The first time I head about permaculture was back in 2012 when I visited John Douglas, aka the “Lazy Farmer”, a retired Peace Corps volunteer. Now in his 70s, he still teaches how to do organic permaculture through a technique he calls the “magic circle” where he creates a depression in the soil and adds organic materials. This technique does composting in the circle, while providing mulch which is extremely important during the dry season.
Throughout the years I have visited plenty of farmers that are practice permaculture. You can read an article I wrote on permaculture done in Eco Venao that is quite close to where I live. If you want inspiration to start your own farm then you can watch the Biggest Little Farm. This documentary shows the advantages of this sustainable practice, as well as the challenges it posses and the patience that is required.
Who Invented Permaculture?
You may have heard the term, but you probably still do not fully understand the concept. In 1978, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren combined the words permanent and agriculture to develop a new system of ecological farming which they called permaculture. Their philosophy was to work with nature instead of against it.
Bill Mollison said permaculture was: “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”
Mollison became a professor of biogeography and environmental psychology at the University of Tasmania, where he met Holmgren, a graduate student. They both developed the Permaculture One book that is taught at farms all over the world. Throughout his life he wrote several books promoting sustainable farming.
Many travelers are taking learning vacations and these classes are popular options. Some centers charge for classes, while other farms offer knowledge, room and board in exchange for labor.
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is an interactive agricultural system that uses everything in your surroundings. The idea is not to create waste or to import resources. For some this may not be completely feasible, but even small changes create positive impacts. This practice does not work in a linear fashion, since it is more like a spiral which keeps growing every season. The general idea is that the output exceeds the input.
For example, you can set up your roof with a rain-catch system to be used by your household or to feed the plants, which provide food and fuel. Leftover kitchen scraps can be used in to feed composting worms, which in turn provide castings that serve as fertilizer and aerate the soil in order to grow more food. People are expected to observe and interact with nature in order to create productive, efficient and ecological designs.
All of this will allow you to produce more in smaller spaces. Your garden design may not be as neat as if you were using rows and crops, instead it takes into consideration how the area is shaped, the gravity, climate and so on. Which creates a wide variety of crops that require low maintenance (once established!) and provide a positive impact.
You will get organic, fresh and local food from your backyard, instead of relying on a supermarket that brings food from far away and is grown using chemicals in farms that encourage deforestation and cause pollution. It is important to note that organic gardening is not the same as permaculture since this principal just avoids using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Observe and Interact with your Space
To be able to create a functional permaculture garden you need to understand your landscape. This can take time and effort, so do not expect to understand it all at once. Observe how the sound, water and wind move through your property. Are there any patterns that change with seasons? Which plants and animals live naturally in your property or area?
No Dig Gardening
Digging or tilling kills organism, bacteria and beneficial insects that the soil needs to keep healthy. When their bodies decompose they feed plants and if there is no soil to decompose, you will have nutrient deficient soils. Since you are building the topsoil, this will produce a growing medium that improves in quality.
Those living in humid climates (like me!) should make sure their no-dig beds drain well. Use a lot of mulch to make sure your soil stays most and doesn’t need that much water.
Try to plant as many perennial species as you can find, since they last for several seasons. Annual crops require tilling, which goes against the previous principle. This can be harder for those who live in cold areas.
If you want to grow annual plants then you need to rotate your crops. This is a pretty simple concept, do not grow the same thing in the same place every year. When doing so, the soil becomes depleted of any nutrients that plant likes and it makes the soil more prone to diseases and pests that attract that plant.
An easy crop rotation to use is starting with with peas and beans which enhance the soil, then switching to nightshade species such as eggplants, tomatoes and peppers. Finally, plant root vegetables and start the cycle all over again.
Closed Loop Systems
A successful closed loop system turns waste into resources and problems into solutions. It integrates animals and plants, such as ducks that eat snails which otherwise may be considered pests. Rather than buying fertilizer, you can produce your own from cover crops or animal manure. Animals should be fed with what you are producing and using on site, including kitchen scraps, grains, forage crops and herbs.
Use Water Efficiently
Permaculture farms and gardens work to use all the available water on site. Growing can be done in terraces, using shallow ditches (which capture runoff water) or using canals on swampy grounds. Some of these practices have been used since ancient times. Xochimilco in Mexico was a great example of a sustainable agricultural method which fed over one million Aztec people.
Every component of a landscape or structure should have more than one function. For example, a rain barrel can also be used to raise fish or aquatic plants, as well as water irrigation. A fence may also be used as a trellis to grow food or a windbreaker.
Keyhole Garden Designs
Using keyhole bed designs, which are garden beds that can be harvested from the center or where your compost is concentrated. Bend a row three to four feet wide around a central point, while leaving a small access path so the bed looks like a keyhole. This concept encourages biodiversity, as you are mixing plants instead of rows of singular crops, which can have more problems.
Some plants are beneficial when planted with other plants. Companion planting can help with fertilization, filling vertical spaces, controlling pests and attracting beneficial insects. Many herbs and flowers act as insect repellents because of their smells. Flowering plants attract pollinators and bees.
Vermiculture is the practice of raising and reproducing red worms for composting purposes. For permaculture purposes it is even possible to put several half buried buckets (drill holes on the bottom) in your raised beds or keyhole gardens. Fill the bottom with shredded paper or cardboard, then put a layer of dried grass, dried manure or soil. Add the worms and feed food scraps (read my article on what to feed composting worms). The liquid will drain into the garden feeding the plants, until the bucket of castings is full. Make sure to cover if left outside since worms need to be moist, not soaked by rain.
Conventional gardening removes organic matter, while permaculture embraces it. Mulching helps in any climate, since it insulates your plants from the cold and it moderates the soil temperature in hot climates. Mulching also stops rain and soil from eroding the topsoil and keeps the soil moist. When organic material (leaves, wood chips, etc,) breaks down, it will also feed your soil.
It is also possible to plant nitrogen fixing legumes and plants with deep taproots to be chopped and dropped in order to re-mineralize the soil.