• Noel Williams

What is Permaculture Farming: A Simplified Guide



Permaculture is a word that is becoming increasingly popular. More and more we hear of people who say they are practising permaculture or simply that they are permaculturists. Understanding exactly what that is can be surprisingly challenging. This is largely due to the wide scope under which it can be understood.

This guide will go through some basics of what is permaculture farming, what is the theory behind it, what practices are commonly used and what the benefits are.


What is Permaculture Farming

To start at the beginning is the start with the word “permaculture”. The word was originally coined to describe “permanent agriculture”, but was then later adjusted to mean “permanent culture”. This adjustment was done to include more areas in the term, like the different social aspects.


As mentioned above, permaculture can be hard to pin down because of how broadly it can be understood and practised. Also, every practitioner might interpret it slightly differently so each person can understand their version of permaculture. It might all sound a bit woo-woo so let’s see how the founding fathers defined it.


Bill Mollison is known as the grandfather of permaculture as he was the first one to give momentum to the movement. He was assisted by his former student David Holmgren who helped him formulate the principles on which permaculture is built.


Bill Mollison describes it as being a philosophy of working with nature rather than against nature. The further states that it is the conscious and ethical design of agricultural systems that have the same diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is a holistic view that combines the landscapes, the plants, the animals and the people all into one symbiotic system.


Most of the terminology and books were popularized in the late 20th century, but most of the practises and philosophies are as old as human beings. From the beginning of time, people have had to work in harmony with nature. Only in recent times have we had the technology to bend some areas of nature to our will and often for the benefit of the area earmarked for the use of this tech. These modern practised are yielding dire consequences and so permaculture is the attempt of going back to better systems.


The Foundational Ethics

Most of what permaculture is can be understood under the foundational ethics, so when looking at what permaculture is, we need to look at what its ethics are. The ethics are the roadmap to guide what comes next. In essence, permaculture does everything in line with these three ethics.


The ethics are:


1. Care for the earth

2. Care for the people

3. Fair share and return the surplus


All the theory and practices that come from permaculture has been designed with these ethics at its core. The foundation of sustainability is to creating something that can last for future generations so these ethics will help us achieve that.


Permaculture Theory

Most of permaculture theory consists of the design principles, the layers of an ecosystem and zones of a design.


The 12 principles of permaculture

The 12 principles are the steps we take into consideration when designing.


In short, they are the following:


  • Observe and interact

  • Catch and store energy

  • Obtain a yield

  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

  • Use and value renewables

  • Produce no waste

  • Design from patterns to details

  • Integrate rather than segregate

  • Use slow and small solutions

  • Use and value diversity

  • Use edges and value the marginals

  • Creatively use and respond to change


Layers of an ecosystem

By looking to recreate natural ecosystems we also need to create the different layers of an ecosystem. When we look at a forest, we can see many different layers from the big tall trees down to the shrubs, the soil and even the microbes in the soil.


Here are the different layers as we find them:


  • The canopy—the biggest and tallest trees in the forest

  • The understory—the smaller trees that live under the canopy

  • Shrubs—bushy and woody perennials like berry bushes

  • Herbaceous layer

  • Groundcover—the plants that grow directly on the soil surface

  • Rhizosphere—the root layers in the soil

  • Vertical layer—all the plants that grow vertically like vines


Zones

The different zones in a permaculture design are used to organize things the way we can care for them best. We will for example put elements close to our home that need a lot of attention and things that are more self-sustaining we will put further away from our home. The zones help organize our movements as well as our workflow.


The zones work as follows:


Zone 0—this is our home where we live

Zone 1—our most frequently visited area, which might include a kitchen garden

Zone 2—visited less than zone 1 so could have more low maintenance gardens

Zone 3—bigger crops can be grown here as we will visit this area minimally

Zone 4—a semi-wild area that can provide recourses for the other zones

Zone 5—the wild area where we only go to observe nature with minimal interaction


Most Common Practises of Permaculture

To better understand what permaculture is, we can look at some common practises seeing how the ethics and design principles are implemented into practice.


