A permaculture system is a unique landscape where all the plants and animals live in balance in a self sustaining ecosystem. It commonly involves developing a garden or farm where the plants and animals are put together in such a way that they support each others growth and development. The garden or farm may very well change over the years, but it always remains productive, requires little input once established, and is environmentally sound.
Permaculture is an ethical approach to providing food and other essentials needed for man's survival. It embraces three main ethics as follows:
This includes all living things and non living things which together comprise the
environment (ie. Animals, plants, land, water and air).
Permaculture systems should be developed to promote self reliance and community
Permaculture aims to pass on anything surplus to an individual's needs (eg. labour,information or money) in an attempt to pursue the above aims.
What is Permaculture?
In its strictest sense, permaculture is a system of production based on perennial, or self perpetuating, plant and animal species, which is useful to people. In a broader context, permaculture is a philosophy which encompasses the establishment of environments which are highly productive and stable, and which provide food, shelter, energy, etc., as well as supportive social and economic infrastructures. In comparison to modern farming techniques practised in Western civilisations, the key elements of permaculture are low energy and high diversity inputs. The design of the landscape, whether on a suburban block or a large farm, is based on these elements.
A permaculture system can be developed on virtually any type of site, though the plants selected and used will be restricted by the site's suitability to the needs of the varieties used. Establishing a permaculture system requires a reasonable amount of pre-planning and designing. Factors such as climate, landform, soils, existing vegetation and water availability need to be considered. Observing patterns in the natural environment can give clues to matters which may become a problem later or which may be beneficial.
A well designed permaculture garden will fulfil the following criteria:
Upon maturity it forms a balanced, self-sustaining ecosystem where the relationships between the different plants and animals do not compete strongly to the detriment of each other. The garden only undergoes subtle changes from year to year.
It replenishes itself: The plants and animals in the garden feed each other, with only minimal (if any) input (e.g. natural fertilisers, feed) introduced from the outside.
Minimal work is required to maintain the garden once it is established: weeds, diseases and pests are kept to a minimum through bio-diversity (of plant insect and animal life). Companion planting and insect attraction are an integral part of this ecosystem for the beneficial effect they have on each other.
It is productive: food or other useful produce can be harvested from the garden continually.
Intensive land use: a lot is achieved from a small area. A common design format used is the ‘Mandala Garden’ based on a series of circles within each other, with very few pathways and easy, efficient watering.
There is a diversity of plant varieties; this spreads cropping over the whole year so that there is no time when a "lot" is being taken out of the system. This also means that the nutrients extracted (which differ according to each type of plant or animal) are "evened out". For example, iron-hungry plants are grown next to plants requiring little iron, in order that the soil does not become iron-deficient. . The diversity of species acts as a buffer. It can adapt to different slopes, soil types and microclimates. It develops through an evolutionary process changing rapidly at first, but this becomes more gradual over a long period perhaps never becoming totally stable. The biggest challenge for the designer is to foresee these on-going long term changes.
Structure of a Permaculture System
Large trees dominate the system. The trees used will affect everything else they create shade; reduce temperature fluctuations below (create insulation); reduce light intensities below; reduce water loss from the ground surface; act as a wind barrier, etc. In any system, there should also be areas without large trees, but will include shrubs and lower growing plants.
The "edge" between a treed and non-treed area will have a different environment to the areas with and without trees. These "edges" provide conditions for growing things which won't grow fully in the open or in the treed area. The north edge of a treed area (in the southern hemisphere) is sunny but sheltered while the south edge is cold but still sheltered more than in the open. This is reversed in the northern hemisphere. "Edges' are an example of microclimates: small areas within a larger site that have special conditions which favour certain species which will also grow well elsewhere.
Pioneer plants are used initially in a permaculture system to provide vegetation and aid the development of other plants which take much longer to establish. For example, many legumes grow fast and fix nitrogen (raise nitrogen levels in the soil) and thus increase nutrients available to nut trees growing beside them. Over time the nuts will become firmly established and the legumes will die out. Pioneer plants are frequently short lived (but not always).