PERMACULTURE – Self-empowerment in a myriad forms
Is there a significant difference between Permaculture and organic, or ecological, or sustainable agriculture? Yes indeed. Each of these terms may be included as themes in Permaculture, but Permaculture is principally about attitude, rather than technique or technology, or scientific definition. It is a conscious self-empowerment tool through which we can exercise a far greater degree of control over our lives, by taking decisions based on a wholistic understanding of the situation at hand, and applying practical implementation accordingly. At a time when so much of our lives is influenced by fewer and fewer powerful corporate entities, this potential to take personal decisions which achieve more independence from a narrowing path of existence is indeed important and relevant.
Permaculture is a design system for harmonising the individual characteristics of landscape (landform, soil, water, vegetation, animals) with the needs of the people utilising it, to create a situation that is both productive and sustainable in the long term. I believe that all too often the significance of the people involved with a site is neglected. This is a fundamental aspect of any good design. A good design, whether created by a professional designer, or a do-it-yourself-er, should not only address the issues of environmental sensitivity and productivity, but also more personalised issues. It should inspire, and delight, and fulfill the aspirations of the people; beauty, intimacy, social ambience are important considerations. If these are not fulfilled, then the possibility of the design being successfully embraced, and long-term sustainable, are greatly reduced.
Permaculture is derived not only from ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ as is often believed, but equally, from permanent and ‘culture’. Without an intimate connection with the local culture, including the culture of the individual, a design is unlikely to be implemented, and even less likely to be sustainable over a longer time. A busy professional person might emphasise the need for low maintenance and high beauty as priorities for his or her lifestyle, while another person needs high and diverse productivity to fulfil the desire for independence and self-sufficiency. Each design must be different.
Permaculture is certainly not simply a ‘back-to-the-earth’ movement! I have designed for a broad range of situations and clients. Farms and holiday retreats Urban homesites and apartments, educational institution and houseboat, community and hotels. Each site required a different approach to design. The people involved in each situation have their individual needs and passions to be accommodated. People and land are intimately connected, and a design must reflect that personal relationship if it is to be supported productively and beautifully.
Yes, beautifully too. Beauty is a vitally important aspect of good design, since aesthetics and human ‘wellness’ are inseparable for most people. If we awake in a beautiful situation, then our day begins on that inspiring and uplifting note, and surely the whole day will be better for it. That impact can be productive as well as sensual.
Much has been said about Permaculture recently, and indeed increasingly since the concept was first developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren almost thirty years ago. Much, too, has changed in the world during those thirty years, including a greater understanding of environmental problems and their consequences. In fact Permaculture developed originally as a response to these perceived problems. Since there has been a great improvement in public ecological awareness, is Permaculture still relevent? More than ever, as the momentum of globalisation gathers pace, fuelling greater demands on dwindling resources, and with the population still growing.
The expectation and demand for food that both tastes good and is produced in a healthy way has grown greatly. ‘Health foods’ are no longer found only in Bio-shops, but nowadays ordinary supermarkets carry a significant variety of bio-products. ‘Organic’, ‘ecological’, ‘sustainable’ are now all words that are commonly understood, although often misused and exploited unscrupulously for commercial gain. Environmental consciousness is now a saleable concept!
We live in Val Antrona, a valley leading off Val Ossola from Villadossola. Our stone cottage is on an alpe at almost 1200metres. Local people say that the land is ‘only fit for potatoes and onions’, which we are perfectly happy to eat, but please, not exclusively. Variety is the spice of life. Also, I should mention that, apart from the altitude, our house is isolated, being a half hour walk up (very up) from the road when the weather is foul, or fifteen minutes down (very down!) when conditions permit our car to negotiate the very rough strada pastorale.
Most significantly, this means that what we need, we must either forage from the forest around us, or carry it on our backs in. Or grow it! A high degree of self-sufficiency is a significant priority. Given that we had over forty staying guests during the summer months last year when the hut was still extremely primitive, anything except the last option involves much foraging, or when the season is not bountiful, much puffing and straining lugging everything in. I haven’t even mentioned the cost of fuel, depreciation of vehicle, unwanted stress and expense involved in patronising supermarkets.
Only potatoes and onions? We were still picking ripe, red tomatoes from our bushes into December. And throughout the spring, summer and autumn, we were feeding the never-ending stream of visitors from our garden, with aubergine, fennel, kohl rabi, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, pumpkins, squashes, zucchini, carrots, radishes, spinach, silverbeet, diverse herbs, cucumbers, a variety of salad greens. As well as potatoes and onions!
The main reasons for this extraordinary harvest are microclimate and landform. Our land faces almost directly south (aspect towards the sun), is protected by a ridge from the coldest westerly winds, and is rather steep, meaning that the sun strikes the earth’s surface very directly, rather than obliquely as would be if the land was flat. All these factors make for a relatively warm site. We increase this potential by exploiting the very warmest spots on the site for growing our vegetables: against the house wall, under the stone-walled terraces, building terraces on the steeper slopes. The potatoes and onions do well enough on the flatter slopes. We use plenty of mulch when the season becomes colder, to keep in the relative warmth stored in the soil.
