This week’s post is written by my brother Jon who has worked on various organic farms all over the world and has just completed the Permaculture Design course. Permaculture is a huge topic, but he’s written his take on it for me to share with you. Here’s a picture of his face:
Permaculture is about designing a way of life that sustainably meets the needs of the land and the people, thus creating a “Permanent Culture”. That’s the simple answer. There are many lectures, books, videos and pretty diagrams that delve much deeper into the philosophy, principles and practical applications. But in this post I’ll cover two main themes which for me capture the essence.
Permaculture is not just about growing vegetables in your back garden. That in itself is a wonderfully enriching thing to do, but the bigger ideas of Permaculture can be applied to all aspects of life, from building a house to sustaining a friendship.
Permaculture theme 1: Observation
“Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration.” David Holmgren (co-originator of the concept of Permaculture)
Have you ever gone for a walk and found yourself watching a bird, an insect, a tree? Or sat in a café, looking out at the passing crowds? Observation is the beginning of any learning and it’s something we do from the moment we are born.
The natural world is a marvellous teacher. Let’s be honest, it’s been going for billions of years so it must be doing something right. It’s full of efficient and sustainable ecosystems, and by observing them we can understand the patterns and principles behind its life, and apply these to our own situations.
By observing the patterns of the sun and microclimate of your garden, you’ll be able to see where the best place for a greenhouse is. By observing a woodland ecosystem you’ll find ways to enhance your own back garden by adding fertility back to the soil through natural materials, such as fallen leaves and animal waste, and using a no-dig method. By observing the flight of birds and their feeding patterns you’ll have a better understanding of where to put a bird box in your garden.
A greenhouse on the South facing side of a cob building – it will receive more sun and also more heat from the cob walls:
This principle of observation can be applied to your personal life too. Like the natural world, our emotions can tell us a lot and being aware of them can lead to a better understanding of ourselves and our actions. Being able to own ones emotions without judging is difficult, and something most of us struggle with on a daily basis. But the ability to just observe, to see how you’re feeling in a certain situation before reacting can be have empowering affects.
Next time you’re out I recommend trying a Sit Spot. Find a comfortable place, in your garden or in a park and just sit. Listen. Feel. Smell. Look. Just take in whatever your surroundings has to offer and try not to judge them. Just accept them for what they are.
Permaculture theme 2: Beneficial Relationships
We can all learn something from mud. From the wonderful soil beneath our feet that is the basis for all life. It’s a vivacious web of nutrients, worms, plants, fungi and micro-organisms that by simply living out their purpose form a balance of beneficial relationships which enhance the ecosystem as a whole.
Plants produce more sugars than they need for survival. Any excess sugars are excreted through their roots and gobbled up by a multitude of micro-organisms that live in the soil, such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes (an unsegmented worm, also known as a roundworm) and worms. This relationship between micro-organisms, plants and soil creates an ecosystem – the bacteria breaks down organic material, such as dead plants, and absorbs any nutrients that would otherwise get washed away; the bacteria and those absorbed nutrients are then eaten by a nematode, with any excess excreted as waste and absorbed by the plant; nematodes are eaten by worms who produce soil through excretion and move nutrients up and down the soil layer, again to the plant’s benefit.
Fungi have a special relationship with plant roots through the creation of networks of tiny strands called mycelium. In return for sugars from the plant, these networks collect nutrients and water otherwise unavailable to the plant and transfer them along these strands back to roots where they can be absorbed. It’s a beautiful balance of life.
So if you want to grow some vegetables the key is diversity which breeds multiple beneficial relationships. For example, planting spring onions with your strawberries will act as a repellent to any pests as well as being another food source. Planting borage attracts bees to your garden which then act as natural pollinators for other plants. And the borage flower can be added to a salad! The possibilities are endless.
Through beneficial relationships there is less of a need for energy input as the system feeds itself.
A wide range of vegetables which I received in exchange for a few hours work at a community garden:
And this can be applied to your personal life too. If you’ve got a long lonely drive ahead of you, you could try car sharing – you get petrol money for it plus you get to meet new people. If you find buying organic food too expensive on your own, you could set up a food co-op with other people and increase your buying power.
The ideas behind permaculture are common sense but have far reaching applications and results. By turning waste into a use, an output into an input we can create enriching and sustaining lives that better everyone and everything involved.
Written by Jon Munday.
Here are some great links if you want more on Permaculture:
Tonnes of info here from the Permaculture Podcast website
Online lecture series by Bill Mollison on NetworkEarth
Website for the Permaculture magazine (published quarterly)