Permaculture is one of those words that gets tossed around almost as often as ‘sustainable’—and is perhaps just as misunderstood. But just what is Permaculture? It sounds intimidating, as if it were some complicated growing practice that only someone with a doctorate in horticulture could understand. But the basic tenants of Permaculture are surprisingly simple, if not downright obvious.
Permaculture is defined as “an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems.” The term was first coined by Bill Millisons and David Holmgren, the originators of the modern Permaculture movement. Basically, Permaculture is the practice of a.) working with nature to avoid unnecessary labor, and b.) incorporating one’s crops within the existing environmental backdrop. Where agriculture requires the destruction of the landbase to accomplish its ends, Permaculture works within that landbase.
Like nature, Permaculture works in layers. That is, different species that grow to different heights are planted together, creating special ‘microclimates’ which are optimal for each particular plant. These layers include the canopy, understory, shrubs, herbaceous (plants that die each winter), soil surface and ground cover, and the rhizosphere (the root layers). By arranging plants within appropriate layers, you can diminish the need for watering, irrigation, and pest- and disease-control.
Permaculture also makes use of guilds. In Permaculture, guilds are groups of species where each individual plant provides a unique set of diverse functions that work in conjunction with the whole. These can include more than just plants—insects and animals too. In the same way that a traditional ‘guild’ involves individuals working toward a common goal, so too do Permaculture guilds involve a synergistic collaboration with the goal of mutual betterment.
Another feature of Permaculture is zones. Zones are ways of organizing design elements on the basis of the frequency of human use, as well as plant or animal needs. Basically what this means is those plants that need the most attention—or that would be used the most—are planted closest to your house. This is Zone 1. (Zone 0 is your house). The zones continue spiraling outward, until Zone 5 is reached, which is a wilderness area.
For thousands of years, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest made use of Permaculture principals to great effect. With traditional agriculture saddled with so many problems, a mass switch to Permaculture might just be what our ailing planet needs.