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Introduction to Permaculture

Writing an introduction to permaculture is like attempting to define the colour of a sunset.

Permaculture means so many things and at times different things to many people, depends on whom you are asking.

So what you will get here is my personal take on permaculture from around 30 years of being involved with earth matters around the globe.

The modern concept and name permaculture was coined in the 70’s and 80’s in Australia by Bill Mallison and David Holmgren. The release of a ‘Permaculture: A Designers Manual’ was a turning point, which made permaculture a household concept around the world and started the trend of permaculture design courses and the whole cult of permaculture.

With all respect to the work of Mollison and Holmgren and their service to sustainable agriculture, we must all be clear that no one invented permaculture. Someone coined a name and wrote a book, though permaculture itself has been practiced by many cultures around the world for millennia and they didn’t do a course neither were they able to read a book.

In my work in Asia, especially in India, many people who are into sustainable agriculture, reject the word permaculture as a new colonialist invention that doesn’t take into account that they and many other culture have practiced similar methods for thousands of years thus keeping the soil fertile and the environment in balance, this until the advent of chemical agriculture which started its assault on the earth in the 1950s.

In my travels around the globe I have witnessed the principals of permaculture practiced by many people. Especially the ones with small land holdings, living in remote places.

The concept of mulching, water harvesting, zoning, patterns, relationships and more was well and alive by many folk who live close to the earth.

Of course this was not always the case with all people, as many nomadic tribes also practiced slash and burn cultivation as they moved through the forests of hardly inhabitant lands and could afford the luxury of cultivating an area for 2-3 years and then move on to a new one, while allowing the other to regenerate with time.
Now days the world is simply too populated for practices such as this and our forests are in alarming decline to allow for farming methods like this.

So permaculture – a permanent agriculture, a many versus the one in monoculture, a way of taking care of the earth and the people rather then taking care of profits.



Beyond permaculture

When I write the words beyond permaculture, in no way that I mean that we leave the concept of permaculture behind and move in some new direction.

What I do mean is that we don’t need a thousand-page permaculture bible and a 2000 Dollar 2 weeks design course to understand and practice a sustainable way of living and farming.

Most people who would actually practice and benefit from the principals of permaculture, could never afford the course and many probably cannot read. The ones who do the course, mostly never go on and live on the land to have the possibility to practice it.

So what is permaculture to this writer? Is it a way of farming? A design course?

Well, first and foremost, for me it is a way of thinking, an internal process of taking the straight lines out of our mind. Once we do that we will ourselves be observes of nature and find all the solutions we need in our endeavour to relate with the earth in a meaningful and respectful relationship of give and take.

When we take the straight lines out of the mind we are able to see that nature is a symphony of patterns, relationships, balance, chaos and diversity. Once we are able to truly see this, we are able to create our own system according to the space and place that we have to play with.

To be spoon fed with facts and figures of what plant goes with what, what to plant where and when etc etc is not going to give us the freedom and the results we want. Cultivating new ways of thinking and new powers of observation will create within us a space that allows us to find the answers and the solutions we need, be it in our farming systems or in our economic interaction or personal relationships.

Leaving all the philosophical aspect aside, most people who are interested in permaculture will at most cultivate a home garden, which in itself is a wonderful achievement. When we grow our own food, we not only enrich our beings, eat healthy and bring so much joy into our daily lives – we also support mother earth and contribute to the reduction of fossil fuel emissions and global warming.

Forty percent of all emissions contributing to climate change come from industrial agriculture and the transportation of food. The moment we grow it ourselves or consume local products, we become active supports of positive change and participate in a silent and meaningful revolution.

So back to our local back yard garden or our neighbourhood community garden.

When people come and ask me about gardening and growing food, the first thing that always comes to my mind is take out the straight lines and create chaos. Diversity is the key to success. Even the use of so-called organic pesticides such is garlic or neem spray is a sign that our system is not healthy.

We must remember we are creating a community, full of different colours, shades, patterns, heights, depths and relationships, so when we have a diverse and chaotic garden, which resembles more of a mini forest, be it on a smaller scale and perhaps even with no trees, we are bound to reap a good harvest.

We should not hesitate to plant dozens of different species in the same garden bed; even without clear knowledge of what relationship they have with each other. Common sense will guide us to plant tall pants with shorter plants, deep rooted plants near shallow root plants etc. one plant will draw the water for another, one plant will offer shade for the other and so it goes. With time we will see which plants support better the other, and which ones don’t work so good together.

The garden should always be a mixture of vegetable, flowers, herbs, and shrubs and if possible some fruit trees. If we have a bigger land holding we can create more of a food forest.

We should always watch for the patterns of how the water moves, and try and keep as much of it on the land. With time we will recognise where the winds come from and will probably choose to plant a windbreak, which might also offer us another harvest, such is firewood etc.

We must look on how to make multiple uses from any element around us, thus utilising the space we have and not wasting our resources.

What needs more attentions should be closer and what needs less can be further apart.

All this will take our acute observation, and there will be some small failures on the way. Though permaculture is about observing, pausing and creating the solutions that are right for us.
We must remember that permaculture is not a way of farming, it is a way of looking and designing our system, this may seem like a contradiction after my rave about chaos, though even within the chaos we will find that we are crating a harmony.

We are free to use any holistic and sustainable ways of farming within our system. Some may choose to incorporate the principals of biodynamic agriculture especially when cultivating on a large scale, others may be drawn more to Masanobu Fukuoka methods of clay ball seeding. It’s all allowed and it all has its place, according to what your personal preference is.

So get out there and do it. You will find all the answers and solutions once you actually start doing it. There is so much literature out there if you need this type of help.

Last but not least I would like to acknowledge a few people who have inspired and taught me along the way the principals of working and observing the land.

Robin Francis, Robin Clayfield, Masanobu Fukuoka and my friend and mentor John Button


The wheatgrass and the Wallabies

One of my favourite stories which I love sharing happened when I was living many years ago on a multiple occupancy in northern NSW Australia. For me this story illustrates the principal of finding solutions through the power and intent to observe and seek answers.

At the time I was living in a simple abode in a small clearing surrounded by lush forest. I established a big vegetable garden though I had an allergy to fences. So as it went, every days the wallabies use to come every day and have a good munch on all my greens. All the other inhabitants on the small community advised me to build a good solid fence, or else I will never harvest any greens, lettuce, spinach and other greens.

At the time I used to grow a lot of wheat grass trays at the front of my place and one day some of my wheat spilled over when I was moving the bag.

Within a few days the wheat sprouted near the garden and I started to notice that the wallabies were starting to leave all my greens alone and just went for the fresh wheatgrass. There was the solution in front of my eyes. The wheatgrass was sweeter and tastier.

From that day at the cost of a dollar a week I grew wheatgrass for the wallabies away from the garden, they were happy, I had my greens and got to continue to enjoy there company without seeing tem as completion for my food.

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