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Permaculture Primer: An introduction

By Tim Sonder, Education chair

If you have been volunteering with Edible Evanston you have, no doubt, been hearing about “Permaculture.” But what is it?

Most of the techniques applied by those working with permaculture aren’t revolutionary, they are evolutionary. But the way of looking at the world—and I mean that in the broadest sense—often feels revolutionary. Permaculture becomes a way of framing one’s outlook. And that can be applied not just to agriculture, but also to architecture and engineering, to urban planning, and to societal questions.

Permaculture was developed by Bill Mollison and his graduate student David Holmgren in Australia in the 1970s which grew from the idea of examining how forests worked. Originally, they defined it as describing an “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.” That grew and morphed. Today, it’s officially considered to be a “design system, based on ecological principles” Which it is.

I just see a design system as a way of looking at the world, a way of framing questions. I was brought up by an architect with an engineering bent, and often look at the world in terms of “problem solving,” and was taught to be creative when examining a problem—to look at things from outside, through various lenses. Permaculture has super-charged that for me.

The foundation of permaculture is its three ethics:

  • Earth Care (soil, forests, water)
  • People Care (self, kin, community)
  • Fair Share (set limits to consumption and reproduction; redistribute surplus)

Every action should take these into account.

The next level are the design principles
It’s likely you have heard them already. But they bear repeating, as you should step through them all when planning a project—planning anything!

(We will be adding detailed articles on each over time)

Bottom up—first 6

  • Observe and Interact
    You must look carefully and in an engaged manner
  • Catch and Store Energy
    Don’t miss the opportunity
  • Obtain a Yield
    Make sure you are doing something useful, functional, practical and productive first. Then, did you catch and store something needed? Use it.
  • Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
    You observed and planned and implemented. Now it’s time to review the results and accept the realities. And recognize that systems naturally seek a balance
  • Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
    Make best use of everything. Using a tree for wood is great. Using a tree for food, shade and shelter is better, as it’s non-consuming.
  • Produce No Waste
    Most things discarded are useful. Avoid surpluses or capture them as useful. Reframe problems (a plague of--surplus of –slugs is actually a deficiency of ducks turning slugs into eggs, food, fertilizer.)

Top-down—second six

  • Design from Patterns to Details
    Take a step back and see the big picture. The transformative impact of seeing the earth from space or a farm from the air helps us see the flow of water and the impact of geology that’s hard to see when you are on the ground.
  • Integrate Rather than Segregate
    Each element performs many functions and each function is performed by many elements
  • Use Small and Slow Solutions
    Low inputs, reasonable yields, and long-term patience yields better results with a lower impact and lower likelihood of catastrophic failure. Going slow lets you observe and be flexible.
  • Use and Value Diversity
    Be aware of the importance of diversity. A diverse system is less vulnerable and richer in possibility and fertility. Nature tends toward diversity in balancing systems.
  • Use Edges and Value the Marginal
    It’s at the edges of systems where life flourishes and is most diverse. Tidal estuaries, forest edges and pathway edges. The common, obvious, popular solution may not be the most beneficial.
  • Creatively Use and Respond to Change
    Be ready and willing to adapt to change. Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be. And, returning to the first principle, don’t stop observing and interacting, as things do change.