Permaculture is literally permanent culture. It started out literally as permanent agriculture, but it is now being applied to other areas besides agriculture. Bill Mollison wrote,
"Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way."
Zone 1 Garden Design
"Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions."
Pond attached to swales and overflow spilling to swale
Basically, permaculture is a system of design with the goal of designing self-sufficient systems aligned with nature, and many times mimicking natural systems. A mature permaculture garden should ultimately be more productive, require less energy, sustainable, and great for the environment.
People can label just about anything as being "permaculture", but does that make it so? The Permaculture Research Institute is pretty lax on the use of the word. If you’ve passed a PDC, you can call a pile of chicken manure permaculture if you want. Having said that, there has been much debate over whether or not something qualifies. For example, Paul Wheaton hates chicken tractors, and thinks a stationary coop and run setup might be as bad as a commercial chicken house, but Geoff Lawton would disagree. They would both say, “It depends” for a lot of things.
I think you have to be careful of trying to force elements into a permaculture design. For example, swales are fantastic tree growing systems that can re-hydrate land and build soils. Should you always include swales? It depends. Is the grade too steep for swales? Do you need them? Is the energy expended worth the production?
Hugelkultur Sun Traps
What about hugelkultur? Hugelkultur is great in cold climates a la Sepp Holzer in the Austrian Alps, but not as effective in hot drylands. Double reach raised beds might be great where there is adequate rainfall, but sunken beds are better in hot drylands. Increasing shade is typically a good thing in the tropics, but increasing sun is usually positive in the cold climates. Of course some variation of microclimates can be good for different uses.
Rosemary, thyme, lavender, marjoram, calendula, sage, oregano, tomato (volunteer), basil, onions, chives, parsley, dill, daikon
The first thing to “do” in permaculture is to simply observe the site. Don’t even think about what you’re going to physically do. It is best to stay open to the endless possibilities. You might find connections you would have never thought of. I take notes and make maps as I’m observing. What are the wind flows? Check the surrounding vegetation to see if they are leaning one way or another. Bear in mind that winds typically come in from the north in the winter, and the south in the summer, but every site is different. I get a terrible westerly wind in the summer and a northerly wind in the winter.
After making a wind map, I like to make a sun and shade map. A solar pathfinder is a great way to do this at any time of the year at any time of the day. It will give you all the seasonal and hour by hour information that you need. Make sure to include your compass headings, add existing structures to the map, and figure your slope and orientation.
Sun & Shade Map
Contour mapping is important as well. I like to use a laser level to find some of the important contour lines. This can help with swale and pond placements, driveways and walkways, as well as fencing and tree planting, or anything else you may want to put on contour. Identifying microclimates
It’s a good idea to note any microclimates that exist on the property. Do you have any sun traps, or sheltered areas, or excessively shady spots etc… I have a terrible microclimate directly behind my house that is 100% shade except for a couple of months in the summer when the sun is directly overhead. I’m still considering my options.
Note anything else you observe. Don’t worry too much about the relevance. What kind of wildlife visits your site? Will you have to contend with deer or groundhogs? I’ve got them both. What is the soil type? This is great to know for planting and for earthworks. What climate type do you have? What is the rainfall amount, growing zone?
Once you’ve done a healthy amount of observation, you can start to design. Now you’ll be able to determine whether or not you should install swales, or hugelkultur, or a mandala garden, or ponds, or double reach raised beds, or any other type of design element. Permaculture is all these design elements, and none of them. It all depends on how they arranged and whether or not they function properly in your system and are aligned with nature.
In the next article, I will get more specific on the design process. I will cover designing with zones, sectors, and stacking functions.
Source: Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison
~ Phil Williams
Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com. His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.