Practical Permaculture: What is Permaculture?

You might have heard the word “permaculture” before but don’t know what it is. Maybe you have looked at a few websites or tried to read a book about it, only to give up when it got too deep into philosophy or science.

Everyone who talks about it gives you an overwhelming amount of information and pseudo-religious wank. That “this is the way” bullshit pisses me off, and I have no interest in doing that.

What I am going to do is share a series of posts about what I’m personally doing, without proselytizing. It’s your garden, your time and your effort, so you do what you want.

I’m going to give you practical information and tips to make things easier if what you want is to try permaculture.

Before we get our hands in the dirt I want to discuss what is and isn’t permaculture and briefly tell you my relationship with this gardening technique.

What isn’t Permaculture?

Commercial Monocropping

Modern commercial farming relies on planting a single crop in a specific area, over and over. It’s called monocropping.

This is a great way to make a lot of money farming because you use one type of seed, one method, all the same tools, and machines. Giant corporate farms often grow hundreds of acres of only corn, soybeans or wheat. In this method, it all about cost vs. profit.

And it works out great on a short-term economic level for the people who own the farm. It makes food cheaper, at least so far. It’s also horrible environmentally because monocropping requires the use of massive amounts of fertilizer and water.

This info, about corporate farms, isn’t super relevant to the home gardener, but I wanted to mention the term. And tell you that it’s a fucking global disaster. Any food you grow at home, however you grow it, is better for the environment than commercial monocrops.

Monocropping contributed to the dust bowl during the great depression.

Here are a few links for more info on soil depletion, soil erosion or the great dust bowl.

Small scale mono-cropping

A lot of small scale gardeners mono-crop. In a little 50 square food plot behind your house, this isn’t that bad for the environment. If you want to only grow tomatoes or only grow corn and you are happy with how that’s working out keep doing what you are doing.

Your backyard garden isn’t contributing to deforestation. It is probably causing soil depletion, but if you grab some cow manure and some mulch you should be fine.

However, there are methods that can give you higher yields, require less water, less fertilizer, and less pest management.

Crop Rotation

One of those is crop rotation, which I personally use and like a lot. It’s the method most organic farms use.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. You rotate which crops you plant in a location every year. Where this year you have corn, next year you will have beans.

Humans have been doing this from the beginning of agriculture. It’s easy and we know it works. I’ll talk about that in a future post.

The focus of this post, however, is permaculture.

Biointensive Agriculture

The biointesive method is kind of a mix of crop rotation, permaculture, grandma’s backyard victory garden, and almost anything else that works. It’s similar to permaculture in its goals and in that it’s almost like a religion to the people who are really into it. In the biointensive method planting compost crops in the winter or off-season is really important to the soil health.

What is Permaculture?

My chickens hard at work, aerating the soil, eating bugs and adding fertilizer.

Permaculture is a method of gardening that relies on permanent agricultural areas. The idea is to work with nature instead of against it. At least that is the part I’m going to be focusing on with this series of post. The philosophy of permaculture gets complex and wordy, so I don’t want to get into that very much. However, the application can be simple.

The basic idea is that humans and our livestock should be able to join the local ecosystem, and grow enough food for us to eat without us taking any health away. Or if possible making the ecosystem more healthy, by removing invasive plants and planting natives. Each person, animal or plant in the system has a job.

If you want to know more about permaculture you can get a good overview on Wikipedia and in-depth information and instruction from some great books like Gaia’s Garden. (Ed. note: that’s an affiliate link)

Why Does Permaculture Look So Hard?

If you have looked into permaculture at all you were probably overwhelmed. There are layers and zones, biological and social science terms all being thrown around and used in odd ways. There are intimidating “principles“. You will find new words like “Hügelkultur” and “Agroforest”.

The first time I tried permaculture I gave up about 40 pages into the book before I had done a single thing in my garden. It all seemed so complex and delicate. It sounds like too much work and expense.

I worried doing it properly required acres of land, thousands of dollars and a whole commune of hippy farmers. There was no way I could do it all correctly. And if you didn’t have a healthy rhizosphere it’s all doomed!!! DOOMED I SAY!!!!

Plant roots are a microbe party!

Permaculture Can Be Easy

A few years ago while talking to a friend about permaculture I realized I had been doing it without even realizing! I had asparagus, artichokes, and sunchokes in my back yard. There were chickens in my back yard, which I let wander around.

That’s permaculture.

No, I wasn’t figuring out zones or worrying about layers. I was just letting things grow, year after year with little effort and involvement from me, but it was working.

The soil was healthy without me adding anything. I wasn’t watering it. I wasn’t doing much weeding. I added some straw in the early spring to warm up the soil and I harvested when there was something to harvest, that was it. However, there were lots of bugs and worms for the chickens to peck at, the crops where growing and everyone was happy.

I’m starting from scratch my new house, which doesn’t have the permaculture benefits of my old house. I’m no longer touching a 10-acre forest, with decades of lovely rotten leaves to add nutrients back to the soil.

The backyard of my old house

I don’t have a good mix of shade and sun or a thriving eco-system full of wild animals here.

Wild bunny in the garden with some purple cabbage.

I don’t have my helpful chicken ladies anymore. I have two roosters I share with my neighbors, so that’s something. But I can’t direct them the same way I did with my girls.

One of my chickens taking a break.

I don’t have 10 years of garden work to build upon. With my last garden, there were some things I hadn’t actively worked on years, such as the immortal cowpeas and mini-meadows of wildflowers to feed bees, dragonflies, and birds.

But I do have more knowledge now and a plan. Ok, not really a plan, but maybe a daydream. For permaculture, I think that’s ok, because one of the 12 principles is “Creatively use and respond to change” and another is “Design from patterns to details”.

So Far and Next Steps

I put in a small bed with the intention of permaculture about 6 months ago. I’m going to be doing a series of posts on what I’ve already done, my plans, and the outcomes.

Stay tuned for my next post all about putting in a small permaculture space with asparagus and strawberries. After that, there will be a post about buying native plants as well as one about why you should fill empty spaces and some ideas of how to do that.

As this series progresses you are going to get to see my garden grow and learn with me!