Javan Kerby Bernakevitch, a permaculture designer and teacher-in-training, introduces us to the principles and practice of permanent (agri)culture.
“Permaculture is revolution disguised as organic gardening.”
- Graham Bell, from Permaculture – A Beginner’s Guide
Permaculture is not organic gardening, and I am not a gardener. What I am is a permaculture practitioner who uses organic gardening, and many other tools, to design systems that work to water, feed, warm, house, and provide community, not to mention: make a garden.
So if permaculture isn’t just gardening, then what is it?
Permaculture is not the rain that falls, nor the roof that collects it or the catchment systems that stores it. Permaculture design is the relationship between these things. Permaculture is the match maker, creating passionate love affairs between rain and plants, humans and animals, and ultimately achieving systems that produce enough natural resources to provide for their own maintenance and reproduction.
Imagine a ball that drops, hitting a lever that turns a wheel pulling on a string attached to a light bulb. Each step creates the necessary conditions for consequent steps which eventually will turn on the light bulb. Similar to well set-up dominoes. We can learn the skills to design whole systems that are focused on goals and fixing problems at the source, instead of focusing on the symptoms.
With the light bulb glowing over your head you might have realized that practicing permaculture is not all that difficult. In fact, you probably are practicing it already and don’t realize it. Why? Because the knowledge contained under the umbrella of permaculture is not new; it combines the ancient and traditional knowledge of growing food with the modern science of ecology and new technology. Work in permaculture is self-evaluating: either it works or it doesn’t. The beauty of this movement is that, if you can learn from your errors, you can learn to design systems that work. You don’t have to wait for a committee to stamp your certificate or a teacher to baptize your understanding through tests.
“If you’re a scientist, you could liken it to a miraculous wardrobe in which you can hang garments of any science or any art and find they’re always harmonious with, and in relation to, that which is already hanging there.”
- Bill Mollison, the godfather of permaculture
Permaculture is a way of looking at the systems that sustain us, and designing them to have built-in endurance and sustainability to gain the highest output from the lowest input. It is not just the organic garden: the garden is just a piece of the bigger picture. A picture that includes the local climate, site topography, water access and drainage, capacity of the land and its users, where income is produced to finance the whole process and a host of other items. It is looking at the pieces of life and designing systems that produce the basic necessities needed to sustain and provide joy while creating rich, wealthy lives.
“Wealth is a deep understanding of the natural world.”
– Inuit definition
“I think it’s pointless asking questions like ‘Will humanity survive?’ It’s purely up to people – if they want to, they can, if they don’t want to, they won’t.”
- Bill Mollison
Bill Mollison, a disgruntled and highly motivated biologist, culminated a true “aha” moment with student David Holmgren in 1978 when they set out the seminal work Permaculture One. Coined as a combination of the words permanent and agriculture, and then permanent and culture, permaculture from its textual origins is about creating a world were we can live indefinitely. In this work, Mollison and Holmgren articulated their thoughts on sustainable living through a positive action movement in which anyone could be involved. The publication helped to create the first texts for the personal educational keystone of the movement: the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). Any keeners out there will be able to find PDC courses being offered in online and hands-on formats.
“If people want some guidance, I say, just look at what people really do. Don’t listen to them that much. And choose your friends from people who you like what they do – even though you mightn’t like what they say.”
- Bill Mollison
Contrary to the parental adage “do what I say, not what I do,” Mollison urges those interested to watch and see what is really happening. In a way, that’s how permaculture started. Working in wildlife relocation, Mollison realized that a forest needs no watering, weeding, fertilizing or other “outside care.” The forest is self-perpetuating. Mimicking the ecological principles he observed in the forest, he conceptualized that he could “make a system” that could produce food for human consumption. In essence, a food forest. This self-described “revelation” was understanding that there are beneficial interactions between living and non-living components. As people, we can assemble those components together to create beneficial connections and yields.
When Mollison asked an elderly Greek woman in a vineyard why she planted roses among her grapes, she replied: “Because the rose is the doctor of the grapes. If you don’t plant roses, the grapes get ill.” Accustomed to science, this answer did not sit well with Mollison. He began to research and found that the rose produces a certain root chemical that the grape root uptakes, which in turn repels the white fly (a pest for grapes). The story is the same from both Mollison and the woman’s perspectives: the grapes grow in community with the roses. However, the understanding behind the story changed. This story is where permaculture can be understood: in nature, organisms work in relation with one another. And using our commonsense we can observe these interactions, work out the commonsense or scientific understanding of what is happening, and reassemble the principle behind the interaction to create systems that feed, clothe, house, warm, and provide us with community.
Now in its fourth decade, the permaculture movement has spread like wildfire, creating a global grassroots community. Global in scope and adoption, permaculture has been able to specialize to meet specific needs. As permaculture is not an ideology, but rather an idea, it can change and adapt to any situation. In Haiti, permaculture practitioners were on the ground shortly after the earthquake, providing safe drinking water and human sanitation with a fraction of the budget of other aid organizations with twice the results. These efforts have grown from solid ethical building blocks that help guide the intentions of practitioners. These ethics, in order of priority and importance, are: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share.
