What is Permaculture?

Larry Korn, a permaculture teacher and advocator of natural farming the Fukuoka way, told a story about a radio interview with another permaculture activist.  The first question put to him was:

 “What is permaculture?”

Giving a succinct definition that would inspire anyone to engage with permaculture seems elusive.  Permaculture practitioners demonstrate what it is by doing.  And this inspires others to follow.  Quite simply, because it works, even in the Sahel and even in the salty soil of Jordan.

“A design methodology”

This was the answer given in the radio interview, and although correct, isn’t very enlightening.  I realised when I reviewed my section on permaculture principles, that I’ve also manage to make it seem very complicated.

This is my favourite definition, although I’m unsure where it came from:

“A revolution disguised as gardening”

Permaculture addresses many of our major global issues – feeding a population that is out of control, the infertility of our soils, clean water shortages to harsh drought, peak oil, climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, lack of biodiversity and social inequality – in a very practical way, through small and larger scale edible gardens.

“‘Permaculture is a revolution disguised as gardening.’

It is a system that takes a practical and ethical, rather than political, approach to solving global problems. It entails designing your home, the way you live, your environment and community to be not only sustainable, but also rehabilitative and regenerative.  It’s just like gardening, except it is achieved by following 3 nurturing principles, and roughly 12 practical design principles.  The three nurturing principles are to care for the earth, for people and to fairly share any surplus produced (including with animals).  The design principles are based on models provided by nature.”

(Safar Fiertze)

How did I do?

 Want to learn more about the 12 design principles?  Click Here

Permaculture Principles: Part VI

Permaculture Principles Part I

Permaculture Principles Part II

Permaculture Principles Part III

Permaculture Principles Part IV

Permaculture Principles Part V

“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” (J.S. Mill, “On Liberty”, 1859).

When younger, I used to look in the mirror and believe that I wasn’t human.  Somehow, I understood that I was different.  It may have been something to do with a nursery school teacher’s label of ‘freak’, or at least that’s how my mother told the story.  I did get over this apparent delusion and am quite comfortable in my humanness.  I now prefer to think of myself as a chameleon who is able to fit into any social situation, but those allowed close enough start to see through the mask.  I’m really a fish out of water in regular social life, living on the margins.

I now embrace marginalisation and have come to believe that existing on the edges of society has an advantage.  Conformity leads to stagnation, challenging accepted wisdom helps in the pursuit of truth and in human development.  I particularly value those who have something different to say, the eccentric, and those who challenge the status quo.  The intersection between diverse ideas, cultures and subcultures is where interesting changes begin to happen.

Edges and Margins in Nature

In nature, the margins between one environment and another are similarly as interesting.

“The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”

Where two ecosystems meet, e.g. grassland and water, forest and grassland, land and ocean, the species of both ecosystems can be found.  But what also occurs is that unique species, which are specifically adapted for marginal living, also inhabit this transitional edge.  Where one ecological system meets the other is an ‘ecotone’.  In permaculture, these unique habitats are valued and actively encouraged.

Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Edges create an increased number of mutually beneficial relationships.  They serve as energy traps, since nutrients and organisms from two ecosystems will cross them, material is (re)cycled and this produces biomass.  Edges also have useful microclimates which can be incorporated into an effective design.  They help to increase yields and the productivity of a permaculture system. Edges can be created through utilising the principle of observing patterns in nature with valuable marginal sites.  An effective means is emulating nature and working from patterns to details: A wavy line has more edge than a straight one.  Interweaving the principles together creates both functional and aesthetically pleasing landscapes – the kind of environment within which I would like to live.

