Understanding Permaculture

*This article assumes the reader is familiar with Holistic Management. This article originally appeared on sheldonfrith.com.

Mark Shepard's famous Permaculture farm in Wisconsin.

Mark Shepard’s famous Permaculture farm in Wisconsin.

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture = “Permanent” + “Agriculture”

There are three parts to Permaculture:

  1. Permaculture Design: A system for designing sustainable landscapes and communities. Mostly based on the book “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison. Permaculture Design is a combination of specific suggestions and general principles.

  2. Permaculture Techniques: A large collection of ideas and techniques related loosely to sustainability and agriculture. These techniques come from a wide variety of sources, many of them are borrowed from other disciplines such as civil engineering, alternative energy, natural building, ecology, etc. There is no central authority to determine what is, or is not, a “Permaculture” technique. This lack of regulation has allowed the best techniques to flourish, spread and be improved upon by anyone.

  3. Permaculture Movement: A large, and growing, movement of people who are generally interested in sustainability. Most of them are practitioners of Permaculture Design and/orPermaculture Techniques. There is no central leadership or central organization controlling the movement. Most people in the Permaculture Movement aim to spread the principals and techniques of Permaculture over the entire Earth. Obviously they still have a long way to go.

What is a “PDC”?

PDC simply stands for “Permaculture Design Course”. PDC are one of the primary ways new people learn about Permaculture. Anyone at all can teach, and charge money for, a PDC; there is no central certification authority. Because of this, the quality, duration, and prices of PDCs vary dramatically. Careful research is required before signing up for a PDC to ensure that the teacher is worth the entry fee.

Most PDCs have the following characteristics:

  • a curriculum based on the chapters of “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual”

  • a duration of several days of full time study

  • a price between $500-$1500

PDCs are the only form of certification within the Permaculture Movement. However, because of the varying quality of teachers, PDC completion is not a reliable indication of a person’s Permaculture knowledge or abilities.

Natural Building is a popular technique among Permaculture people.

Natural Building is a popular technique among Permaculture people.

A Brief History Of Permaculture

Permaculture started in the 1980s. The word “Permaculture” was coined by the founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The Permaculture Movement started out very small, essentially it was just the students who attended Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s lectures and PDCs. In the early stages most of Permaculture Technique was based on the textbook “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison. All three forms of Permaculture (Permaculture Design, Techniques, and the Movement) primarily owe their existence to this book. It is a very large and very thick book, and yet it is also incredibly information dense. I highly recommend that you read it, or at least flip through it to look at the illustrations (which are fabulous).

From its humble beginnings in the 80s, Permaculture has come quite a long way. Permaculture Design is still mostly based on the original textbook. Permaculture Techniques and thePermaculture Movement, however, have grown exponentially. Permaculture Techniques now number in the thousands. They have been created by hundreds of different people all over the world. Every year new techniques are added and old techniques are improved upon. ThePermaculture Movement now has followers in almost every country on earth and it is growing rapidly. Permaculture has become especially popular among younger people in urban areas of North America, Australia, and Europe.

A great example of Permaculture Design.

A great example of Permaculture Design.

The Value Of Permaculture

Permaculture is full of good ideas. I will list a few here, just to peak your interest. But to list them all would require several books. In fact, there are many books written about Permaculture. If you would like to learn more about the ideas I list here, or if you want to hear more ideas, please check out the resources I list at the end of this article in the “Permaculture Resources” section.

Four Permaculture Design Principles:

1. “Stacking Functions”

        • The good designer should strive to include elements which perform more than one function. Look at the waste products, and the input needs, of an element; is there something that can utilize those waste products while also producing the input needs?

        • For example: If the design includes chickens it would be beneficial to also include an orchard. The chickens produce manure to fertilize the trees, they also eat bugs which would otherwise be pests in the orchard. The excess fruit produced by the trees in the orchard can be allowed to fall to the ground where it will feed the chickens. The trees also provide a safe roost for the chickens as well as shelter from the elements. If the orchard happens to be a U-Pick orchard then the chickens will also provide a marketing advantage: customers will enjoy interacting with the chickens while they pick fruit. This is a simple example of the “Stacking Functions” principle at work.

