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Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.
Permaculture is sustainable land use design. This is based on ecological and biological principles, often using patterns that occur in nature to maximise effect and minimise work. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants. The ecological processes of plants, animals, their nutrient cycles, climatic factors and weather cycles are all part of the picture. Inhabitants– needs are provided for using proven technologies for food, energy, shelter and infrastructure. Elements in a system are viewed in relationship to other elements, where the outputs of one element become the inputs of another. Within a Permaculture system, work is minimised, –wastes– become resources, productivity and yields increase, and environments are restored. Permaculture principles can be applied to any environment, at any scale from dense urban settlements to individual homes, from farms to entire regions.
The first recorded modern practice of permaculture as a systematic method was by Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer in the 1960s, but the the method was scientifically developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and their associates during the 1970s in a series of publications.
The word permaculture is described by Mollinson as a portmanteau of permanent agriculture, and permanent culture.
The intent is that, by training individuals in a core set of design principles, those individuals can design their own environments and build increasingly self-sufficient human settlements– ones that reduce society's reliance on industrial systems of production and distribution that Mollison identified as fundamentally and systematically destroying Earth's ecosystems.
While originating as an agro-ecological design theory, permaculture has developed a large international following. This "permaculture community" continues to expand on the original ideas, integrating a range of ideas of alternative culture, through a network of publications, permaculture gardens, intentional communities, training programs, and internet forums. In this way, permaculture has become a form of architecture of nature and ecology as well as an informal institution of alternative social ideals.
Franklin Hiram King coined the term permanent agriculture in his classic book from 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. In this context, permanent agriculture is understood as agriculture that can be sustained indefinitely.
In 1929, Joseph Russell Smith took up the term as the subtitle for Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, a book in which he summed up his long experience experimenting with fruits and nuts as crops for human food and animal feed. A revised and updated edition was published in 1950. Smith observed, "Forest -- field -- plow -- desert -- that is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures... When we develop an agriculture that fits this land, it will become an almost endless vista of green, crop-yielding trees." Smith saw the world as an inter-related whole and suggested mixed systems of trees and crops underneath.
The work of Howard T. Odum was also an early influence on Permaculture, especially for Holmgren. Odum focused on system ecology, in particular the maximum power principle, which claims that natural systems tend to maximize the energy embodied in a system. For example, the total calorific value of woodland is very high with its multitude of plants and animals. It is an efficient converter of sunlight into biomass. A wheat field, on the other hand, has much less total energy and often requires a large energy input in terms of fertilizer.
The definition of permanent agriculture as that which can be sustained indefinitely was supported by Australian P. A. Yeomans in the 1973 book "Water for Every Farm." who introduced an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940s, based partially on his understanding of geology. Yeomans introduced Keyline Design as a way of managing water supply and distribution. Holmgren based his EcoVillage design on the keyline principle, (see WikiMapia view)
Other early influences were the work of Esther Deans, who pioneered No-Dig Gardening methods, and Masanobu Fukuoka, who began advocating no-till orchards and gardens in Japan in the late 1930s.
Other recent influences include the Vegetable Aquaculture and Animal enClosures (VAC) system in Vietnam which is a government-supported system to recycle resources.
In the mid 1970s, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started to develop ideas about stable agricultural systems. This was a result of rapid growth of destructive industrial-agricultural methods. They saw that these methods were poisoning the land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of topsoil from previously fertile landscapes. They announced their permaculture" approach with the publication of Permaculture One in 1978.
The term permaculture initially meant "permanent agriculture" but was quickly expanded to also stand for "permanent culture" as it was seen that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system.
After Permaculture One, Mollison further refined and developed the ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and organizing this information into more detailed books. Mollison lectured in over 80 countries and taught his two-week Design Course to many hundreds of students. By the early 1980s, the concept had broadened from agricultural systems design towards complete, sustainable human habitats.
By the mid 1980s, many of the students had become successful practitioners and had themselves begun teaching the techniques they had learned. In a short period of time permaculture groups, projects, associations, and institutes were established in over one hundred countries. In 1991 a four-part Television documentary by ABC productions called "The Global Gardener" showed permaculture applied to a range of worldwide situations, bringing the concept to a much broader public. Excerpts are available online through YouTube.
Permaculture has developed from its Australian origins into an international movement. English permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield, author of The Earth Care Manual and Permaculture in a Nutshell, suggests that there are now two strands of permaculture: Original and Design permaculture.
Original permaculture attempts to closely replicate nature by developing edible ecosystems which closely resemble their wild counterparts.
