Permaculture 101

Creating a healthy, abundant and more self-reliant life

Every day, we are faced with issues of war, ecological crises, natural disasters, and global epidemics. It’s often difficult to remain positive in the face of overwhelming problems. But what if there was a concrete and simple way for you to be part of the solution? What if you could live an abundant, non-polluting lifestyle that offers an example to your community, while cutting down on your grocery, water and energy bills?

Permaculture is a design approach for sustainable human habitat rooted in the observation of earth’s natural systems. Developed in the 1970s by Australian researcher and naturalist Bill Mollison and his graduate student David Holmgren, permaculture synthesizes traditional knowledge with modern science, providing tools to integrate landscapes and people in such a way that food, shelter, and energy needs are met. The word permaculture originally referred to “permanent agriculture” but has been expanded to include “permanent culture,” since the social aspects of human habitation are inherent in a truly sustainable system.

Permaculture adopts the philosophy of working with, rather than against natural systems, and is guided by three ethics: care of the earth, care of people, and fair share. While the first two ethics need no real explanation, the third ethic means that any surplus in your living situation (e.g. resources, time, money, land) should be redistributed or reinvested back into the first two ethics. In other words, if you have extra garden veggies, give them to your friends or sell them at the market; if you have extra time, help your neighbor can her tomatoes; extra compost—donate it to the community garden.

Permaculture design can be applied at any scale—from a small backyard to a neighborhood to a 100-acre property. Whatever your scale, the goal is the same: to create stable, productive, and resilient systems, much like we see in nature. A set of design principles has evolved to inform how you go about transforming a site into a permaculture property. Here are some of those principles:

Observe

Before you put pencil to paper, it is important to observe what is going on in your yard. What do you hear, smell, and feel when you walk out your backdoor? Where do the leaves and snow accumulate? Where does water run off when it rains? Any soggy or dry spots in your yard? On a hot summer day, where would you feel most comfortable? What existing resources (e.g. leaves, mulch, building materials, plant and seed sources), do you have on site? These questions help you tune into your surroundings and recognize patterns in the landscape. Jot these observations down and if you can, keep a list of observations throughout the seasons. Permaculture is about working with natural systems; if you identify what is already occurring in your yard and harmonize with that pattern, these observations will ultimately save you work. For example, you may choose to locate a pond in an already soggy area of your yard rather than spend time and energy draining water away from the site. Mollison says it is best to have “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action.” The more time you spend in the observation phase, the less time you will spend fighting natural forces and undoing your mistakes.

Catch and Store Energy

Identify what energies come onto your site (e.g. solar, water, wind). See yourself as setting up “interception nets” to capture as much of this renewable energy as possible before it passes from your property. One possible net might be a rainwater barrel to capture water flowing off your roof that you will use to water your garden. Planting an orchard, a garden or saving seeds are all nets that capture and store solar energy. You can further extend that stored energy through the winter by canning or preserving the fruits or vegetables. A greenhouse or hoophouse is yet another effective way of catching energy, especially useful in colder climates. This allows you to plant vegetables earlier in the spring and have them produce later into the fall, capturing more energy over time and increasing your yield. Finally, wind energy can be captured with a generator and used to power a greenhouse. You could also use that wind as direct ventilation for a greenhouse if it is oriented correctly.

Catch and Store Energy: drying garlic and mason jars of fruits and vegetables have captured and stored sunlight as well as extended garden yields over time. Photo by Kareen Erbe

Every Element Performs Multiple Functions

An element in permaculture is a fabricated or natural component of your site like a greenhouse, chickens, a pond, a garden or a compost pile. A function is a role carried out by that element. In permaculture, every element in your system should perform multiple functions. For example, backyard chickens not only provide the homeowner with eggs, they can provide meat. Chickens also scratch up the ground and eat pests, their manure adds nutrients to the garden, and their feathers can be added to a compost pile. Similarly, comfrey (Symphytum officinale), is prized in permaculture because of its multiple functions. Not only is this soft, broad-leaf plant known for its medicinal properties, its purple and pink flowers attract beneficial insects. In addition, comfrey is an excellent mineral accumulator that pulls potassium, calcium, and magnesium into its roots and leaves. The leaves can be slashed a couple of times during the growing season and act as nutrient-rich mulch for fruit trees or serve as an excellent addition of “greens” (high nitrogen materials) to the compost pile.

