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What is Permaculture?

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You may have heard of permaculture or want to start using it on your small farm or homestead, but perhaps you're unclear just what it means, or what it really entails. I'm here to demystify it.

The basic definition of permaculture is that it is an "ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor" (taken from the Permaculture Institute). Permaculture is a practice that has as its goal a site that meets all the needs of its inhabitants: food, shelter, fuel, and entertainment. In that sense it is very much aligned with the goals of many homesteaders: true self-sufficiency.

Plant With a Purpose

Permaculture emphasizes the use of plants that grow naturally, natively, in the local environment. That's one permaculture principle. But that's not to say that ornamental wildflowers that serve no other purpose would have a place in a permaculture design. Plants that are chosen should have a purpose, even if that is providing shade (it doesn't have to be food). Perennial food plants such as chicory and asparagus might be top choices as well as annual vegetables more commonly found in gardens.

Purely ornamental plants would not be found; instead, the permaculture gardener chooses plants that have a practical benefit. For example, a raspberry border makes a lovely alternative to a nonedible flowering shrub for a permaculture homestead.

Likewise, plants that are prone to diseases or require a lot of watering, pruning or other special attention are generally not good permaculture choices.

The natural strengths and abilities of the land you are working on, as well as your own needs as inhabitants and/or farmers, are the parameters to keep in mind when designing with a permaculture focus.

Tips for Getting Started in Permaculture Design

  • Group plants into guilds. A guild is a set of plants, animals, insects, fungi and even people. Each guild participant contributes something valuable to the whole guild. A simple guild would be a group of plants with compatible roots and canopies that can be stacked in layers to form an edge.

  • Copy nature's blueprint. Mimic the natural pattern of a forest, an edge habitat where trees border open land, and a meadow.

  • Divide into zones. Group plants based on use, such as an herb garden, and place zones in the most useful spaces. For example, the herb garden is best located close to the house/kitchen for easy access.

  • Identify microclimates on your site. Have a shady corner? Try a shade garden with useful plants there. Lots of wind and full sun? Think about what will thrive there (maybe some sun-loving, tough ground cover?). Poor drainage? Plant something that can withstand wet feet, like elderberries.

  • Animals are part of the system. Permaculture isn't just about gardening. Animals, birds, and insects are all part of any sustainable ecosystem. If you're using domestic animals as part of your farm design, consider how they will fit into the bigger picture. For example, chickens can be fenced onto a crop area or garden at the end of a season to clean up. Pigs can be used to till an area before planting.

  • Keep watershed health in mind. Permaculture also considers the health of watersheds, given humans' dependence on clean, running water. Part of permaculture is working to reverse the effect of pollution and human settlements on watersheds, such as reducing erosion and flood danger, purifying water and increasing the availability of water.

  • Think about managing waste. In permaculture, waste is considered a resource - we just haven't discovered the function it has yet. Composting human waste, kitchen scraps, and reclaiming materials, are all an important part of permaculture design. Reusing wastewater can also be part of this.

  • Consider the ecology of economics. A small farm business can be built using the principles of permaculture. Interdependence, connections, and the exchange of money between small local businesses in the community are all part of a permaculture outlook.

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