Introduction to Permaculture
The word "permaculture" was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist, and one of his students, David Holmgren. It is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture."
Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. It is a land use and community building movement which strives for the harmonious integration of human dwellings, microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water into stable, productive communities. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather on the relationships created among them by the way we place them in the landscape. This synergy is further enhanced by mimicking patterns found in nature.
A central theme in permaculture is the design of ecological landscapes that produce food. Emphasis is placed on multi-use plants, cultural practices such as sheet mulching and trellising, and the integration of animals to recycle nutrients and graze weeds.
However, permaculture entails much more than just food production. Energy-efficient buildings, waste water treatment, recycling, and land stewardship in general are other important components of permaculture. More recently, permaculture has expanded its purview to include economic and social structures that support the evolution and development of more permanent communities, such as co-housing projects and eco-villages. As such, permaculture design concepts are applicable to urban as well as rural settings, and are appropriate for single households as well as whole farms and villages.
"Integrated farming" and "ecological engineering" are terms sometimes used to describe perma-culture, with "cultivated ecology" perhaps coming the closest. Though helpful, these terms alone do not capture the holistic nature of permaculture; thus, the following definitions are included here to provide additional insight.
From Bill Mollison:
Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments.
From the Permaculture Drylands Institute, published in The Permaculture Activist (Autumn 1989):
Permaculture: the use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology, and community development. Permaculture is built upon an ethic of caring for the earth and interacting with the environment in mutually beneficial ways.
From Lee Barnes (former editor of Katuah Journal and Permaculture Connections), Waynesville, North Carolina:
Permaculture (PERMAnent agriCULTURE or PERMAnent CULTURE) is a sustainable design system stressing the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth.
To paraphrase the founder of permaculture, designer Bill Mollison:
Permaculture principles focus on thoughtful designs for small-scale intensive systems which are labor efficient and which use biological resources instead of fossil fuels. Designs stress ecological connections and closed energy and material loops. The core of permaculture is design and the working relationships and connections between all things. Each component in a system performs multiple functions, and each function is supported by many elements. Key to efficient design is observation and replication of natural ecosystems, where designers maximize diversity with polycultures, stress efficient energy planning for houses and settlement, using and accelerating natural plant succession, and increasing the highly productive "edge-zones" within the system.
From Michael Pilarski, founder of Friends of the Trees, published in International Green Front Report (1988):
Permaculture is: the design of land use systems that are sustainable and environmentally sound; the design of culturally appropriate systems which lead to social stability; a design system characterized by an integrated application of ecological principles in land use; an international movement for land use planning and design; an ethical system stressing positivism and cooperation.
In the broadest sense, permaculture refers to land use systems which promote stability in society, utilize resources in a sustainable way and preserve wildlife habitat and the genetic diversity of wild and domestic plants and animals. It is a synthesis of ecology and geography, of observation and design. Permaculture involves ethics of earth care because the sustainable use of land cannot be separated from life-styles and philosophical issues.
From a Bay Area Permaculture Group brochure, published in West Coast Permaculture News & Gossip and Sustainable Living Newsletter (Fall 1995):
Permaculture is a practical concept which can be applied in the city, on the farm, and in the wilderness. Its principles empower people to establish highly productive environments providing for food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs, including economic. Carefully observing natural patterns characteristic of a particular site, the permaculture designer gradually discerns optimal methods for integrating water catchment, human shelter, and energy systems with tree crops, edible and useful perennial plants, domestic and wild animals and aquaculture.
Permaculture adopts techniques and principles from ecology, appropriate technology, sustainable agriculture, and the wisdom of indigenous peoples. The ethical basis of permaculture rests upon care of the earth-maintaining a system in which all life can thrive. This includes human access to resources and provisions, but not the accumulation of wealth, power, or land beyond their needs.
Characteristics of Permaculture
Pilarski, Michael (ed.) 1994. Restoration Forestry. Kivaki Press, Durango, CO. p. 450. Reprinted with permission from the author.
The Practical Application of Permaculture
Permaculture is not limited to plant and animal agriculture, but also includes community planning and development, use of appropriate technologies (coupled with an adjustment of life-style), and adoption of concepts and philosophies that are both earth-based and people-centered, such as bioregionalism.
Many of the appropriate technologies advocated by permaculturists are well known. Among these are solar and wind power, composting toilets, solar greenhouses, energy efficient housing, and solar food cooking and drying.
Due to the inherent sustainability of perennial cropping systems, permaculture places a heavy emphasis on tree crops. Systems that integrate annual and perennial cropssuch as alley cropping and agroforestrytake advantage of "the edge effect," increase biological diversity, and offer other characteristics missing in monoculture systems. Thus, multicropping systems that blend woody perennials and annuals hold promise as viable techniques for large-scale farming. Ecological methods of production for any specific crop or farming system (e.g., soil building practices, biological pest control, composting) are central to permaculture as well as to sustainable agriculture in general.
Since permaculture is not a production system, per se, but rather a land use and community planning philosophy, it is not limited to a specific method of production. Furthermore, as permaculture principles may be adapted to farms or villages worldwide, it is site specific and therefore amenable to locally adapted techniques of production.
As an example, standard organic farming and gardening techniques utilizing cover crops, green manures, crop rotation, and mulches are emphasized in permacultural systems. However, there are many other options and technologies available to sustainable farmers working within a permacultural framework (e.g., chisel plows, no-till implements, spading implements, compost turners, rotational grazing). The decision as to which "system" is employed is site-specific and management dependent.
Farming systems and techniques commonly associated with permaculture include agro- forestry, swales, contour plantings, Keyline agriculture (soil and water management), hedgerows and windbreaks, and integrated farming systems such as pond-dike aquaculture, aquaponics, intercropping, and polyculture.
Gardening and recycling methods common to permaculture include edible landscaping, keyhole gardening, companion planting, trellising, sheet mulching, chicken tractors, solar greenhouses, spiral herb gardens, swales, and vermicomposting.
Water collection, management, and re-use systems like Keyline, greywater, rain catchment, constructed wetlands, aquaponics (the integra-tion of hydroponics with recirculating aquaculture), and solar aquatic ponds (also known as Living Machines) play an important role in permaculture designs.
The Ethics of Permaculture
Permaculture is unique among alternative farming systems (e.g., organic, sustainable, eco-agriculture, biodynamic) in that it works with a set of ethics that suggest we think and act responsibly in relation to each other and the earth.
The ethics of permaculture provide a sense of place in the larger scheme of things, and serve as a guidepost to right livelihood in concert with the global community and the environment, rather than individualism and indifference.
Care of the Earth
...includes all living and non-living things-plants, animals, land, water and air
Care of People
...promotes self-reliance and community responsibility-access to resources necessary for existence
...ensuring that Earth's limited resources are used in ways that are equitable and wise by giving away surplus time, labor, money, information, and energy to achieve the aims of earth and people care. Permaculture also acknowledges a basic life ethic, which recognizes the intrinsic worth of every living thing. A tree has value in itself, even if it presents no commercial value to humans. That the tree is alive and functioning is worthwhile. It is doing its part in nature: recycling litter, producing oxygen, sequestering carbon dioxide, sheltering animals, building soils, and so on.
The Principles of Permaculture Design
Whereas permaculture ethics are more akin to broad moral values or codes of behavior, the principles of permaculture provide a set of universally applicable guidelines which can be used in designing sustainable habitats. Distilled from multiple disciplinesecology, energy conservation, landscape design, and environmental sciencethese principles are inherent in any permaculture design, in any climate, and at any scale.
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