1. Agroforestry

Agroforestry combines the practices of agriculture and forestry into one system. It combines the use of trees, shrubs, grasses, and animals into one symbiotic production.


Here we see a very popular design of permaculture called food forests. Food forests try to mimic natural forests and by doing so it implements the ecology that makes a forest work. These include the relationships between species and kingdoms.


Agroforestry can be applied on different intensities from full forests to smaller systems that just incorporate a few of the ideas. For example, you can grow livestock feed between your younger fruit trees.


2. Suburban permaculture

Another area where we see permaculture applied all over the world is in suburban areas. Cities have become very dense and there is little space to have permaculture farms. The good thing is that permaculture does not have to be big scale, it can be as small scale as turning a piece of lawn into a food forest.

Many people are doing just this, they are trading their grass lawns for permaculture gardens. Even in such small spaces, we see an incredible production of herbs, fruits, nuts and other vegetables. People are even making additional income from the small gardens in their yards.


3. Hügelkultur

This German word refers to the permaculture practice of burying solid pieces of wood underground. This wood air rates the soil and acts as a sponge to retain water. Over time, the wood will decompose and add to the richness of the soil.


4. Water harvesting

Perhaps the most important practice of all is water harvesting. Nothing can be done without water and everything can be done with water. The abundance of an ecological system is directly related to the quantity and quality of water is has.


Water harvesting forms a part of all the areas of permaculture, and it connects them all. From harvesting rainwater to catching and redirecting runoff water, to reusing brown water from our showers and sinks. It all contributes to living waste-free and using all of our resources intelligently.


5. Intercropping and companion planting

At its core, permaculture values integration, harmony and cooperation. This leads to intercropping and companion planting. When we combine plants that benefit each other, we see both plants doing better. We use this knowledge to design gardens that work together to increase health and productivity.


6. Natural building

Although natural building is not an agricultural element, it still forms a big part of permaculture. Natural building is using natural sources to construct our buildings and dwellings. The techniques make use of clay, sand, water and straw in different methods depending on the climate.


Natural building is an age-old way that the first people built their homes. It is nothing new, simply an attempt to go back to more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways.


7. Grazing

The way that animals interact with the land is also included in permaculture design. The impacts of overgrazing are hard to reverse, so it is important to set up a good plan to manage this. In permaculture cell grazing is mostly used. It involves a system where the animals are rotated between different plots of land so that the land has time to recover.


Benefits of Permaculture

Some benefits might have already stood out to you. The benefits are what gives the permaculture movement its appeal, and it is why more and more people are implementing these ideas. Here are just a few of the biggest benefits we find.


1. Less water usage

Between the systems of harvesting water and the intelligent designs of water usage, permaculture saves a lot of water. This is a huge benefit! All over the world access to water is becoming an issue. Making the most of the water we do have is essential for creating a sustainable future.


2. Fewer costs

Optimizing the recourses, we have means minimizing the number of additional resources we need. If we can use everything to its highest potential, then we waste less and we need less, so we spend less. Another area is self-sufficiency, so we will try to produce everything we need instead of spending money to buy everything. Over the long haul, this will give us a better quality of life.


3. Zero waste

As a result of the well-designed systems, there will be no waste. The output of one system becomes the input of the next system, and so on. This can help with so much of the pollution we face today. Zero waste also enriches your system because of all the outputs becoming new inputs. For example, food scraps will never be thrown away, they will be composted and used as nutrients for the gardens.


4. Less work

As mentioned above, permaculture is working with nature rather than against it. Our systems are thus designed to make use of the productivity of nature so that we can also benefit from it. In a sense, nature is working for us because we are working for it. A prime example of this is when the animals are doing all the weeding and ploughing in the gardens so we don’t have to.


5. Cleaner results

From cleaner food to cleaner water, to cleaner air. Nothing is used in these systems that are not organic and naturally occurring in nature. We do not add any toxic chemicals which pollute the system. In this way, we are cleaning up the earth one step at a time.



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