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Permaculture design

Starting out

Permaculture is a design ‘glue’ to stick together all the elements for a sustainable and resilient culture. The elements such a culture will depend on include local food production, energy generation, water management, meaningful employment and so on. Permaculture helps assemble those things in the best way possible. It has been described as ‘the art of maximising beneficial relationships’. I rather like that.

Permaculture began during the first oil shocks of the 1970s, as a primarily agricultural approach, a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’ . It was an approach for the design, implementation and maintenance of agricultural systems modelled on natural systems, particularly taking climax forests as the model. If forests can function for thousands of years in a way that is highly diverse and highly productive in terms of biomass, yet require no fertiliser, watering, weeding and so on, then that might prove a better agricultural model than monoculture.

Since then, permaculture has evolved to be seen as a contraction of ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’, as it goes beyond agriculture, arguing that food production is part of a wider culture of permanence. It is now perceived as a design system which draws from observations of how natural systems function and insights from systems thinking, applying them to how we design the world around us.

Let’s say you want to design a landscape that includes a house, a pond and a vegetable garden. You could position them purely for their aesthetics. They would do well enough, but, with planning, our three elements can do far more.

Let’s say we put the pond on the south side of the house (using northern hemisphere bearing here), with the vegetable garden between them. Having the pond in front of the garden provides a heat sink, which means that the garden’s temperature is now 1-2°C warmer than it would otherwise have been.

The pond reflects winter sun into the house, reducing the need for lighting. Being right in front of the house, the garden demands less time, as there is no distance to travel to it. The silt from the pond can fertilise the garden, and watering becomes much easier. All of these benefits are possible because of the conscious design. Apply that approach to other challenges and you’ve got permaculture. That’s why, when we are rethinking our settlements with the Energy Descent Action Plan, permaculture design skills are so useful.

Permaculture is taught in many ways.

The two-day introductory course gives a useful overview, which can be followed by the 72-hour Permaculture Design Course. This is taught in various forms, from two-week intensives to evening classes over a year. A two-year diploma and a wide range of specialist training can then deepen the skills. There is an established network of permaculture teachers, local groups and also some excellent and well-established demonstration projects that are well worth a visit. In my experience, having at least one person in a Transition group who is steeped in permaculture can make a huge difference to the group. Try to encourage permaculture skills across your group and initiative. There are many existing overlaps between Transition and permaculture, and your initiative can be a part of deepening this relationship.