Final Word

The principles outlined in Permaculture Principles Parts I-VI were derived from Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay’s book, “Introduction to Permaculture”.  They were revised by David Holgrem, and are those now taught by the Permaculture Association (UK) on their PDC courses.  The information here is derived from the thinking that arose from notes taken during one such course.  It was hosted by Rosie and  Steve at “Edibles”, with course leaders being:  the mind map guru Andy Goldring, CEO of the Permaculture Association and the absolutely incredible mine of useful information, Niels Corfield of Edible Cities, Leeds.  My apologies in advance if any feel I have interpreted their teachings beyond all recognition (they did try to get us to focus on solutions rather than the problem, but I think solutions need to be positioned in the context of our global problems).   All-in-all, life changing!

And next….

Bill Mollison suggested several other principles, which are regarded as the central features of permaculture philosophy.  I quite like them, so don’t wish them to be relegated, but rather promoted to the top of permaculture league.  They will be showcased in one of my next articles.

© Safar Fiertze (2015)

Permaculture Principles: Part V

Permaculture Principles Part I

Permaculture Principles Part II

Permaculture Principles Part III

Permaculture Principles Part IV

“Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself. A community of a hundred million species can survive anything short of total global catastrophe. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature drop of twenty degrees—which would be a lot more devastating than it sounds. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature rise of twenty degrees. But a community of a hundred species or a thousand species has almost no survival value at all.”  (Daniel Quinn, “Ishmael”, 1995)

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll come to understand that I have a great liking for Daniel Quinn’s books.  If you’ve read any, you’ll understand when I say, “I am ‘B'”, or at least if I’m not, then I would like to be.  One of the most fascinating facts about homo sapiens, compared to any other living species, is their propensity for obliterating all other life forms for their own purposes.  Other animals do of course kill other species for their survival, but homo sapiens go beyond killing for survival.  They are instead at constant war with all species and don’t stop until the point of extinction.  If other species can coexist without completely annihilating the existence of another, why can’t humans?

In fact it might be completely necessary to do so if the homo sapien isn’t to become extinct itself:

Homo sapiens (n)
A pitiful race (sic) that will most likely cause its own extinction before its technologies fully develop.
Homo sapiens died out in 2110 A.D.”  (Rick Tankard August 04, 2005)

The penultimate permaculture principle is to:

Use and Value Diversity

Martin Crawford, of the UK’s Agroforestry Research Trust, create a seven layer food forest in just 2 acres of land.  Although not the first to conceive of or create a forest garden, his is particularly renowned due to the level of diversity and efficient use of space.  There are more than 300 plant species, most of which, are edible, and those that aren’t serve valuable functions within the environment.  His research is particularly focused on how different plants interact with each other, creating more efficient food systems.  I think the concept can be extended to a consideration of the fruitfulness of human diversity in addition to biodiversity.

The most remarkable aspect of Crawford’s forest is that it is aesthetically pleasing, like a true garden.  Little wonder that permaculture has been termed “a revolution disguised as gardening“.

Permaculture (n)

A revolution disguised as gardening” (source, as yet, unknown).

In the final part of the series, I will talk about one more principle: use edges and value the marginal.  It was the hardest one for me to understand until I considered my own place in the world – on the edge or margins of social life.  It may be a strange analogy, but it worked for me!

Permaculture Part VI

Permaculture Principles: Part IV

Permaculture Principles Part I

Permaculture Principles Part II

Permaculture Principles Part III

When I first undertook a permaculture design certificate course, I got very excited about edible plants.  Many hours were spent researching plants – first, into the edibility of Britain’s native plants, and then, onto other edible perennials.  My thinking commenced with the details of the project, then I set about the aesthetics of planting.    However, as part of the project, I’d missed some vital patterns – a windswept moor that provided a home with no shelter from the winds, hence heavy expenditure to eliminate loss of heat and to seal draughts; an unused stone shed, lack of accessibility to often used plants, like herbs, and the water, needed for the beautiful water feature I had designed, was flowing in a totally different direction, to how I’d planned.

What can I say? Wisdom lies in mistakes.

I had failed to look at how existing patterns would provide a foundation for the design process.  So instead, this permaculture principle turns my upside-down world to a more functional perspective.

