What’s so good about permaculture?

Permaculture is a difficult to define neatly. everybody who knows anything about it seems to express it slightly differently. But one of the pithiest definitions I’ve heard is from Heather Jo Flores. She says that permaculture is ‘whole systems design’.  

Permaculture is hard to pin down because it’s a living thing, always growing and being developed by various teachers and applications. Having said that, a few things remain at the heart of permaculture design:

First, permaculture revolves around the Three Ethics: earth care, people care and fair shares. Earth care recognises that our impact on the environment should be positive, not harmful. People care means caring for ourselves and others. And fair shares asks us to take what we need and share what we don’t.

Second, permaculture uses the principles developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Mollison and Holmgren were the first people to coin the word ‘permaculture’ and teach it, but they weren’t the first people to practise it. Sepp Holzer and Masanobu Fukuoka were designing according to nature’s patterns a while before permaculture arrived on the scene in the early 1970s. Before that, what we now call ‘permaculture techniques’ were used in food growing and plant management systems around the world, particularly from indigenous people.

I’ve been practicing permaculture for some time, and I’ve found noticed some wonderful benefits:

Permaculture is about seeing and creating abundance rather than scarcity.  Through the fair shares ethic, surplus food or resources are distributed amongst people or returned to the earth. We become aware we can add to nature as well as extracting resources from it. There is no waste in nature. In the same way, the yields of a permaculture space are only limited by our imagination. Glengall Wharf Garden is a great example of this: it grows food, provides habitat for wildlife, a social space for all ages, is educational and has potential for loads more!

Observation is key.  There’s so much wisdom in nature, all we need to do is observe it properly to find the answers we need. If we want to make changes to an existing system, the more complex it is, the more observation we need.  One permaculture principle is, “Use small and slow solutions,” which reminds us of that. 

Permaculture is about creating beneficial relationships.  Trees, for example, share their nutrients with each other via an underground root system. Permaculture can use ‘plant guilds’ – groups of plants which work together to help each other grow. For example, around a fruit tree, comfrey provides nutrients from deep down in the soil, nasturtium can act as a decoy for blackfly and cooling ground cover, clover fixes nitrogen into the soil, and poached egg plants can attract pollinators. Plants grow happily together in the forest garden at Glengall Wharf, occupying their own niches. Likewise, if we don’t want plants like couch grass, we can ensure there is no niche for it to find, either by keeping bare soil mulched or planting something we do want in the space instead.

Permaculture solves problems instead of creating them. Glengall Wharf Garden was originally a patch of mainly concrete. The forest garden mounds (called hugels) are built on top of the concrete. They are made of piled up waste logs layered with organic matter (chopped weeds, cardboard, manure) and a top layer of compost for planting in. Hey presto, ex-industrial land is now a vibrant haven for wildlife and people! 

Permaculture is diverse. It isn’t a monoculture, and people have commented that it isn’t as high yielding for this reason. I would say it is high yielding but the yields are various..  You get more from the whole system as a whole, but less of each individual crop.  It’s hard to compare the two, but diversity in a system means robustness and flexiblity – if a bed of cabbages gets chomped by caterpillars, growing a range of crops means something else can compensate.

And finally, permaculture gives us less work to do! This is because good design is 80% planning and 20% maintenance. More time for the important things in life, like friendships, fun and enjoying the fruits of our labour. 

I’ve found permaculture helpful, and even life-changing, I hope I’ve given you brief flavour of what it’s all about. If you want to find out more, a good first port of call would be the Permaculture Association website

Ruth Robinson
ethicalgardener@gmail.com