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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.