What is Permaculture?

Posted by Cygnus Team
30 July, 2010

People often ask me what permaculture is. There is a short answer and there is a long one, which should come with a warning: permaculture can inspire a lifetime of discovery and creative living. If you don’t want to change your worldview and your life, stop here!

The short answer is that permaculture is a thinking tool for designing low carbon, highly productive systems – but its influence can be very pervasive! It is a means of connecting each of us more deeply to nature’s patterns and wisdom  – and of practically applying that understanding in our daily lives.

The discipline of permaculture design is based on observing what makes natural systems endure, establishing simple yet effective principles, and using them to mirror nature in whatever we choose to design. This can be gardens, farms, buildings, woodlands, communities, businesses – even transition towns and cities. Permaculture is essentially about creating beneficial relationships between individual elements and making sure energy is captured in, rather than lost from, a system. Its application is only as limited as our imaginations.

The bedrock of permaculture is its three ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares. These are its motivation, its heart. They are not exclusive to permaculture and were derived from the commonalities of many worldviews and beliefs. They are therefore shared ethics, indeed shared by most of the world. What permaculture does is make them explicit within a design process that aims to take them out of the realms of philosophy and practically root them in everybody’s lives, transforming thinking into doing. It is their combined presence in a design that has a radical capacity for ecological and social transformation. So that is the theory, but…
What do I do in practice differently, since permaculture appeared in my life?

One of my great loves is gardening. Food can account for one third of our eco-footprint and so growing just a little makes a difference. Tim and I grow fruiting trees (every kind you can imagine from 23 apple varieties, cobnuts to medlars and gages plus more unusual Chinese varieties like dogwood and quince). We also grow soft fruit (including goji berries), perennial and annual veg and hedgerow edibles as well. All of this is mixed up with as many native species as possible, bringing resilience and pest predators into the garden. I have a passion for wildflower meadows and living on chalk downland means we can attempt to mimic our local nature reserve, Old Winchester Hill, by growing plants like wild marjoram, knapweed, ox-eye daisies, devil’s bit scabious, lady’s slipper and cranesbill. In summer the meadow area (which is not not huge) is full of iridescent blue butterflies. Common lizards (which are not common anymore) hunt there and live in the wood piles.

Money Saving Ideas
If you have a small garden, one crop I would really recommend is garlic. We bought our first bulbs from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm (thegarlicfarm.co.uk) and planted them in October. They like to overwinter, similar to broad beans. Even a small bed can save a lot of money over a year. You can then choose your best bulb for the following year’s crop. It is fun to plait the garlic and hang it in the kitchen, a savoury decoration until you eat it all.

I love to share seed and plants with others. This year a friend of mine gave me some Bridgwater climbing French beans, originally from the Heritage Seed Library (gardenorganic.org.uk). These are happily spiralling up my home-grown bamboo (another tasty edible in its shooting form that grows into a useful resource for garden structures). The bamboo is made into a permanent frame, on the back of my south-west facing glazed kitchen. The glazing is argon filled so it doesn’t get cold in winter and even heats the house on a sunny day. The kitchen is full of light all year round. In the summer it can get hot, so we grow edibles up the bamboo frame to create temporary shade. This year the climbing beans have pride of place and when we want to harvest them, we can literally lean out of the windows!

We heat the house with as little fossil fuels as possible. Besides being ecological good sense, it also saves money. The house is well-insulated and the south-west facing kitchen/living area is a passive solar design. As I described, the sun heats the house through our large glazed area. We have a woodburning stove (soon to be two) and we heat our water with evacuated solar panels. These work even on a cloudy day and heat our water most of the year. In summer, very hot water is abundant. If you are good at plumbing, one of the best sources for these panels is Navitron. There is a free manual on their website (www.navitron.co.uk). If like us you need an installer, make sure you have a registered specialist and get a few quotes. There are a lot of double glazing salesmen out there doing dodgy deals and charging exorbitant prices. Don’t be pressurised into buying anything. Shop around.

One of our next projects is to install photovoltaic cells for electrical generation, again from a reputable installer, this time Southern Solar who installed the 8 kW system at The Sustainability Centre. The government has introduced a new Feed In Tariff, allowing new installations to be paid for generating electricity – even if you use it yourself – and this means the pay-back time for the system can be within ten years.

Then there is the Sustainability Centre where we work and volunteer. My most recent permaculture input there has been to encourage the creation of a beautiful roundwood timber woodland classroom built by Ben Law, almost entirely from our own timber. Ben has steam-bent the roof rafters, making the western red cedar roof shingles appear to curve out over the woodland like the hull of a great ship. It is inspirational. To have a preview of early work in progress you can see a film clip:

You can watch more of our videos on our Youtube Channel here: http://www.youtube.com/user/PermacultureMedia
All this is really the tip of an iceberg. Permaculture has inspired so many ideas and practical projects in my life. The beauty of it is that you don’t have to be an expert at anything, just willing to roll up your sleeves and have a go. I guarantee that besides growing food and being creative in hand and mind, it will not only save you money but connect you more deeply with Nature and make you happy.


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