What is Permaculture and why does it matter?

Imagine living in a community where everyone has your back.

You don't have to pay for strangers to watch your kids, or call out repairmen to fix things, all the while worrying if you're going to get ripped off. Instead, you've plenty of people to call upon to help without having to scrape together the money to pay them, and they do a great job in the process.

Your job is one you enjoy, leaving you plenty of free time and there's no dreary commute! You never get bored since there's plenty of opportunities to learn, or develop your skills in something else entirely when you fancy a bit of a change.

Nor do you get lonely.

Your personal space is respected, but there are plenty of like-minded people to talk to, other children to play with yours, and you can relax about their safety, letting them do what kids do. You enjoy many an evening chatting with friends. 

When a problem arises, you're not invisible. Your views are heard and validated, with people working together with you to help resolve the issue, rather than you being left to muddle through it alone.

You live in a unique home that you created yourself from natural materials that don't irritate any respiratory problems, and fit your requirements exactly. It's a space you feel so relaxed and content in. 

You enjoy some of the tastiest fresh food available, which you harvest yourself, and farming and gardening are enjoyable as everything is set up so efficiently! Walking amongst the beds and food forest is a pleasurable activity.

Without exposure to toxic chemicals, minimal stress in your job, and with an improved diet, friends, exercise and plenty of fresh air, your physical and mental health improves dramatically. 

You feel confident knowing that no matter what happens with the global economy, your home, job and food security are all safe.

You've created resilience.

Does that sound Utopian? Is an existence like this possible?

Yes, I believe it is. And Permaculture is how we just might get there.

If you’ve read My Story, you’ll know that I had a bit of a wake-up call in around 2016 and the course of my life changed. One of the big reasons for this was my discovery of Permaculture.

This summer I’m going to be completing my Permaculture Design Certificate, or PDC as it's known, which I put on hold in 2018 for several reasons. Although I learned more through my own study than I did on the course, I’ve come this far I'd be crazy not to finish it as this is the last year it's going to run.

Below: one of my rough proposals for my coursework

And why should I care about any of this?

Because it's system of hope for our future.

Of course, we don't all have to all go the full nine yards. You don't need to be living in a community and you don't need masses of land. All you need is a desire to help the planet and one another, and taking only what you need. Even one change is a change for the better.

This is a rather long post, but it's an important topic. Take your time to digest. But if you do nothing else, please watch the video below! 

What exactly is Permaculture?

Permaculture” is a term devised by the late, great Bill Mollison in conjunction with David Holmgren in 1978, and was originally referred to as an "agricultural system".

Mollison had spent many hours walking and sitting alone in the forests of his homeland of Tasmania - essentially using heightened awareness to observe, question and understand what was happening in the ecosystems all around him. Perhaps you can see how this will segue nicely into an upcoming post about Nature Journalling... 

Put very simply, it’s a design-based approach which is part art and part science, and is based on three Ethics:

  1. Planet Care
  2. People Care
  3. Fair Share

It's a sustainable system.

And what is sustainability?

"Any system that, in its lifetime, produces more energy than it takes to establish and maintain it" - Bill Mollison

But Mollison and Holmgren didn’t invent Permaculture per se.

Permaculture principles have been in use for thousands of years to various degrees by cultures all around the globe.

Over time it has evolved to be an entire philosophy on how to live with integrity, empowerment and sustainability

Above: injecting logs with mushroom spawn, Wales

Permaculture isn’t something I can cover in one article, and it's one of those areas that becomes more interesting the more you discover! But I’ll give you an overview by debunking a few myths: 

    It’s all about organic gardening

    As Permaculture is about understanding and maximising the efficiency of relationships between elements, it's true that gardening has a lot of potential for applying sustainability principles.

    For example, we can employ the use of Guilds (groupings of plants with symbiotic relationships) to increase the resilience of our plants and, therefore, the system as a whole. We can avoid waste by minimising Inputs (e.g. peat, pesticides) and instead growing what we need or sourcing locally.

