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Introduction to Permaculture

Jessica Graves


Permaculture is a farming method developed in 1978 by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. It mimics nature to build a low input, high output edible ecosystem. While it’s origins lie in Australia, permaculture has now been implemented around the globe in various climates. Founder Bill Mollison describes Permaculture as “ a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system”.

Most of permaculture was built through observation. Founder Bill Mollison watched nature and thought that he could do the same thing, producing an abundance of food while letting mother nature do all the heavy lifting. The first way to do this is to observe a niche in nature and replace it with a productive element. For example, when your garden is overrun with vexing weeds, it means that there was a niche in your garden that was filled by those weeds. Instead of spraying your garden with weed killer, a better solution is to replace those weeds with a productive plant that fills the same niche. Diversity is key here because if you have only one plant species, a monoculture, there will be numerous niches for less desirables to fill. However the more diversity you have, the more likely your man-made ecosystem will thrive. It is very important to recognize that each element of an ecosystem can play more than one role. All living things are complex the same way humans are complex. You can be an athlete, but you could never be just an athlete. Likely an athlete is someone’s mother, daughter, friend. An athlete could be an artist or a gardener, or both. Permaculture abolishes the idea that things are black and white; simply one or the other rather than both. In many cases, even pesky weeds have a place in Permaculture.

Permaculture is organized in zones, and each zone has a concentration of daily, weekly or even yearly work. The first zone, Zone 0 is centered around the house, where a family will spend most of it’s time. The second zone, Zone 1 is near the home and houses elements that need regular or daily attention, such as a greenhouse or kitchen garden. These zones see frequent activity, however the larger the zone, the less frequent the activity. Zone 5 is often left alone completely, donated permanently to nature and her wildlife.

One of the first developments in permaculture is known as the food forest, which is essentially a forest of edible plants. It follows nature’s layers, in a technique known as stacking. Stacking is a way of utilizing earth’s space functionally. There are many layers to a forest, starting with the canopy layer, then the understory layer of smaller trees, followed by the shrub layer. Vines grow up trees in the vertical layer and herbaceous plants grow in the next layer, under which grow groundcover and root plants. Lastly, fungi and bacteria can be considered the last layer, propagating above and below the soil. In permaculture, often the goal is to grow as much food as possible in one square foot. The only way to do this is by stacking the same way mother nature does in her own forests. Aside from food forests we see stacking in guilds, small groups of mutually beneficial plants. Native Americans traditionally used a guild known as “The Three Sisters”, a garden of beans grown up the stalks of corn, surrounded by squash plants. These three plants thrive best when grown together, each plant possessing a quality the others need to prosper.  

Another important key to permaculture is waste and energy. Permaculture doesn’t recognize waste, since anything produced should be able to return to the earth, increasing fertility in the soil. To take “waste” from the property would be wasting resources, and that is a big no-no in permaculture. Waste water, rain water, food waste, and even human waste can all be beneficially utilized in a permaculture system. Energy yields are important, and a good permaculturist won’t let an energy source leave the property until they have exhausted every use. A great example of this is another australian-born invention commonly utilized in permaculture, known as Aquaponics. Aquaponics is a method of growing fish in conjunction with plants by filtering fish waste water through beds of produce. While the plants filter and consume the nitrogen and waste, the water returns to the fish clean and the cycle repeats itself. Aquaponics uses approximately 2% of the water used in commercial produce farming, not to mention the waste produced by commercial aquaculture.

Don’t be fooled by Permaculture’s exotic origins. Permaculture principles can be utilized in any climate. Permaculturists like Geoff Lawton have worked to solved drought, flood, and forest fire problems in the dry climates. In the tropics, where there is a significant breakdown of organic matter, permaculture puts emphasis on promoting aerobic breakdown rather than the noxious anaerobic decomposition. Even in cold climate, permaculture thrives, and emphasis is put on energy efficiency and what is known as “appropriate technology”, or efficient technology that is used responsibly and to it’s fullest potential. A man named Sepp Holzer has a very successful food forest and farm up the side of a valley in the Austrian Alps where he manages to grow citrus. A permaculture haven has even been achieved in a small urban lot in drought-ridden California. Start now. Go outside and observe what mother nature does in your area and how you can mimic her in your garden. Work with nature and not against it.


Contributed by Margot Pomeroy, © Una Biologicals ® 2015.