What is Permaculture?

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Permaculture is a design for sustainable living called permaculture (permanent + agriculture). It’s Tasmanian founder, Bill Mollison, coined the phrase in 1972 because there was no word in our language to describe a system of farming which did not deplete the land or endure without constant human inputs.

The Founder Of Permaculture

During his most recent course in Texas, in the spring of 1996, Bill Mollison described permaculture as much more than a system of food production. It has become a system of categorizing the whole of human knowledge, so that essential, relevant facts are readily available to us whenever we need them, much like stepping into a spacious, very efficiently organized walk-in closet with all of the garments one needs within an arm’s reach. The information included in this vessel of human knowledge is taken from both indigenous cultures, as well as from western academia. The principle requirement for including information in this “wardrobe” is that it assist us in creating sustainable human settlements.

Sustainability can be looked at as a simple energy equation, or it can be measured by the social consequences of our actions. If a site generates more energy over time (in the form of trees, produce, animals, fuel, etc. ) than was required to create that site, then it is sustainable. Just ask, “Is this site a net importer of energy? Does this site generate more waste than useful products?” If the answer is yes to either of these questions, then the site is not yet operating sustainably – we are taking more than we are putting back, throwing away more than we are putting to use.

On a social scale, if we can meet our needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to respond to their needs then we are behaving sustainably. If we leave our children a degraded landscape and a hostile society, then we are merely contributing to a self-destructive culture.

Understanding The Best Practices

An excellent way to understand permaculture in practical terms and discover how it fits into our lifestyles is to visit a permaculture settlement, which is just what we are about to do! Allow me to whisk you away to the Cross Timbers bioregion of north central Texas. Among these limestone bluffs and post oak savannas, nestled next to a small intermittent stream is the Cross Timbers Permaculture Institute where my family and I have the good fortune to live and work. The Institute is dedicated to implementing and teaching permaculture designs from small animal systems to straw bale house construction. A tour around the institute is like being handed the Cliff notes to Mollison’s book, An Introduction to Permaculture.

Upon arrival, the first glimpse we catch of Cross Timbers is the front yard of the main building which is filled with corn and sunflowers towering over sprawling squashes and cow peas. We have placed as much high yielding food, medicinal and culinary plants as possible in the front yard where we can quickly take care of them and receive the greatest benefit from their presence. To either side of the pink granite gravel path leading to the front door are two raised herb beds shaped with rocks into conical spirals (6′ in diameter and 3′ tall). The herb spirals are planted with echinacea, lavender, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and pennyroyal.

The raised spiral shape of the herb garden is an analog of natural spirals, and therefore it contributes plants much of the diversity found in Nature – different zones of moisture, various aspects of the sun, and an increased planting area by utilizing vertical space as well as lateral space. Hanging in front of the porch of the main building are trellises made from local juniper branches which provide shade from the late afternoon sun. The six trellises are covered with grapes, hardy kiwi fruit, passion fruit vine, and scarlet runner beans. Thus the trellises provide food as well as shade.

Welcome to Cross Timbers!

Close to the main building, one story, cedar shiplap structure, you will find several other multi-functional designs, all harvesting the natural flows of energy through the landscape (sunlight, rain, plant and animal behaviors, etc.). For instance, cloaked with brown burlap bags, not twenty feet from the kitchen door are two rabbit hutches – one is portable and cruises our garden beds, the other is raised on stilts.

Our food scraps and garden tilings are enough to easily feed the five rabbits as well as enrich the diets of our chickens. Rabbit pellets from the raised hutch, in turn, fall into worm boxes to provide food for our brown nosed wigglers. The worm castings are then used to fertilize our vegetables and inoculate the garden’s soil with worm eggs. When winter arrives, and there is no longer any fresh produce from the garden we harvest the rabbits for their meat and fur. Our food scraps are converted into meat, fur, worms and excellent compost. Nothing is wasted, and everything is arranged so that we exert the least amount of effort and gain the highest yield from our systems.

