It centres around how humans interact with the planet, and is designed to create a harmonious balance between the two. It can work in all landscapes from arid desert to forest tundra, and works by making the most of what is available, turning it into what’s less available, and sharing any surplus with others.
It is designed to be all inclusive – you don’t need to be a landowner to use permaculture techniques to improve your life! And it doesn’t require you to give up any home comforts – the important thing is that you can use the principles in whatever is your walk of life.
What‘s important in permaculture thinking (beginning with growing food which is where lots of people start, but the ideas can be easily transferred elsewhere with some creative thinking):
Be it water, energy, tree cuttings, whatever. In gardening composting is integral. Save water any way you can. Obviously this is more important in a dry place (e.g. rocks piled around the base of trees to collect dew, meaning more water goes where it is really needed). It actually matters everywhere. Don’t buy more than you need. If you over produce then connect to ‘share surplus’.
Once you have established your permaculture landscape it should do most of the work itself. This includes leaving the bird and insect species to pollinate and fertilise your plants. If they’re in balance the predatory species will keep themselves under control. Using ground-covering plants and mulch to minimise weeds, creating a water-butt/irrigation system to save watering… in fact all you should need to do is plant and harvest, leaving the rest of your time free to sit on the verandah and watch it happen! (We wish…). How can you replace a job to do by a natural process? All the gardening analogies translate into other areas of human activity.
This can be done by maximising the useful space by recognizing there are five dimensions- over/under, sideways, down as the pop song has it, but also time and relationships. Time, by using things appropriate to season and relationships by recognizing how each plant/action/inaction benefits another source of productive outcome. You can maximise the variety or amount of different crops to balance and complement each other; and the good nutrients in the soil (by mulching, keeping nitrogen harvesting plants like beans, etc). If you, like we do, find yourself overflowing in the summer months, then it’s time to…
Grown too much food? Contact a local shop or veg box scheme, get out the jam-making kit, or invite the neighbours’ in for a pick-n-eat extravaganza. You may want to trade on your surplus (especially if there’s a lot); you may just be happy to share with family and friends. Cut down a tree? Use the wood for heat, craft or gardening (eg. fenceposts or compost bins), or find someone else who can.
Consider natural impact
There’s no reason why you can’t grow whatever you like in your garden, but in the natural world things rarely stray far from their habitat. If you are putting huge effort into keeping a tropical species alive in your north-facing terrace garden; it’s not because you’re a poor gardener, simply that it doesn’t belong there! And, while you may want to keep bugs from eating your prize cabbages, spraying pesticide will kill helpful species as well as destructive ones, therefore making a much bigger impact than say, a mini poly-tunnel or investing in some bug-eating garden pets (our call ducks love a good slug).
Do what’s right for you
Permaculture is not some crazed movement of hippies who will vilify you for wearing polyester or eating a bacon sandwich; if they were, well, we wouldn’t be friends with them either.
If you have a 40-acre plot with orchards, ponds, animals and crops from maize to marjoram, you probably manage it full time with a bit of help. You may be totally immersed in self-sufficiency and have your own loom, wind turbine and bio-diesel tractor to boot. Good for you! (Can we come and see?) But if you live in a 3rd-floor flat and work 9-5 in an office, don’t worry, you’re no less welcome to the cause! You just have to figure out what does work in your situation. Perhaps not become totally immersed in the lifestyle. Having a windowsill herb garden or allotment, paying attention to your energy consumption, biking to work; all can have an impact on your life and your environment – without having to sacrifice any of your chosen lifestyle at all especially not the bacon (well attested that this is the hardest sacrifice of new vegetarians!)
We offer a full Permaculture Design Course so that you can learn how to use permaculture methods in your life. Full details are here
You might be interested in reading my views about what permaculture isn’t. This article was written in response to a number of on-line discussions with other teachers and horticulturalists. What do you think?
For a little more information, you can listen to Mark Stephens of BBC Radio Scotland as he hears all about permaculture...from David Blair
And this BBC programme, The Secret Power of Trees, is well worth a listen too.