Design permaculture takes the working connections at use in an ecosystem and uses them as its basis. The end result may not look as natural as a forest garden, but still respects ecological principles. Through close observation of natural energies and flow patterns efficient design systems can be developed. This has become known as Natural Systems Design. (Dr. M Millington and A Sampson-Kelly)
Permaculture principles draw heavily on the practical application of ecological theory to analyze the characteristics and potential relationships between design elements.
Each element of a design is carefully analyzed in terms of its needs, outputs, and properties. For example chickens need water, moderated microclimate and food, producing meat, eggs, and feathers as well as manure which can help break up hardsoil hardpan.
Design elements are then assembled in relation to one another so that the products of one element feed the needs of adjacent elements. Synergy between design elements is achieved while minimizing waste and the demand for human labor or energy. Exemplary permaculture designs evolve over time, and can become extremely complex mosaics of conventional and inventive cultural systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.
While techniques and cultural systems are freely borrowed from organic agriculture, sustainable forestry, horticulture, agroforestry, and the land management systems of indigenous peoples, permaculture's fundamental contribution to the field of ecological design is the development of a concise set of broadly applicable organizing principles that can be transferred through a brief intensive training.
Modern permaculture is a system design tool. It is a way of:
In permaculture, practitioners learn from the working systems of nature to plan to fix the damaged landscapes of human agricultural and city systems. This thinking applies to the design of a kitchen tool as easily to the re-design of a farm.
Permaculture practitioners apply it to everything deemed necessary to build a sustainable future. Commonly, –Initiatives ... tend to evolve from strategies that focus on efficiency (for example, more accurate and controlled uses of inputs and minimization of waste) to substitution (for example, from more to less disruptive interventions, such as from biocides to more specific biological controls and other more benign alternatives) to redesign (fundamental changes in the design and management of the operation) (Hill & MacRae 1995, Hill et al. 1999)." "Permaculture is about helping people make redesign choices: setting new goals and a shift in thinking that affects not only their home but their actions in the workplace, borrowings and investments" (A Sampson-Kelly and Michel Fanton 1991). Examples include the design and employment of complex transport solutions, optimum use of natural resources such as sunlight, and "radical design of information-rich, multi-storey polyculture systems" (Mollison & Slay 1991).
"This progression generally involves a shift in the nature of one–s dependence– from relying primarily on universal, purchased, imported, technology-based interventions to more specific locally available knowledge and skill-based ones. This usually eventually also involves fundamental shifts in world-views, senses of meaning, and associated lifestyles (Hill 1991)." "My experience is that although efficiency and substitution initiatives can make significant contributions to sustainability over the short term, much greater longer-term improvements can only be achieved by redesign strategies; and, furthermore, that steps need to be taken at the outset to ensure that efficiency and substitution strategies can serve as stepping stones and not barriers to redesign...– (Hill 2000)
Permaculture is a broad-based and holistic approach that has many applications to all aspects of life. At the heart of permaculture design and practice is a fundamental set of –core values– or ethics which remain constant whatever a person's situation, whether they are creating systems for town planning or trade; whether the land they care for is only a windowbox or an entire forest. These 'ethics' are often summarized as;
Modern thought about permaculture began with the issue of sustainable food production. It started with the belief that for people to feed themselves sustainably, they need to move away from reliance on industrialized agriculture. Where industrial farms use technology powered by fossil fuels (such as gasoline, diesel and natural gas), and each farm specializes in producing high yields of a single crop, permaculture stresses the value of low inputs and diverse crops. The model for this was an abundance of small-scale market and home gardens for food production, and a main issue was food miles.
The core of permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems interact. A simple example of this is how the Sun interacts with a plant by providing it with energy to grow. This plant may then be pollinated by bees or eaten by deer. These may disperse seed to allow other plants to grow into tall trees and provide shelter to these creatures from the wind. The bees may provide food for birds and the trees provide roosting for them. The tree's leaves fall and rot, providing food for small insects and fungus. Such a web of intricate connections allows a diverse population of plant life and animals to survive by giving them food and shelter. One of the innovations of permaculture design was to appreciate the efficiency and productivity of natural ecosystems, to use natural energies (wind, gravity, solar, fire, wave and more) and seek to apply this to the way human needs for food and shelter are met. One of the most notable proponents of this design system has been David Holmgren, who based much of his permaculture innovation on zone analysis.
OBREDIM is an acronym for observation, boundaries, resources, evaluation, design, implementation and maintenance.
An ideal permacultural system possesses the following structural features:
The use of patterns both in nature and reusable patterns from other sites is often key to permaculture design. This echoes the pattern language of Christopher Alexander used in architecture which has been an inspiration for many permaculture designers. All things, even the wind, the waves and the earth on its axis, moving around the Sun, form patterns. In pattern application, permaculture designers are encouraged to develop:
"The application of pattern on a design site involves the designer recognizing the shape and potential to fit these patterns or combinations of patterns comfortably onto the landscape" Sampson-Kelly. Branching can be used for the direction of paths, rather than straight paths with square angles. Lobe-like paths off the main path (known as keyhole paths) can be used to minimize waste and compaction of the soil.
