natural fauna and wildlife into the system, are examples for how this principle can be applied. It is also about integrating cultural and skill diversity in people, connected to the land and the surrounding.
9. Use small and slow solutions
Using small and slow solutions enables us to keep up with the process of evolution that is happening in the system. When applying this principle we have better options to observe, evaluate and adjust our solutions by listening to the feedback the system is giving us. Even though it is very tempting to get things done fast and in one go it is more sustainable to go small and slow. When applying a design, this principle motivates the approach, to first start in zone one, which is the home garden. From there we can evaluate and continue the implantation of the design together with the expanding experience.
10. Use and value diversity
The more diverse an ecosystem is, the more stable it becomes. At some point the system is in balance. This principle implies to use the approach of diversity and to create balance in the designed system. Also, when the yield in a system is diverse, we become less dependent on specific weather conditions. This is the opposite of monocultural systems. If we grow a monocultural system, we depend very much on this one yield we are growing to turn out well and pests become a big problem. We want to value diversity also in form of knowledge and experience from people with different cultural and experiential backgrounds.
11. Use edge and value the marginal
Between forests and field there is a transitioning zone, the edge, where there are more niches to be found for wild life than in the field or the forest alone. This principle motivates us to use the edge as a very valuable resource and including its properties into the design. Examples can be hedges or any transitioning areas from one zone or element into another. A good example is also the edge of a pond, where bees are drinking, birds are drinking and taking a bath and where the microclimate is completely different than in the pond or in the area merging from there on.
12. Creatively use and respond to change
Every system is changing. A permaculture system is an evolving system. Things will change and will not work out the way we thought they would. So it is important to integrate that change, and also expect it to happen. Observe the system and its evolution closely, to see where you need to adapt or think about new solutions. It may be that happenings that first seem like a huge catastrophe, turn out to be a fortune and blessing, when used and responded to in a creative way.