What Is Permaculture? © Frances Michaels
Conventional modern agriculture is facing serious environmental problems, the impact of global warming, widespread
erosion, salinity, acidification and contamination of soil and water by toxic residues. Food-raising systems that
conserve soil, water and nutrients and minimize the use of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and synthetic
pesticides are desperately needed. Although the expanding organic movement is a positive development, in the final
analysis agricultural production will be maintained only if farms are designed in the image of natural ecosystems,
combining the knowledge of science with the wisdom of the wilderness. Natural ecosystems are extremely resilient
and use only renewable sources of input. They have for thousands of years, demonstrated high productivity, an
impressive ability to maintain environmental quality, and quick adaptiveness to natural disturbances. Hence, they
can be used as agricultural and botanical models for designing and structuring our agro-ecosystems.
This is the approach of Permaculture, the name given by Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to
describe the concept of a self-sustaining, consciously designed system of agriculture. It takes the practices of
organic farming one step further, applying natural principles to design and self-sustaining food, fibre and energy
producing systems. By weaving together the elements of microclimate, annual and perennial plants, water and soil
management, and human needs, the permaculturalist forms an energy-efficient, low-maintenance, high-yielding and
intricately interconnected system. The philosophy, as summed up by Mollison, is one of: 'working with, rather than
against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of
looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.'
A good permaculture design takes advantage of the fact that landscapes develop over time. In natural ecosystems,
this concept is known a succession, and it describes the process by which, for example, an abandoned paddock
becomes inhabited with successive communities of weeds, shrubs, pioneer trees and mature species until it becomes
a forest. In conventional farming, succession is frozen at an early stage by practices such tillage, grazing,
fertilizing and pest control, all of which require energy. By allowing agricultural succession to occur or even by
consciously directing it, energy and nutrients can be conserved, soil losses reduced and herbivore populations
stabilized. Monocultural cropping systems expose soil to erosions at the harvest stage, and reduce the ecological
niches of macro and micro fauna, resulting in subsequent imbalances developing in the system.
Simple successional systems also make economic sense. For example, annuals planted between the rows of a young
orchard will furnish income while the orchard species mature. In some cases, understanding the successional
process provides the clue to optimal land use. Many shrub communities actually create the environment for the
succeeding tree species. Trees that follow pioneer species are often shade tolerant and may even need shade for
germination. Other pioneer species are nitrogen-fixers. By building up the soil nitrogen level, these plants
create a more fertile soil in which succeeding species can thrive.
Another characteristic of permaculture systems is that, whenever possible, production and management inputs are
derived from biological resources. Plants and animals can provide such functions as insect, disease and weed
control, nutrient recycling, fertilization, energy conservation and tillage. The potential for using biological
inputs is enormous and is the key to creating a sustainable agricultural system.
Permaculture systems favour diversity over monoculture and will include a great variety of plant types from
top-storey trees to groundcovers. However, because interactions among plants are both beneficial and competitive,
the right kind of diversity is important. Plant relationships take many forms, including competition for light,
nutrients, water and pollinators, relative attractiveness as food for insects, and chemical interactions. The
number of elements in the landscape is not as important as the number of quality of the linkages among them.
Good design maximizes the number of beneficial interactions among plants, structures and people while minimizing
or eliminating those interactions that are harmful. As a benefit the soil becomes more complex, the natural litter
acts as a control on weeds, reduces leaching, run-off and erosion and harbours a greater variety of soil fauna.
Structural diversity increases microclimate variation, allowing a greater range of useful plants to be grown.
Diversity can also be considered from an economic standpoint. With farmers' income dependent on the marketplace,
having several saleable products instead of one tends to avoid large fluctuations in financial returns.
Permaculture is based on the ethics of environmental soundness and social responsibility, co-operation and
community growth. As such it approaches the many problems now facing us on a practical level and can be applied
to both urban and rural situations.
Do Only What Is Necessary
This involves humility in realizing that our understanding is limited. It means a respect for the natural way in
which things happen. This is what the radical farmer Fukuoka means when he says that his is a 'do-nothing'
philosophy and why he always questions the reason for every task 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Conservation
is always the first resource of 'doing nothing'. In its simplest terms, it is putting on a sweater instead of
turning on a heater, or listening to the news on the radio instead of buying a newspaper. As a state of mind that's
a fair beginning. In the deeper application, conservation means honouring the natural cycles, not breaking them
apart which results in waste. Conservation involves passive restraint from change and disruption of natural
systems and active participation within them.
Never do anything for only one reason. 'Stack functions' is the way Bill Mollison expresses it. In nature all
design is elegant. All components should be placed to provide as many services as possible. For example, a dam
can be placed to provide a firebreak for a house, to provide microclimate benefits for particular crops, to cool
a breeze, the dam wall can bridge a gully for a roadway, and the dam can provide habitat for fish and ducks. A
second example would be the use of a hedge as a windbreak, to provide privacy, to create microclimate, to provide
bee forage and to provide additional food crops for people and animals.
Be redundant. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. A system's capacity for storage and resilience stems from its
redundancy. It is an understanding of this principle, for example, that reveals that the growing of our food in
monocultures, where everything hinges on the success of one species, is stupid and self-destructive. Good
Permaculture design ensures that basic needs, such as water collection, fire protection and food supply are met in
several ways. Preparing for drought offers a good example, growing hardy fodder trees such as tagasaste or
kurrajongs in a windbreak or shelter-belt, will provide the farmer with on-site fodder at a time when bought hay
is extremely expensive.
Check Your Scale
Design and act with an appropriate size frame. 'Don't bite off more than you can chew'. This is why Permaculture
starts at the back door and works out, to keep on a scale commensurate with our understanding. We are only
responsible for the next step in whatever we are doing, and that step is always right before us, within our reach.
Issues of scale are tricky and require continuous attention to the consequences of a chosen scale.
The Gift Must Always Move
This is the universal law of gifts. This is how species of an ecosystem co-exist. I accept the gift of oxygen from
the trees and other plants and return it as carbon dioxide. We violate this principle when we accept food from the
earth and do not return our waste, but instead use it to contaminate water.