Gardening Sustainably: 12 Permaculture Principles
Permaculture is more than just a buzz word. It’s a sustainable approach to designing and growing edible landscapes. There’s a bit more to it than that though, as Helene Isbell explains.
The organic food movement has secured a prime position for itself in American culture, and it continues to gain momentum. Consumers, both domestic and international, are becoming privy to the importance of eating clean, organically grown food.
While this is a tremendous step along the path to a greener and healthier future, large-scale organic farming can still produce many of the same side effects caused by industrial agriculture and still threatens ecological welfare. Permaculture offers an integrated responsible solution that brings organic gardening back into the hands of individual citizens.
Permaculture is a sustainableapproach to designing and growing edible landscapes. Derived from the terms permanent agriculture and permanent culture, permaculture borrows practices from indigenous cultures, bridging the gap between ancient knowledge and modern horticulture.
It places emphasis on working smarter rather than harder, bringing a fresh approach to intelligent garden design.
A permaculture farmer focuses on building healthy soil structure rather than using chemical fertilizer, using smother weeds with mulch in place of herbicides and combating pests naturally without pesticides.
The practice encourages gardeners to plant and eat what grows locally, plan for long-term sustainability, maximize the potential of small spaces of land and treat the planet respectfully with regard for future generations. Formalized in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture has spread globally as an ecological alternative to conventional farming practices.
Core Ethics of Permaculture
Permaculture revolves around three core tenets that characterize the foundation of the practice:
1. Care for the Planet – Regard for our physical Earth is essential to maintaining the integrity of global prosperity. This includes regard for all living systems, from microscopic, such as the intricate soil web, to entire biospheres, such as forests and prairies. Without the plankton that makes up the bottom of the ocean’s food chain, there would be no fish, seals or dolphins. The well-being of humanity is dependent on the care of all life, as everything trickles down from this vital concept.
2. Care for Humanity – Provide not only for oneself, but also for family, friends and neighbors. Take others into consideration in all that you do. Our society has been stripped of this notion, as increasing importance is placed on the accumulation of personal wealth. It’s time to look towards the ways of ancient cultures and revisit a tribal community mindset where people work together to meet common goals.
3. Share Surplus – In a permaculture, it’s possible to grow a good number of fruit and vegetable varieties. This, however, doesn’t mean that it will be possible to produce every food you want to eat. This is where trade with other growers comes into play. By communicating with one another and sharing surplus, variety and abundance is distributed among many people and everyone is satisfied. Sharing is caring.
12 Principles of Permaculture
Permaculture is more than just a set of technical rules to follow; it invites the gardener to interweave creativity into their relationship with natural ecosystems. Because nature differs from region to region, each garden design will be unique, adapting to local environmental conditions. Each system will take on its own appropriate characteristics while adhering to the three core tenets of permaculture. In addition to these overlying values, there is a set of 12 design principles that help further define what permaculture embodies:
Observe and Interact
Use common sense and follow the path of least resistance when planning a garden. Observe natural surroundings and pay attention to local conditions. Take note of seasonal patterns and the flow of wind, rain and sunshine. Try to plant what grows effortlessly in your area. This will help the garden grow with ease and minimal complications.
Catch & Store Energy
This principle can be applied in so many ways. The idea is to conserve resources when they are in abundance for use in times when they are scarce. Examples include storing energy from the sun with solar panels so it can be used later in the form of light and heat. Catch rainwater run-off and store it in barrels for times without rain. Can and dehydrate fresh produce to preserve it for use when it is out of season. Get creative.
Obtain a Yield
While producing food is generally the prominent goal of a garden, it’s not the only way that you can yield something positive from the experience. By working with others, you can learn what they know and share your own knowledge so that everyone walks away that much wiser.
Apply Self-Regulation & Listen to Feedback
Don’t let the fear of making mistakes stop you from starting a garden—accept advice and feedback. Learn from each process and make improvements each time around. You may have to fix the mistakes of previous land users, such as build and remediate depleted soil. The goal is to use the land responsibly so it can be preserved for future generations.