Design from patterns to details

The more time I spend researching and thinking about permaculture, the more I believe that ‘observe and learn’ is the Fractalimost important.  It has applies no less to the principle of designing from patterns to details.  Nature is self-sustaining.  It finds its own balance and harmony and its patterns are a response to the natural flow of energy.  Consider this: when did nature ever plant in straight lines?  Come to that, when did nature take over 10 acres with a single crop?

An optimal design will begin with a thorough analysis of the site for the project.  It will note water flow, water collection points, the direction of erosion, the path of the sun, wind funnels, the predominant direction of the wind, plants that are natural companions, the pattern of animal migration and habitation……

Additionally, the site will not be situated in isolation.  It will have neighbours and may exist as part of an existing community with its own habits and patterns.  Go against the flow of the community, and you lose its energy, just as going against the flow of natural energy within our environment creates the same effect.

And as you may begin to see that as all the principles are interwoven and inextricably linked, so is a good design.  Which leads us to our next principle:

Integrate rather than segregate

There’s an important message for society as well as for permaculture design throughout its ethos – value diversity.  Anyway, before I get carried away on another favoured topic …. I really like this principle and its various aspects.  I think these aspects can be summarised as elements, functions and locations.  The overall aims of the project will determine the functions that need to be fulfilled.  To that end, you need more than one element in the system to fulfil that function (e.g. like your boiler, you’re without hot water until you get it fixed).  So each important function is undertaken by many elements.  Similarly, particularly if space is limited, each element would ideally perform more than one function.

Trees are a good illustrative example of the many functions an element can provide: wind barrier, lumber, fruit, nuts, rain maker, soil builder, fertiliser, energy transformer, home, playground, water pump, climate regulator, canopy provider, psychological well-being… please comment on any others you can think of!

And the number of elements that can contribute to a single function?  How about the need for heat?  Sun (panels, thermal flooring, sun-heated water pipes (works in Spain for an outdoor shower), drying fruit, olives, carob pods …, lumber, thermal mass (e.g. in masonry, rock), compost, woolly jumpers ….  Ok, I live in Yorkshire, I realised the obstacle quite some time ago!  Perhaps I should have focused on water?


Principles of Permaculture V to follow …..

Permaculture Principles: Part III

Permaculture Principles Part I

Permaculture Principles Part II

Let’s start with a riddle.

What has taken upto 300 million years to form, has been reduced by half in approximately 125 years, is consumed at a rate of 150,000 litres per second, and the need for it is increasing exponentially?  What is used in toothpaste, curtains, dresses, antifreeze, enamel, anaesthetics, dentures, shaving cream, aspirin, stockings, antiseptics, fertilisers, insecticides, performs, soap, footballs, dice, detergents, tents, cameras, paints, wheels, roofing, water pipes, toilet seats……?


It’s not so much that we’re going to run out of the stuff, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult, and by default, expensive to extract.  We are, of course, talking about oil.  And usable oil is now past its peak.

There are those who would argue that oil has not yet reached its peak, and it is just a ruse by oil companies to raise their prices.    Others would admit oil has peaked, but there’s no need to worry as technological advancement will yield a suitable alternative.  However, technological development is reliant on the use of oil.

Of specific concern is the increasing dependency upon oil for food production.  The use of oil is essential to modern agricultural practices.  It is use to pump water for irrigation, fuel machinery, transportation and for fertilisers.  Fertilisers are needed due to soil degradation from mismanaging the very substance necessary for plant growth.

Whilst sustainability has been very much part of scientific, cultural and political discourse, the rate of population rise, oil consumption, soil and land degradation has taken us to a point where even sustainable solutions are going to be meaningless.  It is time for discourse about ‘regeneration’ rather than ‘sustainability’.

Within our regenerative and permacultural system, the issue of energy is of as much importance as it is to modern agricultural practice.  Which leads us to the next principle of permaculture:

Catch and Store Energy

Plant growth relies on energy.


