Some of us have a certain distaste for the social and economic conditions in which we find ourselves. No matter how hard we work and how much time we spend worrying, things never seem to get better. We are stuck in a cycle of unfulfilling work, never-ending bills, an oppressive government, and local officials with little to no common sense. What are some ways to get out of this rut? One that works for me, that gives a little bit of relief and satisfaction, is permaculture.
In its broadest sense, permaculture is defined as “permanent agriculture.” It amounts to a system of plants and animals that work together to produce food. The twelve principles of this system are below.
- Observing natural systems
- Catching and storing energy
- Obtaining a yield
- Using renewable resources
- Producing little to no waste
- Designing from patterns to details
- Integration, rather than segregation
- Using small and slow solutions
- Using and valuing diversity
- Using edges
- Creatively using and responding to change
The first principle, observing natural systems, begins in the forest. If you take a walk through the woods and start to pay attention to the plants and animals found there, you will notice certain patterns. The trees are shade producers. They provide their leaves for fertilizer and their fruit and nuts for consumption. Their roots and, ultimately, their limbs and trunk will eventually decay, increasing the soil’s fertility. The deer and turkey eat the fruit of these trees. Under the larger trees are smaller shade-loving trees in the understory. Below that are the shrubs, berry producers. They provide food for the animals of the forest, as well as hiding places for squirrels and chipmunks. The herbaceous layer and ground cover fill in at the bottom of the forest. Under the thick layer of leaves which covers the forest floor, at the very base of it all, exist the plant roots and organisms in the soil. These soil organisms are truly amazing and not well understood. They are nourished by the droppings of the animals who eat the fruit, nuts, and berries of the forest, as well as by broken down organic matter shed by the trees and bushes.
By observing the ways living organisms fill niches in their environment, we can start a design of our own. The trees can be whatever you want, fruit or nut producers. The shrub layer can be berry producers, and the herbaceous layer can be herbs used for cooking or medicine, as well as pollinator-attracting flowers. The soil itself can be improved by the planting of “nitrogen fixing” plants and root vegetables. The dropped fruit and nuts from the berries and trees can be eaten by goats and chickens, which in turn fertilize the ground with their droppings and “work” the soil with their hooves and claws. The important thing to remember is that you, as the designer, must pay attention to the results of the system. The choices made in the beginning may have to be modified as the system progresses. The forests have had millennia to evolve; we need to replicate these natural systems as best we can. So, when asked about what to plant, the answer is usually, “It depends . . .” What do you want to grow? What kind of room do you have? What is the condition of your soil? The answers to these questions narrow the choice of potential planting. As always, observing the system to see what is growing and not growing will determine which direction to choose.
To put it simply: permaculture just makes sense. What does not make sense is dumping chemicals on food-producing plants. It doesn’t make sense to spray weed killers on food. It doesn’t make sense to use petroleum-based fertilizers — that kill the soil — to produce food. These methods do produce short-term gains, but at what cost to future generations? Permanent agriculture through the use of perennials and reseeding annuals has the potential to replace these destructive means of producing food. The future, our collective future, depends on it.
I will try to describe the other principles in future articles. I am new to this and am learning more every day.