What is Permaculture?

[Source: Wikipedia]
Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.
Permaculture is sustainable land use design. This is based on ecological and biological principles, often using patterns that occur in nature to maximise effect and minimise work. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants. The ecological processes of plants, animals, their nutrient cycles, climatic factors and weather cycles are all part of the picture. Inhabitants’ needs are provided for using proven technologies for food, energy, shelter and infrastructure. Elements in a system are viewed in relationship to other elements, where the outputs of one element become the inputs of another. Within a Permaculture system, work is minimised, “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase, and environments are restored. Permaculture principles can be applied to any environment, at any scale from dense urban settlements to individual homes, from farms to entire regions.
The first recorded modern practice of permaculture as a systematic method was by Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer in the 1960s, but the method was scientifically developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and their associates during the 1970s in a series of publications.
The word permaculture is described by Mollison as a portmanteau of permanent agriculture, and permanent culture.
The intent is that, by training individuals in a core set of design principles, those individuals can design their own environments and build increasingly self-sufficient human settlements — ones that reduce society's reliance on industrial systems of production and distribution that Mollison identified as fundamentally and systematically destroying Earth's ecosystems.
While originating as an agro-ecological design theory, permaculture has developed a large international following. This "permaculture community" continues to expand on the original ideas, integrating a range of ideas of alternative culture, through a network of publications, permaculture gardens, intentional communities, training programs, and internet forums. In this way, permaculture has become a form of architecture of nature and ecology as well as an informal institution of alternative social ideals.


An example of permaculture utilizing animals and gardens.

Franklin Hiram King coined the term permanent agriculture in his classic book from 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. In this context, permanent agriculture is understood as agriculture that can be sustained indefinitely.
In 1929, Joseph Russell Smith took up the term as the subtitle for Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, a book in which he summed up his long experience experimenting with fruits and nuts as crops for human food and animal feed. A revised and updated edition was published in 1950.[1] Smith observed, "Forest -- field -- plow -- desert -- that is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures... When we develop an agriculture that fits this land, it will become an almost endless vista of green, crop-yielding trees."[1] Smith saw the world as an inter-related whole and suggested mixed systems of trees and crops underneath.
The work of Howard T. Odum was also an early influence on Permaculture, especially for Holmgren.[2] Odum focused on system ecology, in particular themaximum power principle, which claims that natural systems tend to maximize the energy embodied in a system. For example, the total calorific value of woodland is very high with its multitude of plants and animals. It is an efficient converter of sunlight into biomass. A wheat field, on the other hand, has much less total energy and often requires a large energy input in terms of fertilizer if the wheat and straw are harvested and removed from the field.
The definition of permanent agriculture as that which can be sustained indefinitely was supported by Australian P. A. Yeomans in the 1973 book "Water for Every Farm" who introduced an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940s, based partially on his understanding of geology. Yeomans introduced Keyline Design as a way of managing water supply and distribution. Holmgren based his EcoVillage design on the keyline principle, (see WikiMapia view)
Other early influences were the work of Esther Deans, who pioneered No-Dig Gardening methods, and Masanobu Fukuoka[3] who, in the late 1930s in Japan, began advocating no-till orchards, gardens and natural philosophy.
Other recent influences include the Vegetable Aquaculture and Animal enClosures (VAC) system in Vietnam which is a government-supported system to recycle resources[citation needed].

Mollison and Holmgren

In the mid 1970s, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started to develop ideas about stable agricultural systems in Tasmania, Australia. This was a result of rapid growth of destructive industrial-agricultural methods. They saw that these methods were poisoning the land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of topsoil from previously fertile landscapes. They announced their permaculture" approach with the publication ofPermaculture One in 1978.
The term permaculture initially meant "permanent agriculture" but was quickly expanded to also stand for "permanent culture" as it was seen that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system.
Parallel drawings of a termite mound and a house
Observation develops design—Termite mounds inspire biomimicry for passiveclimate control in modern housing
After Permaculture One, Mollison further refined and developed the ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and organizing this information into more detailed books. Mollison lectured in over 80 countries and taught his two-week Design Course to many hundreds of students. By the early 1980s, the concept had broadened from agricultural systems design towards complete, sustainable human habitats.
By the mid 1980s, many of the students had become successful practitioners and had themselves begun teaching the techniques they had learned. In a short period of time permaculture groups, projects, associations, and institutes were established in over one hundred countries. In 1991 a four-part Television documentary by ABC productions called "The Global Gardener" showed permaculture applied to a range of worldwide situations, bringing the concept to a much broader public. Excerpts are available online through YouTube.

Further developments

Permaculture has developed from its Australian origins into an international movement. English permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield, author of The Earth Care Manual andPermaculture in a Nutshell, suggests that there are now two strands of permaculture: Original and Design permaculture.
Original permaculture attempts to closely replicate nature by developing edible ecosystems which closely resemble their wild counterparts.
Design permaculture takes the working connections at use in an ecosystem and uses them as its basis. The end result may not look as natural as a forest garden, but still respectsecological principles. Through close observation of natural energies and flow patterns efficient design systems can be developed. This has become known as Natural Systems Design. (Dr. M Millington and A Sampson-Kelly)

Elements of design

Mature species on a keyline irrigation channel, 'Orana' Farm Temperate Victoria, Australia
Permaculture principles draw heavily on the practical application of ecological theory to analyze the characteristics and potential relationships between design elements.
Each element of a design is carefully analyzed in terms of its needs, outputs, and properties. For example chickens need water, moderated microclimate and food, producing meat, eggs, and feathers as well as manure which can help break up hardsoil hardpan.
Design elements are then assembled in relation to one another so that the products of one element feed the needs of adjacent elements. Synergy between design elements is achieved while minimizing waste and the demand for human labor or energy. Exemplary permaculture designs evolve over time, and can become extremely complex mosaics of conventional and inventive cultural systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.
While techniques and cultural systems are freely borrowed from organic agriculturesustainable forestryhorticultureagroforestry, and the land management systems of indigenous peoples, permaculture's fundamental contribution to the field of ecological design is the development of a concise set of broadly applicable organizing principles that can be transferred through a brief intensive training.

