A disclaimer: I am not a scientist. However, I have observed many Permaculture farms & gardens & heard much discussion on this logical system that I am rather committed to the idea. If you haven’t heard about Permaculture, read on and I will try to explain it to you.
Back in the 1970s, Aussies Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and some friends began to document and publish information about natural ecologies and micro-climates and how these could be controlled and used to advantage in the farming and gardening environment.
In those days, my husband and I spent every Saturday morning glued to 3CR radio station listening to a garden guru, Bruce Hedge (great name for a plant chap, eh?) talk about permaculture, key-line dams, companion planting and other such things.
The first principle is that ‘pollution is energy used in the wrong place’. Once you get into the mind-set of Mollison and his team, you will find it simple to look at where permaculture ideas can be integrated into your life without tearing it all down and turning your ¼ acre block into a farm.
Permaculture based its designs for human settlements and perennial agricultural systems around the notion of polyculture and permanent cultivation where trees, pasture grasses, legumes and so on supported each other through the establishment of areas of sympathetic micro-climates n a wider environment. There is a magnificent permaculture farm in Snake Valley (near Ballarat, Victoria) which experiences no drought, where its green grass is almost a shock when seen against the rest of the dry, bush environment. The owners, an English woman and Aussie man, started from scratch a few years ago and planted all kinds of food trees and are almost self-sufficient. There are now permaculture farms throughout the world, Tasmania having the largest number documented. The River Cottage farm in England is an unofficial permaculture enterprise, existing through the logic and hard work of Hugh Fearnsley Wittingstall.
This is the aim of permaculture: to design and build increasingly self-sufficient human settlements that don’t depend on destructive industrial systems of production and distribution. Bit by bit, ideas and practices such as massed monoculture are destroying the ecology of the world. This is not a crackpot notion. Everything I see wherever I have traveled has supported this claim. Pesticides, ploughing, destruction of forests, the increases in packaging and waste, the sucking out of ground-water to pretend that the world drought is a myth – all these are using up the world’s resources faster than they can be replaced.
Some of the ideas that Bill Mollison practised included the planting of food trees in public areas. I tried to get this idea into the City of Manningham but the objections and inaction were a-plenty. They were worried about personal liability (say, from people slipping on hazelnuts or fruit waste or the increase in possum activity if we grew fruit trees in parks and on nature strips).
But back to Permaculture: one of its strong principles is that of Polyculture.
Polyculture grows multiple crops in the same area imitating the diversity found in natural ecosystems, avoiding large stands of single crops. The practice is built on clever crop rotation, multi-cropping, and inter-cropping. Alley cropping, a simplification of the layered system of two crops together, actually alternates rows of trees and smaller plants. It can still be neat and easy to handle. Just as vineyards grow roses at the ends of vine rows as mould indicators, permaculture has umpteen techniques of ‘canary plants’ and companion planting, to a very high scientific level, is also involved.
Green fertilizer crops (such as comfrey and broad beans to sweeten up the soil) are also used.
Chickens and ducks are employed as snail and insect eaters and they are left free-range, being locked up at night away from predators such as foxes. Alternatively, a mobile ‘chicken tractor’ is used to move the flock around the farm area to fertilise the crops and clean up any areas of infestation by insects. Their manure is not totally essential due to the green waste fertilizers. The ‘chicken tractor’ is a mobile cage with an open bottom (but with protective wire to keep out foxes). Another thought is to plan a chicken greenhouse where planting happens on top of an area where the poultry is housed. Note that when an animal is killed, every part is used, including feathers which are stripped and used in quilt making or in compost.
Nitrogen locking plants (clovers and various wattles) are also used to bring this essential substance to the soil. Deep ploughing is avoided and gentle digging avoids killing off the organisms already in the dirt.
It may seem messy, but most permaculture farms are neat and interesting.
David Holmgren’s 12 design principles
These restatements of the principles of permaculture appear in David Holmgren’s ‘Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability’
- Observe and interact – By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
- Catch and store energy – By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.
- Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
- Use and value renewable resources and services – Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.
- Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
- Design from patterns to details – By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
- Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
- Use small and slow solutions – Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
- Use and value diversity – Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
- Use edges and value the marginal – The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
- Creatively use and respond to change – We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.
There have been strong critics of the system, claiming that permaculture, through its strong adherence to polyculture, spreads environmental weeds. Indeed, Mollison’s habit of planting hazelnuts in Australian national parks didn’t endear him to park rangers! And yes, that is a concern. Plus there is not a great deal of attention given to indigenous food gathering. However, perhaps for the stage of crisis that the world has reached, it is by far the most positive method of farming for now!