Permaculture zones are a way of organizing design elements in a human environment on the basis of the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs.
Frequently manipulated or harvested elements of the design are located close to the house in zones one and two such as herbs for the kitchen.
Whereas chickens, for example, like to be close for their security but need to be kept at a safe distance to reduce noise, destruction of delicate plants such as herbs and vegetables and any risk of contamination. Less frequently used or manipulated elements, and elements that benefit from isolation (such as wild species) are farther away.
Also key to the permacultural design model is that useful connections are made between components in the final design. The formal analogy for this is a natural mature ecosystem. So, in much the same way as there are useful connections between Sun, plants, insects and soil there will be useful connections between different plants and their relationship to the landscape and humans.
Another innovation of the permaculture design is to design a landuse or other system that has multiple outputs. In terms of Holmgren's application of H.T. Odum's work, a useful connection is viewed as one that maximizes power: that is, maximizes the rate of useful energy transformation. A comparison which illustrates this is between a wheat field and a forest.
–It is not the number of diverse things in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components– Mollison 1988.
In permaculture and forest gardening, seven layers are identified:
An eighth layer, mycosphere (fungi), is often included.
A mature ecosystem such as ancient woodland has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects and other animals. Plants grow at different heights. This allows a diverse community of life to grow in a relatively small space. Plants come into leaf and fruit at different times of year.
For example, in the UK, wild garlic comes into leaf on the woodland floor in the time before the top canopy re-appears with the spring. A wood suffers very little soil erosion, as there are always roots in the soil. It offers a habitat to a wide variety of animal life, which the plants rely on for pollination and seed distribution.
The productivity of such a forest, in terms of how much new growth it produces, exceeds that of the most productive wheat field. It is in this observation– of how much more productive a wood may be on far less fertilizer input– that the potential productivity of a permaculture design is modeled. The many connections in a wood contribute together to a proliferation of opportunities for amplifier feedback to evolve that in turn maximize energy flow through the system.
Polyculture is agriculture using multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems, and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture. It includes crop rotation, multi-cropping, and inter-cropping. Alley cropping is a simplification of the layered system which typically uses just two layers, with alternate rows of trees and smaller plants.
Permaculture guilds are groups of organisms - plants, animals, fungi, bacteria etc. - which work particularly well together. These can be those observed in nature such as the White Oak guild which centers on the White Oak tree and includes 10 other plants. Native communities can be adapted by substitution of plants more suitable for human use.
The Three Sisters of maize, squash and beans is a well known guild. The British National Vegetation Classification provides a comprehensive list of plant communities in the UK. Guilds can be thought of as an extension of companion planting.
Permaculturists maintain that where vastly differing systems meet, there is an intense area of productivity and useful connections.
The greatest example of this is the coast.[dubious ] Where the land and the sea meet there is a particularly rich area that meets a disproportionate percentage of human and animal needs.[original research?] This is evidenced by the fact that the overwhelming majority of humankind lives within 100 km of the sea. So this idea is played out in permacultural designs by using spirals in the herb garden or creating ponds that have wavy undulating shorelines rather than a simple circle or oval (thereby increasing the amount of edge for a given area). Edges between woodland and open areas have been claimed to be the most productive.
Perennial plants are often used in permaculture design. As they do not need to be planted every year they require less maintenance and fertilizers. They are especially important in the outer zones and in layered systems.
Ken Fern of Plants For A Future has spent many years investigating suitable perennial plants, as has Wes Jackson of The Land Institute.
Many permaculture designs involve animals other than humans. Chickens can be used as a method of weed control and also as a producer of eggs, meat and fertilizer. Some types of agroforestry systems combine trees with grazing animals.
Some projects are critical of the use of animals (see vegan organic gardening). However not all permaculture sites farm the animals. The animals are pets and can be treated as co-habitators and co-workers of the site, eating foods normally unpalatable to people such as slugs, termites, being an integral part of the pest management by eating some pests, supplying fertilizer through their droppings and controlling some weed species.
Annual monoculture such as a wheatfield can be considered a pattern to be avoided in terms of space (height is uniform) and time (crops grow at the same rate until harvesting). During growth and especially after harvesting the system is prone to soil erosion from rain. The field requires a hefty input of fertilizers for growth and machinery for harvesting. The work is more likely to be repetitive, mechanized and rely on fossil fuels.
