Perma-what? A Holistic Design System Called Permaculture

By Alfred Day Decker, Permaculture Designer, Teacher, and Consultant

Have you ever been to a fancy cocktail party and had someone ask you “Just what is this permaculture thing that everyone is talking about”? How awkward if you didn’t know how to respond! 

Permaculture is a holistic system of design for creating a sustainable human society, and it’s great for home gardens as well as farms. Developed in the 1970s in Australia, the word permaculture is a contraction of “permanent agriculture”: the idea being that any civilization that destroys its natural resources through agriculture (as has happened repeatedly throughout history) will destroy itself.

Later, the contraction came to mean “permanent culture” with the recognition that it’s not just agriculture but many other sectors such as architecture, economy, education, and so on that also need to be sustainable – that is why it is “holistic”.

Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats 

Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. It is a land use and community building movement which strives for the harmonious integration of human dwellings, microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water into stable, productive communities.

The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather on the relationships created among them by the way we place them in the landscape. 

This is where the design system comes in:

 we want to design, integrate, and build different sectors so that they work together as efficiently and synergistically as possible. 

Let’s think a small property outside of Barcelona as an example. Where do we want to site our agricultural areas? Using permaculture principles, we will examine whether garden beds can be placed below buildings and paved areas where rainwater can easily be captured in stored in order to irrigate with gravity instead of having to use energy to pump uphill. And one permaculture principle that I often tell my students is that “Pumps break!”

We will also try to use the “greywater” – all the water from the house besides the toilet – for at least some of the garden’s watering needs. This reflects the permaculture principle “The problem is the solution”: instead of “waste” water from the house being a disposal problem, it can actually be a very important resource, especially in dry climates or on hot summer days.   

Another important consideration for the garden is microclimate: where are the shady and sunny parts throughout the day and throughout the year as the arc of the sun in the sky moves higher and lower?  This is obvious for most gardeners, but in permaculture we take it much further in terms of considering not just sun but also windbreaks (how we can we either shelter certain plants from the wind or give them more air circulation? Are there materials such as brick walls that serve as thermal mass to absorb and then radiate heat for sun-loving plants and trees? Are there light-coloured walls which could reflect sunlight onto the plants? All of these micro-considerations can make a big difference to the health and productivity of the plants.

We design our garden beds so that there is easy access both to access the plants easily and bring in materials such as organic matter and take out vegetables. It’s better to do long and protracted design than end up with a garden that requires long and thoughtless work!

Organic agriculture is great but it often doesn’t go far enough. For instance, if indoor growers are using organic fertilisers but also growing with high energy sodium lights which contaminate the environment after their life cycle, is that really organic? If the workers extracting and producing our fertilisers are badly paid and work in dangerous conditions, is that organic? And if irrigation water is pumped using huge amounts of energy from underground aquifers that take decades, centuries, or even millennia to be replenished, is that organic? 

These are the kind of issues we consider in permaculture.

And these are also the kind of considerations that BioTabs takes into account when producing their line of fertilisers, and in giving advice to gardeners and growers…for instance, to use energy efficient LED lights whenever possible.  

Now you know what to say about permaculture at that fancy cocktail party! You know just enough to be dangerous ☺  so find out more by checking this blogspace in a couple weeks for the next entry, “Worm Composting for the Home Gardener.”

Salud y permacultura, 

Alfred

Luz Arroyo
Author: Luz Arroyo