What Should I Do?

Hugelkultur Sun Traps / Phil Williams

Introduction to Permaculture

Designing sustainable environments and systems
Monday, February 24, 2014, 1:20 PM

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

He continues,

"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.

Wind Map

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.

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kja47's picture
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 7 2008
Posts: 13
great addition to PP

Thanks Phil for the start of a detailed minicourse in Permaculture!1

Christopher H's picture
Christopher H
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: May 29 2009
Posts: 148
Thanks for starting a series about Permaculture, Phil!

I discovered permaculture about 4 years back, completed my PDC 2 years ago, and I have to say it has completely changed my outlook on things.  I look at almost EVERYTHING around me now through a permaculture lens.  Particularly in the realm of capturing and using resources that are often classified as "waste" in our current society.

For my day job, I work as a civil engineer.  And I am frustrated to no end by my field's approach to stormwater management (among other things).  They view it as something to be transmitted off site as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I look at it and think, "That's a valuable resource that needs to be captured and put to productive use!"  If existing and new sites would capture just a portion of the stormwater runoff they are usually trying to get rid of, it could serve multiple ends: increase on-site productive capacity (food/fodder plants), provide water for non-potable uses (or potable if filtered), reduce downstream flooding and untreated wastewater releases (look up what happens to NYC WWTPs when it rains over 1/4"), and so forth.  It's such a no-brainer -- and yet most of the people I work with are stuck firmly in the mid-20th century with regards to these kinds of things.

Mark_BC's picture
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 30 2010
Posts: 428
Here is a great paper on

Here is a great paper on "humanure", which actually treats human waste as an asset, not a toxic waste to be taken away and neutralized (gasp!) Interesting stuff, it makes me question why I'd ever put a regular septic system in any new non-urban building.

CAH, I'm a mechanical engineer and I have the same issues with some of the entrenched beliefs about how resources should be managed, and even just understood. You'd think that engineers should be the most open minded and progressive when it comes to these issues, since they supposedly understand "how it works". But alas, as with anything else, people make their own little stories and stick with them in order to cope. "This is the way the world works people and I'm not going to challenge myself to learn more about it." Specifically, we do lots of design work for natural resources extraction and processing (mines, pipelines, ports, factories). The people I work with seem largely unable to see how what we're doing fits into the big picture, and ask the big question: is it sustainable? Where does the energy come from to power all this? I bet they'd all be very surprised to learn that 95% of the energy comes from burning dead things that used to be alive (all derived from plants)! I even had a teacher in one of my engineering classes (he was a physics graduate) make fun of basket weaving and plant science, suggesting that they weren't important and not worthy pursuits in comparison to the real man's work in engineering! Well considering that 95% of the energy that powers all that engineering stuff comes from burning plants, I'd say it's a pretty darn important field! They have their narrow little views of the specific project we're working on and don't look beyond that. Since what we're doing is supposedly "good", then we need to have more of this goodness. More mines, more pipelines, more factories...

Right now I'm enjoying being laid off from lack of work. I'll use that time to do some traveling, some more writing, and to help my mom with her 2 acre plot of highly productive land to make it more manageable and more permaculture-like. I'd like to build another little mini-house and am interested to make it low-impact, meaning a composting toilet, and all the grey water going to water the trees since it gets dry here in summer. We have no lack of ground water, being right beside a river. Solar panels on the roof, and use on-site logs for the construction as much as I can.

Christopher H's picture
Christopher H
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: May 29 2009
Posts: 148
Oh, I'm familiar with humanure....

I've read The Humanure Handbook in its entirety.  It's a project that I would like to get going, but there are probably about 137 right now that are a higher priority.  ;-)  The guy who wrote the book -- Joe Jenkins -- lives about an hour from where I grew up in Western PA.

I completely agree with you regarding the insanity of wasting such a valuable resource.  I'm currently reading "Farmers of Forty Centuries" by F.H. King, which profiles farming methods used in China, Japan and Korea around the turn of the 20th century through the eyes of a US Agriculture official touring the region.  In it, King writes extensively on the way that nothing ever goes to waste in their agricultural systems, and details the extensive use of night soil to fertilize crops.  I'm not looking to go precisely that route, but using well-cured humanure for trees and shrubs would certainly be in the works.  I already use urine fairly extensively as a fertilizer to re-mineralize the soil.

The problem with popularizing these kinds of approaches -- at least in NY State, where I live -- is the tyranny of the building code.  Unless you have an approved wastewater system, you cannot build.  I'm going to be going through the exercise of trying to get some alternative methods approved for a group that wants to form an ecovillage in my town, but in spite of my hopes I'm remaining somewhat pessimistic as to being able to get those methods approved.

I stopped being surprised by engineers behaving in this manner, because in my experience the majority of engineers are fairly narrow-vision folks.  Our kind of work is inherently analytical -- and therefore reductionist.  Since we deal with machines, we operate under the false assumption that everything (including society) should behave like machines.  All of this means that we're generally shock troops in the push to make things more automated, centralized, and complicated.  I've found very few engineers that I work with who would realistically consider the idea that the direction of our profession is actually making things worse in a lot of ways, because it's operating on severely outdated premises.  I also know that I'm somewhat of an outlier, having also pursued degrees in American History, have read works like "The Collapse of Complex Societies," and am generally curious about a lot of things outside of my professional focus.

In any case, it's good to know that I'm not the ONLY engineer out there who sees things this way, and is looking to use their "knack" for creating more resilient systems instead of more fragile ones.

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