    For the gardeners amongst us, consider these two scenarios (otherwise feel free to skip ahead!):

    Scenario 1

    • Growing a bed of annual flowers that were bought from a Garden Nursery 20 miles away from home and travelled to in your new car
    • The flowers come complete with polystyrene containers, grown in peat. You plant them all together with with members of the same plant family - they serve no other real purpose other than looking pretty. To give them a boost, you apply a chemical fertliser, high in nitrogen
    • Since your same-family flowers act like one giant beacon for pests, you douse them in pesticides, killing off a whole load of worms and other microbiology. And as you want a neat garden that the neighbours won't complain about, with one of those tidy lawns and neat banded stripes, out comes the herbicide too for good measure
    • Watering is frequent since the soil contains little in the way of water-holding organic matter, having been destroyed over time through high nitrogen applications. You attach your cheap plastic Chinese-import hose and lug it around the garden watering plants direct from the Mains tap
    • As the soil is so silty from having poor tilth, you notice it blowing away in strong gusts of wind and running out of the beds in muddy torrents when it rains heavily. The chemicals from your pesticides end up in next door's vegetable garden
    • Every week over summer, the noisy clunky lawnmower comes out, the grass clippings gathered, and the whole lot put into a Green Wheelie Collection Bin to be collected by the Council
    • You enjoy the flowers while they're in bloom so come next year, you need to do it all again. But this year, we have a pandemic, and the nurseries are completely sold out after everyone has been bulk buying compost and plants

     Scenario 2

    • You've seed-swapped with a friend who has sent you some perennials to grow. You plant them in a potting mix you've made yourself from your compost last year. The Perennials are not only beautiful, but provide excellent bee forage and the leaves are edible. By chopping them up and adding to water, they make a brilliant organic liquid fertiliser
    • Pests are minimal since the flowers are planted on together in a polyculture - there are aromatic herbs which attract pest predators to keep the numbers in check
    • Your garden doesn't need much watering since you've put down a straw mulch gifted to you by the local farm. Your soil, having not been damaged by chemical usage, contains a lot of humus and holds water well. When you do need to water, you use the rainwater than you've been harvesting in a rainwater butt
    • You don't have much of a lawn since that's valuable growing space for food or keeping wild, but it's small enough to manage by shearing by hand using tools that have been passed down to you, and giving you a small workout
    • The clippings go straight into a sheet mulch or your compost heap to become new soil. But you don't have to shear often, since allowing your grass to grow long provides a wonderful place for wildflowers and their pollinators to thrive
    • Come next year, you enjoy the return of your perennial plants and have a supply of excellent home-based organic compost

    Which scenario makes more sense?

    Think about all the resources, inputs and outputs of both approaches... I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions. 

    As recent as 5 years ago, I used to garden in a similar way to Scenario A. This is still the way for many people, including some members of my family. And almost everywhere you go in the UK, regardless of whether there are pets of children in the family, the lawn prevails.

    Keeping up appearances

    Did you know that having a lawn was officially a sign of wealth? The trend spread from Britain and France in the 16th Century to the US, and it's now estimated that 78% of US homes have a lawn or landscaping. 

    I completely get that we all want our neighbourhoods to look attractive, but when did we decide that vegetables or an array of wild grasses and wildflowers were so ugly? Ugly enough that they had to be banished to the back garden or just mown down?  

    Instead, we're left with non-productive, non-wild and unimaginative green rectangles, or worse still, a growing trend I've been noticing in the UK: paving over front gardens entirely for parking a second (or even third) family car.

    With that said, I have to maintain a sense of realism here.

    How many of us really have the time, energy or finances to do a lot of things from scratch? To grow our own food?

    We pay for convenience because we've become so busy.

    But busy doing what? 

    This is an important question to ask ourselves, because:

    "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives" - Annie Dilliard

    The Story of the Mexican Fisherman illustrates this point beautifully.

    Cycles within cycles

    Permaculture is about designing closed-loop systems – sustainable systems where no energy is wasted, and everything is put back into the cycle. You might see the tremendous benefits of such systems in the face of our environmental crisis.