Every element performs multiple functions: chickens can be kept both for eggs and meat. In addition, they scratch up the ground, eat insects, and their manure can be used as fertilizer in the garden. Photo by Kareen Erbe

Every Function is Supported by Multiple Elements

If every element performs multiple functions, then to make your system more stable, every function, in turn, should be supported by multiple elements. If one of the functions on your site is to harvest water, support that function by having rainwater barrels attached to your gutters. You might also excavate and plant a rain garden that collects runoff from your sidewalk or driveway. Leaving your soil bare will expose it to erosion and evaporation. Instead, plant a groundcover amongst your perennials or mulch your garden between the rows to encourage water infiltration and maintain soil moisture. Diversity, redundancy, and variation in a natural system increases that system’s ability to adapt and rebound during adverse conditions. If one element in your system fails, you will still have other elements that can harvest water. Much like a web, when one thread is broken, the whole web does not collapse. If you want your system to be as resilient as nature, then you must mimic the diversity of ways in which nature maintains and supports itself.

Connect

The connections between elements in your system are more important than the quantity of elements. Place every element in your system in relationship to every other: the garden is connected to the compost pile, which is connected to the house, which is connected to the greenhouse, which is connected back to the garden. Creating a web of connections will make your system more stable. It will also give you a better idea of where to place elements in your design, as those that have the most connections should be closest to one another. This concept allows you to “stack functions” when you work in your yard. Rather than making multiple trips, deposit your kitchen scraps in the chicken coop on your way to weed the garden. Then, on your way back, deposit the weeds in the coop and collect your eggs. In one trip, you have accomplished three functions.

Obtain a Yield

Permaculture design is about meeting more of your food needs, while obtaining the most yield from your efforts. In other words, do not just plant ornamentals. Obtain as may yields from your system as possible, creating as many edible, medicinal, insectary (attracts beneficial insects), and/or nitrogen-fixing systems as you can. Find ways to extend that yield over space (e.g. succession planting) and time (e.g. canning, preserving), maximizing your yard’s productivity.

Obtain a Yield: The author’s daily harvest from the garden. Photo by Kareen Erbe

Small-scale Systems

It is best to start small when you are first experimenting with permaculture. Start at your doorstep and build the smallest system that will begin to meet some of your needs. Perhaps it is a small herb or salad garden and a few fruit trees or berry bushes. Then, observe what works for your lifestyle, your yard, and your garden. Build on your successes and expand your garden incrementally. Use the observe principle not only at the beginning of your design; constantly evaluate and re-evaluate what is working in your system.

Small-scale intensive systems: a circular bed that has been debugged, cleaned up and fertilized by a chicken tractor (moveable bottomless chicken coop – in background) and planted with broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mint, dill, beets, chives, beans and spinach. Some species confuse and deter pests, others increase food yield. Photo by Kareen Erbe

Collaborate with Succession

Most living systems grow from a state of immaturity to one of maturity. This is an important principle to understand and mimic in permaculture systems. A mature forest is much more productive, efficient, and resilient than an annual vegetable garden. It is no surprise that when we till up our garden and leave it bare, weeds move in to colonize the area—nature does not like bare soil. If we understand the principle of succession, we can set up our backyard permaculture system to mimic mature ecosystems as much as possible. Instead of just planting an annual garden, introduce perennials into your system, decreasing the amount of soil that needs to be tilled each year. Work towards a perennial “food forest” in your backyard. This can be in the form of fruit trees and berry bushes in addition to perennial herbs (chives, oregano, thyme, sage, lovage), greens (French sorrel, salad burnet) and vegetables (rhubarb, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes) that can be grown in zone 4.

Zone Analysis

Permaculture uses the concept of zones to delineate the intensity a particular area of your property is used. This is not to be confused with the USDA hardiness zones.

Permaculture zone analysis begins with zone 0 (the house) and extends to zone 5. Although for conceptual purposes these zones are drawn as concentric circles radiating out from the house, these are rarely neat circles and will be shaped by slope, soil, solar aspect (position with respect to the sun), and the needs of those living on the property.

