Permaculture is a design system that has inspired me for a number of years and has been the main reason for me wanting to find a little plot of land - so I can start experimenting with the techniques.
What is Permaculture?
It can be described in numerous ways. Here are some of my interpretations:
It is sustainable gardening.
It is an ethical lifestyle based on earth care, people care and fare shares.
It is organic agriculture on (organic) steroids.
It combines new, old and experimental techniques for managing the land in a sustainable way, creating habitats that provide for our needs and those of the local wildlife in a relatively effortless way.
It is a design system for nurturing symbioses between ourselves and the natural world so that each can lighten the workload of the other, making life easier, more healthy and more sustainable in the long-term.
Permaculture gardens are all different, being finely attuned to the specific environment from which they emerge. However, what they have in common is that they are all created around a series of specific design frameworks:
Firstly, there are the 12 permaculture principles. These are ideas lifted from the natural world, which permaculture gardens try to use in order to create an abundant, self sufficient system - much like those found in nature. Included are principles such as 'produce no waste', 'integrate rather than segregate' and 'use and value diversity'. Every plan you make should align with these principles. So monocultures are a no go, whereas keeping ducks who provide eggs, eat your slugs and produce manure to fertilise your soil are definitely welcome.
Permaculture gardens are divided into a series of zones. This is basically all about reducing your workload. Garden features that need a lot of care and attention are situated near the house and those that need little or no input are right on the outskirts. Up to five different zones radiate out from the house, each with a different type of content. The zones you include and their content are variable, depending on what you want from your garden, but it goes something like this:
Zone 1 - Kitchen garden.
Zone 2 - Food forest, forage crops, grain crops, firewood.
Zone 3 - Farm systems - grazing animals, larger scale trees, fields.
Zone 4 - Forest of some kind - farm forestry for timber, mushrooms or other forest products.
Zone 5 - A wildlife zone. Can be completely untouched or can be used for hunting and gathering.
Design Through Observation
One of the most important things with permaculture design is that you spend a lot of time simply observing your site. Notice what grows well on your soil type and what doesn't so you plant things that take little effort to thrive. Where are the water flows? How can you encourage water to hang around as much as possible instead of running straight off site? Where are the cold spots (notice where frost lingers), where are the warm spots, the windy areas, calm areas? Make sure to grow plants that suit these micro climates or find ways of modifying them, using techniques that align with the permaculture principles. This is one of the areas where permaculture gets intriguingly experimental with super clever nature aligned low tech solutions. There's not the space to elaborate here, but dig around on youtube or in the Permaculture Magazine if you want to find out more (link at bottom of page).
It can be really useful to analyse all the elements you wish to include in your garden in terms of inputs, outputs and relationships. This can help make sure you've got compost bins near beds that need compost and water butts near pots that need watering or that you've got bee forage near plants that need pollinating and gorgeous smelling/tasting plants near paths you frequently walk.
As I said at the top of the page, what you end up with in using a permaculture approach, is a garden that is abundant with life - productive plants, animals and a diversity of beneficial wildlife. The whole system fits together comfortably for all involved and so takes relatively little effort to maintain.
The frameworks I've described above give you a starting point, but there's loads more to it. Use the links below if you want to find out more. Or hunt around on youtube for permaculture related videos.
Permaculture Association UK
The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia
The Permaculture Research Institute of the USA