Sunday, January 3, 2010

What is Permaculture?

When Mother Nature wants to plant a garden, how does she do it? Rent a roto tiller from the nearest Home Depot, chop up a whole plot of land including the worms living in it? Then meticulously planting seeds, watching for the slightest sign of life rather than the intended plants to immediately eradicate them? I don't think so.

Seeds are carried on the wind, by birds, replanted from the plants themselves. A wild garden looks just that way-- wild. The "good plants" are mixed in with weeds; the plants and leaves die off in the winter and guess what?!? They don't need to be raked or pulled or removed. In nature, there is no waste. This year's plants become next year's nutritious mulch, and eventually create soil.

Permaculture (meaning "permanent agriculture" and "permanent culture") was started in the mid 1970's by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Permaculture is based three core values: Earth Care (Earth is the source of all life and our only home; we must take care of soil, forests, and water), People Care (take care of ourselves, family, and community), and a Fair Share for all (so the limited resources of the Earth are distributed wisely; set limits on consumption). Permaculture Ethics and Design Principles are applied first on an individual level, and then spirals out to the community level where we can create sustainable societies. Permaculture can be a way of life-- everything in life is considered a garden, and what you put in is what you get out-- but for these purposes, I will describe it in terms of vegetable gardening.

Permaculture has a set of twelve basic principles:

1. Observe and Interact: by spending time with nature, we can design to co-exist sustainably (like Pete watching his yard for sunny areas)

2. Catch and Store Energy: collect resources when they are plentiful and store for when they are not (growing food in the summer, preserving for winter)

3. Obtain a Yield: ensure you are getting something back for what you're putting in (grow edible foods so your garden will provide for you)

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback: encourage useful behavior and discourage inappropriate behavior through feedback loops (what works, what doesn't?)

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services: use renewable technology wherever possible and minimize the use of non-renewables (catch rainwater to water your garden)
6. Produce No Waste: output from one system is input to the next (the "waste" from beer production can become food for your garden)

7. Design from Patterns to Details (herb gardens are often grown in spirals; gardens are designed to make maximum use of space, then details of which plants are grown where are decided upon; mimic patterns in nature where possible)

8. Integrate Rather than Segregate (companion planting; find things that work together)

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions (look for long-term solutions rather than quick fixes; focus on soil building rather than chemical fertilizer/herbicide/pesticide. A well developed garden won't need to be weeded!)

10. Use and Value Diversity (reduces vulnerability and increases resilience-- even plant several varieties of the same crops)

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal (edges are very productive--think of the edges of a pond or forest--so maximize edges to your benefit)

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change (the only constant is change. Learn to flow with that change and learn from it)

To learn more about these principles, visit and or ask me for one of the several PowerPoint presentations, PDF's, or books I have on the subject.

If you are interested in learning much more, please consider attending the Northeast Ohio Permaculture Design Course this winter! I am attending, and looking forward to it!


  1. The Basic Principals seem plenty sound, but I'm not sure how it applies to the first paragraph. Mother Nature does not garden, mother nature only exploits. Permaculture is very definatly structured gardening. Sustainability focused and baised on functioning within a system as opposed to forcing a system onto the land. All very good things.

    But leave Mother Nature out of it, She's a Bitch.

  2. In nature, there are definate patterns and successions in which things grow. If you can mimic these patterns, you will have a more successful garden. When an area is barren, plants (that we call weeds, such as dandylions) move in. Their job is to "fix" the soil--balance nutrients and nitrogen and get the earth ready for the next stage of succession. Bare earth becomes annual weeds, next it becomes tall perennials, then perennial shrubs, and eventually forest. Given enough time and water, all land moves toward becoming a forest.
    When you try to have a "typical" garden with neat little monoculture rows of plants, Mother Nature sees it as barren land and tries to take over. Weeds step in.
    If you can recognize what she's doing, however, and plant substitutes for the weeds that fix the nitrogen and balance the soil, and give you a harvest, then you've mimicked nature's actions and sort of sidestepped this process.
    You can also (assuming you have enough room in your yard space) mimic this larger pattern of succession by planting trees, with dwarf/fruit trees in front of them, with shrubs/berries in front of them, and annuals and perennial garden beds in front of those. This is called a forest garden.
    Plants are chosen wisely; beneficial insects are attracted, and weeds have no real reason to move in because their job is already being done; if they do move in, they won't take over. In nature there is a balance, and a permaculture garden tries to duplicate that balance and use it in a productive way.
    I hope this helped.

  3. I do, it's similar to a clover mix lawn right? Idealy, there should be less weeds due to out competition by the clover. And the clover serves to fix nitrogen in the soil for the grass.

  4. There is a travel channel show I caught an episode of called Mark & Olly: living with The Machigenga Tribe. This reminds me of the 'farm' they had, a field along the Amazon overrun with vegetation. Its a nice idea but you can't maximize yield per plant, or even per square foot planting like that. That's not a big deal when you live in the remote wilds of the Amazon basin, but when you're trying to fill a 50x50 back yard with as big a yield as possible well spaced and carefully tended plants will give a superior performance. Still its a nice idea, a sort of passive food production.

  5. There are certainly special considerations to permaculture gardening in the city, but it is entirely possible. The strategies for space usage are different, which is why I am choosing to create keyhole gardens. They are a perfect shape for urban gardens because they minimize path area and maximize growing area. Square foot gardens are also suggested in one of the permaculture books I have. Biointensive gardening and vertical gardening are also great techniques. Permaculture is a very inclusive set of underlying principles; companion plant, balance the soil, mulch instead of having to dig out weeds, and compost or use your kitchen scraps for mulch. Those small actions can work with any gardening system and are demonstrations of permaculture in practice.