Modern permaculture

Modern permaculture is a system design tool. It is a way of:
  1. looking at a whole system or problem;
  2. observing how the parts relate;
  3. planning to mend sick systems by applying ideas learned from long-term sustainable working systems;
  4. seeing connections between key parts.
In permaculture, practitioners learn from the working systems of nature to plan to fix the damaged landscapes of human agricultural and city systems. This thinking applies to the design of a kitchen tool as easily to the re-design of a farm.
Permaculture practitioners apply it to everything deemed necessary to build a sustainable future. Commonly, “Initiatives ... tend to evolve from strategies that focus on efficiency (for example, more accurate and controlled uses of inputs and minimization of waste) to substitution (for example, from more to less disruptive interventions, such as from biocides to more specific biological controls and other more benign alternatives) to redesign (fundamental changes in the design and management of the operation) (Hill & MacRae 1995, Hill et al. 1999)." "Permaculture is about helping people make redesign choices: setting new goals and a shift in thinking that affects not only their home but their actions in the workplace, borrowings and investments" (A Sampson-Kelly and Michel Fanton 1991). Examples include the design and employment of complex transport solutions, optimum use of natural resources such as sunlight, and "radical design of information-rich, multi-storey polyculture systems" (Mollison & Slay 1991).
"This progression generally involves a shift in the nature of one’s dependence — from relying primarily on universal, purchased, imported, technology-based interventions to more specific locally available knowledge and skill-based ones. This usually eventually also involves fundamental shifts in world-views, senses of meaning, and associated lifestyles (Hill 1991)." "My experience is that although efficiency and substitution initiatives can make significant contributions to sustainability over the short term, much greater longer-term improvements can only be achieved by redesign strategies; and, furthermore, that steps need to be taken at the outset to ensure that efficiency and substitution strategies can serve as stepping stones and not barriers to redesign...” (Hill 2000)

Core values

Permaculture on an organic farm on the Swabian Mountains in Germany.
Permaculture is a broad-based and holistic approach that has many applications to all aspects of life. At the heart of permaculture design and practice is a fundamental set of ‘core values’ or ethics which remain constant whatever a person's situation, whether they are creating systems for town planning or trade; whether the land they care for is only a windowbox or an entire forest. These 'ethics' are often summarized as;
  • Earthcare – recognising that Earth is the source of all life (and is possibly itself a living entity — see Gaia theory), that Earth is our valuable home, and that we are a part of Earth, not apart from it. Agriculturalists traditionally exploit soil, plants and animals so intensely that serious internal (e.g. diseases, soil erosion, decrease of production through the years) as well as external problems (e.g. pollution from fertilizers, human diseases originating from farm factories) occur. Permaculturalists have introduced new ways of practicing agriculture, based on moderate yet problem-free rates of production. These ways are fundamental in restoring a mutually beneficial (and healthy) relationship between people and the environmental factors indispensable to their survival.
  • Peoplecare – supporting and helping each other to change to ways of living that do not harm ourselves or the planet, and to develop healthy societies.
  • Fairshare (or placing limits on consumption) - ensuring that Earth's limited resources are used in ways that are equitable and wise.
Modern thought about permaculture began with the issue of sustainable food production. It started with the belief that for people to feed themselves sustainably, they need to move away from reliance on industrialized agriculture. Where industrial farms use technology powered by fossil fuels (such as gasolinediesel and natural gas), and each farm specializes in producing high yields of a single crop, permaculture stresses the value of low inputs and diverse crops. The model for this was an abundance of small-scale market and home gardens for food production, and a main issue was food miles.

Design innovation

The core of permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems interact. A simple example of this is how the Sun interacts with a plant by providing it with energy to grow. This plant may then be pollinated by bees or eaten by deer. These may disperse seed to allow other plants to grow into tall trees and provide shelter to these creatures from the wind. The bees may provide food for birds and the trees provide roosting for them. The tree's leaves fall and rot, providing food for small insects and fungus. Such a web of intricate connections allows a diverse population of plant life and animals to survive by giving them food and shelter. One of the innovations of permaculture design was to appreciate the efficiency and productivity of natural ecosystems, to use natural energies (wind, gravity, solar, fire, wave and more) and seek to apply this to the way human needs for food and shelter are met. One of the most notable proponents of this design system has been David Holmgren, who based much of his permaculture innovation on zone analysis.

 design methodology

OBREDIM is an acronym for observation, boundaries, resources, evaluation, design, implementation and maintenance.
  • Observation allows you first to see how the site functions within itself, to gain an understanding of its initial relationships. Some recommend a year-long observation of a site before anything is planted. During this period all factors, such as lay of the land, natural flora and so forth, can be brought into the design. A year allows the site to be observed through all seasons, although it must be realized that, particularly in temperate climates, there can be substantial variations between years.
  • Boundaries refer to physical ones as well as to those neighbors might place, for example.
  • Resources include the people involved, funding, as well as what can be grown or produced in the future.
  • Evaluation of the first three will then allow one to prepare for the next three. This is a careful phase of taking stock of what is at hand to work with.
  • Design is a creative and intensive process, and must stretch the ability to see possible future synergetic relationships.
  • Implementation is literally the ground-breaking part of the process when digging and shaping of the site occurs.
  • Maintenance is then required to keep the site at a healthy optimum, making minor adjustments as necessary. Good design will preclude the need for any major adjustment.

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