Even most practitioners of permaculture have trouble defining it, partly because its not just one technique of doing this or that, but mostly because the theory encompasses too much to narrow the idea into a simple definition. Sure, there is agriculture, but it’s also a movement that branches into all things good for earth and people, from community sharing to sustainable energy to reforestation. All the same, it’s not just that. Thoughtful design — of our homes, of our gardens, of our cities — all play a key role in any discussion of permaculture. In essence, the practice is more than any one of these things and yet participates in them all.
For many, though, it’s the agricultural component that initially attracts them to permaculture. Often confused as synonymous with organic farming, permaculture may have similar stance on avoiding chemicals but operates in a much different manner than most modern organic farms. And, for those interested in exploring permaculture as a means of growing food, understanding the distinction between the two is a very important first step. So, that is where we will dwell today.
Both organic farms and permaculture sites are in the business of growing food, but there are fundamental differences in what food they cultivate. By and large, organic or not, most of our staple foods and items in the produce aisles come from annual crops, things that have to be planted each season. Amongst this list we can find items like rice, corn, many legumes, and most vegetables. For many organic growers, an annual or a few annuals are the sole output.
However, permaculture, often called “lazy farming”, takes a different approach, focusing largely on perennials varieties, those plants that live and produce through several or even hundreds of seasons. This means that much of the harvest doesn’t have to be sown and nurtured year after year but rather just occasionally maintained. It’s not that annuals never fall into permaculture plots, but they are never the sole provider of food. And, a permaculture site would never produce only one type of food.
We should note that the following techniques are not necessarily the crux of organic farming, yet they are acceptably defined as organic practices. Technically, organic farms can be the rows upon rows of a single crop, aka monocropping, that have proven problematic in chemical farming. Farms can operate with same wasteful irrigation systems, sprinklers jetting out thousands of gallons of water, much of which evaporates long before it feeds plants. As long as the crops are chemical-free, it doesn’t matter how much energy or how many resources are used to grow and harvest them. They are still certifiably organic.
On the other hand, these ideas are serious breaches of the permaculture ethics. Crops are always grouped together in helpful ways, one revitalizing the soil while another provides ground cover so the land doesn’t dry out while others attract beneficial insects and another deters pests. Irrigation systems strive to stay off the grid by utilizing rainwater catchments like swales and ponds instead of just feeding off public water sources, and every single use of resources is probed for the most efficient but least harmful way of accomplishing tasks. To accept less would be to fall short of good practice.
Another major conflict between the two is organic sprays like pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and that whole list. With a large step forward from spraying dangerous chemicals onto our food supply, organic farmers may and often do regularly use organic compounds to kill or control insect and weed populations, typically doing away with anything that challenges the plant the farm is fostering. This fairly standard practice helps to protect commodity crops.
However, the rampant use of sprays in the garden is both unacceptable and unnecessary in a permaculture setting. The permaculture way is to create an ecosystem such that plants and animals alike all have a place and function, including the pests, which feed the beneficial insects who in turn will control the population of pests. Problems are less likely to get out of hand. When insecticides are used, everything dies, and eventually the pests come back because the predatory insects are not there to deter them. With sprays, the ecosystem never reaches the right balance.
Soil, of course, is the starting point for most farms. When we want to grow food, we plant it, but the way the earth is treated can vary greatly. Fertilizers are now almost standard practice for any industrial farming, as is turning the soil. These methods are so commonplace that they almost seem intuitive: Ask someone with no experience to make a garden and they’ll start digging the soil and form raised rows, a la every product label image of a farm over the last half century. This, too, is the way a standard organic farm works.
Permaculture, though, seeks to maintain the sanctity of the soil. Instead of tilling it every year, standard practice is to, at most, dig once and simply continue covering a spot over with protective and enriching components like mulch and in-situ compost. The no-till methodology is based around building soil rather than chopping it up. By adding quality organic material to it, the ground only becomes more fertile, eliminating the need for fertilizers. And, when it’s not tilled, the life within — what keeps the whole system running — starts to thrive rather than struggle to regenerate.
Without a doubt, organic farming and permaculture also have some very relevant similarities, and probably more so, the people that practice each have both human and environmental health at heart. So, with that in mind, it’s important that the two continue to seek out the best, most productive ways of feeding us all while maintaining, even repairing, a world that has suffered at the hands of irresponsible agricultural practices for far too long now.
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