2. “The Problem Is The Solution”

        • Every problem is also an opportunity. The good designer will train themselves to recognize these opportunities and work them into their designs.

        • Example 1: If the land is covered in an invasive species the designer should research the species to find out what uses it has and then incorporate these into the design. If Kudzu covers the property: get goats. If a weedy tree dominates: find a use for its wood. Etc.

        • Example 2: If the property has very poor clay soil, find out what opportunities clay soil provides: Can it be used to make pottery? Can it be used as a cheap building material? Does it make water-harvesting earthworks more effective? Are there valuable plants which require poor, clay soil to thrive? Does it offer an opportunity to experiment with soil-regeneration techniques? Etc.

3. “Zones Of Production”

        • The good designer will position elements on the property based on the amount of time that will be spent in them. Elements which require daily attention should be close to the living area. Elements which only require one or two visits per year should be as far from the living area as possible.

        • Example 1: High-Use elements (herb garden, kitchen garden, milking parlor, tool shed, etc.) should be placed as close to the living area as possible.

        • Example 2: Low-Use elements (wood lot, wilderness area, etc) should be as far from the living quarters as possible.

        • Example 3: Medium-Use elements (crop fields, livestock pastures, orchards, etc) should be between the High-Use and Low-Use areas.

4. “Edge Effect”

      • Edges are the most productive areas of landscapes. The good designer will maximize the amount of edge in the landscape.

      • Examples of productive edges: Where water meets land, where forest meets field, where slope meets flat land, where roots meet soil, where soil meets rocks, where leaf meets the air, where roads meet vegetation, where “crop a” meets “crop b”, where “herd a” meets “herd b”, etc.

      • To maximize edges avoid straight lines. Patterns such as zig zags, waves, or spirals have the maximum amount of edge in the smallest area. Create textured landscapes with gullies and terraces. Create winding, long waterways instead of straight ditches. Create forest edges that wind inwards and outwards, not straight lines. Create polycultures, not monocultures. Create small fields with winding hedgerows, not large, featureless fields.

Permaculture features a heavy emphasis on using perennial plants instead of annual plants whenever possible, for good reason.

Permaculture features a heavy emphasis on using perennial plants instead of annual plants whenever possible, for good reason.

Six Specific Permaculture Techniques:

*I do not have space to provide references to validate these techniques, however they all work. Many of them I have personal experience with. All of them are in use on real farms, in the real world. These techniques are in no particular order.

1. Rocket Mass Heaters (RMH)

        • The Technique:

          • The fire burns very hot, and therefore very clean (no creosote)

          • After the passing through the combustion chamber, the air must wind its way through a large thermal mass, transferring the heat into the thermal mass as it goes

          • When the air finally exits the thermal mass it is room temperature and is completely smoke-free

          • The thermal mass holds the heat and releases it slowly into the house over several hours

          • The thermal mass is made of cob or brick. It can be designed to be a couch or a bed!

        • The Results:

          • Many times more efficient than even the best wood stoves (create more heat with less wood)

          • A well designed RMH can heat a house in winter for 24 hours with only 30 minutes of burn time

          • RMH can be built by anyone with cheap materials. Most RMH cost about $500 to build

          • People using RMH report cutting their wood usage down to 20-30% of what it used to be

2. S.T.U.N Plant Breeding (Sheer.Total.Utter.Neglect)

        • The Technique:

          • Plant from seed to achieve genetic diversity, seeds are cheap or free

          • Plant trees 6-12 inches apart, shrubs even closer than that, in rows 20-30 ft apart

          • graze animals, or plant crops, between your rows

          • Cull ruthlessly!

