What's Permaculture all about then?

Local Green Party members Fiona Williams & James Lea provide the answers

This article was published in Greenleaf edition 25, Spring 2005. Greenleaf is a publication of the Brighton & Hove Green Party and goes out to residents all over Brighton & Hove.

What is permaculture?

The word permaculture comes from 'permanent agriculture' or 'permanent culture'. It is an ecological design system for human settlements, based on observation of patterns in nature - after all, nature has solved many problems so why not copy her solutions? Since it is modelled on nature, it is inherently sustainable, or 'permanent'. It is also very practical.

How long has it been practised?

It was pioneered in the 1970s by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Since then, permaculture has spread all over the world, and its practitioners can be found from Nepal to Ecuador. Being a young discipline, it is still a work in progress so there are many opportunities to contribute. Like nature, permaculture celebrates diversity, so the more ideas being fed in, the stronger it becomes.

Is permaculture different from organic gardening?

Although in practice it draws on some aspects of organic gardening, it has a distinct set of ethics and principles. The main difference is in the approach: permaculture considers how all the elements in a design interact and function together. A key permaculture idea is that you don't need to dig the soil - in fact, doing so destroys the delicate balance of insects, fungi and microbes that preserve the soil's structure. Instead, permaculturists use sheet mulching and construct diverse planting schemes to help control weeds and pests and keep the soil well fed.

Do you need a small-holding to practise?

No. Permaculture principles can be applied to any aspect of human settlement, from housing to community food-growing, town planning to local economy. It can be used in urban, suburban and rural environments, and in all climates and cultures. Its underlying ethics of earthcare, peoplecare and fair share can be applied to a whole range of areas, from buying fairtrade products to organising a community arts or cultural event, as well as the more obvious food-growing and gardening.

Does it take up lots of time?

No - permaculture strives to minimise work, through careful observation and intelligent application of key principles. For example, by applying the principle of relative placement to a herb bed in a design, that herb bed will probably end up next to the kitchen. Less distance to walk equals less effort when gathering herbs! A lot of emphasis is placed on good design to minimise future effort in maintaining the system. Permaculturists believe that nature tends towards plenty - if you leave land alone it will renew itself and quickly revert to woodland. The key is to harness this abundance rather than try to tame it; to work with nature rather than against.

What can we learn from permaculture?

Speaking from our own experience as students of permaculture, we find that it has transformed the way we look at the world - we really see ourselves as part of a bigger system, a web of life. In an age of disconnects (do we know where our food comes from?) it can help you reconnect with the land and understand your environment better. Decisions such as where you buy food, what transport you use, your choice of energy supplier, how you decorate and furnish your home, and the use you make of your garden, become more meaningful as part of a holistic system. It's also fun!

How can permaculture benefit society?

With its emphasis on continuous recycling of resources (which include all waste) and use of renewable energy, permaculture has the potential to prevent further climate change as well as addressing its effects. In addition, with world oil production about to peak, cheap fuel will soon be a thing of the past. Petroleum-based fertilisers, upon which nearly all conventional agriculture depends, will then become increasingly expensive, putting up the cost of food. Given its capacity to generate abundant yields without using artificial fertilisers or oil-powered machinery, permaculture offers a real solution to the scourges of world hunger and resource depletion. It represents a vision of hope for the future and the survival of the planet.

How do I find out more?

Visit Stanmer Organics (www.stanmerorganics.org.uk), a collective of small businesses based at the back of Stanmer Park, a short bus-ride away from Brighton city centre.

Go on an Introduction to Permaculture course run by Brighton Permaculture Trust (www.brightonpermaculture.co.uk), or for the more adventurous, try the Building Sustainable Communities permaculture design course - both highly recommended!

Explore the UK national Permaculture Association website (www.permaculture.org.uk)

Read James Lea's online permaculture design course portfolio (www.greenliving.co.uk under Permaculture > Portfolio).

Any comments on this article?

If you have any comments you'd like to make, please send me your feedback.


-- (c) James Lea, www.GreenLiving.co.uk, 2005 - 2007 --