Permaculture is a philosophy for a sustainable, holistic lifestyle. Ecological researcher and writer, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term in 1978. They combined the words permanent and agriculture to create permaculture as a system of ecological farming. They later changed it to permanent and culture to include the social needs of people and their housing as well.
To put it simply, permaculture works with nature instead of against it. In the wild, ecosystems regenerate on their own and are self-maintaining. Permaculture practitioners observe these natural processes and recreate them on their farms or in their backyards.
Permaculture draws from concepts of agro-forestry, applied ecology, organic farming, and sustainable development. Ways to build regenerative systems with that knowledge include:
Ecological principles influence the design of sustainable and permanent growing areas. Once you establish the gardens, it needs little to no interference to be productive, which means you won’t have to work as hard.
Structures are sustainably designed and built of natural materials produced on the property. Forests provide trees, and dirt can be transformed into cob or adobe bricks, for example.
APPLYING ECOLOGICAL PRINCIPLES
Healthy forest ecosystems have layers of plant life. The canopy consists of tall trees that provide shade. Below that is the under story—trees that do well in light shade. The shrub layer is made up of woody perennials. The lowest layers are herbaceous, and die back every winter. Then it’s the soil and its ground covers, and finally the rhizosphere, or root layer. There is also a vertical layer of vines and climbing plants.
You can easily incorporate layers into your landscape. Canopy trees provide building materials and firewood. The under story and shrub layer are good places for fruit trees and berries. Perennial crops and culinary and medicinal herbs could comprise the herbaceous layer. Annual and perennial cover crops could be used as the soil layer. Foods like beets, turnips, and carrots could comprise the root layer. While poles beans could be your vertical layer.
Water distribution determines where growing areas are placed. Harvested rainwater is gravity fed into built swales and ditches that follow the contours of the land. Irrigation water naturally flows to crops and livestock, and storm water and snow melt follow this route. Collected rainwater is used in the house for cooking and cleaning, too.
Permaculture zones are determined from its proximity to the house. This is based on how often they are worked. Vegetable and herb gardens are closest to the house, because they are tended daily. While the farthest zone is wild and untouched. In between are areas for an orchard and a greenhouse, fields for livestock, and a woodlot. Each zone has a purpose for supporting the entire landscape. There are food and shelter for people, animals, and wildlife.
Two contrasting environments coming together is called a transition area. Think of a pasture that is adjacent to a forest, or an ocean that laps against a cliff. Biodiversity is rich at the edge, which you can recreate in your garden. You can create that edge effect by putting a border around a raised bed or building a water feature.
Guilds are mutually beneficial organisms that work together to support each other. This is a natural occurrence in a wild ecosystem. In the home garden, this is akin to companion planting, grouping plants that support other plants, the soil, and wildlife. A Three Sisters planting of beans, corn, and squash is a good example of a guild.
Permaculture is a vast topic with many facets, but you don’t have to apply it in its entirety. Create a complete plan for a homestead and build it a little at a time. Or choose one or two aspects aimed at self-sufficiency and a smaller carbon footprint.
There is no one way to practice permaculture, but your goal should be to build a sustainable environment that fulfills your personal needs. Simplicity and low-impact are at the core of a permaculture lifestyle.
Nan Fischer is the founder of the Taos NM Seed Exchange, a free community service for home gardeners to trade seed. She has been working with plants for 40 years as farmer, landscaper, home gardener, and nursery owner. She holds a degree in Plant Science from the University of New Hampshire, and shares her knowledge by teaching others how to grow their own food. She is a home and garden writer who takes time out for reading, hiking, gardening, and experimenting in the kitchen.