          • Aim to cull 70-80% of the plants within the first 5 years

          • Pick your breeding goals, and only keep the very best

          • After 5 years, or whatever time period you choose, take seed from the survivors and repeat the process

        • The Results:

          • You will be cutting down a lot of plants, use them for wood chips, animal feed, craft materials, compost materials, or dig up the plants and sell them

          • This technique has been used to develop brand new varieties of plants in just a few years

          • This technique is especially useful if you want to grow something that is not suited to your climate: plant a few thousand seeds and the chances are good that something will survive

          • This technique is currently being used to develop blight-resistant American Chestnuts

          • Universities, and plant breeding experts, will call your results “impossible”

          • This technique has the potential for amazing increases in production (ex: Hazelnut bushes which produce 2 nuts per flower instead of 1, this has only been accomplished on a farm practicing S.T.U.N.)

          • low costs : no need to buy expensive varieties of plants

          • low labor: plants will be so well adapted that they will not need pruning, fertilizer, weeding…. just harvesting

3. Compost Heat Source

          • The Technique

            • Build a large, round compost pile (precise size depends on heat needs)

            • Made with wood chips + Manure

            • Surround with a layer of square straw bales if your winter is cold

            • place plastic, or copper, pipe in a spiral through the pile, starting at the bottom and moving to the top

            • Connect the pipe to your water system

          • The Result:

            • pumping water through the pile will heat the water

            • a pile about 10 ft in diameter can provide hot water (including shower water) for a family for 1 year, including winter.

            • The water will not just be warm, it will be very hot!

            • People have used larger piles to heat their entire homes (a compost pile the size of a garage will provide 100% of your hot water and 100% of your winter house-heating for three years once set up!)

            • After the compost pile cools down, it is taken apart, and you get finished compost to apply to your garden, cropland, or pasture

            • can be used to heat houses, barns, watering troughs, greenhouses or outbuildings

4. Hugelculture

        • The Technique

          • Basically a huge raised garden bed with wood at the core

          • create a pile, or a long row, of wood (can be large logs or small branches)

          • Rotting wood will produce better results in the first few years than fresh wood

          • cover the pile/row of wood with about 1 foot of soil

          • during the process of creating the pile water everything very thoroughly

          • after the soil is put on you should plant the pile very densely with a fast growing crop (clover works well) and then cover the soil with mulch

          • the ideal size is 3-6 ft tall and 6-8 ft wide, if it is a row make it as long as you want

          • if you are creating a row on a slope it should be oriented across the slope so that it catches water, if frost is an issue than the row should allow the frost to flow downhill and away from the row, if you would like to create a heat-trap on one side and a cool area on the other side you can orient the rows east/west, if you want both sides to grow equally you can orient the rows north/south

          • never plant shrubs or trees on the pile because the pile will sink over time, exposing their roots

        • The Benefits

          • The wood inside the pile will slowly rot over many years, releasing nutrients to the plants growing on top

          • The rotting wood will provide food for the soil, increasing the organic matter content, biodiversity, aeration, worms, and beneficial fungi

          • The rotting wood acts as a sponge for water, soaking up the water when it rains, and then releasing the water to the plants slowly over several days

          • The air pockets and little spaces inside the pile will provide habitat for all sorts of beneficial bugs, bees, rodents, snakes, etc.

          • The raised bed is easier to access for gardeners who can no longer bend very well

          • The south side of a large “Hugelculture” row can really build up a lot of heat, which can extend the growing season in cooler climates

          • The rotting wood itself will also generate heat, extending your growing season and increasing your root growth

          • This technique has been used to grow veggies with zero irrigation all summer long

5. Forage Forests

        • The Technique

          • Trees are planted which are highly tolerant of pruning, and which provide good food for your species of livestock

          • Either “Coppice” or “Pollard” production can be used

          • Pollard Technique:

            • trees are allowed to grow about 20 ft tall before being cut

            • trees are cut just above the “browse line”

            • trees are cut every 2-5 years

            • cuttings are manually fed to animals, the sticks are used for fuel

          • Coppice Technique:

            • trees are allowed to grow 10-20ft tall before being cut

            • trees are cut every 2-5 years just above ground level

            • before the trees are cut, animals are allowed to graze the area (they will be able to reach most of the vegetation on their own)

            • after the animals graze, the remaining shoots are cut and used for fuel-wood

        • The Results:

