Agriculture is undoubtedly one of the most important developments in human history. Indeed, the movement away from hunting and gathering and toward a more stable source of food changed the course of history itself.
But even as the development of farming techniques brought us closer to the land, the development of larger-scale farms, intended to feed vast amounts of humans and animals, may have separated us from the rhythms of the earth’s natural cycles.
In the wake of this more industrialized version of food growing, many people are now starting to push in another direction, shifting the focus away from accommodating the demands of a human-derived market and closer toward embracing the designs of Mother Nature herself.
The concept is called permaculture—but what exactly is the idea, and how does it work?
To start to understand permaculture, it might be helpful to start at the beginning. The term was coined all the way back in 1978 by Bill Mollison, an Australian farmer, who described the concept like this: “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”
In other words, Mollison saw the movement as a way to mimic Mother Nature’s best ideas for our own benefit.
Rather than acquiescing to a market that may pressure farmers to use their wealth of land to grow acres and acres of the same crop, season after season, regardless of whether the weather or the soil or other types of growing conditions and ecological concerns are appropriate for the crop, permaculture implores us to instead start with the demands of the land, and do what’s best for the earth.
The ultimate goal of the concept is right in its name: Establishing a permanent agriculture. These types of systems are designed to last as long as humankind, giving back any energy they may take from the environment, while conserving as many resources as possible and creating an overall stronger natural ecosystem to deliver the plants we rely on for food, fuel and textiles.
Over the years, a number of designs have been developed to help establish the types of systems that would yield a permanent agriculture.
Of course, as the science of ecology evolves, so does the field of permaculture. And new theories and uses of the land are proposed and practiced all the time.
Still, there are a number of more fundamental ideas that will go into creating any type of permaculture design, including:
This concept is perhaps at the heart of the permaculture movement. The entire idea behind it—and, indeed, behind permaculture itself—can be summed up in one word: Sustainability.
Closed loop systems are those designed to provide everything needed to keep themselves running – without producing any excess or waste. (For this reason, closed-loop farming systems are sometimes referred to as “zero-waste systems.”)
In a closed-loop system, everything is taken into account, from the lost biomass of flushed away feces to the fossil fuels used to deliver new supplies to the land. And all the nutrients and organic matter created by the system are delivered directly back into it, to keep the whole thing humming. (Or, as many permaculturists put it, the idea is to “turn waste into resources.”)
An example is using cover crops or manure produced by any livestock sharing a farm to create fertilizer—rather than driving to the store and picking up a bag that was created far away and shipped by burning even more fossil fuels, using so much more energy to arrive at the farm than the material would ever be able to give back to the earth.
This is just a fancy way of saying “natural irrigation system.”
Efficient (and, when possible, sustainable) use of natural resources is another bedrock of the permaculture philosophy – and perhaps no resources is quite as precious as water.
Rather than using more than our fair share from the faucet (or, by going outside of the loop), permaculture systems are carefully designed to capture as much water as possible through natural means.
This often makes for creatively cultivated landscapes, including terraces, berms or canals, used to best capture and contain this vital resource for use on the farm.
Permaculture is undoubtedly an ambitious design concept, and the idea of multiple functions may be its most ambitious facet.
The concept (sometimes referred to as “stacking functions”) essentially rests on the idea that designs should be created with the intention of wringing as much use out of every detail as possible.
Rain barrels, for example, may double as aquaponic grow tanks, or trees may double as a natural fence, wind breaker or trellis for vine-growing plants.
Perennial crops are perhaps the greatest example of the grander ethos of permaculture itself: That we as humans should be able to live off the same piece of land forever.
Perennial crops only need to be planted once, and the seeds will naturally regenerate themselves every year. The concept goes hand-in-hand with many permaculturists’ belief that nature should take over as many of the growing responsibilities as possible. (Plus, some studies have shown that constantly tilling and digging up and messing with the land doesn’t necessarily help the condition of things.)
Unfortunately, few of the crops we regularly rely on for food are actually perennial, but that’s where the beauty of permaculture design comes in. These plants may not be the star of the show, but should be used as much as possible for all the support they could provide – whether it be as a stabilizing force in the soil or as an attractor of pollinators.
Indeed, permaculture is the ultimate purveyor of the belief that to everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose.