I came to permaculture by accident. My wife and I were volunteering our way through Central and South America, learning what we could about organic farming. We were staying in beautiful places, like Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, on farms with people in the know and this word kept cropping up: Permaculture. It was clear that it had something to do with gardening, that it was all the rage, but no one had really been able to explain it to us.

Then, when we were volunteering in Panama, my wife came up with an interesting project for us: a magic banana circle. Basically, it was a massive hole, about 6 feet across and three feet deep, around which we piled the excavated dirt and planted about a dozen banana trees, sweet potatoes, and cassava. The plants would feed from the compost in the center of the circle while the crops grew at different levels and worked as agricultural support for one another. In a space that would normally support a couple of banana trees, we were growing a lot more. She’d gotten the idea from a permaculturist in Panama known as “the Lazy Farmer.”

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The magic of the circle is crazy productive, fun, innovative, and just plain funky. After it, we investigated more and opened a bed of worms we never saw coming. Now, permaculture has become more than just an interest for us. It has changed the way we think, and I believe it has the power to change the world.

So, What Exactly Is Permaculture?

It starts like this: Two Australians, Bill Mollison and his student, David Holmgren, saw the need to change the way things were working. They knew that our food production methods, environmental disregard, rapid population growth, and consumption habits as a planet were not sustainable and leading us to certain doom. They wanted to provide some solutions. They came up with permaculture: a melding of “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture.”

The solution came in the form of several principles, guidelines from which to start and grow. These ideas define an ethics that centered on caring for both humans and the environment, including limiting population and consumption to create a more harmonious exchange between nature and us. Next, the system calls for an understanding of how nature works and using healthy, efficient, and naturally occurring methodologies, like biodiversity and sustainability. Lastly, these ethics and methodologies would come from clever design, from thinking through how homes, properties, and even cities can work well for the planet.

As I’ve grown to use permaculture in our gardens, I’ve learned why it’s so hard to define what exactly it is. It’s different every time you use it, but the crux is that things work in harmony and with amazing efficiency and longevity. Our banana circle feeds its own compost hole with fallen leaves and spent banana trunks, the sweet potatoes protect the ground with vines and provide the soil with natural nitrogen fixing and, from the roots to the canopy, everything is working to provide something else with something it needs: shade, nutrients, “tilled” soil, moisture, protection…Not to mention, all of the microclimates created by all the varying layers of growth and soil surface. There is little maintenance once the thing is set in motion. Each individual project works in a similar fashion — learning from nature and designing to benefit both the plants and the harvester.

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Baking soda is something I noticed as a good example outside the garden. We don’t produce our own baking soda, but it’s a natural product that doesn’t harm the environment. And, we’ve learned that it can be used for so many things, including nearly all of our bathroom products and cleaning products. Through this one element, we keep ourselves, our home, and the environment clean, as opposed to spending loads of money buying specialized, chemical-filled versions of a dozen or more products. That’s also permaculture theory at work.

How Permaculture Can Help Save the World

Permaculture is spreading. People are catching on, cooperating with each other and nature to repair the damage we’ve done to the planet. Unlike standard organic gardening, which is an improvement (but can still work against nature sometimes), permaculture can make deserts turn into oasis again, it thrives on creating new “food” forests rather than removing old ones and its goal is sustainability by design. What’s more is that everyone can do it in some part, from a DIY kitchen herb set-up in a fourth floor apartment to rooftop gardens to suburban yards to massive acreage of permaculture systems that support small communities.

For more, let one of the leading practitioners explain: YouTube! – Permaculture: Geoff Lawton at TEDxAjman.

What are your thoughts on permaculture? Can these methods help us to save the world?

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Image source: Øyvind Holmstad/Wikimedia Commons

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