Introduction to Permaculture

Vegetable garden in late summer

Permanent Agri-culture

Permaculture.  You’ve likely seen the word and wondered what the heck it means.  When you search the term ‘permaculture’ online, numerous definitions come up.  In fact, there’s even a webpage that lists over 50 definitions of permaculture.  There are many ways that you can define permaculture.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who first coined the term in 1978, defined permaculture as: “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

In short, it is a more sustainable method of gardening.  The overall idea of permaculture is to garden smarter, working with nature instead of against it.

How does permaculture work?

There are so many ways that you can make permaculture work for you.  The way that you permaculture may be totally different from what you neighbor does.

The best way to set up your permaculture farm will depend on:

  1. Your land
  2. The crops that you want to establish and
  3. The livestock that you raise

Ancient floating gardens are often cited as being a source of inspiration for permaculture systems.  The Aztec Empire supported a hefty population of nearly 6 million people.  The Aztecs were able to feed all of those people through intensive and productive agriculture systems.  The most commonly used systems were called chinampas.  Chinampas were large gardens that floated on top of ponds and bodies of water. These gardens worked in harmony with the fish populations in the water.  The system was self-watering, self-feeding and highly productive.

Permaculture works by using what’s called a closed-loop system.  A closed-loop system is one that exists entirely on its own without outside input.

Permaculture systems used closed-loop systems for crops and animals involved.  Plants need nutrients to grow and thrive.  In order to supply these nutrients, many permaculture farmers rely on waste like compost or manure.

Waste products can provide the nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that would otherwise have to be added with fertilizers.

Effective permaculture starts by analyzing what you have and how you can make it work together better.  For example, if you are growing a garden and raising chickens, you should be able to make them work together.  Some of the crops that you grow can be used to feed your chickens.  You can in turn use your chickens to scratch up your garden soil, keep insects off of your garden plants and fertilize your garden.

The key to a good permaculture system is balance.  If your chickens can only access your garden for food, they may eat too much of your crop and kill your plants.  It’s also possible to over fertilize your garden soil, so it’s a good idea to limit the amount of time that your chickens spend in the garden.

Perennial Crops

A key component to a permaculture system is perennial crops.  Perennial crops are plants that you plant one time and harvest from multiple times.  Crops like asparagus or Swiss chard will continue to produce year after year.  The more perennial crops that you can plant, the less work that you’ll have to do each year around your permaculture garden.

These crops become established in the landscape and grow with no yearly work from you.  When planned out right, these crops will continue to provide year after year.

Some perennial crops to plant in a permaculture gHome Grown Organic Colourful Swiss Chardarden are:

These crops probably sound familiar.  Permaculture systems often use less conventional crops that you may not be as familiar with.  Much of the food that we consume today doesn’t come from perennial crops.  Wheat, corn, and other vegetables must be seeded out yearly to produce crops.  There are plants that can replace some annual crops in a permaculture system.  Root vegetables that are often grown include yacon and sunchokes.  Wild rocket is a leafy green that is perennial and suitable in a closed-loop system.

Most fruit and nut trees can be incorporated into a permaculture system, but if you want to add some variety to your orchard, consider adding Saskatoon berries, Haskap, Gooseberries or Chokecherries.  Hostas, nettles and dandelions are edible and easily to grow.  Sorrels and Caucasian spinach can also be added to your farm.

You can incorporate some crops that are typically raised as annuals.  Try to allow your plants to self-seed at the end of the growing season.  Crops like tomatoes can sprout up from dropped fruits that were left on the ground at the end of the season.  You can also plant fruit and nut trees to add variety to the landscape.

Multiple Functions

Most permaculture farms try to ensure that everything serves as many functions as possible.  This makes it easier to maintain and makes things more functional and space-saving.  A picket fence might be designed to also function as a garden trellis to grow cucumbers up.  A rain barrel that you collect water in to water your garden can also be used to raise fish for food or to grow hydroponic plants.

Also consider how various plants can work together.  A good example to study is in a raised bed where grapes and strawberries are grown together.  A grapevine is grown up a trellis, freeing up space on the ground for strawberry plants to grow.  The grapevine, once filled out, will help to shield the bed from harsh winds and provide some shade for the strawberries.  Leaves that fall from the grapevine are easily composted, creating a nice mulch for the strawberries in the fall.  The strawberries act like a living mulch under the grapevine, which helps prevent the soil from drying out in the summer.  Both crops work well the other and produce edible fruits.  The grapevine also produces edible leaves.  To take it even further, you could add insect repelling herbs to the raised bed to ward off unwanted pests.

Work with Nature

You could argue that modern farming works against nature more than it works with it. In order to have livestock, most people feel that you have to clear out large amounts of pasture, which means removing all of the trees.  The same goes for gardening.  In order to create the ideal garden bed, you may till up the soil, remove any growing plants and therefore the nutrient-rich soil can wash away.  This is a common problem in gardening systems.  When the soil is worked, it’s more likely to erode and take nutrients away with it.  In order to combat that, most gardeners will add top soil, organic matter like compost or manure, and fertilize the plants to make up for the lack of nutrients in the soil.

Rather than damaging and then later attempting to remedy the soil artificially, permaculture systems work with nature to keep the soil and plant systems healthy.  A common example is seen with chicken tractors.  A chicken tractor can be placed over an area where the ground needs to be cleared of plants or insects.  The chickens will scratch up the surface of the ground and make it easier to plant.  You can get a similar effect with pigs as long as you contain them properly.  Pigs will root the ground up in search of grubs and roots to eat, making the ground soft and workable for planting.

The overall goal of a permaculture system is to have nature work for you so that you don’t work as hard to grow an abundance of food.  When a permaculture system is designed properly, the amount of work that you’ll have to do to maintain your plants will be reduced significantly.  You’ll be able to grow productive crops and animals with much less labor.  Every permaculture system looks different and can be designed to fit your individual farm and livestock.  Permaculture systems are an exciting solution to more sustainable agriculture.

How can you work some permaculture into your farm and garden?

 

Today’s post about permaculture comes from Shelby DeVore, founder of Farminence [https://farminence.com].  Shelby is a former agriculture teacher and a multi-generational home gardener.  She currently lives on a small farm with her husband and three children where they raise way too many animals and grow a large vegetable garden each year.

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