    Think about nature. It's a cycle, and not a line, with no waste involved. Permaculture aims to mimic the basic underlying principle for life.

    Instead, our society operates in a very much linear fashion, wasting energy at every step in the process, from extraction to manufacture to distribution to consumption, and finally to landfill. 

    So permaculture cover everything from water conservation and ecology, to natural building and economics. The applications for closed-loop systems are endless!

    Above: Veg with character! Some of this season's organic carrots

    But Permaculture has particular relevance when it comes to our food.

    Currently, we face GMOs, increased pesticide, insecticide and fungicide use (and associated resistance), soil erosion, salination, water wastage, excess packaging, and sometimes thousands of miles racked up to get our food to our plate. 

    Permaculture instead encourages a transition to small-scale sustainable farming. And if this sounds crazy, it really wasn't all that long ago we were farming in this manner. Supermarkets are a relatively new convenience, yet in the West, many of us couldn't imagine doing without them. 

    As humans, we often forget one of our greatest strengths - our ability to adapt remarkably quickly. 

    But this isn't about going “backwards”.

    Far from it.

    It’s taking practices from the past, applying lessons learned along the way, and enhancing them in a way to fit our current needs. Instead of working against nature, we give it a helping hand. 

    And what about People Care? How does this apply?

    A system is only as strong as the elements and relationships between its elements (or the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) so it’s also vital we build strong and healthy communities.

    Above: Problem-solving at a strawbale building course

    We can achieve this by:

    • Empowering ourselves by coming together to build small communal food gardens
    • Creating safe spaces for connecting and making our neighbourhoods more pleasant to live in - creating local activities and events, regeneration of dilapidated areas, neighbourhood watch, etc.
    • Adopting a barter-based or gift economy - instead of paying for a childminder, a friend may offer; instead of being paid in cash for our work, we may receive time which can be spent on further labour 
    • Resource sharing - housing, food, tools, car-pools, etc.
    • Education and opportunity - teaching and lecturing, skill-sharing, equality and involvement

    Do you recall me saying that few of us have the time to grow our own food?

    Well, this is where community gardening comes in!

    When we have a lot of people working together on a shared goal, we don't need to invest as much of our time. The same applies to other resources that can also be shared - land and tools, for example.

    "Permaculture only applies to large-scale projects"

    I once heard someone telling me this when I volunteered at a farm in 2018, but it’s false.

    It’s certainly true that many Permaculture books focus on large (several acres and up) parcels of land where big earth movements can be used to capture and slow water (such as swales), and building food forests.

    But as this is about system design, adopting Permaculture principles even in an urban courtyard garden is entirely possible!

    In fact, if you have a small space and would like to understand how you can apply Permaculture, have a read of the fantastic book by Toby Hemenway – Gaia’s Garden. He's based in the US but his advice can still be applied in the UK.

    I recommend this book to every single person who expresses an interest in “getting into gardening”, and there's a wonderful talk by Toby in the video below:

    "Permaculture is a cult"

    This one I came across online! It may have started based around the concept of communal living.

    Communal living does indeed hold a worthy place in Permaculture. It builds community, occupies less space than if those same people were all to live alone, and reduces energy usage by sharing tasks such as cooking, transport and farming.

    Any community has the potential to turn into a cult. But if it is truly adopting Permaculture principles, this won’t happen as it's a clear breach of Ethic 2 - People Care.

    Permaculture doesn't seek to remove our freedoms, it seeks to empower us to facilitate positive change.

    Unlike a cult, there’s no one organisation made up of members with a leader at the top. You can practice Permaculture alone or in a group. You certainly don’t need any special qualifications or to go through any initiations to do so. 

    Below: a group effort for this strawbale building intended for food storage in Kent

    "Permaculture is too subjective"

    The third principle “Fair Share” is the one that causes trouble for a lot of folks. After all, many of us have a different concept of what we truly need (vs. what we want) - you can hear Toby discussing this in the video above.

    Again this ties in with both the first and second Ethics “Planet and People Care” – because by taking only what we need, we consider the interests of others and what our planet is able to give.

