You are probably asking yourself “What the heck is permaculture?” The Snarky Gardener will try his best to explain without being confusing or condescending (wish him luck).
Permaculture is a combination of “permanent” and “culture” (though it was originally derived from “Permanent Agriculture”) and is a natural pattern design science. People often hear about permaculture as part of a gardening discussion and think it’s new upcoming gardening technique (like square foot gardening or vertical gardening). Actually, permaculture is NOT gardening per se but is just one place where permaculture can be applied. Steeped in nature, permaculture applications lean toward the physical world including farming, earthworks, housing, buildings, heating/cooling, cooking, food preservation, and water storage. It is also utilized for human systems, such as communities, education, alternative currencies, and computer systems design (and yes, we human beings are part of nature). Typical applications include food forests and rotational grazing. Permaculture is a paradigm shift, a movement, a different way of viewing the world, and a possible framework to build your life around. I like to describe it as “Creating abundance through nature”™.
Permanence is, of course, at the heart of permaculture. Permanent is relative (as we are all technically temporary), but here it refers to designing for the generations ahead of us. Energy and other inputs are high at initial implementation with maintenance and harvesting in later years. A system can’t truly be enduring while accepting continuous inputs from the outside (fertilizer, gasoline, electricity and money). Permaculture strives to take advantage of the more renewable onsite resources – sunlight, water, soil, leaves, wood, perennial plants, animals, manure, human labor, caring, love, humor, snarkiness, art, music, and ingenuity. This thinking runs counter to our society’s current short-term focus.
I was originally introduced to permaculture through my vegetable growing education, as gardening is a gateway drug to permaculture. As my skills and experience advanced, I sought better and more efficient techniques. Mentioned in blogs, podcasts, and books (my favorite being “Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community”
by Heather Flores), I slowly internalized the overall concepts (including comprehension that permaculture does not just apply to food production). In early 2015, I advanced my knowledge further by attending a Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course (7 full weekends of fun). A PDC sets the foundation of understanding and allows graduates to pursue permaculture design careers.
I think what really attracted me the permaculture is the systems thinking that runs throughout. As a software developer for the last 25+ years (wow I feel old), I work with systems on a daily basis. Thinking holistically is natural for me as is resource-intensive new development versus the small tweaks of the maintenance cycle. Patterns are also a part of software development – relationships between objects, standard user interface design, project management, and so forth. To me, developing a software application is the same as putting together a permaculture design, just with a different tool set (and more dirt under my fingernails).
- Care of Earth
- Care of People
- Return of Surplus (or sometimes Fair Share: Set Limits and Redistribute Surplus).
For people looking in from the outside, permaculture seems like re-purposed ancient techniques (was told this by an experienced master gardener and I agreed). But here’s an important differentiation – permaculture is not about techniques (though some are labeled as “permaculture techniques”) but on designing deliberative systems that utilize these techniques with the three ethics intertwined. Just because you dig a swale (otherwise known as a big giant trench) to hold water doesn’t mean it’s permaculture. If the trench is just one piece of a whole design with an understanding of water flow and storage, then it’s permaculture as intentions drive design. Just implementing a technique when it’s cool and trendy is not. I’ve also seen examples where people have implemented permaculture-like systems (for example, the rotational grazing of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms), but I would argue they are not practicing permaculture (not that there is anything wrong with that). Again, intentions drive design.
Along with the three ethics are the 12 Permaculture Principles. These help put the individual into the proper mindset when designing.
