What is permaculture?
Google is always your friend when it comes to simple definitions:
Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.When the word permaculture was first coined, it was originally meant to mean permanent agriculture, but grew to also mean permanent culture, as it was recognized that a social community element was required for a properly sustainable system. It includes areas such as ecological design and engineering, environmental design and construction, water resources management, as well as agriculture systems based off natures own design, that are regenerative and self-maintaining. Permaculture requires thought and observation rather than thoughtless labor, and it looks at all the functions of plants and animals (and humans) to create an interconnected system, rather than focusing on single aspects of production.
Permaculture has three core tenets:
- Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
- Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
- Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness. The third ethic is sometimes referred to as Fair Share to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.
- Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
- Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
- Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
- Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
- Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
- Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
- Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
- Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
- Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
- Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
- Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.
That's where I come in. Obviously, as mentioned in the intro, I don't have a lot of space to work with, so I have had to modify the original concept around permaculture to work for my situation- in this case, a small urban garden. This didn't come together all at once either- I've been here over five years now, and I'm learning as I go, but I'll walk you through what I've done so far.
I spent the first couple of years observing my garden (1. Observe and Interact). It's recommended that, whenever you move into a new house, you should wait at least a year to see what is growing there already. In my case, it was daffodils, wild roses, and several other flowering shrubs. There was little in the way of other growth. I noted also that we have a good placement for our home, facing the sun in its daily course, all year round. This means that we get passive solar heating in the winter (we don't have any heating for the house otherwise)- it also means that summer is very hot with the sun beating down on the big windows. Another plus is that the sun on the front of the house all day turns the brick wall into a radiator for plants overnight. I also noted that the soil was quite poor, and that a lot of the potential growing space was trapped under pavers.
I purchased and installed a rain tank. (2. Catch and store energy.) This is an on going project. Currently, my tank is refilled from my in-law's neighboring tank (it's usually full). I have hopes of hooking our tank up to the carport, buying another tank to increase storage capacity, and collecting the rainwater from that surface. I also want to install one for the house, but that will be trickier to figure out. So for now, I have a 400L tank that I use to water the garden when it's dry.
In 2011, we built our first raised bed to grow some tomatoes and peppers. (3. Obtain a yield.) In the following years, I've added more beds, amended others as needed to improve the soil (an ongoing process), and grown and harvested more food. The excess harvest is either given away or sold to members of the community to "share the wealth" (which harks back to the 2nd tenet, Care for the people.)
Most recently, I've started learning about zero waste, and reducing the amount of trash that gets put back into the environment. (6. Produce no waste.) While I haven't reached the point where I'm completely zero waste, I do try to make use of what I can to see that it isn't wasted. Kitchen scraps and most paper products get put into the compost; building materials leftover from other projects are put to use for the garden; recyclable goods that have a use around the house are utilized.
Much of my garden planning is spontaneous according to what materials and resources I have to work with at the time, but underlying it all is a very basic sketch of a design. My piecemeal approach to permaculture might be unconventional, however- it also allows for the enormous amount of learning that I have to undergo in order to make it happen in the first place. More importantly, it allows me to share my experiences with others in the hope that I can educate them as I educate myself.
Like many things in life, permaculture can't be rushed- it requires time and thought. Thankfully, both of those are things I have in plenty.