The Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the concept of permaculture in the mid-1970s. A new term was created from the words “permanent” & “agriculture” – i.e. permanent land use by humans. In the course of time, social aspects were also included, so that the word creation from “permanent” and “culture” outlines the broad subject area well.
What is permaculture?
Through close observation of natural habitats, for example the rainforest, B. Mollison and his student D. Holmgren derived fundamental principles for agriculture and horticulture. They shaped permaculture by creating design principles based on thinking in systems.
In agriculture and horticulture, the aim is to create structures that are self-sustaining. As we continually learn from nature and strive to grasp the bigger picture (and not just the individual element we desire), the system functions permanently.
Ethics are always at the centre of this. Three principles are to be applied in everything we do:
Earth care - Caring for the Earth. Careful treatment of water, soil and all living beings should take place - and this should also be independent of the visible benefits for humans. Fair shares - equitable distribution and use of resources. A non-material well-being is strived for. We only take as much as we need and share what we do not need. People care - Caring for people. How can we live together in a more sustainable and social way? When we take responsibility for our actions, this results in benefits for ourselves and the community.
The five R’s – dealing with products and resources in permaculture
Refuse the product/consumer item – don’t even buy it if you don’t really need it.
Reduce your overall consumption of certain products or resources.
Reuse the product if possible
Repair the product or buy only items that can be repaired.
Recycle the product when it no longer fulfils its function and return it (or parts of it) to the cycle.
This is a “resource cascade”. The second R only comes into play when the first R is not possible, etc.
Permaculture in the garden: The design principles
At the beginning of all projects is a vision. It is important that you align this with the natural conditions in the garden. After taking stock (soil quality, area sizes, slope, shading, water availability, wind protection, existing vegetation), the following considerations can be made, for example:
What crops are possible on the land, and what do I want to harvest there? What distances do I want to cover? How maintenance-intensive should the individual sections be? What could an organic connection between the areas look like?
For larger gardens, it is worth thinking about zoning – see illustration. Design patterns (waves and circles), incorporate natural terrain forms and only then come to the details (a precise planting plan). It also makes sense to alternate small, intensively used areas with extensive (“wild”) areas.
Always work with nature
The more precisely you take the conditions into account when designing the garden, the more sustainable the planting of strips of woodland, vegetable, herb and perennial beds will be.
The condition of the soil plays an important role. If you have a lean sandy soil, for example, you can of course improve it with mulch, compost, bokashi, plant charcoal and bentonite. However, it often seems much more sensible to choose plants that can cope well with these poor conditions. If you plant a sea buckthorn, for example, it will also hold its own on permeable soils – and you don’t even have to do without a harvest.
You can also rely on assistance from the animal world if the general conditions are right. Flowering plants around the vegetables attract beneficial insects that exterminate pests. Hedgehogs feel at home under piles of leaves and deadwood. Earthworms can be found in the soil if it is extensively mulched. There are many ways to attract small and larger helpers into the garden.
In addition, it is advisable to use many perennial, hardy plants that provide a long yield with little effort and at the same time conserve resources. Besides fruit trees and berry bushes, there are also perennial vegetables for the “edible garden”, such as tree cabbage, hops and green asparagus.
The twelve principles of permaculture
The following principles apply to the creation of a permaculture garden (developed by D. Holmgren):
Permaculture Principle One: Observe and Interact
- observe and interact
Cooperate with nature – through careful observation of natural processes and thoughtful interaction with the elements of the newly created system.
Practical example: mulching in the garden and the corresponding observation in nature: dead organic material remains on the soil, thus offering protection against drying out and providing new food for soil organisms. In the garden, a permanent layer of mulch means less weeding, watering and fertilising. There is also usually no need for digging.
Permaculture Principle Two: Catch and Store Energy
2 Catch and store energy
Through the rediscovery and sensible use of energy sources that have been an important natural resource for all cultures, e.g. water, humus, seeds and trees. Local and regional independence is desirable.
Practical examples: Solar energy is captured with solar panels and is then used for longer in the system in the form of hot water. Targeted crop rotation with green manure prevents disease and naturally resupplies depleted soil with nutrients. If compost is regularly applied or an area is mulched, valuable humus is created that sustainably improves the water balance – especially on sandy soils.
Permaculture Principle Three: Obtain a Yield
- obtain a yield
Harvesting allowed! Creating and maintaining high-yield systems will inspire imitators. Successful permaculture systems will spread (private and community self-sufficiency).
