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Permaculture - An Introduction

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To some people permaculture has connotations of 'drop-out', 'hippy', 'communes', 'Gaia' and such things outside the mainstream, whose members are often called 'tree-huggers' — and more pejorative terms. Tree-huggers they may be, but such people tend to be the very ones who actually act on their concerns about our environment. This Entry is not about tree-huggers, but is about one of the techniques some of them use. So, let's try to straighten out the record a bit, eh?

What Permaculture Is

If you hadn't already realised, permaculture is a combination word, made up from 'permanent' and 'culture'. The term has come to be widely used to signify agricultural systems that are synonymous with words such as 'renewable', 'conservational', 'organic' and so on — even 'green'. The word was coined and the idea formalised for us in the west in 1978 by two Australians, Bill Mollinson and David Holmgren (Mollinson's research student), when they published a book — Permaculture One.

Mollinson had spent much of his life in the bush, as a forester and as a scientist, during which time he came to understand how forests work, and to feel that our current culture is in a blind alley as far as food production is concerned. Involved in trying to persuade people of this, he came to realise that protests weren't going to work in the short term, so he set out to change things 'from the bottom up'; he went home and worked on his ideas in his garden, and that phase of his work culminated in the book.

The style of food production encompassed by permaculture has been used since time immemorial by many cultures across the world; in Kerala (southern India), for instance, and by the Chagga (Tanzania), who modelled their gardens on natural forests — 'stacking' trees, shrubs, vegetables in the manner of the forest's overgrowth and undergrowth. This was just what Mollinson had discovered in his research of forest habitat, and wanted to develop for home and commercial food production.

What Permaculture Does

Permaculture aims to work with, rather than against, nature. In the 21st Century many agricultural methods consume great amounts of artificial fertilisers and chemical treatments to enable mass production of food stuffs, but in doing so cause great damage to the environment. It is generally recognised that these modern methods create havoc within the many diverse populations of creatures that feed upon the plant-stuffs, making it ever more difficult for them to recover. The damage to bees in particular has been highlighted by scientists, and is becoming a serious concern.

It appears that less attention is paid to the fact that enormous amounts of fossil fuel are used to drive (never mind manufacture) ploughs, harrows, harvesters and so on, with the effect of these methods not widely appreciated; soil structure is routinely destroyed, causing extensive damage to its denizens — and thus to its fertility and potential productivity. Humanity ought to be looking for ways of reducing those ill-effects, and permaculture is one of those ways. It is very much suited to the attitude: 'What can I do?' rather than the more common remark 'Something must be done'. Individual effort is individually rewarding — and it 'spreads the word' by being visible to (and having extra produce available for) others.

Healthy, fertile soil encourages strong, healthy crops that have some natural resistance to, and can cope with, disease and insect infestation (that's why all those plants are still here). Pest predators are encouraged. An unkempt area under a hedge or a small pond near to a garden can provide homes with an array of creatures that eat other creatures — pests as well as each other. When well planned and executed, this can considerably reduce the amount of work needed to maintain the system. On starting, this will take some work to set up, but that work need not be excessive — and will reduce steadily to an average level, substantially less so than by using conventional methods.

Some of the ideas used in permaculture have been in use by gardeners for many years; others are creeping in through magazines, TV programmes and by word of mouth. The permaculture ethos gathers those ideas together, adds a few more, and formalises the concepts into an overall structure suitable for individuals to adapt according to their own needs and circumstances. Large, small, city and even window box gardens can benefit.

Permaculture seems to be spreading, slowly — many people are taking it on, including some larger-scale commercial operations around the world. Even more hopeful are schemes such as Worldwatch — which is good news on more than one front.

Getting Started

Rule 1: Read, Think, Plan.
Rule 2: See Rule 1 — but,
Rule 3: Just before exhaustion, execute. The rewards will follow.

