Permaculture: A Brief Intro

The concept of permaculture is a new one to most folks. Even if you’ve heard the term, you may be hazy on the particulars.

I understand completely. That was me a year ago. While I’ve only just begun to feel somewhat familiar with it myself, here’s how I get my head around it:

Hugelkultur is a permaculture method for water retention and improving soil fertility.

I think about natural growth environments, untouched by humans–woodlands, prairies, wetlands, etc. They do their thing without any help from us–no weeding, fertilizing, watering, pruning, seeding, planting, etc., all the things we gardeners love and sometimes hate at the same time.

All that successful, self-sustaining growth, all without our shovels, rakes, tips and tricks.  How rude, when we’ve been working away so hard in our gardens, and there’s always more work to do every time we turn around.

Permaculture advocates say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Permaculture seeks to mimic these natural growth systems, taking what works in self-sustaining environments and applying it to our own gardens and farms. Permaculture is nature’s formula, tweaked to maximize the production of the plants we want, like edibles.

Gone, of course, are the high-maintenance garden divas, replaced by tough and multipurpose native, but still yummy, choices.

Gone, too, are straight, formal paths and sweeping, croquet-worthy lawns. Instead are undulating mandala gardens, herb spirals, and keyhole beds.

Permaculture addresses all aspects of growing things, including soil improvement, water needs and co-existing with critters (including so-called “pests”).

It doesn’t stop there, though. Having observed how, in nature, certain plants always seem to group together for mutual benefit, permaculturalists have learned to group together certain types of plants that feed each other, lure pollinators to each other, shade out weeds and shield each other from harsh weather, among other things.  They are called “plant communities” and “garden guilds,” and they do function much like human communities in many ways.

Permaculture embraces plants with multiple, or "stacking" functions, like this echinacea which is both medicinal and a pollinator-attractor.

What is the end result of all this?  It can sometimes look chaotic, anathema to those conventional gardeners trained to revere order in the garden. But it has its own ordered beauty, just as natural ecosystems do. It just may take closer observation to notice it.

Another result, ultimately, is less maintenance, less work. That may seem an unnecessary benefit for many of us who revel in the catharsis of a hard day in the garden, but there are other considerations. We may be in our prime now, but the day will come for all of us when we welcome a more self-sufficient garden that still feeds us.

Natural resources also come into play. The gallons and gallons of potable water used to prop up unsustainable growth in conventional gardens are hard to justify when there are alternatives. The fuel miles used to truck in mulch and garden amendments get more significant every year.

Permaculture is still a confusing topic for many of us. And like most things, there is more than one lifetime’s worth of learning on the subject. A good place to start is Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale PermaculturePermaculture Magazine  has an excellent online article database and blog.

And you can learn along with us at our blog at Little House in the Suburbs where we garden, make home-steady stuff and take baby steps in permaculture.  Check out our new book, Little House in the Suburbs, where we teach, among other things, how to go homestead in the ‘burbs without hacking off the neighbors.

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