“We are sufficient to do everything possible to heal this Earth. We don’t have to suppose we need oil, or governments, or anything. We can do it.”
- Bill Mollison
“The Earth is a living, breathing entity. Without ongoing care and nurturing there will be consequences too big to ignore.”
- David Holmgren
Humanity has withdrawn so much of the natural capital from the earth’s savings account that we are no longer living off the surplus interest; we are now eating into the capital itself. We’re living on the savings, and they’re running low: it’s a lot like college without the getting-more-educated bit. From the north to south pole, to the tip of Mt. Everest and the bottom of the ocean, our environment is degraded and degrading at an alarming rate (imagine 1,000,000 fire alarms going off in a closed phone booth and you’re close to how serious the situation is). Synthesized chemicals at toxic levels can be found in every environment, in newborn children, and even in pollen (121 herbicides, fungicides and insecticides at last count); these are the very building blocks that support life.
Think of it this way: if you were hospitalized and depending on a medical life-support system, would you jiggle the plug, poke holes in the feeding tubes or pour toxic waste in the IV bag? Not unless you’re Keith Richards or a cockroach, and even then I think they’d both think twice about it … at least the cockroach would.
Earth Care is the top priority. Earth Care is our top priority. As a curmudgeonly 63 year old farmer from Manitoba advised, after I asked what I should grow on a certain piece of land…
Me: “What should we grow here-”
Him (cutting me off): “Soil.”
Me (frustrated but respecting my elder): “Right, I understand that, but in this micro-climate, what would be good to propagate-”
Him (cutting me off again): “Soil.”
Me (realizing there might be something he’s trying to tell me): “Okay, so you’re saying I should grow…”
Him (finitely stating): “Soil.”
At present, our greatest threat to humanity is not climate change (though that affects soil loss), nor pollution (this does affect soil loss), nor deforestation (now, that really affects soil loss). Our greatest threat is … soil loss. Without healthy ecosystems, soil is destroyed. Without soil, there is no food and, without food, the chairs around our global table become vacant. And it gets rather lonely sitting by oneself.
“I cannot save the world alone. It will take at least three of us.”
- Bill Mollison
Me, myself and I. Okay, and you too. And you can join, and … well heck, let’s invite everyone to the party. After ensuring that our life-support system is tended to, we turn to each other realizing that if the entire human species is on a planet with finite resources then we in turn all affect and effect each other. Like it or not, we are all in this together. In a closed system, the actions of one are felt by many, detrimental or beneficial alike. In permaculture, and life, everyone has something of value to bring to the party.
In a scarce economy, resilient employees embody the same strategy that ecology demonstrates: an organism that places itself in the most service to the whole, survives. We can see how helping friends and family survive supports our personal survival, and we may evolve a matured ethic that sees all humankind as friends and family and thus life itself as our ally. People care then turns into species care and we too have the “aha” moment that Sister Sledge had: “We are family.”
Remember kindergarten? No, not the dirt eating (which thankfully we don’t have to resort to … yet), but the idea of sharing. Well, sharing is back in style, sharing is the new khaki. With a new twist, fair share is also about abundance. Surplus is created either through an extraordinary amount of effort, which turns into a deficit of time and energy, or by limiting consumption. By conserving resources and setting limits to consumption, we can set our best course for survival to include others while creating the conditions to further the two ethics above.
The Prime Directive of Permaculture
“The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.”
- from The Permaculture Handbook, by Bill Mollison
Under the prime directive of permaculture, the three ethics (Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share) guide us to devise methods of applying them to our gardens, land, economies and nature. We can see permaculture as “the mechanism of mature ethical behavior, or how to act to sustain the earth” and our existence on it.
Well, if this hasn’t blown your mind yet then strap in for round two … how to go about applying and practicing intentional permaculture. From the prime directive and the ethics we spiral outwards to principles, strategies and, finally, techniques. These three are the holy trinity of permaculture in action.
Principles are beneficial as there are no penalties for error, only learning from errors, thereby leading to new ideas and methods. Now, here’s where the idea of permaculture being open-source really gets going: at a recent permaculture teachers’ training session, the facilitator (a long-time permaculture practitioner and teacher) stated that she knew of over 372 principles related to the movement. 372? Yup, 372. And by the time you start practicing permaculture, I’m sure you’ll have come up with a few more, or remember one that your grandma used to use. My Ukrainian Baba used to bellow from the top of the stairs when my brother and I were rough-housing: “Smarten up or I’ll throw you out, one by each!” The humor (or maybe it’s the genius) of this maxim lies in the translation to English: those parts that do not work with the overriding ecological principles at play (like my Baba’s patience, or the ability of the earth to absorb the pollution we are producing) are “thrown out, one by each.”
