My farming strategy has been carefully cobbled together from many different land care traditions through years of research, study, and good old fashioned trial and error. Last week we talked about regenerative agriculture, a modern agricultural movement dedicated to rebuilding and conserving healthy topsoil. Permaculture is another tradition that is dear to my heart, and central to my agricultural practice. It was one of the first sustainability models that I encountered in my early days of adulthood, when I was learning to tend my very first garden. I fell in love with the abundance, the layers of fruits and vegetables and vines and herbs, the home scale, and the can-do attitude of it. My permaculture has been expressed in different ways throughout the decades that followed, but it has been part of my life ever since. I’ve practiced permaculture on apartment balconies, in office towers, in community gardens, front yards, and now on a farm scale.
What Is Permaculture?
Permaculture has deeply influenced my work with the land and my lifestyle as a whole. It teaches us to reduce waste, to live in harmony with the Earth, and to model our gardens, farms, and lives after natural ecosystems. The elegant design of permaculture systems appeals to the analytical brain I developed during my years as a software engineer. I view permaculture as an engineer’s approach to farming, as opposed to standard agriculture which feels more like a chemist’s approach to farming. Instead of lining up genetically identical seeds in predictably sterile rows and dousing them all with chemicals, permaculture encourages us to design a robust system that can handle natural chaos and diversity. Permaculture brings engineering concepts to the farm, such as:
- Redundancy: always having a backup plan
- Efficiency: minimizing expenses and waste
- Concurrency: achieving multiple goals at once
The heart of permaculture is environmentalism: growing a greener world and living lightly on the land.
Permaculture At Any Scale
Permaculture can work on any scale. You can apply permaculture principles to design a green office space, house, or apartment. You can use permaculture design techniques to grow a beautiful and bountiful backyard garden. On a larger scale, you could use permaculture to develop a farm or community ecovillage. Permaculture is a design science in which human creations are modeled after natural ecosystems to create resilient, eco-friendly projects in a way that reduces inputs and waste, and produces something of real value. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. The subject of permaculture is huge, and there are myriad books and resources available if you want to study it in depth. Many people start with the book “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway.
Permaculture vs Regenerative Agriculture
Permaculture and regenerative agriculture are complementary. Like regenerative agriculture, permaculture cares about good soil. However, the methods are different. I prefer the regenerative agriculture approach to soil care, specifically: avoiding tilling the soil, keeping the soil always protected by cover crops and mulches, and directly applying animal manures. Permaculture sometimes encourages tillage, but it counters the inevitably resulting soil loss with copious amounts of compost and sometimes by fancy additives like biochar. I make compost too, but it’s not feasible to make enough compost to thickly cover ten acres.
Regenerative agriculture is often organic, and permaculture is always organic. I am an organic purist. I believe our waters are already toxic enough. I believe that our bodies are already spending too much energy working around the chemicals we can’t avoid breathing in, drinking in, and soaking in. I believe in protecting the smallest among us, such as the soil microbes, the pollinators, the reptiles and amphibians, the birds and the fish, the children. So, I don’t use any synthetic chemicals here. I even think twice (three times, even) before using an organic pesticide or herbicide, as even these natural solutions can cause harm.
Both permaculture and regenerative agriculture work towards carbon drawdown (soaking up carbon from the atmosphere through the power of plants), but permaculture goes far beyond the soil line to consider environmental impact, carbon emissions, and waste. Permaculture encourages us to use hand tools and smaller equipment when possible, to buy locally produced goods, to grow and make our own supplies when possible, and to repurpose our waste products and make them useful again. A classic example comes from Wendell Berry (although he identifies as an agrarian rather than a permaculturist). When his farm grew to a large enough size to require a tractor, Berry bought a horse-drawn plow instead. Instead of consuming fossil fuels and producing diesel exhaust, Berry’s horse team helps to fertilize the farm, and can be powered at least partially by home grown food. Inputs are minimized (home-grown grass instead of global petroleum). Outputs are repurposed (manure feeds the soil instead of emissions polluting the air). The farm is still productive, and the health of the Earth is centered.
The harvests of regenerative agriculture often consist of animal protein or annual crops such as grains or vegetables, but the harvests of permaculture are more diverse. Diversity is a central tenant of permaculture, and even a small permaculture planting will usually include at least seven different crops. Permaculture crops are mostly tree crops and perennial plants, because perennials require the least amount of work and the least amount of soil disturbance. Perennials also usually leaf out earlier in the season than annual crops, maximizing the amount of photosynthesis that can occur and therefore, maximizing the amount of carbon drawdown. Many of our healthiest foods come from trees and perennial plants, such as fruits and nuts and some leafy greens.