Regeneration will necessitate the rebuilding of this important process.  The design of a system requires arranging the landscape in such away that it captures and stores this energy.  This can include creating biomass areas (creation of living spaces which generate organic waste), utilising biothermal energy (heat generated from composting material), managing woodland, making use of heat stored in rocks, managing wind, and even the sun’s reflection on water are means for reducing fossil fuel dependency.

Permaculture Principles Part IV 

Permaculture Principles: Part II

In Permaculture Principles: Part I, the need to create a yield within the system that we design was outlined.  In this section, the focus will turn to the subject of waste.

And let’s be honest, we are extremely wasteful creatures!

According to a DEFR (2015) report, in the UK alone, households produce close to 30 million tonnes of waste per year, commercial and industrial waste, although significantly lower than in 2004 (this figure could be due to methodological differences in data collection, as opposed to a downward trend in the production of waste), creates approximately 45 million tonnes, and the construction industry, 100 million tonnes of waste.

Whilst landfill is only one of many means for dealing with waste, it continues to have significant environmental effects.  Landfill involves the creation of contained spaces.  Waste materials are progressively compressed with soil and eventually enclosed with a permanent cap.  Biodegradable materials subsequently decay releasing landfill gas.  This comprises methane and carbon dioxide.  Potentially toxic elements could be exposed to neighbouring areas if the gas isn’t fully collected.  Landfills are especially susceptible to leeching from rainfall which affects surrounding soils (but modern landfill linings do minimise this potential).  Finally, despite recycling efforts, potentially hazardous materials do enter landfill sites.

Waste, in short, is a problem.  Hence the fifth of our permacultural principles is:

To produce no waste – If we were to consider that all systems require inputs, this will necessarily create outputs.  In a system designed using permaculture principles, obtaining a yield is an output from a good system.  Waste is also an output.  In a carefully designed system, waste does not need to be toxic.  It is instead an unused product.  This output can be regenerated as an input.  Composting is the best illustrative example of how inputs and outputs can be connected to create a sustainable system.  Composting household waste means less expenditure on materials needed for soil building, and good compost increases yields.  Similarly, the need for reliance on external sources (such as refuse collection services) is eliminated, and as the process is entirely localised, the need for transport is removed.

A related principle is:

To use and value renewable resources and services – Another form of dependency in industrial culture is that of the need for
water purification services.  According to Thames Water, ‘In-between it (water) falling from the sky and coming
out of your taps, there is a whole process that involved hundreds of treatment sites ….. 20,000 miles of pipes..” The process of water purification entails screening (capturing large debris like leaves), flocculation (adding a solution to make other particles larger and easier to remove), filtering (through various grades of sand) and finally, chlorination.

Chlorine is a paradoxical chemical.  It is added to water to decrease the risk of waterborne diseases, and does significantly reduce the mortality rate from drinking unclean water.  However, a number of epidemiological studies have found that the by-products of chlorination are associated with cancer risk.  Chlorine reacts with organic matter in the water and produces the carcinogenic Trihalomethanes.   A news report by the BBC last week stated that 50% of the population are now likely to contract cancer within their lifetime.  It was suggested this is due to increased longevity.  So the longer we live, the more likely we will experience cancer.  However, longevity is not the cause of cancer.  Artificial purification of water, however, is suspected to increase the risk of developing colon and bladder cancers.  What is more, chlorine is designed to kill all microbial life, thereby upsetting the delicate balance of natural ecosystems.

Natural water purification services are often overlooked.  However, with some ingenuity, can be utilised to good effect.  For example, Joule’s Brewery makes use of natural aquifers to create entirely natural ales.  In fact, natural purification is seen as essential to the character and flavour of craft beers.  (I have come across a brewery in the UK that has created several layers of natural filtration enclosed within a beautiful green space – will report back when I find it again).

Using and valuing the renewable services of the sun and wind and natural life cycles of plants and animals will additionally help to reduce external dependency and toxicity within the environments we inhabit.

Permaculture Principles: Part III