As you move further down this rabbit hole you’ll find many principles. However, I found permaculture best sampled like a good buffet, in sizable portions. David Holmgren, the other author to the first book of permaculture, continued down his own path and has produced some excellent work, including 12 concise principles that are easy to remember and to implement. Some of my personal favorites of his are:
Integrate Rather Than Segregate
This principle has always wowed me by providing concrete examples of how to integrate plants together in communities or guilds that provide for the needs of other plants. The traditional example in North America is the “three sisters,” or maize (corn), beans and squash. Benefiting from each other, the maize provides the structure for the beans to climb (no poles needed). The beans fix nitrogen for the soil and the other plants, while the squash vines spread along the ground, blocking the sunlight that weeds need. The squash leaves are also a “living mulch,” creating a microclimate that retains moisture while the prickly hairs on the vines help deter pests. This guild integrates while utilizing the “waste” of the other plants, thereby touching on another great Holmgren principle: Produce No Waste (meaning that everything can have a use, even if we call it “waste”).
The Mollisonian Permaculture Principles that stand out for me are:
Work With Nature, Rather Than Against It
The revolutionary Masanobu Fukuoka (you’ll thank yourself if you read his The One Straw Revolution) once remarked, “If we throw nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.” When insecticides are used, the predatory insects (insectivores or cannibals, as I like to call them) are wiped out with the pests, ensuring that if an explosion of pests proliferate next year there will be no predators to keep their populations in check. Consequently, more insecticides are sprayed, tipping the scale even more. All pests are never killed and the survivors’ resistance is bred into a new generation, riding nature’s pitchfork aimed right at our food crops.
The Problem is the Solution
Everything works both ways. It is only our perspective that judges a thing to be beneficial or not. If the south side of the greenhouse is constantly facing the sun, construct that side out of glass or plastic (salvaged, if possible) and, as the north side never receives sun, let’s construct that side out of a substance that has thermal mass (think of it like a thermal battery: it can up-take heat and return the heat to the surrounding area) like rock, cob (a traditional building material made up of clay, sand and straw), or something else that absorbs solar heat.
Moving swiftly along strategies, like the ones below, are just like a handy number two Robertson screw driver or your Felco pruners: a tool to aid you on your permaculture journey.
When designing any site, be it a garden, a house, or even a driveway, here are the first three things to consider, in order:
1) Water – No matter where you travel or what you do, water is where the chemistry of life occurs. It’s also where some of your biggest headaches or joys can come from. First, consider where your water source is. Is it close to land that has a lot of sun in all seasons? What’s the land like around the water source? Where does it recharge from (underground, a stream that comes in from your neighbors’ property, precipitation)? Next, where does the water go? Does it drain on the land? Is that drainage seasonal or consistent year-round? If water is life, understanding the nature of your water on-site can save thousands of hours and just as many aspirin or cups of willow tea.
2) Access – As people, we design systems to water, feed, warm, house and provide us with community. If we design those systems first and then go to design access, we may find that the 6′-wide bed is too big for us to garden from the side. Considering how much a system will have to be “bumped” up against informs our decisions on how and where to construct that system. For example, chickens (the official permaculture mascot) need daily feeding (input) and collection of eggs (output). As keepers of this system, additional time and strain is endured if the chicken coop is placed far away from the house. Thus, if a system is “bumped” up against constantly, then placing that system closer to where we are increases the yields (outputs) while decreasing the work (inputs). This also applies to pathways, driveways, and other forms of getting to and away from systems.
3) Structures – Now that you know the water is draining on the north side of the hill and the best vehicle access is from the south, siting your structure can be made by an informed decision. In North America 40% of all energy consumed is by building and maintaining structures. With such huge amounts of resources inputted into your structure (house, greenhouse, tool shed), it’s important to site your structure where water is accessible and not threatening, and access is easy and not labor intensive.
“Permaculture is the end of the lawn virus, symptomatic of consumer culture.”
“You could say it’s a rational man’s approach to not sh*tting in his bed.”
- Bill Mollison
Or perhaps the definition is: “it’s sustainability, distilled, served straight up.” Or maybe it is just understanding that silver bullet solutions are best left to werewolves, proving that silver bullets are as fictitious as their intended fantasy targets. Catch-all solutions like pesticides and magic pills always have unintended side effects: it’s best to address the problem at its source.
As Geoff Lawton (the architect behind the Youtube video “Greening the Desert” — worth the time to watch) says, “All life’s problems can be solved in the garden.” Maybe permaculture is all about organic gardening … however, you’d do well to discard the definitions and just go out there and continue to garden, add in a sprinkle of permaculture, and be fruitful and mulch apply.
Javan Kerby Bernakevitch is an environmental educator, professional communicator, facilitator and editor. An O.U.R. Ecovillage resident on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada, Javan continues to expand his knowledge and passion for sustainability through permaculture as a designer and teacher-in-training.
Join the discussion on how to incorporate permaculture principles into the indoor garden: post your comments and questions below!