Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

Transition Culture has moved

I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

What is Permaculture? A Leaflet… (2002)

**What is Permaculture?** *This was an article originally done for ENFO in Dublin. It was to be one of their free leaflet/information sheets, I don’t know if it ever saw the light of day. It was to be acompanied by cartoons, which I can no longer find….*


It is now clear that there are serious problems with our environment. Global warming, pollution, destructive intensive agricultural systems, the list is depressing and seemingly endless. But what about solutions? What would a sustainable world look like? How would we feed and house ourselves? How would we reorganise our towns and cities? These are the challenges permaculture sets out to address.

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is essentially a tool kit for the design and creation of sustainable human settlements. It is an empowering approach which equips us with a way of seeing which turns problems into solutions and sterile monocultures into abundance and diversity. Originating in Australia in the 1970s as a ‘permanent agriculture’, permaculture offers a design framework for the assembly of the many diverse elements required to make up sustainable systems. There is nothing mystical or extraordinary about permaculture, it is the application of sensible design and common sense, combining the best of traditional practices with the best in cutting edge sustainable technologies and design. Its principles are as relevant to the design of a farm as they are to the design of an apartment balcony.

Nature as Teacher

Permaculture draws its inspiration from nature, and from the natural systems that have evolved on this planet over many thousands of years. Natural systems, such as woodlands, are very species diverse, hugely productive of biomass, extremely efficient recyclers and are sustainable in the truest sense of the word – they can sustain themselves indefinitely. They require no weeding, no watering, no fertilizing, no digging or ploughing, yet they are both beautiful and abundant. Compare that to a wheat field. Here we see one single variety of plant, with little or no genetic diversity, all growing on one level, on bare soil, requiring herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and resulting in the loss of soil through erosion by wind and rain.

A disease or pest could destroy the single species rapidly, whereas a disease in a diverse system, such as the woodland, would only affect one element and not the whole system. In permaculture we look at the woodland with its abundance and its stability, and we reproduce it using edible plants. The result is what has become known as a Forest Garden, where edible perennial herbs, fruits, nuts and vegetables are assembled to create a highly productive garden which requires very little maintenance apart from the harvesting of produce!

10 Principles of Permaculture

There are 10 key principles which are central to Permaculture. The first, ‘relative location’, states that it is how elements of the design are sited in relation to other elements that is important, along with how many beneficial connections are established between them. In order to be able to function to its full potential, an element must be put in the right place. If, for example, we wanted a house, a vegetable garden and a pond, we could put them together in such a way that they are just placed at random in the landscape. We could, on the other hand, after studying the different inputs and outputs of each and assessing the most beneficial way of connecting them, design a system wherein the pond is sited so as to reflect winter sun into the house, the vegetable garden in placed between the two so that it is right outside the kitchen door for easy access, and benefits from the warmer micro-climate close to a pond. We can then use the silt from the pond as a fertiliser for the garden, grow edible water plants and have a great recreation resource.

The second, ‘multiple function’, states that each element of the design should be sited/designed/selected to perform at least 3 functions. For example, tree plantings can provide a windbreak, a harvest of fruit, nuts or coppice timber, animal fodder, soil stabilisation, reduced heat loss from houses and a wildlife habitat. How many possible uses can you think of for a pond, for example?

The concept of ‘multiple sources’ is that it is sensible and prudent to not rely on just one source of anything, for example relying solely on tap water for irrigation is a risky strategy, a combination of rainwater harvesting, ponds, diversion ditches, moisture-retaining mulches and grey water re-use is much more sensible. The perils of relying on just one source of anything have been seen in the Potato Famine and in the foot and mouth crisis, where ‘putting all our eggs in one basket’ can lead to disastrous results.

The fourth principle is ‘zone, sector, slope’. Zone refers to placing elements of the design according to frequency of use, for example a herb bed needs to be nearer the house than a walnut tree. Sector refers to the analysis of the site so as to enable the control and utilisation of the energies entering/passing through the site, i.e. cold winds, summer/winter sun etc. The utilisation of slope is also important, it enables the designer to allow gravity to do much of the work which bad design requires the use of external energy to do.

