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What is Permaculture ?

Permaculture integrates land, resources, people and the environment through mutually beneficial synergies – imitating the no waste, closed loop systems seen in diverse natural systems. Permaculture studies and applies holistic solutions that are applicable in rural and urban contexts at any scale. It is a multidisciplinary toolbox including agriculture, water harvesting and hydrology, energy, natural building, forestry, waste management, animal systems, aquaculture, appropriate technology, economics and community development.

Permaculture (the word, coined by Bill Mollison, is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture and permanent culture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.

Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms.

The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.

As the basis of permaculture is beneficial design, it can be added to all other ethical training and skills, and has the potential of taking a place in all human endeavors. In the broad landscape, however, permaculture concentrates on already settled areas and agricultural lands. Almost all of these need drastic rehabilitation and re-thinking.
One certain result of using our skills to integrate food supply and settlement, to catch water from our roof areas, and to place nearby a zone of fuel forest which receives wastes and supplies energy, will be to free most of the area of the globe for the rehabilitation of natural systems. These need never be looked upon as “of use to people”, except in the very broad sense of global health.

The real difference between a cultivated (designed) ecosystem, and a natural system is that the great majority of species (and biomass) in the cultivated ecology is intended for the use of humans or their livestock. We are only a small part of the total primeval or natural species assembly, and only a small part of its yields are directly available to us. But in our own gardens, almost every plant is selected to provide or support some direct yield for people. Household design relates principally to the needs of people; it is thus human-centered (anthropocentric).

This is a valid aim for settlement design, but we also need a nature-centered ethic for wilderness conservation. We cannot, however, do much for nature if we do not govern our greed, and if we do not supply our needs from our existing settlements. If we can achieve this aim, we can withdraw from much of the agricultural landscape, and allow natural systems to flourish.

Recycling of nutrients and energy in nature is a function of many species. In our gardens, it is our own responsibility to return wastes (via compost or mulch) to the soil and plants. We actively create soil in our gardens, whereas in nature many other species carry out that function. Around our homes, we can catch water for garden use, but we rely on natural forested landscapes to provide the condenser leaves and clouds to keep rivers running with clean water, to maintain the global atmosphere, and to lock up our gaseous pollutants. Thus, even anthropocentric people would be well-advised to pay close attention to, and to assist in, conservation of existing forests and to assist in, the conservation of all existing species and allow them a place to live.

We have abused the land and laid waste to systems we never need have disturbed had we attended to our home gardens and settlements. If we need to state a set of ethics on natural systems, then let it be thus:

  -  Implacable and uncompromising opposition to further disturbance of any remaining natural forests, where most species are still in balance;
  -  Vigorous rehabilitation of degraded and damaged natural systems to stable states;
  -  Establishment of plant systems for our own use on the least amount of land we can use for our existence; and
  -  Establishment of plant and animal refuges for rare or threatened species.

Permaculture as a design system deals primarily with the third statement above, but all people who act responsibly in fact subscribe to the first and second statements. We believe we should use all the species we need or can find to use in our own settlement designs, providing they are not locally rampant and invasive.

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Let’s look at the ethical principles in greater detail.

The Permaculture Principles
1. Care of the Earth

The Earth is the very thing that sustains us, it provides us with all the essentials that keeps us alive – air, water, food, shelter – and it is the only source of these essentials, we can’t get them from anywhere else! We depend on the Earth and all the living systems on the planet (which, incidentally, are all interconnected in a complicated, interdependent web of life) for our survival.

Taking care of the Earth’s systems that keep us alive would logically be seen as “enlightened self-interest”, doing what is right to ensure one’s own survival – not polluting the air we breathe, not poisoning the water we drink, and not destroying the land which provides our sustenance.

“Care of the Earth” includes all living and non-living things, such as animals, plants, land, water and air. It includes all of them because, as science shows us through ecology and biology, all of them are interconnected and interdependent. When one is affected, all are affected.

Caring for the Earth means caring for the soil, which is a living ecosystem, on which plant life depends, and therefore, our source of food. It means caring for our forests, which are the lungs of the planet, ensuring a supply of clean air. Forests are also inextricably linked into the process of rain formation and the water cycle, and therefore play a key role in ensuring our supply of fresh water. It means caring for our rivers, which are the veins of our planet, circulating the water which all life depends on.

2. Care of People

All living things are interdependent on each other, including people. In reality as the saying goes, “no man is an island”, humans by their very nature are communal and social animals, and just like the rest nature, of which they are a part of, are cooperative in nature.

If you doubt the veracity of this statement, then cast your mind back past the psychologically delusional industrialised society in which we find ourselves in and look at history. Traditionally, the punishment for serious wrongdoers in ancient societies was banishment or exile, being forced out of the community to fend for oneself. This was equivalent to a death sentence, or at least a cruel, lonely and unsafe life of severe hardship. Beyond just physical interdependency, humans psychologically need community, modern studies have shown that having community is beneficial to the mental health of an individual, and lack of community is clearly detrimental.  The ancients knew that humans needed community, hence the nature of the punishment. Pity modern society forgets this today and individuals banish themselves to an isolated and meaningless technological prison they call modern life, where they selfishly pursue their needs and never get to know their own neighbours.

