On Tuesday, for the first time, we taught a class called “Permaculture in YOUR Garden (and Life!).” It was a small but mighty class, and a whirlwind: condensing information from the 72-hour certification course into a 1.5-hour 101 was a challenge, to say the least. And since it’s clear that the material we present and discuss will change every time we teach this class, I decided to turn the handout I made this time around into a blog post—to mark this point in an ongoing conversation about what permaculture is, why we use it in our garden designs, and its significance to our business and lives. Here y’are:

The wily definition(s) of “p-culture”

So, first things first: permaculture is not “peeing in a bucket” or “building with cob,” although those actions can certainly be a part of a functional permaculture design. Rather, it is an assembly tool which allows us to put old ideas together in new ways: a decision-making and problem-solving protocol based on natural pattern recognition and iterative design. Permaculture challenges us to design the conditions that encourage the outcomes we prefer, and aims for creating beauty with systems that make ecological and economic sense. It is based on three ethics: Care for Earth, Care for People, and Return the Surplus; these fundamentals can be recognized in the patterns of cultures that were around long before the term was invented, and if they were applied widely, we could entirely transform our own. Finally, permaculture offers a new twist on the old adage “measure twice, cut once”: design holistically using natural systems once, and enjoy the fruits of your labor forever!

Origins & development

Permaculture as a whole systems design strategy came to being in the 1970s when Australian trapper/hunter/UN field ecologist Bill Mollison began to envision growing systems patterned off the natural functioning of a forest ecosystem; he and his student/partner David Holmgren co-created the permaculture idea. A contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” p-culture’s applications are still most widely understood in the context of the garden. But keep this firmly in mind: these concepts are applicable outside of the garden, as well. Also, even as permaculture concepts and far-reaching implications of Mollison & Holmgren’s ideas continue to be fleshed out, there is still no Permaculture Implementation Certificate—only a Permaculture Design Certificate. So, it’s always and in the end entirely up to us to envision the end result we have in mind, and use permaculture to help us figure out how to get there.

Key concepts for site assessment and design

  • Sectors: external influences on a site or situation that do not originate there (e.g. wind, water, noise, traffic, animal movement in a garden).
  • Zones: starting from the self/household and moving outward, zones move from greatest to least intervention/control/management.
  • Guilds: groups (usually of plants) that perform mutually beneficial functions; one example is a “food forest.”
  • Edge: the most active place in a site/situation—where elements come together and energies accumulate.
  • Resilience and abundance: not “sustainability,” which implies a static state, or “sufficiency,” which implies barely scraping by—permaculturists (a.k.a. “permies”) design to create more than enough/ever more.

Permaculture as practiced in gardens…and beyond

Take into consideration: existing conditions (what’s happening NOW that can or can’t be changed?); functions to design for and components that could serve those functions (the phrase “each element serves multiple functions” means that each element is in relationship with other elements); ecosystem patterning; management activities (what exactly will YOU be doing?); and the fact that everything is ideally suited for something—your job is to figure out what that is. Solving problems sometimes requires creatively reframing them: for instance, you don’t have an ivy problem—you have a goat deficiency. Some permaculture nuggets in other realms:

  • Health & relationships: your body is a garden, but in nature and in life, nothing is ever entirely calm…so, who you are under stress is who you are; encouraging a diversity of functional relationships helps manage chaos.
  • Business: ALL successful businesses have ties to other businesses; furthermore, natural systems do not dictate a single decision-making method…and remember, FREE is not sustainable.
  • Households: green buildings take a lot of energy input in the beginning, but are designed to make up for it with savings in the long run, whereas natural buildings require ongoing maintenance—cultivating a relationship with your house.
  • Urban form: the threat of resource shortages means rethinking how we make and use urban spaces—for example, current nutrient sinks can be remade by turning underutilized spaces (such as lawns) into productive environments (gardens!).
  • Stuff & things: permaculture invites us to think about how things come to us and what happens after we are done with ‘em; materials choices can include consideration of H.T. Odum‘s concepts of emergy = how much solar energy it took to make the thing; transformity = concentration/quality of remaining energy—wood = 30K, cement = 750M, health care & finance = ????)
  • Food for thought: it takes 100 people to support 100 people—once you can DO something, you can make decisions about it; but fear-based decision-making/design is really bad decision-making/design, so DO based on what you love about the present, not what you fear about the future.

To learn more…

Check out the following resources in the Portland area