My Permaculture Practice
Permaculture was my entry into organic agriculture, and for me, they are inextricably linked. It is the diversity and the design structure of permaculture that makes organic agriculture possible for me. If my kale is being eaten by a pest, permaculture guides me to confuse those pests by interplanting fragrant herbs around the kale. If that doesn’t work, I could allow my chickens to come in and hunt the pests so that they aren’t a big problem again next year. And then I can just go eat something else because I didn’t grow a huge monoculture of kale, I grew dozens of different crops and whatever is eating the kale is likely leaving the rest of those plants alone.
I practice the environmental optimizations of permaculture as much as my life permits. My husband and I couldn’t agree to live a totally off-grid, eco-purist lifestyle together, so we compromised by installing solar panels on our roof. This way, we can live mostly from a green power source even if we still enjoy certain modern conveniences.
When I’m able, I try to transport myself by bicycle instead of by car. When I can’t bicycle, I use my energy-efficient, reliable old Prius for everything. I designed my entire farmers market booth setup based on which parts I can fit in my car, so that I wouldn’t need to buy a truck.
When I need something, I make it if possible. If I can’t make it, I try to buy it used to reduce the amount of factory emissions and wastes in our world. If I can’t buy it used, I try to buy something that is well made and will last a long time so I won’t have to buy it again. When I generate waste, I try to compost it, repurpose it, or recycle it.
Now that I’m a full time farmer, most of my permaculture energy shines through land care. I plant trees, I rebuild damaged soil, I grow food, and I try to create healthy habitats for all manner of local wildlife. But in previous life phases, when I spent most of my time commuting to another city and working an office job, my permaculture looked different. I practiced permaculture by carpooling to work, bicycling to the farmers market, ecobricking my plastic scraps, and practicing anticonsumerism. I started a sustainability committee at work, which ultimately led to converting the entire office to zero-waste. We hired a composting service, developed a recycling plan, and hosted ecobricking contests for the whole office. I even invented a new sport to add to the fun: ecobrick bowling! It’s similar to duckpin bowling, but the pins are made of ecobricks. The point is, whatever form your life is taking right now, there is a way to incorporate permaculture into the things you already do.
I love the earth-centered design science of permaculture, but I diverge from the permaculture tradition when we start talking about plants and earthworks. I believe in working together with the land to obtain our own yield in a way that benefits our local ecosystem. I believe in preserving native land types such as wetlands, and in growing mostly native plants. Native plants and native ecosystems are vital to supporting the interconnected web of life in our local bioregion.
“Native plants […] are the ecological basis upon which life depends, including birds and people. Without them and the insects that co-evolved with them, local birds cannot survive.”The Audubon Society
Invasive plants displace native plants, creating an ecosystem imbalance. Native ecosystems such as wetlands are an important, vanishing habitat for many forms of plants and wildlife. I think we need to be very careful about changing our topography, especially if we don’t fully understand the purpose that it is serving in its current state, and the history behind why it is the way it is. Often, we can still produce the yield that we need by getting creative with the plants that we grow and the way that we tend the land that we have.
Permaculture teaches us to grow as much of what we need as possible to minimize inputs. This sometimes results in permaculturists planting highly invasive plants such as bamboo, comfrey, siberian peashrub, and others because they want to use bamboo as a building material, and they want to add comfrey to their compost piles, and they want to feed peashrub seeds to their chickens. However, those plants can spread into nearby wild spaces and create major ecological disasters. Just think of all the herbicides that will be deployed by your neighboring farmers and foresters to eradicate the bamboo problem that could spring out of your garden! Additionally, planting invasives is highly unnecessary. All the invasive permaculture plants have native alternatives.
Permaculture emphasizes obtaining a yield, which is an important goal. But it sometimes encourages radical alteration of the land through earthworks such as building dams or canals, filling in wetlands, or leveling hills and mountains. Wetlands are my wheelhouse, so I can at least speak for them. And I can tell you that wetlands have the potential to be even more productive than dry ground if you manage them well.
There is no need for us to place the needs of human agriculture above native plants and native ecosystems. Native plants and native ecosystems are very capable of providing for our needs, and by managing them well, they can be a win-win for everybody.
The teachings of permaculture are a valuable tool in any Earth-lover’s kit. Whether you are managing big land, a small garden, or an apartment, permaculture can bring more abundance to your life through creativity and a well-engineered design.