What is Permaculture?

by Dr. Charlie Headington

Permaculture gardens, farms, and landscapes are organic, edible and diverse; they are practical, low-maintenance and productive. Each element of the landscape whether, plant, animal, or structural is placed by the designer in a mutually beneficial relationship to its neighbor, the yields of one supporting the needs of the other. In other words, Permaculture designs and builds communities.

The Permaculture designer, using nature as a model, both imitates and intensifies natural systems in order to generate food, fuel, fodder, and other materials for human use. She assumes abundance, not scarcity. A simple example of imitating nature is in soil-building: rather than till it, the gardener lays organic material on top and lets the worms do the tilling, even throughout the winter months. In Permaculture, some spaces are left wild, others are restored, and still others are highly developed, as in an urban context. Nutrient cycles, water storage, soil quality, and plant diversity are enhanced, while the resources flowing through the system are slowed down, stored, recycled and used sparingly. Small spaces can yield big harvests; human intervention, inputs, and maintenance are kept to a minimum. The aesthetic is pleasingly natural.

The Permaculture gardener, landscaper, or farmer thoroughly observes her land. 80% of the work is in the initial installation, and 20% in its maintenance, the reverse of normal gardening. She devotes less time to weeding and fighting insects and more to designing, harvesting, and learning.

What are the characteristics of a Permaculture landscape? What does it look like?

  1. You’ll see elements (plants, animals, paths, structures) and processes (water storage, plant growth, sunlight, insect control, soil building, composting) working together.
  2. Biodiversity is enhanced either by design or the “self-organizing” of natural systems. It is found in microclimates and the edges of things—a wall, shore, drip line, terrace.
  3. The “free” resources of rainwater, solar energy, nutrient cycles, insects and animals are harvested and stored. No water leaves the property. Bees pollinate. Waste = Food.
  4. Perennials and annuals, 50% each, fill 3-dimensional spaces. Perennials are organized as Forest Gardens (stacking of plants); annuals are grown on no-till, worm-cultivated beds.
  5. Each element functions in multiple ways, supporting its neighbor, increasing yields.
  6. Redundancy creates resilience; goals are reinforced. You see 3-4 kinds of water storage, 3-4 ways to control insects, diverse plant species, composting everywhere.
  7. People places, movement (paths), work style and habits, that is, the social ecology, is designed into and coordinated with the natural patterns.
  8. You’ll see “zones of use” from the home base garden (zone 1) to wild spaces (zone 5). The animals, bees and orchard and a functional forest are in between.
  9. Appropriate technology, limited in size, cost and energy is employed. Small is beautiful.
  10. Beauty, creativity, “flow” and health are visible everywhere you look.

For more information, I recommend Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison, and for easy access try Weedless Gardening by Lee Reich. David Jacke’s, Edible Forest Gardens, is a masterpiece (and he features my garden in Volume I). For an inspiring, national magazine and website go to Permaculture Activist. Charlie Headington is seen on GCTV in “Urban Gardening”and “Tomorrow’s Harvest”, conducts Permaculture workshops, directs a gardening program at Greensboro Montessori School (and assists in others), teaches courses in sustainability at UNCG. He and his wife, Debby Seabrooke have volunteered on Italian and Greek farms through WWOOF for the past 14 years. He recently built and directed the new Edible Schoolyard at the Greensboro Children’s Museum. Visit his website http://www.earthmatters.info and contact the new Greensboro Permaculture Guild, a learning and design collective, at greensboropermacultureguild@gmail.com. His email is charlie.headington@gmail.com and phone, 336-554-2116.

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