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Permaculture design principles are changing the world for the better. Sadly, many people are not aware of this simply because they do not understand what permaculture is. First, it is about creating a ‘permanent culture’, which is why avid growers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren called it ‘permaculture’ back in the 70s. But, as with the term ‘sustainability,’ it can be difficult to grasp what the abstract concept of a ‘permanent culture’ means. So let me give you an example.
Let’s say that you want to grow carrots in your back garden. You dig up the soil, which encourages dormant weed seeds to grow and disturbs the life living in it. Then you sow your seeds. You water them every day using treated tap water. When the carrots refuse to grow, you apply shop-bought chemical fertilizers, and take to spraying them with chemicals to make them grow. You also spray them with pesticides to keep the pests away, and weedkiller because all those pesky weeds would take forever to pull up by hand. This entire scenario is certainly not sustainable behavior, and does not contribute towards creating a permanent culture, not only because it involves a lot of unnatural behavior – i.e. it is dependent on you in order to continue, but also because it is damaging to the environment.
So what’s your other option? This is where permaculture comes in, to say that there is an easier, more natural, and perhaps more ‘common sense’ way to grow your carrots.
1. Cultivate observation.
In the case of the carrots, this means observe the land. By doing so, you will save yourself a lot of time, energy, and probably money. Instead of digging straight in and planting your carrots in the worst part of your garden, take the time to look at what your garden is telling you. Is the soil in some parts naturally too boggy to grow carrots in, or too shaded? If carrot flies are a common pest where you live, it may be worth putting in simple raised beds to keep them away from your crops, as they cannot fly high above ground-level. Next, look at what’s the soil is like. If you have never grown in it before, consider growing a different crop first, as carrots have been shown to grow well in soil that was previously planted with a different crop. Also, improve the soil the natural way by putting down mulch such as hay and grass cuttings over newspaper. On top of this can go a layer of home-made compost. Adding mulch and compost will add much-needed nutrients to the soil and keep the sun and light away from the weeds, which will discourage them from growing.
2. Work with nature, not against it.
When the climate is right for carrots to grow, they will grow. Instead of trying to force them to do so, work around the problems. Planting seeds directly into the mulch will prevent you from having to dig up the soil, which disturbs the soil’s natural ecosystem and also activates otherwise-dormant weed seeds. Most people equate gardening with digging, but as countless grassroots revolutionaries have demonstrated, not digging can actually produce better yields in the long-term. It is also a lot less work. In the 1930s Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s no-dig food forest was widely celebrated and led to the development of ‘Fukuokan philosophy’, or ‘Do Nothing Farming’. People from all over the world flocked to see Fukoaka’s food forest, which was extremely abundant while neighbouring farms that employed typical agricultural practices were not. This is all because he chose to work alongside nature, instead of attacking it to make it do what he wanted. This is the meaning of permaculture.
3. Apply permaculture to your entire lifestyle.
Although permaculture design systems were founded based on trial-and-error gardening techniques, they are not limited only to growing. Consider again the gardener with the chemical sprays who will have carrots at any cost. This is a high-intensive way of growing, and an environmentally damaging one. He makes life harder for himself, because he is ruining the soil and will have to rely on sprays to keep growing crops in it.
Instead of fighting nature, permaculture teaches us to listen to it. If we look around our homes and workplaces, we will see equally unsustainable habits and activities that can be changed for the better simply by applying the permaculture principle. Is it a closed-loop, or does it depend on constant interference from you to be sustainable? Why water carrots with treated tap water, when chlorine-free rain is best for all plants? Equally, laying down mulch first will help the soil to retain moisture so that it will require less manual watering. Why not install several rainbutts and use rainwater not only for watering plants, but for things like bathing or washing clothes? This is exactly what people did for centuries before we became reliant on treated tap water for everyday activities. The fact that the water we use to bathe in, wash our clothes with, and even the water we flush down the toilet is heavily treated with chemicals to make it suitable for drinking, is extremely unsustainable – and unnecessary. A permaculture design system would advocate using rainwater instead, and avoiding flushing clean water away so often by watering plants with urine or using the humanure from a home-made compost toilet.
4. Remember that permaculture is a mindset.
Over time, you can cultivate this mindset and start to see the world around you from a common sense perspective, where you look for natural low-impact solutions instead of battle against problems. A solution that works well in your backyard may not work well in your neighbor’s, which is why permaculture design principles are tailored to each specific location and time.
On a wider scale, why don’t we teach permaculture education in schools? In a time of food shortages and high inflation, children could immensely benefit from learning to grow some of their own food. Numerous studies have shown that more time spent outdoors is beneficial for children, especially those with behavioral or learning problems. And while people in developing countries do benefit from learning mathematics and English skills, what good is it if they are at risk from their own habits of defecating onto night soils or in public places? A project called SOIL is currently recycling human waste into valuable fertilisers in Haiti through the composting process, which is also helping with the impact of the country’s current battle with cholera. This is permaculture at its best.
Now that you know what permaculture is, it’s time for you to look around you and see where these principles can be applied to your own lifestyle. If you live in a cold climate, is your home insulated as well as it could be? If you’re in a sunny place, why not have solar panels installed to generate your own electricity? Do you live out of your means? Can you trade or barter where you normally buy, and have you considered sharing goods with others to cut down on consumption and encourage neighborliness? There’s no end to where this mindset can take you – and the number of carrots you can grow.