          • Some of the oldest forests on earth are “Coppice” or “pollard” forests: this technique increases tree lifespan

          • provides better nutrition than grass if producing goats, elk, deer, or other browsers

          • totally drought resistant after established, the tree roots will eventually go down 50 ft or more

          • the young shoots can be cut, dried, and stored as “tree hay” (tree hay has been used to feed livestock in Scandinavia for thousands of years)

          • Provides an abundance of wood for fires, natural building techniques, mulch, fence posts, etc. (most of the wood is long, straight, poles less than 3 inches in diameter)

6. Rain-Producing Forests

      • The Technique

        • In tropical climates rain relies on microscopic particles in the air to form

        • Trees can provide these microscopic particles, allowing rain clouds to form where they otherwise wouldn’t

        • Trees planted on ridge lines are best for achieving this effect

      • The Result

        • Tropical reforestation projects as small as 5000 acres have been proven to significantly increase the local rainfall

        • The trees, of course, provide many other benefits as well

        • This also demonstrates why deforestation can create arid landscapes where there once was a rainforest

There are thousands of other great ideas contained within Permaculture:

Food Forests, Aquaculture, Natural Swimming Pools, Compost Toilets, Greywater Irrigation, Water Harvesting Earthworks, Companion Planting Suggestions, Micro-Climate Manipulation, Underground Housing, Natural Building Techniques, Living Fences, Compost Creation, Animal and Vegetable Integration Systems, Survival Techniques, Marketing Techniques, Coastline Agriculture, Banana Circles, Plant Guilds, Wood Fueled Vehicles, Timber Production, Fish Production, Alpine Food Production Techniques, and many more….

If you are interested in learning more, read the “Permaculture Resources” section at the end of this article.

My Permaculture inspired garden.

My Permaculture inspired garden.

Challenges With Permaculture

**Note** If you are unfamiliar with the terms “Holistic Management” (HM) or “Holistic Decision Making” please refer to the book “Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making” By Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield.

Non-Holistic Decision Making

Permaculture does not offer any decision making framework, it only offers techniques and design principles. Permaculture on its own, without Holistic Decision Making, will not produce true sustainability. There are thousands of examples of Permaculture projects that have failed due to a failure to address either the social or the financial aspects of management. Although some of the more innovative Permaculture practitioners are starting to adopt Holistic Management, most people in the Permaculture Movement have no idea Holistic Management exists. I believe that the lack of Holistic Decision Making is currently the primary factor slowing down the progress of the Permaculture Movement.

Arid Climates

The original Permaculture textbook, “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual”, was written without any understanding of Animal Impact or the Brittleness Scale. Because of this, I would describe most “Chapter 11: Dryland Strategies” to be obsolete (except for some excellent suggestions about designing houses for desert climates). The most common Permaculture techniques suggested in dry climates are water-harvesting earthworks (swales, dams, gabions) and planting trees (especially pioneer, nitrogen-fixing trees). These techniques have proven successful in small scale “Greening The Desert” projects. But for large scale projects there is just no substitute for Holistic Planned Grazing.

Integrating Permaculture Into Your Holistic Decision Making

Permaculture offers a wealth of novel ideas. Some of these ideas could make a big difference in your management effectiveness. The key to integrating Permaculture with Holistic Management is to recognize that all ideas and plans created with the help of Permaculture must be tested against your Holistic Goal before they are implemented. (see my previous article “A Missing Piece In The Holistic Management Framework”)

Permaculture + Holistic Management

The Benefits Of Collaboration:

What Holistic Management Has To Offer The Permaculture Movement:

  • Holistic Decision Making: which will dramatically increase the success of Permaculture

  • Holistic Planned Grazing: an amazing land-regeneration tool

  • Holistic Land Planning: offers some improvements to Permaculture Landscape Design

  • Holistic Financial Planning: sorely needed, Permaculture has no financial techniques

  • 4 Ecosystem Processes: valuable insight into the way ecosystems function

  • A global community of broad-acre farmers and ranchers

  • The ability to gain more traction with conventional farmers and the industrial food system

What The Permaculture Movement Has To Offer Holistic Management:

  • A very large, and growing, global community of people passionate about sustainability

  • Techniques for better landscape and settlement design

  • An assortment of creative ideas, not found anywhere else

  • Increased influence in urban areas, among young people, and on the internet

  • Some very creative eco-entrepreneurs

An excellent example of the principles of Permaculture at work on a veggie farm.

