By Laura Thomas
Permaculture, as the name suggests, is a system of permanent growing, quite distinct from the traditional growing systems of horti-and agri-culture. Although it was Joseph Russell Smith who first wrote about a ‘permanent agriculture’ system in 1929, it is Bill Mollison who is generally considered the ‘father of permaculture’. In collaboration with David Holmgrem they developed the design philosophy of creating self-perpetuating, integrated, sustainable growing systems.
Permaculture design is based on the concept of maximising production through strategic and efficient use of available resources, whilst minimising inputs from outside the system, such as fertilisers, pesticides and even labour. Beginning with the keen observation of the available land, hot, cold, wet, dry, exposed and sheltered areas are identified and the design is developed, so that plants are placed where they will thrive.
Water is a resource which has a major impact on any growing systems; either due to its abundance or scarcity, and is a key consideration during site analysis and system design.
Proximity of plants to water sources or storage areas is based on their requirements whilst the lie on the land is utilised so that excess water can run-off into ponds or swales, where fish can be kept or trees can be planted. Flood and drought-proofing is integrated into the design and increases the resilience of the system as a whole. Once the macro-design has been developed the process of integrating the various growing systems begins. Natural fertilisers include leguminous plants which fix nitrogen in the soil; green manure crops like mustards and clovers that, once dug into the soil, provide nitrogen and other growth nutrients like potassium and phosphate; and cover crops like strawberries, which have a range of beneficial effects besides improving soil-nutrient availability, through weed suppression, moisture retention and even food production.
So what is nature’s solution to every farmer’s enemy – pests? Many fragrant herbs attract beneficial insects which prey on pests and counteract disease whilst alliums, such as garlic and chives, are well known pest repellents. Permaculture designs exploit the properties of a wide variety of plants, resulting in a fully integrated, biodiverse and resilient growing space. The classic example of a permaculture growing system is the Three Sisters guild, a combination of plants which grow in synergy, which was developed by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. The squash provides shading, thereby cooling the bean and corn roots and aiding water retention. The beans use the corn stem for support as they grow, whilst fixing nitrogen into the soil, thus supporting the growth of the squash and corn in return.
Livestock can also be recruited to assist with weed and pest control, whilst providing additional fertiliser as a by-product. The ‘chicken tractor’ is a popular example of Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG). This method ensures that growing systems are only maintained, and not destroyed as the industrious livestock are contained and regularly moved to other areas where their services are required. MIRG has also been implemented with larger grazing animals, such as cattle, to prevent overgrazing and land degeneration, as well as more modest grazers like poultry. Manure is not the only livestock by- product that can be utilised; by building a chicken coop inside a greenhouse the emitted body heat from the livestock contributes not only to plant growth but also allows the chickens to conserve energy during the winter and prolongs egg-production.
The holistic nature of permaculture techniques utilises commonly wasted by-products and builds on naturally occurring, integrated systems to create stable, highly productive and regenerative growing spaces. These resilient, biodiverse systems can withstand changes in temperature and water availability. The soil structure is built on year-by-year undisturbed by disruptive digging or ploughing, which leads to soil erosion and degradation, allowing supportive organisms to thrive and out-compete destructive diseases.
The discovery of such efficient methods of growing, like many other ground-breaking scientific discoveries, came from the keen observation of nature. Just like Mendel’s observations of cross-bred peas, which led to the current understanding of genetic inheritance, it was Smith’s observations of the regenerative and self-maintaining forest system that led to the development of the ‘Food Forest’ as a sustainable form of food production. However, the scientific community has not yet embraced permaculture as a viable alternative to the intensive, monoculture farming practices of today. Perhaps the apparent lack of ‘new technologies’ or the rejection of recent agricultural advances (that have proven to dramatically increase yields) has led to permaculture being deemed by many as a ‘hippy-ideal’ that has no hope of feeding the ever-expanding global population. Or are stronger forces at play here? The global agricultural industry is unlikely support growers who do not need to buy pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers year-in-year-out and who are reliant on natural resources and man-power alone.
Either way, few see permaculture as a viable sustainable agriculture system, particularly on a large-scale. However, as our world warms and the effects of climate change become increasingly pronounced, how long can we continue our current resource-intense, carbon-emitting and environmentally-destructive farming practices? When so many inputs are required to get a reasonable output, how can we expect farmers in developing countries to improve yields when so many of these resources are unattainable?
I believe permaculture design is a valuable tool applicable to many settings. It can revolutionise subsistence farming practices in developing countries as well as improve the yields and sustainability of commercial farms. Its application in industrialised countries will increase production and consumption of native foods, decreasing reliance on imported produce, particularly when the imported goods could in fact be grown locally. Permaculture principles have already shown promising results in the forestry sector, where wide-scale restoration is required to mitigate climate change, as shown in the following video made by WeForest.
So let’s take it back to the roots and build resilient, ecological and fruitful growing systems into the future of climate change mitigation, sustainable agriculture and forestry. Permaculture principles give us the ethical basis to develop future growing systems that will not only feed, but nurture the world.