‘Energy cycling’ aims to harvest nutrients and energy which would otherwise be lost from the design by building in as many cycles as possible. By planting comfrey or willows on the lowest point of our site, nutrients and fertility which would otherwise be lost can be intercepted and reused within the design.

‘Using biological resources’ means using the natural qualities and activities of things, for example chickens like to scratch so put them onto vegetable beds in winter to turn them over, eat weed seeds and slugs. We can also maximise the effects different plants have on each other by using companion planting, for example growing chives and nasturtiums beneath apple trees.

‘Stacking’ is based on observations of natural systems as 3-dimensional systems (i.e. a forest) rather than one dimensional (a field of wheat, a lawn), and trying to replicate this where possible. We can, for example, plant strawberries beneath lemon balm beneath lovage beneath hazelnuts beneath apples, making far better use of the space than if each plant was planted on its own.

The eighth principle is that of ‘diversity’. One of the distinguishing features of permaculture landscapes is that they contain a very high diversity of plants, and protection of biodiversity is seen as being a high priority. Many old varieties of plants have already disappeared and many more are in danger of being lost forever, so there is a great need for preserving such diversity in our gardens. Diversity is also important socially and economically – a wide range of small businesses being far preferable to one big employer. The important thing about diversity is that it is not so much the number of species that is important as the number of beneficial relationships we establish between them in our designs.

‘Edge’ notes that in natural environments productivity increases at the edges between different eco-systems. In Permaculture garden design, edges of ponds and beds tend to be curved and crenellated so as to maximise this effect. Another practical application of edge is a herb spiral. This should be built right outside your kitchen door so as to provide fresh herbs where you need them without the need for trudging around in your garden in the rain looking for herbs. A circular mound is built in a spiral about 1½m wide and about 1m tall and planted up with herbs set out in a particular order so that each has its own niche. Chives for example like shade and a moist soil, so they go low down on the north side. Rosemary, a Mediterranean herb, likes lots of sun and dry soil, so it goes on the top (for a possible planting plan see the diagram). Growing herbs in this way gives you much more productivity in a smaller space than a conventional herb garden.

Finally ‘small scale’. This means, in terms of gardening, starting at your back door and keeping a garden intensive and small. The application of Permaculture design can result in highly productive intensive small gardens, keeping them small makes them easier to manage, easier to water and more pleasurable to work in. When planning an intensive vegetable garden, start at the back door and work outwards. Bill Mollison, the co-originator of Permaculture, says that you should grow your food no further from your house than you can throw the kitchen sink!

But Does It Work?

Permaculture is now practiced all over the world. In America whole suburbs have been designed using its principles, where the residents live surrounded by orchards and food forests, in energy efficient solar buildings. In the UK inner city, waste ground has been turned into productive community permaculture farms, providing fresh food and a beautiful space for residents unused to either. In Nepal, badly eroded hillsides have been transformed into food forests and sustainable agricultural systems. Permaculture works because it empowers ordinary people to take their future into their own hands and design the kind of future they actually want. Its principles are easy to learn and the results can be spectacular. We no longer have to put up with tired lettuces which have flown half way around the world to our dinner plate – we can grow them ourselves with the minimum of work. We don’t have to sit back and watch our environment deteriorate, we can take simple practical steps to heal of our surroundings while also improving our quality of life.

What’s the next step?

There are many good books available on Permaculture, a full catalogue of which is available from Walnut Books (023 47044). You could attend one of the courses that run around the country throughout the year. Permaculture is either taught on Introductory courses (usually run as a weekend) or as a Full Permaculture Design Course (a 72 hour course). There are also evening classes run in some parts of the country. You may also like to make use of a Permaculture design consultant who could advise on the design of your site. For further information on Permaculture courses and on consultants working in your area contact Rob Hopkins, Permaculture designer, consultant and teacher on 023 47001.