Heirloom Gardener Blogs > Lettuce's Urban Homestead

What Is Permaculture?

Elizabeth StoneI first heard about permaculture a few years ago.  The little bit I read was confusing and implied that you would need a large piece of property.  As a single mom working full time who only had a small piece of property in the city, permaculture did not seem to fit my needs.  I filed Permaculture in my head under “someday” and my son and I started our first small vegetable garden out back.

A few years later, I met my amazing husband and I found myself with an additional 5 mouths to feed.  Shortly after, my husband was offered a job in Texas and we decided to go for it.  As I did not have a job in Texas yet, it seemed like the perfect time to improve my gardening skills.  As I was looking into local Master Gardener classes, I came across the free "Introduction to Permaculture" course through Oregon State University.  I figured it would be a great time to tackle this “complicated” subject.  It turned out to be the complete opposite of what I expected.  Not only can permaculture be applied to any size property, but it is easy!  I thoroughly enjoyed the course and now am enrolled in the full "Permaculture Design" course with plans to take the "Advanced Permaculture Design" course.

“Yeah, that’s swell.  But what IS permaculture?!” I hear you saying.  According to Wikipedia, “Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems….The word permaculture originally referred to permanent agriculture, but was expanded to stand also for permanent culture.” 

What a mouthful.  Even knowing what permaculture is, I had to read that more than once to make sure I understood it.  After trying to explain it to others a few times and watching eyes glaze over, I eventually started saying that permaculture works with nature and the resources you have on hand already to help find the easiest route to becoming entirely self-sufficient.  They key phrase here is “works with nature.”  Working against nature is time consuming and exhausting; no one has time for that.

The term permaculture was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, whom are generally referred to as the fathers of permaculture. They each have created their own “Principles of Permaculture,” which they believe are the foundation of permaculture.  Masanobu Fukuoka, another early permaculture teacher, is also highly regarded in the permaculture field if for a slightly different approach.  Fukuoka took the easy route, stating "I just emptied my mind and tried to absorb what I could from nature."  There are also numerous other individuals and groups around the world who are using permaculture to re-establish depleted areas or to increase their food production. 

The information on permaculture is exhausting.   Fortunately for you, I was able to simplify these down to just 4 steps to get you started: 

1. Observe – spend some time looking around at what you have.  Make a list (mental or physical) of everything you see, including plants, water sources, what direction the wind comes from, animals you see.  Make sure you pay attention to energy sources and waste products that you see.

2. Make a plan – Sit down and make a rough sketch of the property and what you want to see happen.  Start with the big items and things you cannot control, such as which direction the sun and wind come from and where the buildings are located.  Include any water sources from rain, gutters, ponds, streams or even just your own faucets.  End with the small items that are easily changed like garden beds and compost piles.

3. Add variety and diversity – Make sure that you have a lot of options on your property in case one doesn’t work out.  If, for example, you only plant carrots from one side of your property to the other there are a lot of things that could happen to wipe out your entire crop.  The cute little bunnies could decide to move in and take out your whole crop.  There could be a disease or unexpected frost that kills every plant.  You would be left with nothing.  But if you have variety, your carrots might die, but you still have apples, broccoli, wheat, etc. to eat.

4. Start slow and small – Permaculture doesn’t have to be setup overnight.  It is a constantly changing design, so take your time.  You may have a plan drawn up, but after putting in the garden bed you may realize you forgot that the neighbor’s trees block the sun.  You might have built a compost bin and then realized that the stream next to it overflows into the area you wanted to place it.  That’s okay because when you are done with that, you’re going to go back to number one and observe again.

Simple, right? The best part is that you can make it exactly how you want it.  Don’t like blueberries?  You don’t have to plant them.  Love ‘Honeycrisp’ apples?  Plant yourself several.  That’s where we find ourselves right now.  When we decided to move back to the Northwest, we were fortunate enough to be offered a cheap rental in a great neighborhood.  However, the lot is small.  Very small.  Our gardening area probably is less than a quarter of what we had before we went to Texas.  Not only do we have to be very picky about what we decide to plant, but we also get the awesome experience of testing out permaculture on a small scale.  I can’t wait to get started!

testing garden 

permaculture sketch