What do you get when you combine "permanent," "agriculture," and "culture"? (No, this isn't the set up for a joke.) The answer is: permaculture. Four decades ago, two ecologists from Australia coined the term. Learn how the basic principals of permaculture can help you up your sustainability game.
What is permaculture?
According to Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the ecologists who first came up with the idea, "Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system."
During his years as a wildlife biologist Bill Mollison saw first-hand the destruction that humans were causing natural systems, but he also had a chance to observe how these natural ecosystems work and what keeps them in balance. Permaculture design is a result of Mollison's observations of these naturally functioning ecosystems.
Personally, I like to think of permaculture as everything in an ecosystem working together organically. In its ideal form, permaculture systems sustain themselves. Here's one simple example: In my daily life I eat an apple. When I'm done eating, I put the apple core in my compost bin. The core will decompose. In a few months, that compost will feed my fruit trees. Rain water, healthy soil, nutrients from compost, and the sun in my backyard ecosystem all work together to grow and sustain the apple's life cycle.
To put it another way, according to permaculture.net, "All permaculture design is based on three ethics: Care of the earth (because all living things have intrinsic worth); care of the people; and reinvestment of all surplus to support the first two ethics."
No matter how you articulate it's tenets, permaculture is a lofty goal that represents sustainability at its best.
How to incorporate permaculture into your landscape?
Permaculture comes into play in countless agricultural practices. Tomes have been written about them all, but I like to keep it simple. Try to incorporate these five principals into your landscape you'll be well on your way to Permaculture Paradise. (That's my own term; feel free to use it liberally in dinner party conversation.)
1. Copy nature. Nature is biodiverse with many varieties of plants and animals living together. Think of it this way: Nature favors an old growth forest because it is biodiverse versus a tree farm that only grows one variety of tree. Grow a diverse array of trees, shrubs, and perennials. Nature doesn't only grow green beans and neither should your garden.
2. Plant native plants. Orange trees are not native to my New England landscape. Therefore, planting an orange tree in my yard is an exercise in futility. While this may be an extreme example, the same principal applies when you buy plants from a local nursery versus a big box store. The local nursery will most likely grow the native plant in local soil and this will help to sustain it once you plant it in your garden. The plant from the big box store is likely sprinkled with pesticide and/or fungicide and is planted in non-native soil; it will not fare well in your garden.
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3. Location, location, location. Study your landscape to learn all of its various microclimates. Use the microclimates to support what you're trying to grow. For example, a tomato plant that requires a lot of sunlight isn't going to grow under a canopy of maple trees. My rhubarb plant that loves to be chilly isn't going to thrive anywhere near my basil that needs to bake in the sun. Make smart choices about placing each plant where it is going to thrive.
4. Each part of your landscape should perform multiple functions. Sometimes a pear tree isn't just a pear tree. It may also supply fruit for food and a cash crop; rinds for compost; leaves for mulch; dead twigs for kindling; and shade for me, my dog, and other plants. Make that pear tree earn its place in your landscape by doing many jobs.
5. Employ organic practices. Remember, everything in the permaculture system is interconnected to everything else. This is vital because a sustainable ecosystem's strength comes from lots of interconnected parts working together. Think about that bio-diverse old growth forest I mentioned above: Hundreds of years ago no one sprayed it with pesticide. The naturally occurring ecosystem provided all that it needed to survive for a very long time--including the right balance of beneficial pests. No pesticides required.
Take it one step further
Some folks are so devoted to the idea of permaculture that they create whole communities (think, intentional communities) that incorporate its principals into daily life.
For some, the definition of permaculture has grown to encompass economic and social systems. Some people see the best expression of permaculture encompassing not only agricultural practices but spiritual practices as well.
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Kid in garden image via Shutterstock