First developed and articulated by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s, permaculture is a method of sustainable land use design based on ecological and biological principles, using patterns that occur in nature to maximize effect while minimizing wasted energy. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants. The ecological processes of plants, animals, their nutrient cycles, climatic factors and weather cycles are all part of the picture.
Permaculture designers seek to “close the loops” on home, farm and larger institutional sites, with the ultimate goal of having as little as possible leaving the site and as much as possible being generated on-site. Elements in a system are viewed in relationship to other elements, where the outputs of one element become the inputs of another. Within a permaculture system, work is minimized, “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase and environments are restored.
This concept of “permanent agriculture” that can be sustained indefinitely is the antithesis of modern agribusiness, which depends heavily on input of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides and inevitably depletes soil productivity. While traditional pre-industrial agriculture was labor-intensive and industrial agriculture is fossil-fuel-intensive, permaculture is design- and information-intensive and petro-free. So it’s not so much a return to indigenous cultivation methods (although it learns from them) as it is a new approach appropriate to the Information Age.
A permaculture approach to a site begins with close and careful observation, over a succession of seasons, of what natural systems within it are already working well. Students of the practice learn to look closely at factors like zones and layers, connections and flow patterns. For example, “edge communities” – boundaries between ecosystem zones, such as a seashore or the edge between a forest and a meadow – are well-known to support much greater biodiversity than a monocultural site like a thick stand of pines or a wheatfield. So if your garden totally lacks trees, you may need to plant some in strategic places in order for it to become more productive and self-sustaining over time.
The next step might be building a chicken coop next to your garden to help reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Perennials and self-seeding crops can begin to replace some types that need to be replanted annually. Setting up rain barrels means that you don’t have to burn as much fuel to run your well pump to irrigate your crops – and so on. It’s a holistic, integrated view that harnesses the strengths of each component of the full system.
Intrigued? Hudson Valley-base permaculture expert Ethan Roland can tell you a whole lot more next Friday. Once you get the basic picture, he’ll be pitching his Carbon Farming Course planned for 2012, to which top permaculture farmers and researchers from around the world will be invited to train farmers, policymakers, investors and landowners in best practices to keep carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere. Just think: Your own backyard could help slow down the juggernaut of global warming, without becoming your full-time job.
The talk begins at 6 p.m. on August 19 at the Woodstock Community Center, located on Rock City Road. For more information about the event, visit www.woodstocklandconservancy.org. To read more about Roland and his work, visit www.appleseedpermaculture.com.