Going Perm

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principles_DavidHolmgren Permaculture Principles: Earth Care, Fair Share, People Care
Image courtesy of David Holmgren 

Permaculture has been making its way into mainstream discussions of agriculture, coming down the rainspout fed by the work of gardeners, farmers, ecologists, and visionaries. But what exactly does it mean?

The term permaculture is derived from the words permanent and agriculture. It is essentially a system for designing landscape—often agricultural, but not always—that are in harmony with nature. A core value of permaculture is that the landscape, once created, becomes self-sustainable. The exact opposite of a “monoculture”—in which one crop is planted and must be protected from pests and weeds (think rose gardens and corn fields—a permaculture uses connections between components to strengthen the whole (think forests).

Vision for the Planet
We all know about global weirding, or the global change of weather patterns attributed to warming, and the serious jeopardy our planet faces. Yes, the use of fossil fuels that generate carbon dioxide is a giant part of the problem, but did you know that agriculture is another contributor to global warming? The annual churning of the soil for crops releases CO2 and other particulates into the atmosphere. The production and use of fertilizers and methane from concentrated animal farming also increase atmospheric warming as well as deforestation to create cropland and ranchland.

Permaculturalists want to change this situation one shovelful of dirt at a time. They believe that the path toward a more sustainable world begins simply with soil and water. By using no-till farming methods, mulching, growing nitrogen-fixing grasses, and planting perennials and trees, we can sequester CO2 in the soil and flora. Using the natural contour of the land, we can sculpt swales that catch water, allowing storm runoff and snowmelt to sink back into aquifers instead of causing erosion and floods.

Image courtesy of midwestpermaculture.com Chicken Tractor.
Image by Midwest Permaculture (http://midwestpermaculture.com) 

The philosophy behind permaculture is to first observe, then work with nature to mimic its relationships. The precepts culminate into a model that can scale to any size, from backyard gardens to citywide water reclamation systems. One core axiom is "stacking functions"—making each element of the landscape perform multiple tasks. A good example is the “chicken tractor,” a lightweight chicken coop without a floor that can be moved from place to place. At each stop, the chickens fertilize and aerate the soil, eating weeds, and ultimately providing you with healthier crops, as well as eggs and entertainment. Multiple uses; multiple outcomes.

Permaculture Is People
The FruitGuys sources from numerous small farms around the country that use permaculture methods. Many employ stacking functions, water saving, and soil fertility techniques. Chaffin Family Orchards in Butte County, CA, is a fine example. They use permaculture to keep their farm viable all year round and produce luscious peaches and tangy citrus.

"Not only are the trees all grown without toxic chemicals, but we use the livestock to positively impact the land and create desirable changes. The cattle and sheep mow and keep the orchard floors clean of tall grasses. This makes it easier for us to get in ladders to pick the fruit. By following nature’s models, we streamline ranch operations, cut labor and input costs, and raise more crops per acre,” Chaffin’s website details.

Many municipalities, like the town of Windsor, CA, have moved away from turf lawns in some parks and installed more drought-tolerant landscaping that saves both money and water. More and more cities, especially in the drought-prone West and Southwest, supply their citizens with the know-how and incentives to save rainwater, mitigate storm runoff, and even use their laundry water for irrigation.

Terraced-Swale Landscape swales save, sink and spread water.
Image by Midwest Permaculture (http://midwestpermaculture.com) 

Permaculture in Your Backyard
Permaculture may be a dynamic, worldwide movement, but there are probably places quite nearby to see it in action. Here are a few to get you started:



San Francisco Bay Area

LA Hills

Portland, OR


Rain Garden – A planted area in an urban setting that allows rainwater runoff from sidewalks, parking areas, or building roofs to be absorbed.

Chicken Tractor – A lightweight chicken coop without a floor that can be moved to allow the chickens to forage for weeds and bugs in different areas within a landscape.

Eco Village – Intentional communities designed to be interdependent and environmentally sustainable.

Food Forest – A gardening technique that mimics woodland ecosystems by using fruit-and-nut producing trees interspersed with berry bushes and other food-producing perennials to create an edible landscape.

Cradle-to-Cradle Recycling – A way of designing things to mimic nature by creating systems that are waste free.

Biomimicry – A system that looks to nature for design inspiration and problem-solving.

Agroforestry – Similar to Food Forests, agroforestry combines trees, shrubs, and crops with livestock for a more integrated food-producing landscape.

Heidi Lewis has been with the FruitGuys since they were seedlings. She is pursuing her interests in permaculture, biodynamics, and beekeeping in Sebastopol, CA.


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