Permaculture – not just for Hippies – Féidhlim Harty

Féidhlim Harty explores the marriage of science and art that brought about an ethical and principled design revolution.

Permaculture; that’s, like, organic gardening but with more of a hippy twist, isn’t it? Well, if that’s what you want in your garden, then perhaps, but really it’s a lot broader than that. It is essentially the science and art of designing sustainable systems of any sort that support human needs while protecting the environment.

The term permaculture derives from permanent agriculture or permanent culture. It is a design approach that was developed in Australia in the 1970s in response to fundamentally unsustainable land management practices and an over-dependence on limited fossil fuel resources. Initially, the emphasis was to create farming systems that served the needs of the designer by producing food and other useful crops, while avoiding damage to the environment through depleting soils, polluting water or introducing environmental toxins.

In the intervening 40 years since Bill Mollison and David Holmgren first coined the word, permaculture has evolved and spread around the world. Growing food, fuel and fibres is still a central core of permaculture design, but it is by no means limited to this. In a world where we have clearly overstretched the carrying capacity of our common home, permaculture has stepped forward with solutions in the areas of business, finance, social structures, housing and sanitation, as well as the more traditional focus on gardening, farming, forestry, fisheries and the like.

There are two central arms of permaculture; the ethics and principles. The permaculture ethics are earth care, people care, and future care. Earth care reminds the designer to select methods, materials and energy inputs that won’t harm the planet; either on the project site or where the materials are manufactured, grown, etc. People care acknowledges that people matter. To create durable, workable systems, we need to be fair and inclusive and have our eyes open to the possible ramifications of our design decisions, particularly on people who are out of sight, such as those working on our behalf, halfway around the world.

The third ethic reminds us to set limits to our carbon, ecological and resource footprints and to ensure that the systems we design take cognisance of the long-term impacts of our decisions. All too often in our current consumer society our cheap clothes and new electronics take a terrible toll on the earth, the people along the supply chain and on many generations to come. The ethics inherent in permaculture design help to keep these impacts as visible and overt as possible, so that we can design with care to create better systems and structures.

The permaculture principles are a set of aphorisms that help to reframe the questions that arise in the design process. One famous principle is “the problem is the solution”. With this principle Mollison used to argue that you don’t have a slug problem, you have an abundance of underutilised duck food. He developed an extensive list of principles, which are worth the look if you’re interested in what you see here (See the Permaculture Association website.

A distilled version of these is Holmgren’s more recent list of 12 principles, outlined in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, as follows:

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

So, if we were to start a new garden design, for example, how would we apply the permaculture principles? Taking Holmgren’s list as a guide; with the first principle, we’d have a look at the land available. How does it behave in different weather conditions and in different seasons? Where does the rainfall flow? Where are the frost pockets? What are the shady areas or exposed parts? These will all influence our layout and design choices.

Next, we look to catching and storing energy. Can we nestle a passive solar building in a south-facing horseshoe or devote a sunny corner to frost-tender fruit trees? On larger landholdings, we may be able to gather rainwater high in our catchment to serve as a source of micro-hydro energy or for gravity-fed irrigation.

When we seek to obtain a yield, we remember that we can’t work on an empty stomach. Somewhere we need to get a return on our time and resource inputs. This may be a financial return from something we sell such as food, fuel or fibre, but it may also be a less tangible return such as a valuable quiet space, an opportunity to connect with others, an absorbing hobby or other yield.

In applying self-regulation and accepting feedback we may keep our projects somewhat more modest in scale than in our wilder dreams. Much of the impact on the Earth isn’t so much what we do, but the sheer scale combined with the methods we use to do it. Accepting feedback may be sitting up and taking notice of the chaotic weather and deciding to shift from conventional growing methods to ones that are actively regenerative; sequestering atmospheric carbon in our compost and using natural fertilisers such as nitrogen-fixing plants or peeing on the compost heap as a zero-carbon source of nitrogen fertiliser!

Renewable resources and services are everywhere around us when we look. Gravity, to power our water supply, in the polytunnel or the house. Willow biomass planted over our (carefully redesigned) infiltration areas to provide a steady supply of firewood. A good workhorse for farm or forestry work is a tractor, a mower and a fertiliser factory all in one; and replicates itself rather than depreciating over time. Oh, and it works without any fossil fuel inputs. It also reminds us of the next principle, produce no waste, getting the work done with neither fossil fuels nor plastic.

By designing from patterns to details we focus on the big picture of our project first, and then get down to the nitty-gritty; avoiding the temptation to get distracted by the detail too early in our concept stage. By integrating rather than segregating we might combine a natural swimming pool with watercress for the kitchen with reflected solar gain for our home or greenhouse. A willow planted percolation area is another example; integrating eco-friendly effective sewage treatment with both fuel supply and the rich biodiversity benefits of willow trees.

Small and slow solutions are often the most effective and lasting. Earthworms till the soil quietly and ceaselessly. Hydraulic ram pumps can work for decades with no power inputs other than the steady flow of the nearby river or stream. Each plant in a reed bed appears inconsequential, but together they provide high-quality filtration for septic tank effluent. We can use and value diversity in our vegetable gardens with open-pollinated seed, in our farms with agroforestry and silvopasture methods, in our businesses with collaborative projects and initiatives, and in our lives as we appreciate the growing multiculturalism of our changing world.

Edge spaces are often the most productive and diverse. Think woodland edge; estuary habitat; riverbanks. By cultivating the edge spaces we can key into this productivity. In valuing the marginal we look for the gold hidden in the shaded corner of the site, or for the richness of possibility in a steeply sloping site. Finally, the principle, creatively use and respond to change keeps us on our toes, open to new possibilities and also aware that old ideas have sometimes simply run their course.

So where can your new project incorporate a permaculture approach in woodland management, off-grid electricity, orchards, wildlife gardening, poultry, passive house design, energy conservation, sewage treatment, gardening, dry toilets, buffer zones, forest gardening, agroforestry, biodiversity, wild food and foraging, farm management, money matters, waste minimisation or whatever? The list is as long as the human imagination. A fertile place to start any project.

There are many excellent resources available online and a growing range of Permaculture Design Certificate courses to attend around Ireland, the UK and worldwide. For the complete beginner and experienced designer alike, I recommend Maddy Harland’s What is Permaculture? series of articles in Permaculture Magazine. Start with Part 1: Ethics and follow the links from there. ✽

FÉIDHLIM HARTY is director of FH Wetland Systems environmental consultancy, and author of Septic Tank Options and Alternatives; Permaculture Guide to Reed Beds and Towards Zero Waste. He completed his Permaculture Design Certificate course in Cloughjordan in 2013.