Tuesday, 7 May 2013

What is Permaculture?

So what is Permaculture?

In brief, it is a design system for sustainable living and land use.

Wikipedia defines it as follows:
Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design which develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems.

The concept was developed in Australia in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and is now practised widely around the world. It is based on the following 3 ethics:
  • Take care of the earthCare of all living and non-living things: soils, species and their varieties, atmosphere, forests, microhabitats, animals and water. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Take care of the people: Look after self, kin and community. Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.This is important because people have a big impact on the world they live in.
  • Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus: Healthy natural systems use outputs from each element to nourish others. We humans can do the same. By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles. Once we have taken care of our basic needs we can contribute surplus time, money and energy into helping others achieve the same.

The above ethics give rise to the 12 permaculture design principles:
  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation. This is the foundation of a good permaculture design.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need. Some of the sources of energy include sun, wind and run-off water flows, as well as wasted resources from agricultural, industrial and commercial activities.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing. We should design systems to provide for self-reliance at all levels.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Understanding how positive and negative feedbacks work in nature enables us to design systems that are more self-regulating. This reduces the work required to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to manage and maintain yields and to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe common patterns in nature and society. We can use these patterns as the backbone of our designs, filling in the details as we go. This is where permaculture employs zone and sector planning to aid as a starting point in site design.
  8. 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. The system becomes more than the sum of its parts.
  9. 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. Smaller systems can be collectively more resilient than one large system. Doing anything that is self-reliant in nature is also a powerful application of this principle.
  10. 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. Nature shows us that there are many  different ways of doing things. Employing variety affords insurance should one thing fail e.g. polyculture versus monoculture systems. This principle also emcompasses redundant design i.e. having in place backup ways of doing something should one way fail.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system. David Holmgren views alley and shelterbelt forestry as systems where increasing edge between field and forest has contributed to productivity.
  12. 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. We need to respond to changes that come from outside the control of the system.

These 12 design principles can be applied in all climates and on all scales - from balcony gardens to suburban house blocks to large scale agricultural properties and even regional communities.

Our suburban garden

The emphasis in permaculture is working with natural systems and their energy flows to maximise useful connections, minimise waste and reduce the amount of energy that you need to put into the system to maintain it.

In a permaculture design the focus is on how the elements of the design work together as a whole, rather than on the individual elements themselves. Well designed permaculture systems are able to produce a large amount of food on a small amount of land, using minimal inputs and creating minimal waste.

Geese and chickens in a orchard have multiple functions - fertilising, keeping the grass down, cleaning up windfall fruit and removing pests

We've been 'permaculturising' our own suburban block for some years now.  Taking what was a bare patch of lawn we have created a productive garden comprising fruit and nut trees, herbs, berries and perennial and annual vegetables. We've incorporated bees to aid in pollination and to produce honey. We've also been steadily retro-fitting our 1930s brick home in a variety of ways including installing PVs, solar hot water, water tanks and a wood heater which heats our home using mainly waste wood from arborists. Composting, preserving the harvest from our garden by bottling and dehydrating fruit and making jams and other preserves, making our own beer, vinegar and soap are just some of the things we've done so far on our little permaculture journey. The list goes on.......and there's lots more we plan to do. 

The main thing we've learnt along the way is that if you take a step-by-step approach to becoming more sustainable it makes the process entirely do-able.  Start small with things that are easy and/or cheap to accomplish and then work your way out from there.

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