    Self-sufficiency is a myth, and a harmful one too!

“Care of People” is about promoting self-reliance and responsibility towards the greater community . It is importance to point out that we are talking about self-reliance and not self-sufficiency here. As I mentioned before, “no man is an island”, one person cannot do everything, and it is ridiculous to expect any one person to do so in any lifestyle other than the most primitive. Self-sufficiency is a myth, and a harmful one too! As Bill Mollison once stated, “I might grow food, but I don’t want to have to make my own shoes, I can trade food I’ve grown with someone who makes shoes…”. That’s the essence of community! It’s about sharing and supporting each other.

So what is promoting self-reliance about? It is about taking responsibility for more than one’s own future, and looking to help one’s community by sharing knowledge and experience, to skill people up so that they can provide for some of their basic needs. The essence of this is captured by the expression “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for ever”. It is about a collaborative effort to bring change to one’s won life and that of others.

When people collaborate to support each other, and to meet their needs, both physical and non-physical, this creates a bond which builds a stable, supportive, and emotionally healthy community which prospers.

“Care of People” importantly has to begin with the person closest to us, our self! It’s hard to care for others when we can’t care for ourselves, and there’s no point in caring for others while neglecting oneself. Such martyrdom is unconstructive, because if we are interested in helping others, then it is in our best interests that we are in an optimum state to be helpful to others. Beyond our selves, “Care for People” then extends to the next closest circle of people in our lives, our families, then our neighbours, our local community and then the greater community, and ultimately, all of humanity.

3. Fair Share

This is also described as the ethical principle of “Return of surplus to Earth and people”.

No matter how you look at it, the world’s resources are definitely finite, so logically it follows that there is a finite and measurable share of resources available to each person on the planet to support them.

If all the resources produced were a metaphorical “pie”, and each person has their “slice of the pie”, what happens when someone wants more than their fair share, when someone wants more than one “slice of the pie”? Simply put, someone else goes without.

Our Western society is driven by the unsustainable economic ideology of Consumer Capitalism, which incessantly chants the mantra of “continuous growth”, which in effect, implies continuously increasing consumption. This is a rather quaint concept, the idea of continuous growth in a finite system, for this clearly defies the laws of physics, and also the laws of common sense. It is a truly delusional principle of a flawed ideology, for it has no basis in ecology or any other science. If anyone for even the briefest moment stops to think of how you could possibly have continuous growth, and for that matter, continuously increasing consumption, on a planet of fixed size with finite (and diminishing) resources, then the nonsensical nature of this concept is clearly evident.

    All our basic needs are met by the Earth herself, and our next higher needs are met through community with each other.

What we fail to see through the delusional haze of non-stop shopping, wide screen televisions and a myriad of electronic consumer gadgets is that nature keeps us alive for free, as she has since we first walked the Earth! All our basic needs are met by the Earth herself, and our next higher needs are met through community with each other. It’s only in this 200 year old experiment we call “industrialised society” that we have become disconnected from nature, and forgotten how to tend to our own needs through the resources provided to us freely by nature. Yes, admittedly, a life sustained directly by nature is much simpler and more fuss-free, which is probably why many people are opting to leave the cities, leave the rat-race far behind them, and move out into the country to lead a more balanced and harmonious life…

The reason I make the point about nature supporting us is that when we live closer to nature, we realise without doubt that nature does provides us with what we need, as long as we respect it and only take what we need to survive. In traditional societies, hunters knew about sustainable harvests, they took what game they needed to feed their tribes, if they took all the game in a single season, firstly, they wouldn’t be able to use all the food, it would be clearly wasteful, and secondly, they would starve to death fairly soon afterwards.

To put our current world situation into perspective, imagine a village with an orchard of fruit trees, the yields are plentiful, the villagers can harvest fruit as they feel hungry, they take what they can eat, and they return day after day to harvest fruit for the whole season. Nature provides their needs, all for free.

Now consider this situation – imagine one greedy villager arrives early in the season, picks all the fruit, and does not let anyone else have any. He cannot possibly eat all the fruit himself, and it would naturally spoil in a very short period of time. He tells the other villagers that they can have fruit if they give him articles of personal property in exchange. He accumulates all manner of personal possessions, more than he needs, and the villagers get the fruit.

Now, both situations are identical as far as resources go, the only difference being in the distribution of the resources. The first example is collaborative, everyone receives their fair share for free, in the second example, where one individual is driven by greed and selfish self-interest, this resembles the consumer capitalist model of our modern world. I hope this illustrates the value of the system of “fair share” and also puts into perspective what is so wrong with our society currently.

If we overcome the incredibly irrational human preoccupation of amassing possessions, which is typified by the empty and life-devoid philosophy of “the one with the most toys at the end wins…”, and the frenzied resource-grab than ensues, we can take some responsibility in how much we resources we consume in our lifetimes. We can live sustainably, and avoid destroying the Earth’s living systems that sustain out lives. This “exploitation mentality” is not normal, we are brought up with it, it is learned, and can be “unlearned”.

