Permaculture is an approach to agriculture that is based on designing gardens, farms and settlements to meet the needs of the earth and humans in the long term.
Originally a melding of the words permanent and agriculture, permaculture has now expanded to signify permanent culture. The ideals and guidelines of permaculture are not only useful for creating a sustainable food supply, but can also be applied to all aspects of creating a sustainable culture, such as housing, urban planning, economics, and interpersonal relationships.
All images used in this article are from Permaculture: A Beginner’s Guide by veganic permaculturalist Graham Burnett, www.spiralseed.co.uk
Three ethics of permaculture
Permaculture is guided by three major ethics:
Earth care: The care of the earth is primordial, as the earth provides the essential elements of life for all living organisms. The health of the earth—the air, water, soil—will be reflected back in the health of all plants and animals (both human and non-human).
People care: Permaculture includes the care of humans, to ensure that people can meet their basic needs in a way that is respectful to the principle of earth care. We move away from a society based on individual material wealth, and toward a society based on values of empowerment, co-operation, and community.
Fairshare and limiting consumption: Permaculture envisions a fair sharing and distribution of the world’s resources, while also recognizing the finite nature of resources and our need to limit consumption and curb population growth. By adopting a simple lifestyle and limiting our resource use, surpluses can be re-directed to further the ethics of earth care and human care.
Introduction to Permaculture
Permaculture itself is not a specific agricultural technique, but rather a mindset and approach to agriculture, combined with a set of guiding principles to help people put these ideas into action.
Permaculture is focused on design, creating well-thought out and intelligent plans for sustainable systems. The first tools of permaculturalists are their minds, their eyes, their pencils: shovels and seeds come later in the picture. When put into practice, permaculture borrows from the existing wealth of sustainable agricultural approaches, often integrating techniques such as no-till and forest gardening.
Permaculture works to increase efficiency through careful planning and design, addressing the shortcomings of labor intensive or fossil-fuel intensive agriculture. Modern industrial agriculture, driven by tractors and tillage, gives a false air of efficiency by landing cheap food on our plates year-round; however, this system is dependent on fossil-fuel inputs, often burning far more calories in fossil fuels than the caloric return in food production. The fertilizers, pesticides, and labor of industrial agriculture are supplied through non-renewable energy sources, while also polluting the water and damaging the soil. Working the land by hand is far more energy efficient, though understandably, most individuals prefer to avoid long and arduous hours of labor. Permaculturalists seek to design systems that are independent of fossil fuels, while also being simple and efficient for people to maintain in the long term. Industrial agriculture’s main input is fossil fuels; pre-industrial agriculture’s main input is human labor; permaculture’s main input is careful thought and planning.
The first step in permaculture is observation. This includes the observation of natural ecosystems, as well as the observation of the land where we would like to practice permaculture. By observing natural ecosystems, we can learn about the positive interconnections between the elements of complex functioning systems. For example, a tree flowers, providing food for bees who pollinate the tree; this allows the tree to fruit, providing food for animals who spread the seeds; a new tree grows from the seed, providing a habitat for birds; in the autumn, the tree drops its leaves, mulching the underlying soil.
An ecosystem has thousands of interrelations between the different elements, contributing to a stable system with a multitude of benefits. This is the polar opposite of monocultures that dominate modern agriculture, which yield only once a year, and are susceptible to being wiped out by a single virus or frost. In permaculture design, the interrelationships found in ecosystems are imitated, aiming to maximize the positive interconnections between elements of the system.
Observation of the land where you intend to practice permaculture is also key. Learning about the land’s temperature, seasonal changes, soil types, environmental contamination, dips and grooves, microclimates, dry zones, wet zones, hot and cold spots, and sun exposure throughout the year, will help design a plan that will suit the individual landscape. Planting warm-loving plants in a cold patch or blueberry bushes in alkaline soil is bound to lead to disappointing results. Designs can be modified as we increase our understanding of the land, though a good design from the outset is more efficient and fruitful than correcting mistakes later. When possible, a full year of observing the land is recommended before implementing a permaculture project. For farms and gardens that are already established, consider re-designing the way that the farm or garden functions: an intelligent approach to re-design can bring more long term benefits than simply improving the efficiency of the current system.
In permaculture, both inputs and outputs are minimized. Fertility is maintained onsite if possible, and “pollution” and “garbage” become non-existent. Every waste material is re-valued as a resource with a role in the system. Food scraps become compost; leaves become mulch; and, ideally, human bodily waste can also be used as a resource rather than being a source of pollution.
