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The Basics of Permaculture

Not too long ago, I too was wondering what permaculture was, how to get started and why so many people were raving about it’s amazing benefits. So, like any curious person, I stocked up on books, read through countless articles and watched some videos. Okay, maybe I am the cat that got killed by curiosity, but hey – I like learning even when it hurts a little!

What is Permaculture?

Alright, back to the subject at hand; permaculture. To start, permaculture cannot be fully covered in this article; it is far more complex than that, but don’t worry we’ll be back with more on the fine details soon!

First of all, the word itself nearly gives away what permaculture is. Back in the 1970s, the words “permanent” and “agriculture” were blended together to create the word we know and love today; permaculture.

When it comes to permaculture, it is founded on three main principles:

  • Ethics
  • Knowing how nature functions
  • The aspect of design

By combining these, we are able to watch absolutely amazing things happen. Why? Because you are creating ethical guidelines to use in creating a system that is completely regenerative!

Ethics in Permaculture

Yup, ethics. Permaculture isn’t just about getting the product to the consumer; it’s about benefiting everybody and everything. That way things can continue to grow, be used and always remain available for future generations.

That’s why in permaculture, you will always find individuals:

  • Caring for the earth to ensure its survival. Since we rely on a healthy planet to have a healthy life, this is absolutely essential. Why bother planting if it’s doing more harm to the world than good?
  • Caring for the people by ensuring everyone has access to the resources that they need to survive. After all, the golden rule is treating others as you wish to be treated, so be sure to spread the love.
  • Only taking what it is they need to survive and never more than that. This is called your fair share and by taking just the amount you need, never less and never more, we can continue to flourish and there will continue to be more in the future.

Knowing How Nature Functions

Alright, this one might be a little obvious, but is it really? At first I can remember thinking, “well no shit you need to know how nature functions in order to get started, I already know how it functions.” But, man oh man was I wrong. There is SO much more to knowing how nature functions than meets the eye.

First glance, you may think it’s just the bees pollinating your garden, the sun providing the necessary light and the soil giving you a medium to grow in. BUT (and that’s a big but), it’s not just that. It’s the critters below the soil, the lay of the land, the direction of the sun, what nutrients one plant can give to another, how one animal can provide food for another and everything in between.

So, it’s not that obvious after all, huh?

Nope, it’s not. In permaculture, you will find plants and animals performing up to 7 functions within the garden, which is why knowing how nature functions truly is key to setting up a successful permaculture garden.

Permaculture Stacking Examples

For example, instead of making compost for the sole purpose of using it in the garden, you will find:

  • the compost pile provides heat during colder months for greenhouses or ponds,
  • waste easily turns into soil treasure,
  • and compost produces carbon dioxide for healthy plants.

Additionally, you may find even more uses for the heat coming off your compost pile depending on your setup. And, that’s just for starters.

Here’s another example using animals this time instead. When you add chickens to your permaculture setup, you can expect the following functions to be carried out by them:

  • They will provide you with eggs and meat.
  • If you give the chickens some room to roam, they will be more than happy to fertilize, scratch and forage a plot of land for you. And when they’re done, the soil will be ready for you to plant in. Better yet, have a plot filled with weeds? Send the chickens over and they will have it cleared out in no time.
  • They will happily eat many of the pests in your garden for you and who doesn’t love effortless pest control?
  • Have a compost pile that needs turning? Let the chickens do it for you! Yeah, that’s right. Just plop the fresh organic matter on top of your compost pile and the chickens will have a field day churning it around to get all of the goodies.
  • Have a greenhouse? You can strategically set up your chicken coop, so the carbon dioxide moves into the greenhouse to heat it during cooler months.

And, all this time you thought chickens were just good for their eggs and compost was just good for your plants. Turns out, they can be helpful in a number of ways!

The Aspect of Design in Permaculture

Okay, so this directly correlates with both knowing how nature functions and practicing ethics in permaculture. Without utilizing the other two principles, designing a permaculture garden is essentially fruitless (literally – haha!).

Within the design aspect of permaculture, there lie twelve design principles, which include the following:

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

To get a more in-depth explanation of these twelve principles, please click here.

For the purpose of only going over the very basics of permaculture, we will simply go over the importance of observing your land prior to planting and designing your permaculture garden.

Observing Your Land

Over the last year, we’ve been watching and waiting to use our land. Yes, an entire year without planting anything in the ground. Why? Well, to start it’s the first step in designing a permaculture garden; observe and interact.

We need to know which way the wind blows, how the sun shifts as the seasons change, which way the land slopes, how much rain or snow we can expect throughout the year, as well as what’s already naturally growing and living in the area.

But, why can’t you just start planting? If you water and care for the plants, they will grow, so why do you need to know all of this additional information?

Those were my thoughts exactly when I realized I was going to have to sit on my hands for a year and watch patiently. What I didn’t realize is how much I would learn about the land in those twelve months.

Our Discoveries

Over the last year by simply watching, I’ve been able to discover:

  • That there is only one good place on the property for a pond.
  • The wind comes from the West 90% of the time.
  • Our land slopes down both from the West and North, so in order to irrigate we need to ensure water flows from the West or North down to the other sides of the property.
  • There are certain areas where water collects for days on end.
  • Summertime brings loads of flies and hornets to the house.
  • The last frost usually doesn’t occur until the middle of May.
  • If given the right conditions, asparagus will grow naturally and in abundance here. Just walk by an irrigation ditch come harvest time and you’ll have a fresh side of asparagus with dinner that night.
  • Our soil is mostly clay, so some items may be more difficult to grow.

While that’s just a short list of what we’ve discovered, even these small observations will drastically improve our success for many years to come.

Without observing, we could have ended up with a pond on the East side of the property only to discover we need a pump to get it all the way over to the West end for irrigating the land. Furthermore, we could have planted windbreaks on the East only to discover we blocked the morning sun from our garden and didn’t block any of the horrendous wind gusts we experience down in the valley.

Moreover, we would have seriously screwed ourselves for years to come. Even over the last few months as we begin to map everything out, we find ourselves going back and altering things for further improvements.

Preparation is Key

Like my mom always told me, it’s 90% prep work and 10% real work.

Think about it, when you paint a room in your house, you spend more time taping everything off and putting the drop cloth down than you do actually painting. And, why do you do that? Because you want it done right the first time, don’t want to make a big mess and definitely don’t want to have to do it a second time.

It’s the same when it comes to permaculture; if you plan it out accordingly, do your research and take your time, you won’t find yourself having to do more work, you will find yourself doing less work and having a bigger harvest.

Bringing it to fruition

And, we all love bigger harvests! Seriously, have you ever heard of edible forests or permaculture food forests? Check out this 23 year old one here:

Yeah, they’re pretty amazing! And, you could have one right in your own backyard too simply by following the principles of permaculture and a little effort.


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