An excellent example of the principles of Permaculture at work on a veggie farm.

Permaculture Is Big

Because there is no central leadership or organization in Permaculture it is very difficult to determine how large the movement really is. However, in terms of the number of people in the movement, it is clear that the Permaculture Movement currently dwarfs the Holistic Management Movement…

Comparison Of The Online Presence Of Permaculture Versus HM

Date: September 2015

Permaculture

Holistic Management

Notes

More popular among young, urban people, internet using people, and small acreage holders. The Permaculture movement is probably much larger, in terms of people, than Holistic Management. More popular among older farmers/ranchers, large land holders, and people who do not use the internet. Holistic Management is probably much larger, in terms of total land base, than Permaculture.

Google Search Results

7 500 000

260 000

Facebook Likes

100 000

7 000

Number Of Books (based on Amazon.com search)

985

214 (includes results not really related to HM)

YouTube Videos (# of search results)

150 000

38 000

Number of Groups on Meetup.com

Too many for me to count, many of them had thousands of members. Primarily in urban areas of the US.

None that I could find.

iTunes Podcasts

13

0

Google Search Popularity(average over 10 years)

75

5

How To Move Towards Collaboration:

It is clear that more collaboration between Permaculture and HM would be of benefit to everyone. But how can we achieve this?

As Holistic Managers we should…

  1. Remain respectful of the value that both sides have to offer, avoid becoming defensive, argumentative, or dogmatic when the “other side” does not totally agree with us

  2. Ensure that we fully understand both Permaculture and HM and how they fit together

  3. Start to attend Permaculture events

  4. Read Permaculture books

  5. Begin to build our online-presence and also start to interact with the online Permaculture Movement

  6. Learn to communicate the value that Holistic Management has to offer Permaculturists

  7. Invite Permaculture people to our events

  8. Educate our fellow Holistic Managers about the value of Permaculture and how to integrate it with HM

  9. Begin to use Permaculture techniques on our own land, if they pass the testing questions

A Permaculture homestead in Vermont.

A Permaculture homestead in Vermont.

Permaculture Resources

Books

Videos

Websites

People

Permaculture: A Designers ManualThe Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening

The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming

Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers

-Regrarians Handbook

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition

Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (Conservation Classics)

The Fifty Dollar and Up Underground House Book

DVDs-Polyfaces

Earthworks 3-DVD Set : Ponds, Swales and Hugelkultur in action. Permaculture techniques explained by Paul Wheaton – World Domination Gardening 2014 (ENG) NTSC
Wood Burning Stoves 2.0 – 4 DVD set : Secret of Rocket Mass Heater and Rocket Stove revealed by Paul Wheaton
Permaculture Skills: A Cold-climate, Applied Permaculture Design Course (4-DVD set)
The Permaculture Orchard : Beyond Organic (DVD – English)

-INHABIT Documentary

Free Online Videos

-Geoff Lawton’s Free Videos

Jack Spirko’s Videos

-Elaine Ingham’s Videos

-Sepp Holzer Videos

-Mark Shepard Videos

-Farmstead Meatsmith

-Permies.com

Geoff Lawton’s PDC

-FarmStead Meatsmith Courses

-Heating Water With Compost

-Permaculture Research Institute

-Regrarians

Natural Building

-8 forms of capital

-The Survival Podcast

-Permaculture Voices

-Paul Wheaton

-Permaculture Meetups

PermaEthos

-Geoff Lawton

-Darren Doherty

-Masanobu Fukuoka

-Mark Shepard

-Ben Falk

-Paul Wheaton

-Jack Spirko

-Elaine Ingham

-Toby Hemenway

-Willie Smits

-Sepp Holzer

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