Chicken Tractor!

Along with the portable rabbit hutch, we also have a portable chicken coup affectionately referred to as a “chicken tractor.” This 4′ wide, 10′ long chicken tractor can house nine laying hens and one rooster. Chicken behaviors are extremely useful to us; they scratch the ground, eat grasses and insects, and deposit a layer of high phosphorous manure. Since the size of the chicken tractor and the appetite of the chickens is too big for the annual garden in front of the main building, we run it in the field on the other side of our driveway where we cultivate corn, peas, and turnips in its wake. Chickens are amazing animals because they convert feed grains and insect pests into highly nutritious meat and eggs and useful feathers.

Punctuating the scenery behind the chicken tractor is a series of level water harvesting ditches dug on contour called swales. Swales collect the rain water, soil run-off and detritus washing off of the land. A swale can concentrate three times the annual rainfall and slightly lower the pH of the soil in its bottom, allowing us to grow fruit trees and berry bushes (dewberries, blackberries, red currants, and blueberries) which would not typically do well in our climate.

How to conserve the water?

To conserve the water collected by the swales, we heavily mulch all of our fruit trees with hay and wood chips and cover all garden beds with a light layer of grass clippings. Still higher up the slope is a small pond for collecting the run- off channeled onto the institute by steel culverts passing under nearby roads. The pond provides a mini-ecosystem suitable for edible water plants, small fish, and crustaceans. It serves as a water reservoir for irrigation and fire fighting.

Back on the north side of the main building shaded by a large elm tree is a 6,500-gallon Ferro-cement water cistern used to hold the rain water off our roof, and should we run out of rain water to drink there is still pressurized water from a well. Today, water harvesting is supported by as many components as possible. It’s an essential function in a permaculture landscape.

Building Settlements On Your Own

After many hours of digging swales and hard work under the hot sun, we have learned that the best way to get “the biggest bang for your buck” is to become a teacher and enable others to build permaculture settlements on their own. Our most effective way of passing on the vessel of knowledge which is permaculture is our intern and apprentice program. Those who come to live and work here are people seeking a natural lifestyle or interested in organic farming, and leave with a much better understanding of what sustainability is in practical terms. Cross Timbers also offers an introduction to permaculture courses as well as full-blown two-week design courses. We set up booths and speak at conferences and fairs, and have had several radio interviews. Guided tours and overnight workshops on planting, building, and teaching are also available. We distribute books, information pamphlets and publish a newsletter.

Without the focus on education, permaculture would be limited to a few isolated, backwoods efforts at self-sufficiency, but permaculture has consequently become one of the fastest growing, grassroots endeavors in the world to live sustainably. So ends our tour, with an invitation to learn more.

A Garden In The Heaven

Permaculture is an attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden. In the first book of Genesis, humanity is put at odds with the soil and commanded to cultivate plants as punishment for eating of the Tree of Conscience – the tree bearing the knowledge of good and evil. We have struggled with the soil to make it produce for ten thousand years, and now we are witnessing an end to nature’s bounty. Permaculture eases that effort by creating agriculturally productive ecosystems with the stability, resilience, and diversity of natural ecosystems. It provides us with the means to meet our needs for water, food, shelter, energy and social interaction through the assembly of beneficial relationships without destroying the life community around us of which we are an inseparable part.

In the first book of Genesis, an angel brandishing a great sword of fire is set to guard the entrance east of Eden and bar man’s return. If there’s no going back to paradise, then we can only go forward to recreate e it right around our homes.

Kirby Fry graduated from Texas A & M University in 1989 with a BS of Forestry Sciences. Fry took three design courses with Bill Mollison, an earthworks course and an advanced teaching course with Bill Mollison in Glen Rose, Texas. In Austin, Texas for the past 3 years Fry has been helping to install one permaculture design a month in the form of permablitzes, an all volunteer garden installation crew.

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