    And indeed it should tie in, because everything in life is inextricably linked and Permaculture is no exception. Connections are at the very heart of the concept.

    I remember reading the wonderful book, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I won’t spoil it for you here and tell you the Universal Laws that we humans have violated, but it’s along the lines of “Fair Share”.

    A quick look at some of the reviews for Ishmael shows that it either has the effect of being profoundly moving and life-changing for some, and provoking anger and disgust in others!

    I belong to the former camp, and the book had me in tears on several occasions. It’s been a while since I read Ishmael and although it still left me with questions, it did help clarify the concept of taking only what we need.

    And how did Permaculture change me?

    One of the most fascinating aspects of life is how when we open ourselves up to opportunity and new ways of thinking, it leads us on an entirely new journey with many twists and turns and an unknown destination.

    Here's just a few ways I grew as a person:

    • Had I not realised the full interconnectedness of life, I doubt very much that I would have consciously invited nature back into my existence, leading to improved health, a greater purpose, and a love of mycology
    • If it wasn’t for discovering tiny homes and natural building, I probably wouldn’t have ever moved into an off-grid camper van which provided me with skills and experience, as well as an amazing adventure 
    • If I hadn't understood more about the food industry, mass farming and energy usage, I probably wouldn't have changed my diet and buying habits for the better
    • Had I not become interested in self-sufficiency and empowerment, I probably wouldn't have crafted my own toiletries, carved spoons and made candles
    • Had I not volunteered, I wouldn't have met some wonderful souls along the way, many of whom I count among friends
    • Had I not understood that we do have an approach that gives us a fighting chance at helping ourselves, each other and the planet, I would have lost all hope entirely

    And what would I have been doing instead? I'd probably still be working in my well-paid, but unchallenging, office job, and wouldn't have begun drawing nature.

    In fact, I probably wouldn’t have become an artist at all.

    And as for the future? Who knows...if I can get over some of my shyness, maybe I’ll end up joining a community, and eventually, I’d like to think of a way I can combine Permaculture with my art!

    Below: my first ever batches of homemade hot and cold-process soap

    What next?

    Now, if you're sitting there thinking "That's Utopian! It won't happen"...

    Think about our National Health Service in the UK.

    Less than 100 years ago, had you mentioned the possibility of free healthcare for all, more than likely you would have been called unrealistic, a dreamer, crazy...

    And if you'd said that one day we'd be able to see and speak to each other from the opposite ends of the globe? People would have laughed at you.

    But now video-calling is just a normal part of people's lives.

    What other possibilities might we have missed because we didn't believe there was another way?

    And this is why we should never give up on an idea just because others call us unrealistic. We may not have figured out quite how to get to where we want to be, but that doesn't mean ideals are not worth pursuing - they are at least worthy of exploration.

    So dream, and dream often.

    To learn more about this wonderful system, I highly recommend the late Patrick Whitefields book “The Earth Care Manual”, especially for applying Permaculture in Britain or other temperature climates. Mine is looking rather battered having taken it onto beaches in Croatia and Slovenia, and forests in Germany to sit and study.

    Bill Mollison also records a number of his lectures which are freely available to watch to on You Tube – he was quite a character and is one of my personal heroes (don't read his books as an introduction to the subject though!)

    Once you have an overview of Permaculture, there are so many areas where you can get involved in more specialist study, workshops or volunteering.

    My favourite areas for exploration are Mycoremediation (healing through fungi), Food Forestry and Natural Building.

    And if you haven’t already started a nature journal, this is a great opportunity!

    Observation is key in Permaculture so perhaps you can use your journal to discover systems that you could implement in your own garden, to conserve energy and increase biodiversity?

    Or perhaps there’s some wasteland in your community that could be transformed into something that's not only beautiful, but functional too?

    Who knows where this journey might take you 😊


    Meanwhile, thanks for reading. As you've probably realised, this is an issue close to my heart and even if just one person tells others or acts based on this information, then it was entirely worth it!

    Stay tuned for my upcoming article about Nature Journalling...


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