Permaculture: What is it? How do you do it? And how do you save the world?

There is a 2-acre garden in Vietnam that has been providing all the needs for a family for – get this – 28 generations. We’re talking about a 300 year-old food forest. The owners are in their 80s. They look agile, fit, intelligent – relaxed. It’s an extremely productive, energy-efficient system that requires very little work for the return. Every plant has a use and a story.

I stumbled across this video on YouTube, and thus began a quest on how to build my own “food forest.” I had a lot of questions, not the least of which was where am I going with Barbolian Fields? I admit to being partial to my backyard garlic patch, but I recognize I could be doing so much more. The Vietnamese family is such an inspiration in how to make the most of your space. Expand that thought to our entire planet. Such a unique and precious environment we are so privileged to inhabit! Are we each doing our part to take care of it so it can take care of us?


One link leads to another. I found some answers in this book: Gaia’s Garden, Second Edition by Toby Hemenway. It was an “Ah Ha!” moment for me. A complete garden-changer. Seriously.

First, let me say, permaculture is not a new concept. In the early 70s, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren popularized the idea with their observations of Tasmanian rain forests, but indigenous peoples around the world have practiced the basic principles for centuries. Today, permaculture can be found throughout Australia, the UK, in Croatia, across Cuba, in the jungles of Brazil, in the humid rainforests of Central America and Indonesia, across the plains of Africa – places where people, out of necessity and without the “luxury” of cheap oil to fuel big agribusiness enterprises, have learned how to survive – how to feed themselves, grow their own medicines, feed their animals, fuel their fires, grow the fibers for basketry, clothing, and structures – how to live with nature – through integrated systems gardening. A little research reveals that while the rest of the world has made great strides in permaculture practices as a means of enhancing food and plant-based product production, it is we – Americans of the United States – caught up in our business mindset – who have been blind to the possibilities of what this earth can provide without our intervention. Sadly, we are, for the most part, in the business of destroying the land that sustains us.

We have a lot to learn.

So what is permaculture? People disagree on a precise definition of something that combines the ideas of permanent, agriculture, and culture.

To me, permaculture is not one thing, method, or series of techniques. Permaculture is a mindset. It is a way of looking at the garden and surrounding landscape as an ecosystem, of which we are but a small part. It is using intelligent design to optimize that system.
It is learning to respect life – all the way down to the microorganism level – and especially at that level.
It’s about mimicking nature, because that is what works: a balance among species that coexist in layers: a canopy, understory, groundcovers, roots, and vines that tie the layers together. It is stacking the elements, life cycles, and functions in both space and time.

Permaculture is about working with your space rather than putting a lot of effort into something that works against it.
It is looking at different aspects of your property – your soil, hills, slopes, depressions, existing vegetation, water sources, light and shadow, how the sun moves across the sky in different seasons, which way the winds blow – and figuring out how all of it can be used to best advantage.
It’s about building fertility of the soil and the strength of the plants – and learning how certain plants have the ability to help one another.
It is growing native plants adapted to your climate, region, and soil, rather than forcing exotics.
It means including animals into the scheme of things – whether wild or domestic – because they are an essential part of life.

Permaculture is about efficiency – getting the most out of your space – growing plants and integrating systems that serve multiple functions.
It is maximizing productivity through the use of edges, microclimates, and symbiotic relationships.
It is recognizing that practices such as monoculture have been created for our convenience, but have little practicality in real-world ecosystems.
It is incorporating energy and water-saving concepts in your home, property, and lifestyle – because it makes sense.
It’s about not wasting “waste.”

Strategies and techniques help us achieve results – but they are just tools.

We learn that when we imitate nature, our gardens take on a life of their own. They become self-maintaining with little interference from us.

Why Gaia? Gaia is equilibrium. Perfect balance of both animate and inanimate forms and all the key elements of temperature, atmosphere, water, and mass that make our planet habitable. It is continually evolving. Does it include mankind? Maybe – maybe not. But for now, in the little universe that we call our backyards, we have an opportunity to transform a nutrient-consuming wasteland into a self-supporting Garden of Eden.

The result? A lush garden so complex, we cannot really fathom all the interactions that are happening around us, above, and under foot. Sustainable gardening at its finest.

So how do you do permaculture? I cannot recommend this book enough.

Everything is described in detail in Hemenway’s book.
(Click on this link if you want to read a fairly detailed excerpt on how to build a “guild” with an apple tree as its center focus.)

Gaia’s Garden tells you how to think of your space as an ecosystem. How to look at the ecology of that system and the role of each component. How to create synergistic communities where each part amplifies the whole. How to increase the fertility of your soil, capture and conserve water, mimic nature, garden in 3-dimensions, encourage beneficial insects and other animals to take up residence. Hemenway addresses different regions: temperate, dryland, and tropical. He gives specifics on design ideas, zones, functions, and guild combinations. He lists plants that are nitrogen fixers, nutrient accumulators, and hosts for insects. He tabulates those that provide mulch material, feed for animals, or habitat for wildlife. No matter where you are – in the city – in the country – at any latitude – whether you have acreage or a simple back porch – this book describes how to be more self-reliant. He makes a complex subject very easy to grasp. It is a process. We are working with systems that are constantly changing. Our knowledge, with our gardens, is continually growing.

My own garden suddenly appears so fragmented. It is a bold realization.

I return to thinking about the 300-year-old Vietnamese family garden. It has evolved to be a place where man is but one of the many organisms in the whole. In looking to the past, we can see a vision for the future.

I ask, instead of obliterating our planet with wasteful practices that erode the soils that feed us, pollute our waters, and crumble our economic base – for that matter, instead of employing warfare that threatens to obliterate the human race – what if we were to turn our planet into a big Gaia garden where humans, instead of being focused on greed, power, and exploitation, were a vital, nurturing part of the ecosystem, a place where the harmony of mutual existence allows all to thrive? Technology is not in conflict with this ideal – rather, it is a tool. Our spirituality is a means to connect. Each functioning component – animate or not – is mutually inclusive. As humans, however, we have a unique capability: we can share what we learn and grow with our fellow man. We can make the world a better place. We can reinvest in our planet, and in the process, humanity.

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  1. Pingback: Is Your Garden Boring? (The Food-Forest Solution) | Barbolian Fields

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