Use Renewable Resources
Use resources that can be regenerated naturally. Our society has become too dependent on non-renewable resources such as plastic and oil. Not only do these resources pollute the environment, but once they are used up, they are gone forever. Incorporate materials into your garden like bamboo—a fast growing grass—or hemp, which is industrially as strong as plastic, yet renewable and non-polluting. Both can decompose rather than sit in a landfill for thousands of years.
Produce No Waste
A permaculture garden produces no waste. It operates in a closed loop system and all elements get used. For example, remnants from previous harvests, along with kitchen scraps, turn into compost to fertilize future crops. Worms consume plant matter and break down nutrients, making them bioavailable to new growth. Imagine having no waste.
Design from Patterns to Details
Pay attention to patterns in your natural surroundings. Nature is not angular, but rather curvy, soft and fuzzy around the edges. Garden beds don’t need to be symmetrically shaped rectangles placed at evenly spaced intervals; they can be round, oblong, spiraled or flower-shaped. Crops don’t have to be planted in rows. Mimic nature for a truly beautiful individual garden design.
Integrate Rather than Segregate
Strategically planting crops together encourages co-operation among species rather than competition. A polyculture is several plant varieties growing together, versus a monoculture (a single large crop), and helps with the natural give and take of nutrients, rather than quickly depleting the soil.
Companion planting is the practice of planting different plants in the same bed that will mutually benefit each other. A great example of companion planting is the trio known as the three sisters used by Native Americans throughout North America and consisting of corn, beans and squash. Beans fix nitrogen into the soil for the corn to use in its vigorous growth, and the shallow-rooted squash provides natural mulch, preventing moisture evaporation.
Corn provides a natural pole for the beans to climb, creating a harmonious combination. Food forests are an example of polyculture on a larger scale known as agroforestry. A food forest would include many fruit trees, shrubs and other edible plants growing in unison for a multi-layered harvest.
Use Small & Slow Solutions
Patience is a virtue, and permaculture teaches this. Permaculture relies on long-term solutions rather than the quick fix, paying off with greater value in the end. An example of this is planting perennials rather than only annuals. Perennials are plants that return every year on their own. Once established, this means less work for the gardener and less disruption of the soil microsphere. Another example would be to save seeds rather than buy them every time. Make sure to select organic, non-GMO varieties to ensure that they will reproduce.
Use & Value Diversity
Planting many varieties will help ensure the overall survival of the garden by decreasing vulnerability. With fewer crops, they are more susceptible to disease and fungi and if infected, the whole garden could suffer. Integrate beneficial insect attractors and natural pest deterrents throughout the garden to naturally balance insect populations that share the habitat. This is called integrated pest management (IPM) and it is permaculture’s alternative to chemical pesticides.
Read More: Beginner's Guide to Beneficial Insects
Use the Edges
This can be interpreted in a number of ways, but basically, make use of all available growing space. Take advantage of walls and fences to grow vertically, and the sides of garden beds or dark nooks and crannies to grow mushrooms. Get innovative with small areas to maximize potential.
Creatively Use & Respond to Change
Change is inevitable, not only in the garden, but in society as a whole. Being able to creatively adapt to changing conditions is an important aspect of being able to survive what the future holds. Just as weather patterns may change, so too may the political and social environment of a community. Be prepared to shift and adjust accordingly so that slight variations, in any form, won’t interrupt your course.
It requires inquisitive and thoughtful individuals to incorporate the ethics and principles of permaculture into their mindset. It takes patience, understanding and humility to experiment and grow throughout the process.
But it does get easier with time. Permaculture is more than a sustainable approach to creating edible ecosystems; it builds community, promotes sharing abundance and brings people closer together.
Besides that, what is more liberating than being able to grow your own food in an ecologically and socially responsible way? So dig in, start your garden and get downright dirty.