Furthermore, when we share our surplus produce, when we share our skills, knowledge and experience, these actions builds bonds between people which all works to foster a sense of stable collaborative community.

So what’s the point of “Fair Share”? If we take only our fair share, then there is enough for everybody, and there will continue to be in the future too.


What It All Means

The ethics of Permaculture, Care of the Earth , Care of People and Sharing of Surplus, promote a system which is life-affirming, and creates a sense of reverence for all life on the planet.

By embodying and living these principles, we ensure the continued survival of our species, the health of the planet and maintain a healthy respect for life itself.

Now, if anybody doubts the impact of a lack of a sound ethical principles, all they need to do is have a look at the world we live in. In a world driven by financial incentive, where ethical conduct takes a back seat, the consequences are both expected and inevitable. World consumption statistics clearly show the state of inequality in the distribution of resources worldwide, the excessive waste of resources by developed countries, and the unsustainable rates of resource and energy consumption.

The Permaculture ethics compel us to take personal responsibility for our actions. We can either “choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution”, the choice is ours!


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                                  Permaculture Zones

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                                  Permaculture Shelter Design

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                                  Permaculture: Geoff Lawton at TEDxAjman

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How To Create A Permaculture Garden That Supports Your Local Ecosystem

Permaculture principles go a step beyond organic and help your plants truly thrive.
By ROL Staff, March 1, 2017

                               Permaculture garden

Combining the best of natural landscaping and edible gardening, permaculture systems sustain both themselves and their caregivers. The ultimate purpose of permaculture—a word coined in the mid-1970s by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren—is to develop a site until it meets all the needs of its inhabitants, from food and shelter to fuel and entertainment.

While it’s the rare home gardener who can follow permaculture principles to the ultimate degree, most can borrow ideas from the permaculture ethos with simple landscaping techniques based on production and usefulness.

Know your permaculture-recommended plants

                          Blackberries in permaculture garden

Permaculture emphasizes the use of native plants or those that are well adapted to your locale. The goal here is to plant things you like, while making sure they have a purpose and benefit the landscape in some way. Plants such as fruit trees provide food as well as shade; a patch of bamboo could provide stakes for supporting pole beans and other vining plants. (Here's how to make a simple bamboo trellis..) Permaculture gardeners grow many types of perennial food plants—such as arrowhead, sorrel, chicory, and asparagus—in addition to standard garden vegetables.

Related : 10 Plants You Should Never, Ever Grow

Like all gardeners, permaculture enthusiasts love plants for their beauty and fragrance, but they seek out plants that offer practical benefits along with aesthetic satisfaction. Instead of a border of flowering shrubs, for instance, a permaculture site would make use of a raspberry or blackberry border. (Here’s how to grow your own raspberries.)

Know what plants to avoid

                                Hybrid tea roses permaculture

Disease-prone plants, such as hybrid tea roses, and plants requiring a lot of water or pampering are not good permaculture candidates. (Learn how crop rotation can help prevent pests and diseases, and improve soil quality.) Choose a native persimmon tree that doesn’t need spraying and pruning, for example, instead of a high-upkeep peach tree. Consider the natural inclinations of your site, along with the needs of its inhabitants, and put as much of your site as possible to use. Work with the materials already available rather than trucking in topsoil or stone. And remember that a permaculture design is never finished, because the plants within a site are always changing.

                           Backyard garden using permaculture principles

5 permaculture practices to start following now

There is no set formula for developing this type of permaculture garden design, but there are some permaculture best practices:

1. Copy nature’s blueprint and enhance it with useful plants and animals. Think of the structure of a forest and try to mimic it with your plantings. A canopy of tall trees will give way to smaller ones, flanked by large and small shrubs and, finally, by the smallest plants. Edge habitats, where trees border open areas, are perfect for fruiting shrubs, such as currants, and for a variety of useful native plants, such as beargrass (xerophyllum tenax), which is used for weaving baskets. Mimicking these natural patterns with permaculture provides for the greatest diversity of plants.
2. Stack plants into guilds. A guild includes plants with compatible roots and canopies that might be layered to form an edge. As you learn more about your site, you’ll discover groups of plants that work well together. For example, pines, dogwoods, and wild blueberries form a guild for acid soil.
3. Make use of native plants and others adapted to the site (but defintely not these plants).
4. Divide your yard into zones based on use. Place heavily used features, such as an herb garden, in the most accessible zones. (Here are 7 backyard weeds that are actually medicinal herbs in disguise.)
5. Identify microclimates in your yard and use them appropriately. Cold, shady corners; windswept spots in full sun; and other microclimates present unique opportunities. For instance, try sun-loving herbs like creeping thyme on rocky outcroppings; plant eldeberries in poorly drained areas.

Related: 5 Ways Your Garden Can Support The Local Wildlife


Learn more about permaculture

Permaculture designers are now working to conceptualize and create entire permaculture communities that embody these permaculture concepts. So, if permaculture intrigues you, there is a wealth of online resources. Try Permaculture Institute, Edible Forest Gardens, and Crazy Rooster Farm as a start.



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