You care for the environment. You, really do. But lately you have been feeling that all your eco-friendly efforts are just limited to putting plastics in the recycle bin, and carrying your own water instead of buying disposable plastic water bottles! And that little voice inside constantly nags you that there’s so much more that you can do.

If you are no longer happy to ignore that voice and want to have a more sustainable, good-for-the-Earth lifestyle, but have no clue where to start, well, thank your lucky stars! You have landed in just the right place, upon the right word: Permaculture.

Yes, permaculture it is. The answer to all your environmentally-conscious  existential worries. This is one word that sums up all activities you can take up to not only reduce your own ecological footprint, but also to help create sustainable human environments.

What is Permaculture?

The term defies simple explanation. A conglomerate of “permanent” and “agriculture”, it is a method to design human systems that imitate nature and help us exist in harmony with other beings. Although permaculture began mostly as a way towards organic food production, it has gradually grown out of its initial emphasis on “agriculture” to a “permanent culture” aspect, based on an all-encompassing way to sustainable living.

Ian Trew, Noosa Forest Retreat and his garden (Photo 1 and 2), Graham Brookman, The Food Forest (Photo 3)

As Ian Trew, co-founder of Noosa Forest Retreat, a 162-acre permaculture managed community and teaching centre in Noosa, Queensland, puts it, “Permaculture is an ethics-based total-design science that includes all aspects of organic gardening and then extends out addressing all elements contained in our ‘culture’ that make up human settlement. Not just the food elements... it includes shelter, water, energy, distribution of products and finances.”

The term now stands for all such activities people can take up to manage their behaviours, livelihoods and infrastructure towards a more resilient and sustainable future. Activities like attempting to grow your own food, modest consumption, reducing waste, composting, harvesting rain-and waste-water, producing your own energy, or supporting/getting involved with organisations near you engaged in these activities, like farmer’s markets, co-operatives,
community gardens, etc. In a permaculture system, all elements are designed to be multi-functional and have as many uses as possible, and at the same time provide benefits to each other. It’s like developing your own sustainable ecosystem.

“Permaculture can be practised in almost all decisions one makes throughout the day. Whether one takes the bus or drives; whether the office installs a water fountain rather than stocking soft drinks; whether one shops at Coles or goes to a nearby farmers market. Having a poly-cultural garden maybe something that comes and goes in the chapters of one's life,” adds Graham Brookman, co-founder of The Food Forest, an award-winning permaculture farm and learning centre based in Adelaide.

Ethics and Principles

The concept of permaculture was developed by Professor Bill Mollison and his graduate student, David Holmgren, in 1978. Their work was published in a book,Permaculture One, which sparked the Permaculture revolution across the globe. They created the concept by bringing together knowledge from several fields of work, like, ecology, agriculture, science and technology, and architecture.

Central to permaculture are the three ethics:
1. Earth Care: This means taking care of the living soil. A healthy soil is often an indication of a healthy environment and sustainable human systems.
2. People Care: This stands for cooperation between individuals, families, neighbours and community, while maintaining self-reliance and personal responsibility. The focus is on non-material well-being, and taking care of ourselves and others while limiting the production and consumption of unnecessary material resources.
3. Fair Share: This stands for an equal and fair distribution of natural resources between individuals. The idea is to set sustainable limits to population and consumption and redistribute surplus resources.
These three ethics guide the use of the 12 permaculture design principles, which are brief statements that can be used as checklist while designing a permaculture system.

You can read in detail about these on www.permacultureprinciples.com, a website developed by a graphic artist, Richard Telford, in collaboration with David Holmgren to introduce these concepts in a simple way.

What you can do

If reading all this makes you think it’s some radical life-changing stuff that’s not really possible in the heavily urban setting you live, with the limited resources of time and money you have, then you are right, and wrong! Right that it, indeed, is a set of radical, life-changing activities, and wrong that all this cannot fit-in in your lifestyle.

Whether you own a large backyard, a terrace garden, or just a small balcony, there’s always room to practice permaculture. What’s more, you don’t need to tear apart, burn down, or dig up your existing garden space for a permaculture design. In fact, retrofitting old gardens is a delight to many permaculture designers, says Brookman. “Leaving the precious heritage of the garden intact but reorganising things like annual beds, irrigation systems, composting
facilities, shade structures, water catchment, storage and pumping arrangements… Infusing the garden with habitat for beneficial stuff and considering a change of purpose for redundant infrastructure can suddenly produce extra garden!” he adds.

According to experts, permaculture, with its elements like, careful re-use/recycling, organic gardens and orchards, bokashi, worm farms, composting, good buildings − including passive and active solar design, reed-beds, cycling of grey water (even black water on bigger blocks), shared community facilities and food swaps, is as much at home in cities as it is in countryside.

