What is Permaculture? 

Feeling the intense effects of climate change in the Pacific Northwest in June, when we experienced an historic heat wave that created excessive heat warnings and pushed daytime temperatures into the triple digits, I couldn’t help thinking how I am not looking forward to more of this. There is a joke here in Seattle that Summer doesn’t begin until July 5th, even though the first day of summer is June 21st. In a city where air-conditioning was once taboo, this appears to be changing with more regular bouts of soaring temperatures. Kristie Ebi, a professor who studies global warming and its effects on public health at the University of Washington, said, “the dayslong heat wave was a taste of the future as climate change reshapes global weather patterns”. As the symptoms of climate change becoming increasingly obvious and unpleasant, it’s crucial that we act collectively now to help slow down this crisis, not only for ourselves but for our children and future generations.

With a temperature of over 100 degrees outside, I sat in our air-conditioned bedroom over three consecutive days, as our ground floor felt more like a sauna, and I began to research other ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Having recently learned about the subject of permaculture, I decided this would be my next topic. However, before I get in to explaining what that is, I will put a quick reminder here of a previous blog post I wrote titled, “Should I eat meat?” as cutting down on our consumption of beef and eating low on the food chain is one of the most impactful things we can do. This means eating mainly fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. It doesn’t involve us having to cut out meat completely though or having to make a huge shift in our diet. A small change in how we eat can make a big difference and create a positive effect on the environment. It’s useful to keep in mind that, for every day that we don’t eat meat and dairy, our carbon footprint can be reduced by 8 pounds, which adds up to 2,920 pounds a year.

Other ways we can help are by buying organic and local foods that are in season so that we can reduce the amount of fossil fuels used for transporting the food and for cooling it. If it’s possible to buy your food in bulk and plan meals ahead of time, it will help to reduce food waste. The excess can be put into the freezer and leftovers can be reused. In addition, if you can, compost your food scraps and yard waste. Not only will the composting keep these materials out of landfills where they take up space but it will prevent the release of methane, a type of greenhouse gas, more damaging than carbon dioxide which goes in to the atmosphere. The mixed ingredients, when broken down, can also be added to fertilize and improve soil to help grow plants and vegetables naturally, without the use of chemicals. Composting is one of the main teachings of permaculture, which leads me on to discuss this topic in more detail.

If you have never heard of permaculture before, you are not alone. Broken down, the term is a fusion of “permanent” and “agriculture” which was first coined in the 1970s by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison from Australia. However, while they may have been the co-originators of the concept, from further reading, it appears that permaculture is a process that has evolved throughout the years and does not belong to any one leader. My understanding is that it is a design philosophy, continually being rethought and built upon, dating back to practices that were borrowed from Indigenous cultures. Indigenous people have a legacy and heritage of observing and understanding nature and its patterns, which is key to the concept of permaculture. For years, Indigenous peoples all over the globe have created aligned lives with nature, working with it, rather than against it, which tends to be the case with conventional agriculture. By working with nature and letting nature do most of the work, they have managed to create homes, gardens, farms and communities that have very little impact on the environment. Through sustainable permaculture practices such as polyculture - in which gardens are made up of unrelated plants that grow next to each other and support each other in an ecologically friendly way, they have been able to create healthy garden ecosystems that can last for longer periods of time. This is the essence of permaculture and what Bill Mollison and David Holmgren also advocated and worked for when promoting their design of a sustainable and ecologically sound way of living. David Holmgren described it as “a design system for both sustainable land use and sustainable living”. Bill Mollison described it as, “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems”.

Our natural ecosystems, made up of plants, animals and other living organisms, each with their own role and purpose, are part of a symbiotic community that share the benefits, such as air, food, water and soil of a particular space or environment. For too long, we have been degrading and disrupting the balance of these ecosystems, creating disastrous effects to all the living things relying on them. From tearing down trees in order to plant crops and raise livestock on, to water pollution, ocean acidification, illegal fishing, pollution everywhere, the list goes on. Sadly, we have been overusing Mother Earth and our lifestyles have been contributing to creating a hugely negative impact on our environment.

The idea behind permaculture is to work with ecosystems in a positive way. By working with your garden in an ecological way, you can construct a backyard ecosystem that will benefit you, the people around you and the rest of nature. An ecological garden can provide beautiful plants with multiple uses, fruits and vegetables, a habitat for wildlife, medicinal and culinary herbs, soil-building mulch and protection from pests. All of these can be done with low maintenance and low environmental impact.

Conventional gardens that use purchased compost, fertilizer, seeds and pest control, can result in water loss, dead soil life and lower yields, while at the same time creating carbon pollution. In the case of a well-designed permaculture garden, the soil is brought to life with natural techniques, it only needs occasional watering and is able to renew itself. Multi-functional plants that can work cooperatively with each other are planted. Food plants are chosen to support insects, wildlife and birds. Rain water is harvested and put to good use. Regular water is also conserved to keep it pure and clean and to protect the environment. Trees that add nutrients to the soil are planted. Seeds from vegetables, flowers, grain and herbs are saved for future use - otherwise known as seed saving. Herbs are planted for human and medicinal purposes and to attract pollinators.  Edible cover crops are used to improve the soil. This is an example of a living ecosystem. With the help of humans, nature’s rules are applied to create a healthy and resilient natural environment. Renewable energy technologies can also be mixed in with permaculture to generate things like electricity, heat and fuel from renewable sources, such as sunlight, wind and rain. 

Permaculture takes a holistic approach, meaning that humans are seen as a part of the larger ecological system and not as something separate. There are three main beliefs behind its philosophy. These beliefs can be used as tools when designing an environment of any scale, whether it be a small patio area or a community-based project.