We extend the season further by using polyethalene tunnel, but this is only a short-term measure. Next year we begin creating a verandah along the front of the cottage, partially enclosed as a trap for the winter sun. Underneath the verandah will be a terraced glasshouse, which will not only extend our growing season at both ends of the year, but will also be a precious addition to the passive heating of the house, since the warm air will be directed into the cellars and from there up through the living space.
Due to the steep slope, there is a tendency for water run-off during rains. Since any runoff carries not only precious water away from our land, but of course also soil and organic material that nurture fertility, it is imperative to hold that water. We have dug ‘swales’ – effectively long dykes on the contour, which overflow into other swales dug further down the slope. These not only keep all soil and organic material on our land, and prevent any accumulation of water which causes erosion, but also ‘harvest’ any water, soil and organic material which enters the land from above us. A simple technique for regenerating degraded land, and rapidly improving any land.
La Gomera, Canary Islands
A community of 25, and hotel with 30 beds; one and a half hectares of land occupying three flat terraces directly on the edge of the ocean; totally hemmed in by five hundred metre cliffs, facing north-west; dry sub-tropics. Re-design it!
One important facet of Permaculture design is to recognise limits, identify their characteristics, then seek to stretch those limits; to minimise the negative, and maximise the positive. If we succeed in this, then the design has achieved a more sustainable situation, less constrained by by extremes, more productive through greater flexibility, more liveable.
My impressions of the site were of a mango monoculture; the overwhelming presence of the ocean and cliffs; minimal productivity; community stress; insufficient intimate space; aesthetics neglected. Plenty of scope for redesign.
Neither the ocean, nor the cliffs, can be removed! However, through improving the beauty of the site, at least there can be more distractions to moderate their overwhelming dominance.
More diversity will greatly increase the insect and bird life. Attracting more winged creatures will significantly improve the rate of pollination of all vegetation on the site, thereby increasing pollination and so productivity. And reduce the possibility of any single pest species being able to dominate and cause problems.
The first step was to remove a significant percentage of the mangoes; 80% was a reasonable aim, to be achieved over several years, according to the capacity to replace them with other species. When the plantation was originally laid out, at least twice the density of long-term trees was planted, with the intention that more profit could be earned in the early years, after which they would be thinned out. This was never done, with the result that the trees had all grown together, and provide considerably less productivity than should be expected. In addition, the majority of trees were a variety of inferior quality and less marketable.
In cutting out so many mangoes, a huge amount of organic material (leaves, branches) needed to be disposed of. One premise of Permaculture is ‘The Problem is the Solution’: an issue of perspective. The mangoes had not only formed a monoculture, but in doing so had also minimised diversity of soil organisms and hence the soil structure was very poor. Mango leaves do not decompose easily, since they are unpalatable to most animals and insects. However, in the presence of moisture, they break down quite readily.
‘Sponges’ provide a perfect solution: excavated basins up to a metre deep and two or three metres in diameter, of variable shapes. These are filled with the leaves and all but the largest branches, as well as any other organic material, including some manure to speed up the decomposition process, and a significant amount of watering initially. This was an effective means of disposing with the debris from the mango trees on-the-spot.
Equally important, each of these sponges becomes a concentration of moisture and nutrient available to all plants nearby, from trees to smaller species planted in the diverse microclimates.
By creating these sponges throughout the site, nutrient and moisture is also distributed thoughout, and the massive increase in soil organisms at the sponges percolates with the increase in soil moisture. In addition, the huge increase in light enables a greater diversity of species to be planted. Instead of being able to see considerable distances beneath the canopy of the mango trees, there was now the potential to easily create privacy through dense plantings of multi-layered vegetation.
Of course, all these extra species could be selected to provide an enormous increase in food production as vegetables and fruit (with saving from the purchase of food outside, and a guarantee of high quality freshness too), and flowers for beauty and smell. In turn the wildlife attracted adds both to pollination and productivity, and also contributes to the re-cycling of biomass.
By using this technique of ‘sponges’, many of the short-comings of the site were addressed. Instead of a monoculture, there was the potential to create a diversity of living spaces, recreation areas, and places to retreat and reflect.
The implementation of a greywater recycling system significantly increases the water potential. Several medium-sized ponds scattered throughout the land offer possibilities for aquaculture systems, for recreation, and simply for distinct areas of very different microclimates. Aquaculture has the capacity to be much more productive than any land-based culture: it can also be very beautiful, and provide a significant cooling effect.
Permaculture recognises the relationship between people and the land, consciously seeking to assimilate the natural and existing characteristics of all elements in a design subject (broad landscape, farm, house block, apartment, etc) into a practical expression: the design. Each situation is different, and therefore requires specific response to achieve harmonious design. This includes very particularly the individual characteristics – physical, social, psychological – of the person or people who are occupying or using the land. We all have different priorities which direct our lives, and these same priorities exert a significant influence on the space which we use, whether it is a large rural property, or an apartment in a high-rise building.
In the next article, I will deal with the general principles which we can use to create abundant, beautiful and sustainable living situations.