When put into practice, permaculture tends to focus on perennial plants, as perennials can continue year after year with relatively little maintenance. Perennials have other added benefits, such as providing mulch, having deep roots to draw up water and nutrients, providing habitats for animals, and sequestering carbon.
In permaculture, diversity is highly valued, as biodiversity tends to increase the number of beneficial relationships and the self-sufficiency of a system (thus, creating a more ecological system while decreasing human intervention and labor). The “edge” is also valued, as there tends to be a greater level of activity on the edges between two landscapes—between a forest and a meadow, or between a pond and a field—the in-between zones where certain species thrive.
Permaculture was developed by Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the 1970’s, and draws on the practices and insights of indigenous cultures and sustainable agriculture movements. Now taught worldwide, permaculture theory and principles can be applied to a home scale, farm scale, eco-villages, communities, and towns. The global transition towns movement, started in 2005, is an example of implementing permaculture re-design on the scale of towns and cities. Originally a movement for providing sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture, permaculture has now expanded to include all aspects of human habitation and culture.
Compatibility with veganic
Permaculture and veganic agriculture are fully compatible. Neither permaculture nor veganic is a specific “technique”: both are based on ethics and principles, and veganic permaculture involves the merging of these two sets of ethics.
Permaculture resources frequently mention the role of animals as elements of natural ecosystems, and as elements of permaculture systems. Often, permaculture resources talk about adding domesticated animals to the system, such as chickens. In veganic permaculture, the role of animals as part of the ecosystem and as part of the permaculture system is still considered and valued, though in the form of free-living animals, not in the form of domesticated animals.
Many domesticated animals are not native to the region, and so they are not necessarily adapted to unfamiliar climates, such as sub-tropical chickens overwintering in North America. In addition, the presence of domesticated animals entails resource use—feed, pasture, shelters—that may displace land that could be used to welcome marginalized native species.
Veganic permaculture systems can be designed with free-living animals in mind, to ensure that habitats and food sources are available to animals that live naturally in the area. Adding water points, hedges, trees, shrubs, bat boxes, bird houses, piles of stones and logs for snakes, flowers for pollinators, and herbs and berries can encourage the presence of wild animals. The majority of animal species are beneficial to food production, and establishing a diversified range of animal species tends to lead to a greater overall balance and stability. Ensuring there are habitats and food sources for free-living animals can also be seen as an extension of the “fair share” ethic of permaculture, by openly sharing resources with local animals.
In all permaculture systems, veganic and non-veganic alike, it is important to leave certain areas of the land untouched by human activity, as this allows natural ecosystems to regenerate and continue to function, free from disturbances. Protecting key areas, such as marsh lands, forests, water sources, migration routes, and breeding grounds is essential for the continuance and prospering of other species, as well as protecting sizable areas for the animals to carry out their day to day living. In permaculture, by trying to meet human needs in a way that is in line with the needs of the earth, we can work towards rectifying some of the past damages that were done to animals and ecosystems, and provide space for regeneration.
Veganic permaculture resources
Permaculture: A Beginner’s Guide – written by veganic permaculturalist Graham Burnett, this short and accessible book contains illuminating illustrations of permaculture principles and interconnections in complex systems.
The Vegan Book of Permaculture – written by veganic permaculturalist Graham Burnett, combining practical permaculture tips with a vegan cookbook.
The Vegan Cook and Gardener – written by Piers Warren and Ella Bee Glendining, this book focuses on vegan recipes, storing harvests and gardening, with an underlying permaculture perspective.
Online – Learn Veganic Course – A 14-hour online course in veganic gardening with a strong focus on permaculture, taught by Meghan Kelly and Stephane Groleau from the Veganic Agriculture Network.
Canada – The Living Centre – A 72-hour Permaculture Design Course offered near London, Ontario at The Living Centre with facilitators Shantree Kacera and Lorenna Bousquet-Kacera. The Living Centre is an eco-spiritual education sanctuary that has been practicing veganic permaculture and forest gardening since the 1980’s (see their profile!).
Online and international – Graham Burnett – Veganic permaculturalist Graham Burnett (author of Permaculture: A Beginner’s Guide) offers 72-hour Permaculture Design Courses online, in various locations in the United Kindgom, and occasionally in the United States.
Online and international – Roots n Permaculture – Rakesh offers 72-hour vegan Permaculture Design Courses, intro courses, and teacher training courses.