- Observe and Interact
- Catch and Store Energy
- Obtain a Yield
- Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
- Use and Value Renewable Resources
- Produce No Waste
- Design from Patterns to Details
- Integrate Rather Than Segregate
- Use Small and Slow Solutions
- Use and Value Diversity
- Use Edges and Value the Marginal
- Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Here’s a non-garden real life design example that might make things clearer (or murkier, I’m not sure). After attending our Permaculture Design Course, we decided to build an outdoor kitchen based on the Summer Kitchen pattern discussed in Peter Bane’s book “The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country”. We purchased a low cost semi-temporary 12’ X 10’ gazebo and built it outside our back door (within Peter’s recommended 50 feet from our main kitchen). This simple (albeit labor-intensive) action turned an inhospitable grassy area into a multi-use room available 6 or 7 months out of the year. A two burner propane camp stove (plus the propane grill we already had) lets us cook and can food outside instead of heating up our house unnecessarily. Observing that the area to the south of the gazebo receives 3 to 5 hours of direct sunlight a day, we installed a 5 X 5 greenhouse, raised beds for semi-shade tolerant vegetables (like beets and arugula), and a trellis against the gazebo for shade, privacy, and pole beans (not necessarily in that order). A homemade outdoor sink built with scavenged parts lets us wash vegetables (and save the water for irrigation) without all that dirt walking into the house. When we aren’t using it as a kitchen, we process seeds or just enjoy our backyard in comfort.
All 12 principles above are represented with this elegant solution (at a rental property no less):
- Observe and Interact – the site; especially sunlight
- Catch and Store Energy – canning, seed saving
- Obtain a Yield – vegetables, seeds, meals, relaxation
- Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback – reconfiguration of tables and chairs as needed
- Use and Value Renewable Resources – sunlight, water, plants, seeds
- Produce No Waste – canning, vegetables, sink, compost
- Design from Patterns to Details – patterns 39 and 42 from “The Permaculture Handbook”
- Integrate Rather Than Segregate – all the disparate pieces as one system
- Use Small and Slow Solutions – temporary and inexpensive pieces
- Use and Value Diversity – different technologies and techniques
- Use Edges and Value the Marginal – unused area next to house, gazebo’s south side
- Creatively Use and Respond to Change – adjust based on seasons and changing needs
Over the years, I have found many permaculturists can be quite serious as they believe the world needs saving and permaculture is the answer. One story I love to tell is when the Snarky Girlfriend and I were going through our PDC. Peter Bane was teaching about water by having us imagine ourselves flowing from the mountaintop, down the valley, and gently down the river. The Snarky Girlfriend made a sarcastic comment about “watching out for the banjos”. Not one smile or chirp of laughter from 25 plus people, just overwhelming silence (guess no one was a “Deliverance” fan). Normally the Snarky Girlfriend’s warped sense of adult humor is her best asset, but during our classes, it rarely hit the mark. I guess permaculture is a sobering topic not to be taken lightly.
One thing that still puzzles me is the politics that runs throughout permaculture. I do see how permaculture has the potential to make big differences with issues like climate change, economics, peak oil, and social justice. Many in the movement believe we as humans need to do as much as possible as soon as possible as humanity may be too far gone already. The trouble is I’m not into permaculture to save anyone (except maybe myself). I practice and teach it because the concepts and systems just make sense to me. During a leadership workshop held by Heather Flores of Food Not Lawns this summer (name dropper!), I realized that I’m a “reluctant activist” (my term). For me, producing my own food is logical knowing what we know about the industrial food system. I want to spread that word and help others to grow their own vegetables but not from any sense of justice or activism. Don’t get me wrong – I believe these are very important causes – they are just not my primary motivation. By teaching others about organic gardening and seed saving, I can see how I’m going against the status quo. Guess I’m a rebel with a cause but without a clue.
I believe the most important lesson I’ve learned through my ongoing permaculture training (it’s never really over) is that every person is a designer. Each of us has the talents and skills to build better systems, whether they be for just our own selves or for the benefit of all mankind. Permaculture gives us the tools to create these systems eloquently using nature’s gifts instead of with the finite resources of billions of years of stored sunlight. It is just up to our imagination and persistence to make it happen.
I named this “Permaculture Awkwardly Explained” because I have found it difficult (and watch others struggle also) to describe permaculture to people. It’s sort of like talking about how the color blue tastes or how green sounds. Maybe it is something that just has to be experienced. Hope I was able to bring you closer to understanding.