“Urban-dwellers with their proximity to food production and resources like food scraps have the capacity to put more time and attention per square meter with a direct healthy source of food that any broadacre farmer simply can’t match. What this means is they can literally produce some of the healthiest, freshest, most nutrient dense, clean food on the planet while supporting and even building the supporting ecosystem we are all a part of,” says Trew.

Priyanka and Pratul Singh, a Sydney-based couple with three kids and full-time jobs, are a perfect example. Priyanka, a teacher, and Pratul, an IT Reporting and Data Analytics Officer with the Westfield group, have been living sustainably and growing organic veggies and fruits in their backyard for the last 7 years. “Initially it was hard.. preparing the soil, setting up raised beds.. We both had full time jobs and three children to look after.. But our interest in permaculture and gardening kept us motivated,” says Singh. “Over time we introduced more sustainable gardening practices and also added chooks and a compost bin. Having chooks encouraged our kids, too, to get involved and develop an understanding and appreciation of sustainable living. Now, our family finds it extremely relaxing and rewarding.”

Permaculture garden and harvest at the Singh House (Photo 1), Prisha and Pranit Singh with their chooks and freshly harvested organic vegetables in their backyard (Photo 2). Both sourced from Priyanka Singh.

While the time- and labour-intensive nature of initial phases of a permaculture design might be a put-off in today’s quick-fix world, it does help to keep in mind that the rewards are immense and holistic. Trew says that the self-supporting, regenerative nature of correctly designed permaculture systems is, in fact, all the more reason for those with low time to purse it. “It not only saves time in the long term but increases abundance, health and overall life satisfaction in so many ways that our increasingly fast-paced-, stressed-out-society path is failing to deliver.”

And permaculture is, by no means, a solitary activity. It gives you an opportunity to meet, engage, and make friends with other like-minded people through community gardens, farmer’s markets, and online permaculture groups. “I have heard many stories of people connecting, and continuing to swap with one another on a regular basis”, says Laurie Green of Crop Swap Sydney, an organisation that facilitates the exchange of fresh, home-grown, delicious produce, seeds, and edible plants through local, cashless markets where people come together to swap excess produce and fairly barter with like-minded people.

 
 

Crop Swap Sydney recent swap event and food ready to be swapper (Photos 1 and 2), Western Sydney Herb Spiral, Western Reserve Herb Society (Photo 3)

“My favourite anecdote involves two ladies who live in the same suburb. One is a grower, the other is a cook. The first offered up a bounty of huge eggplants from her front garden, while the other had nothing to swap, but loved to make babaganoush. The eggplants were gifted with no reciprocation expected, but the cook took the eggplants home, made the delicious dip, and returned some to the grower,” says Laurie. “This moment of strangerly kindness made me realise that the group could do more than help people to eat locally and affordably, but that it also had the power to facilitate information and skill sharing,” she adds.

Where to start

“Reading an article or a small coffee-table permaculture book may be inspiring but nothing replaces the 10-day Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course in terms of internalising the design process. Most PDCs incorporate time for you to undertake a major design project,” says Brookman. “The course is really a minimum in terms of being able to internalise permaculture and produce a defensible project plan and confidently execute it.”

PDC has been, since the inception of permaculture, the prime driver for permaculture inspiration and training, across the globe. It includes lessons, theoretical as well as practical, on a whole menu of principles, techniques and processes essential to permaculture. “The key principles, if designed and implemented properly right from the start, can lead to a self-supporting, abundant, healthy, beautiful, and productive system. But if not well-
understood can mean loads of unnecessary work, expense, low yield, and frustration rather than a deeply satisfying Permaculture success” says Trew. “Hence, a principle-based education and application is vital for success in permaculture.”

There are several accredited institutes and organisations providing PDC and many other courses, and workshops on different aspects of permaculture, like organic gardening, composting and worm-farming, reusing and re-cycling, bee-keeping, etc. (More on this in our next article)

A good way to start is by doing a bit of research to get a fair idea of this concept first. There is no dearth of books (www.tagari.com, https://store.holmgren.com.au) and online resources on permaculture. Here are some websites with information about Australian and global permaculture networks and resources, to get you started:

www.pipmagazine.com.au
www.wethetrees.com
www.permies.com
www.holmgren.com.au
www.permaculture.org
www.permacultureglobal.org
www.permacultureaustralia.org.au
www.aussieslivingsimply.com.au
www.permiekids.com

So, if you want to do your bit towards the environment, love the idea of being able to grow your own food, and are not afraid of doing things differently, get reading, get going, and be the change you want to see. The world has never needed permaculture more than it does today.

Be sure to come back in 3 weeks to read our 2nd article on Permaculture too with plenty more practical information on getting started yourself!