  •  Zone 1 is the zone of most intensity, closest to the house, the area you use most frequently. Elements most likely located in this zone include your patio, deck, an herb patch, a “kitchen garden” with salad greens, a greenhouse, rain barrels, and the compost pile. Because this zone is closest to the house and constantly within view, you will be more likely to weed, mulch, and maintain this area. Place your delicate and high maintenance plant species in this zone as these need your daily observation and frequent visits. Locate your herbs and salad greens just outside your backdoor, if possible. Mollison says, “you want to be able to get your herbs for an omelette in the morning without getting your slippers wet with dew.” If you find you use cucumbers every day, then those should not be too far away either. If solar aspect allows, plant your garden closer to your house. Integrate your living and gardening space and you will save maintenance time and energy, not to mention create a beautiful, productive, and multifunctional living space around your home.
  •  Zone 2 is the zone of weekly use and maintenance: an area that does not need your constant vigilance, could be on automatic irrigation, and grows without much supervision. This is where you locate your staple and canning crops (e.g. corn, potatoes, beets, carrots, squash, beans). Other elements included in this zone might be your chicken coop, beehives, a small orchard, and a pond.
  •  Zone 3 is often called the farm zone and usually applies to larger properties. If you have a commercial farm, for example, your cash crops would be in this area (e.g. wheat, corn, potatoes). This is also the zone where you would plant your commercial orchard, animal forage, timber species, and pasture. Larger animals like goats, pigs, cows, and horses would also be in this area.
  •  Zone 4 is even less frequented and could be where you harvest firewood, hunt, and gather edible native plants.
  • Lastly, zone 5 is your wilderness area where your property is unmanaged and kept intact as wildlife habitat. It is an area you may visit for recreation and to learn from nature.

If you live in an urban or suburban environment, your zones will most likely be restricted to zones 1 and 2. Zone 5 may also exist, but very minimally as the hedge of lilacs or Siberian pea shrubs that grows in the back corner of your lot and provides bird habitat, or the stand of aspen on the west side of your property that shades your house in the summer.

Designing your property with zones in mind will help you place elements in your yard not only in relation to one another, but in relation to your needs, creating a more efficient use of space catered to your lifestyle.

Sector Analysis

Sector analysis helps you evaluate and map summer and winter sun direction, prevailing winds, seasonal storms, and wildlife corridors. Elements in your design need to be arranged in relation to forces that come from outside your property. Other factors that could be considered are your crime sector (does part of your yard abut an alley where it’s dark?), fire sector, and view sector (are there good or bad views that you want to open up/obscure?). In this way, you begin to pattern your landscape based on how you want to channel these factors on or off your site.

Sector analysis will help you locate your vegetable garden in a space that has maximum solar aspect. It will also help you consider whether to plant a windbreak that blocks the direction of prevailing winds or install a wind generator to capture that energy. If hail generally comes from the west, you may want to consider growing your tender plants in an area that is protected to the west by other structures or hardier plants. If you know that deer almost always enter your property from the east, you may decide to plant deer-resistant plant species in that sector, move your garden, or erect a fence. Your zone and sector analysis will impose limitations on your growing space, but remember that limitations often lead to creative design. Sector analysis will help you pull all aspects of your design together, enabling you to use energy and resources effectively, maximize productivity, minimize work, and integrate your personal needs more fully into your outdoor living space design.

When Mollison and Holmgren first developed permaculture, they created landscape design tools that took into account the human needs of food, energy and shelter. Since then, permaculture has become a global movement with design strategies and techniques for every climate, landscape, and culture. On a small scale, permaculture design principles can help you create a low-maintenance, productive, and resilient backyard space. Applied on a larger scale, permaculture can help regenerate degraded landscapes, redesign cities, and ultimately build more ecologically sound and economically prosperous human communities.

As I tend my garden or build a compost pile, I’m reminded of what one of my permaculture teachers, Rosemary Morrow, who wrote the book, Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, said, “If, over your lifetime, you build or retrofit a simple, non-polluting home and grow your own food, build soil, and care for natural vegetation, then you will have lived a full, creative, and interesting life with great personal freedom, satisfaction, and autonomy.” Creating a productive, beautiful and abundant backyard space using permaculture principles could be one of the most responsible and rewarding actions that we take for ourselves, for our families and for our planet.

Want to learn more about permaculture? Join the Women’s Online Permaculture Design Course. To learn more about it, click here.

Guest Author’s Bio:

Kareen Erbe owns Broken Ground, a Bozeman-based permaculture education and design business. She and her family live on a ¾ acre permaculture homestead with large annual gardens, a food forest of fruit trees and berry bushes, a pond, chickens and a greenhouse. Kareen has taught hundreds of people in Montana about gardening and permaculture and consults with clients on edible garden designs. She is one of 40 teachers currently involved in the Women’s Online PDC. Find her at www.brokengroundpermaculture.com.

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