1. Care for the earth - by looking to nature to find smart, effective and sustainable practices that can be brought back to the garden. Recognizing the importance of all living and non-living components of the Earth and that all humans fulfill some basic role in the ecosystem.

2. Care for the people – it gives people access to resources they need to survive. At the core of this ethic is an understanding of the power of community and that all members of the community must be taken in to account. Permaculture is not just small-scale farming for a balcony or garden. It can also be done on a much larger scale. By bringing people together to grow and share food, the community can learn from each other, and get to know their neighbors.

3. Fair Share for all – you should only take what you need. In permaculture, it is recognized that any surplus needs to be reinvested or go back in to caring for numbers 1 and 2. For example, in the case of waste that is accumulated, such as food and yard scraps, they can be returned back in to the system to be used again.

I took a trip to Beacon Food Forest, a permaculture community in Seattle, to see an example of these ethics at work on a larger scale. Beacon Food Forest was started in 2009 by four friends from the area who were studying permaculture. Together, they came up with a design to transform a 7-acre plot of grass into a diverse ecosystem that would provide fresh and healthy food to neighbors. One of their main goals was that all species could benefit from the stewardship of the land – that is, the respectful, responsive, sustainable care and management of the environment. Over time, they created a community of people dedicated to producing a food system guided by fairness for all people, through open harvest and collaboration within and among communities. Most of the food forest is an open harvest site, meaning anyone is allowed to forage from the site freely. Trust is extended to the community and to visitors, such as myself, to enter in to the community agreement and take only what they need. The idea being that there should always be some left for others. Nearly all the produce gets harvested so food waste is eliminated. There are also private allotments, otherwise known in Seattle as P-Patches. Trust is also extended not to interfere with these. According to their website, this model has been working successfully so far and the food forest is considered a public place owned by all people. 

In an attempt to start growing food from home, I must admit that I have initially allowed my husband to take on this task. As a recovering plant killer, who is still a work in progress, I am offering my services by watering the tomatoes, peppers, and basil he is growing. Believe me, I understand that growing your own food can seem daunting at first but I’ve been surprised at how excited both myself and my husband get when we see signs of growth. I also find it relaxing and fun to potter around them and water them with my son. Living in Washington State, we are lucky to have blueberry, strawberry and raspberry farms we can go to pick fruit during the summer and apples between July and October. We also have a plum tree which has given us jars of jam and pies to enjoy and from August to September, we will have blackberries to pick locally where we walk. I feel extremely lucky to have such an abundance of fruit close to where we live. I know this isn’t the case for everyone. At the end of the summer, for the first time, we plan to collect rain water so that we can use it to water our plants instead of using the hose. These are just stepping stones on our journey. We still have much to learn. As David Holmgren says, a change in ourselves can arguably be one of the most powerful things we can do. Doing something that we can benefit from can become attractive to others and help in getting others on board too. Even if they are simple low-key things.

When you delve more in to the subject of permaculture, you realize that it has even more scope, far beyond its origins in agriculture. The principles behind it have not only been used to design buildings, businesses and villages but they can be used when creating energy and wastewater systems, community groups, and decision-making processes. Writer Emma Chapman says permaculture: “is often viewed as a set of gardening techniques, but it has in fact developed into a whole design philosophy, and for some people a philosophy for life."

By gaining as much wisdom as we can from people like David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, as well as the Indigenous communities who have shown that there is another way and that we can live sustainably, we can help to slow down this crisis of global warming. We need to reassess our values and look to these types of sustainable and ecologically friendly practices, that have worked in the past. By reducing our intake of meat, practicing sustainable ways of growing (or purchasing) our food and reducing our food waste so that it doesn’t contribute to creating green-house gas emissions when it rots, we can contribute to making a positive impact. It’s crucial that we bring back an understanding of the connection between ourselves and Mother Earth before it’s too late, to help restore the protective stewardship that once worked so well for her. Sadly, so many of us have become disconnected from nature and forget the role that we have to play in protecting her. It’s key that we remember that what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. We are all facing this huge environmental crisis together. If we continue to pollute the Earth, we are failing to respect her and to carefully and responsibly look after her. Our planet will only continue to deteriorate and create even more disastrous effects for our children’s lifetimes and succeeding generations. We are overusing Mother Earth, it’s time now that we gather to protect her. She cannot heal herself on her own.

I’ll finish by sharing a verse from the song, “The Bare Necessities”, from the movie “Jungle Book”. It’s from the scene when Baloo, the bear, is addressing Mowgli, a young man cub and imparting a lesson to him about not over complicating life. He is telling him rather his focus should be on the bare necessities. In teaching Mowgli how to survive and navigate life living in the jungle, Baloo depicts his home as one which, via the bounty of nature, food is always within reach. His environment is so abundant, he feels he can live a long and happy life without having to over exert himself. Perhaps we can all learn something from Balloo’s message and from the practices that permaculture have to offer us, in bringing back more of Mother Nature’s recipes. By revering Mother Nature and learning to work in harmony with her, we can assist in her healing. You can see the full video here. I hope it makes you smile as much as it made me. 

The Bare Necessities by Bruce Reitherman and Phil Harris.

Look for the bare necessities, The simple bare necessities, Forget about your worries and your strife, I mean the bare necessities, Old Mother Nature's recipes, That brings the bare necessities of life. Wherever I wander, wherever I roam, I couldn't be fonder of my big home.  The bees are buzzin' in the tree, To make some honey just for me, When you look under the rocks and plants, And take a glance at the fancy ants, Then maybe try a few.

The bare necessities of life will come to you. They'll come to you!

Read Kiva's journey to growing her own vegetables and meadow on page 2.