No pattern should be hard and fast and depending on the design considerations they can be broken. An example of this is broadscale permaculture practiced at Ragmans Lane Farm, which has a component of annual farming. Here the amount of human involvement is a key factor influencing the design.
Applying these values means using fewer non-renewable sources of energy, particularly petroleum based forms of energy. Burning fossil fuels contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming; however, using less energy is more than just combating global warming.
Using current agricultural systems the food production system is not fully renewable. Industrial agriculture requires large amounts of petroleum, both to run the equipment, and to supply pesticides and fertilizers. Permaculture is in part an attempt to create a renewable system of food production that relies upon minimal amounts of energy.
For example permaculture focuses on maximizing the use of trees (agroforestry) and perennial food crops because they make a more efficient and long term use of energy than traditional seasonal crops. A farmer does not have to exert energy every year replanting them, and this frees up that energy to be used somewhere else.
Traditional pre-industrial agriculture was labor intensive, industrial agriculture is fossil fuel intensive, and permaculture is design and information intensive and petrofree. Partially permaculture is an attempt to work smarter, not harder; and when possible the energy used should come from renewable sources such as wind power, passive solar designs or biofuels.
A good example of this kind of efficient design is the chicken greenhouse. By attaching a chicken coop to a greenhouse you can reduce the need to heat the greenhouse by fossil fuels, as the chickens' bodies heat the area.
The chickens scratching and pecking can be put to good use to clear new land for crops. Their manure can be used in composting to fertilize the soil. Feathers could be used in compost or as a mulch. In a conventional factory situation all these chicken outputs are seen as a waste problem.
In large factory farms (cooled by large air conditioning systems), chicken heat is a waste byproduct, along with their manure. All energy is focused on egg production. Thus it is a further principle of permaculture that "pollution is energy in the wrong place".
These restatements of the principles of permaculture appear in Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability ; also see permacultureprinciples.com ;
A basic principle is thus to "add value" to existing crops. A permaculture design therefore seeks to provide a wide range of solutions by including its main ethics (see above) as an integral part of the final value-added design.
Crucially, it seeks to address problems that include the economic question of how to either make money from growing crops or exchange crops for labor such as in the LETS scheme. Each final design therefore should include economic considerations as well as give equal weight to maintaining ecological balance, making sure that the needs of people working on the project are met and that no one is exploited.
Community economics requires a balance between the three aspects that comprise a community: justice, environment and economics, also called the triple bottom line, or "ecological-economics-ethics" (EEE) or "triple E". A cooperative farmer's market could be an example of this structure. The farmers are the workers and owners.
Additionally, all economics are limited by their ecology. No economic system stands apart independently from its eco-system; therefore, all external costs must be considered when discussing economics.
One way of doing this is through designing a system that has "multiple outputs". For example, a wheat field interspersed with nut trees will reduce soil erosion, act as a windbreak and provide a nut crop as well as a wheat crop. Here the system comes into conflict with conventional agriculture and economics. Interplanting trees in a wheat field reduces the wheat yield and makes the field harder to harvest using machinery, as the operator has to drive around the trees.
Most farms specialize in a few crops at a time and seek to maximize surplus in order to increase profit. This surplus can only be maintained with a massive injection of fossil fuels.
In the years since its conception, permaculture has become a successful approach to designing sustainable systems. Its adaptability and emphasis on meeting human needs means that it can be utilized in every climatic and cultural zone.
However, at the moment the large proportion of practitioners are only likely to be inspired individuals and there is a distinct lack of broadscale permaculture projects. Nevertheless, permaculture has also been used successfully as a development tool to help meet the needs of indigenous communities facing degraded standards of living from development of land and the introduction of industrialized food.
John Robin has been one the strongest critics of permaculture, criticizing it for its potential to spread environmental weeds, reflecting a divide between native plant advocates and permaculture.
Bill Mollison himself has also been critical of itinerant teachers of permaculture who would go on to teach after only a short course. At one point Mollison unsuccessfully attempted to trademark the term permaculture to prevent this practice.
Another criticism of permaculture is to be found in a book review of Hemenway's Gaia's Garden, published in the Whole Earth Review. In it, Williams critiques the view that woods are more highly productive than farmland on the basis of the theory of ecological succession which states that net productivity declines as ecosystems mature. He also criticized the lack of scientifically tested data and questions whether permaculture is applicable to more than a small number of dedicated people.
Hemenway's response in the same magazine disputes Williams's claim on productivity as focusing on climax rather than on maturing forests, citing data from ecologist Robert Whittaker's book Communities and Ecosystems. Hemenway is also critical of Williams's characterisation of permaculture as simply forest gardening.
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Agriculture – Agriculture/Ecology – Agriculture/Ethics – Agriculture/Food – Environment & Agriculture – Permaculture
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