Practical examples: If perennial plants are grown that are well adapted to the site, less energy is needed in the long run and the yield is assured. Through well-considered bed planning, a harvest takes place from spring to autumn/winter. Wild herbs are also integrated into the diet.
Permaculture Principle Four: Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback
- apply self-regulation and learn from the results
As little work as possible! In permaculture systems many things are self-regulating – these processes (productive feedback loops) need to be recognised and used. The less you have to intervene in systems, the less likely you are to disturb them and cause a lot of work through consequential damage.
Practical examples: Biodiversity, i.e. the variety of species of animals, plants and other organisms, has a high priority in permaculture. This makes the garden as a whole more resilient. A growing tree that gradually shades the soil under its crown itself is a concrete example. In the long run, the maintenance work around the tree becomes less.
Permaculture Principle Five: Use and Value Renewable Resources
5 Use renewable resources and services
Infinite energy! Through the careful but productive use of renewable resources (sun, wind, water, biomass). At the same time, reduce the use of non-renewable resources.
Practical examples: Plants that fix nitrogen from the air (butterfly plants) are sown or planted in large numbers. As a result, less fertiliser needs to be applied. Building with clay and straw also offers many advantages.
Permaculture Principle Six: No Waste
- produce no waste
No waste! Waste is avoided as much as possible, materials are reused and recycled as often as possible: the 5 R’s.
Practical example: On an area that is to become a vegetable patch, kitchen waste is spread thinly and covered with damp brown cardboard (from the mail order business). On top of this, a thick layer of hay or straw can be spread and later planted individually (with a little soil). The principle: gardening without digging – a rich soil life is the result.
Permaculture Principle Seven: Design from Patterns to Details
- design patterns first, then details
Learn from nature! Successful design first requires an understanding of the overarching patterns in nature. The planned details of a permaculture project take these patterns into account and follow them (top-down thinking, bottom-up action).
Practical example: Analogous to a spider’s web, which has zones and sectors (concentric circles and a radiating subdivision), an area is divided in such a way that the needs of all participants (people or plants) are met as far as possible. Examples of gardens are the herb spiral or a raised bed.
Permaculture Principle Eight: Integrate Rather than Segregate
- integrate instead of separating
Together instead of alone! Many different elements working together are more useful than a few competing with each other.
Practical examples: Mixed cultivation in the vegetable bed and green manure as undersowing. When green manure plants come into flower on the bed, bees and bumblebees are attracted, providing valuable pollination services in the garden.
Permaculture Principle Nine: Use Small and Slow Solutions
- use small and slow solutions
Take it easy! Small and slow solution strategies make systems easier for people to manage and more productive in the long term than large ones that require a lot of energy and time.
Practical example: rely on local structures and mutual support, because large systems are very prone to errors and can cause considerable turbulence.
A large-scale lawn is a monoculture that is quite high-maintenance and can cause many problems. A wildflower meadow consisting of perennials and annual native wild plants takes some time to establish, but ultimately is much less work and provides abundant food for birds and insects.
Permaculture Principle Ten: Use and Value Diversity
10 Use and Value Diversity
Use and value diversity! Many different crops increase resilience and in turn enable long-term self-organisation.
Practical example: Small-structured gardens with different zones and many plant species instead of monoculture. If vegetable species are combined whose roots reach different depths into the soil, one and the same soil layer is not depleted. By “layering and stacking”, plants can also grow selectively on several levels so that space is used optimally.
Permaculture Principle Eleven: Use Edges and Value the Marginal
- use edges and value the marginal
Go to the edge! Transitional and marginal zones are where different conditions meet. This makes them particularly diverse and therefore productive and valuable.
Practical examples: Marginal zones of shaded tree and shrub zones and perennial beds deserve special attention. They correspond to the transitions of different ecosystems and offer very special growing conditions.
In a fruit tree community there are several zones: Close to the tree, still under the crown, is the inner circle. It represents the forest floor zone, which receives relatively little light due to the dense leaf canopy. This inner circle is therefore constantly mulched. Irises, for example, can be planted there to support the growth of fruit trees.
Permaculture Principle Twelve: Creatively Use and Respond to Change
- respond creatively to change
Nature is constantly changing. If we anticipate change, we can make it work for us: Each season creates the right conditions for very different plants; climatic changes make it possible to grow new crops.
Practical examples: Climate change presents us with major challenges. Tree species that were previously well adapted to their location are reaching the limits of their possibilities. It is therefore worthwhile to plant trees and shrubs that cope well with heat and drought. Urban gardening, which usually takes place in confined spaces, involves growing vegetables vertically.