What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is an ethical and sustainable approach to providing our human needs. It recognises human requirements such as food, fuel and shelter and attempts to supply them without degrading anything else in the environment such as air, water, animals, plants and soil.

In a broad sense permaculture attempts to establish diverse environments which are productive, stable and resilient in order to provide people with food, shelter, energy, income and to build communities in a healthy, balanced, sustainable and integrated way.  

As such, permaculture stresses both a positive approach and an attitude of cooperation, with respect to the environment and all living things. It embraces the ethic that all life has an intrinsic worth regardless of how useful an organism is to us as humans – and uses that as a basis for the three main ethical principles as follows:

  • "Caring for the Earth" - mankind shares the earth with other animals, plants and microbes; and we are all interdependent upon each other. If we don't care for other living things and the habitats we live in, we can create instability that can have a negative impact upon any an all forms of life; mankind included.

  • "Caring for People" - permaculture landscapes are intended to encourage promote the idea of self-reliance together with community responsibility.

  • “Sharing Fairly” – there are two important principles: 1. Limit consumption and reproduction so we don't take as much from our limited resources. 2. Sharing surplus by redistributing excess; so we do not waste as much.

In a permaculture system you should grow a variety of different plants together. This ensures greater biological stability. For example, using beans in permaculture helps fulfil this important principle because beans have multiple functions – they help improve soil fertility and can also be harvested for food.

The size, shape, density, arrangement and diversity of plants influences:

  • Temperature - plants make air and soil temperatures cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
  • Water - soil is less likely to dry out under a tree canopy.
  • Wind - direction can be changed, strength can be reduced.
  • Deciduous trees - lose their leaves in winter creating different environmental effects across seasons.
  • Frost - there is far less chance of frost alongside other plants, or under the canopy of plants.

Environments Do Change

It is inevitable for environments to change – nothing is static in nature. Permaculture plans for change and tries to achieve a relatively predetermined and managed succession. Succession is natural in uncultivated environments. Primary succession occurs slowly in nature. It may be the weathering of rocks, or the way the upper storey of a forest influences the growth and the environment beneath it. It may be that wet areas become dry, or dry areas become wet and the biological life of those areas changes along with it. Or succession may be secondary i.e. caused by floods, fires, winds, or mass tree lopping.

To use succession in permaculture to your advantage is exceptionally complex and achieving a perfect control may be impossible, but attempting to manage change is exceedingly better than letting it happen without any forethought.

Ecosystems can be stabilised, and use of vertical space becomes more efficient through ‘stacking’. In natural forests, large trees dominate the system. They occupy the canopy level (upper storey). These trees will affect everything else below in the under story. They create shade, reduce temperature fluctuations below through insulation, and they restrict light intensity and water loss from the surface of the ground.

In permaculture we use the characteristics of the natural forest to our advantage. This is known as stacking. Plants of different height can be used for stacking to make the most use out of vertical space. This is referred to as ‘guild planting’.

Stacking can help:

  • Prevent weed growth through dense layering
  • Saves space
  • Improve crop yields
  • Prevents soil erosion
  • Plants use water, light and nutrients effectively
  • Revitalises degraded land.

Stacking also can refer to the careful selection of plants in the design. Thought should be given to how plants are stacked e.g. plants that supply nitrogen, plants that use nitrogen, plants that repel insects, and plants that climb using other plants for support. For each, guilds should be selected carefully.

Stacking is only one of many concepts from permaculture that can be applied to landscape design and land management. You don't have to be a purist to find and apply valuable ideas from permaculture. Some will strive to create gardens that are 100% sustainable; and others perhaps just want to be more sustainable than they currently are.

Whatever your leanings though; permaculture can improve and broaden your perspective on how to better develop and manage the land.