If you want to give permaculture a go, use the technique in your own garden. The following tips can be used by even the laziest of gardeners:

  • At the simplest level, 'no dig' gardening allows good soil structure to persist — it doesn't need to recover after annual disruption. Rather than digging, apply a layer of compost, year-on-year, into which seeds and seedlings are planted (keep some fine compost to sprinkle over seeds). Earthworms will do a better job than you can of mixing the compost with underlying layers. In the first year, don't dig one of your beds but apply a layer of compost 1-2" (25-50mm) deep. Next year, do the same with that bed and the next bed, too. Then the next year...
  • A policy of 'companion planting' reduces the effects of insect attack, so onions and carrots interplanted tend to confuse many of those insects that hunt by smell. Mixed, rather than single-crop, planting can increase yield by making use of lower-growing or faster-growing plants alongside slower, taller and bushier plants in the same bed, as long as you time propagation suitably.
  • Benefits accrue by encouraging the utilisation of plants' different requirements for nutrients — and what they leave behind. Planting crops for quick harvesting, in among slower-growing ones, allows some protective ground cover sooner — this will protect against sun damage and wind erosion while also helping to reduce weed growth — more ground cover means fewer (and weaker) weeds.
  • Productivity is improved by being able to harvest the catch crops before the slower ones need the space. When you weed and harvest, if you don't need the roots, cut things off at ground level and leave them there, they'll contribute as they rot. Also, deep rooted plants bring up nutrients which enrich the top layers when they die and rot away. Rotted deep roots provide drainage channels — many dead weeds means many drainage channels.

Further Along

By looking through many books about permaculture, you will come across ideas for layouts and techniques for maintenance that optimise the variety and productivity of your plot.

You may want to consider raised beds — they can have both immediate and longer term benefits of containment and easier access (ready for when you grow older and less flexible). Also consider (raised) 'keyhole' beds (a bit of a misnomer, as it's usually the paths that are that shape) which allow effective use of growing and access space, suited to this purpose.

Setting-up will require work — even, perhaps, digging. Once that initial work is done, however, and your scheme is laid out, your workload will decrease to a level well below conventional. This setting-up work need not be done all at once. A plan, thoroughly thought through, will in all probability allow a piecemeal approach, one bit at a time, building towards a whole.

Some of the techniques may seem a little strange but remember, they've all been trialled and proven by knowledgeable people searching for efficiency — and you don't have to use everything all at once.

Overall

The key to successful permaculture is planning and design — the piecemeal approach will work, but ensure you have an overall plan to work to when you set out. Research, research, research! The more reading you do, and talking to others who have taken up permaculture, the better. Use your library and local bookshops. You may well find that there are groups of interested people in your area.

Further Reading

There are many books on the subject (one well-known website lists over forty texts!), but, due to the relatively restricted market and the fact that not many are published in UK, they tend to be expensive, so your library will probably be the best starting place. This Researcher has personal experience of three books that have helped in learning more about permaculture:

  • Getting Started In Permaculture — Ross and Jenny Mars. Published in Australia, this is a slim volume but not at all cheap. Experienced gardeners will not need most of the content, but it could be interesting for novices.

  • Permaculture In A Nutshell — Patrick Whitfield. Published in the UK, it's a slim volume — and more reasonably priced. It gives a good introductory overview and outlines layouts suitable for beginners and those with some experience.

  • The Permaculture Home Garden — Linda Woodrow. A more substantial book, also from Australia, it was this Researcher's introduction to the subject and is, so far, his favourite. It seems, however, that this book is now difficult to obtain — and expensive (with a capital 'EX'). It does, however, contain a wealth of information, from layout to detailed planting plans, to a complete scheme for a moderate-to-large (by current UK standards) sized garden. Her work relates specifically to hot and dry parts of the world but that shouldn't deter you if you live in a wetter environment — the principles apply everywhere (by the way, 'chooks' are chickens!).

And Finally

An Internet search using 'Permaculture UK' will throw up more references than you could deter with a dibber or shake a joss-stick at! So go on, give permaculture a try. You may be pleasantly surprised at how juicy your next crop of peas is!


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