Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Nature of Permaculture

Nigel Crawley – Tring in Transition

Permaculture seeks to avoid the problems of unsustainable systems by working with, instead of against, Nature.  For example, current industrial agriculture is an incredibly inefficient system.  It takes ten calories of energy input (mainly from fossil fuels) to produce one calorie of food output.  This is only one example of our current high-input systems that are only possible while we have access to cheap fossil-fuel energy.

The word Permaculture is a portmanteau word originally derived from ‘Permanent Agriculture’.  Nevertheless, due to the universality of Permaculture principles and their application in the design of other human activities, it has since been expanded to ‘Permanent Culture’.

Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centred around simulating or directly utilising the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.  For example, sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural processes occurring within forests.

The design principles, which are the conceptual foundation of Permaculture, have been derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use.  Permaculture practitioners are also guided by an ethical framework of ‘Care of the Earth’, ‘Care of People’ and ‘Return of Surplus to Earth and People’.

The first use of the term ‘Permanent Agriculture’ was probably by J. Russell Smith in his book ‘Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture’.  Originally published in 1929, ‘Tree Crops’ was J. Russell Smith’s reaction to witnessing the environmental destruction caused by an industrial agriculture based on growing grains – or, as he summarised, “Forest-field-plow-desert”.  In ‘Tree Crops’ Smith advocates development of a permanent agriculture based on perennial tree crops both for livestock feed and human food.  It’s fair to say that the ideas in ‘Tree Crops’ inspired Permaculture’s early pioneers and are still extremely relevant.

However, the Permaculture movement as we know it today started with an Australian called Bill Mollison.  In 1959, while studying marsupials in their natural environment of the Tasmanian forest, Bill wrote a seminal note in his journal: “I believe that we could build systems that would function as well as this one does.”  He continued to work on his idea for the next twelve years by observing natural ecosystems and the practices of indigenous cultures.  In 1972 David Holmgren, a student of Bill Mollison’s, wrote an undergraduate thesis based on Bill’s ideas that later became the basis for the first Permaculture manual: “Permaculture One”.  Subsequently, Permaculture has spread globally due to Bill’s clever strategy of teaching the teachers via a 72-hour Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course.  The PDC is a life-changing two-week immersion in Permaculture’s whole systems view of the world.

Permaculture seeks to minimise waste, human labour, and energy input by building systems.  Forest gardening, for example, is a labour-saving three-dimensional food-growing ecosystem designed to mimic natural forests.

The focus of Permaculture design is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements when they are placed together so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Within a Permaculture system the resources generated by all the elements are engineered to supply their respective needs, mimicking the complex relationships found in natural ecosystems.  When a certain threshold of this complexity is reached, new beneficial properties start to emerge from the system, such as self-regulation, feedback loops, self-organisation, and resilience. By working in this way we can create a low-input food garden where  nature takes over most of the maintenance work for us.

There are a number of unique techniques employed by Permaculture designers when assembling complex systems including: input-output analysis, zone analysis and sector analysis.  Input-output analysis looks at the outputs of elements within a design and attempts to match them to the inputs of other elements.  For example, one of the outputs from chickens is heat and a greenhouse requires heating on frosty nights.  So why not build the greenhouse around the chicken shed?.  Zones are areas around the main centre of human activity.  Elements in a design that require regular attention are placed in the zone nearest the centre and elements that require minimal attention in the zone furthest away.  A Permaculture sector is any influence arriving from off the design site that you have no direct influence over (e.g. sunlight, wind, water, etc.).  Sectors can either be caught and used, deflected/blocked or left to pass by unaffected.

Above everything, Permaculture is about protracted and thoughtful observation instead of prolonged and thoughtless action.  By slowing down and observing natural ecosystems we can learn valuable lessons that will improve our lifestyles.  After all, Nature, having done 3,500,000,000 years of Research & Development, is our best teacher.