I had the privilege to participate in the 10 day permaculture course held in RVA. I expected us to learn about farming and garden design and how they can be done in a more sustainable and ecological way, but it turned out that there’s a lot more to permaculture than that.
The concept permaculture comes from the words permanent and agriculture, but it means more than just agricultural redesign. Permaculture is a philosophy, a way of thinking and doing, a set of principles and a way of life. Permaculture is a multidisciplinary approach, that defies strict boundaries and it covers many aspects of life. It’s not just about designing our food production according to ecological principles, but about designing societies so that the people in it are in sync with the surrounding nature. Permaculture principles can be applied anywhere in the world because they take into consideration the local nature and its challenges or rather possibilities. Permaculture is the opposite of monoculture and chemical agriculture and should regenerate the soil rather than deplete it.
In our lessons we started from the basics: how the earth was formed, what the soil is made of, what plants and other lifeforms need to succeed and how the cycle of life works in our forests and sees. Then we looked at what human actions have done to the planet in the past 100 years; our agricultural policies, use of fossil fuels and chemicals, consumerism, population growth and other human-made disasters threatening the whole survival of our planet. After we gained an understanding of the destructiveness of our current ways, we were introduced a new way of doing things; working with the nature and not against it.
The basic ethical principles in permaculture thinking are care for the earth, care for the people and equal share. These form the overall guidelines that all permaculture designs should follow. More precise guidelines include 12 more principles: observe and interact, catch and store energy, obtain a yield, apply self-regulation and accept feedback, use and value renewable resources and services, produce no waste, design from patterns to details, integrate rather than segregate, use small and slow solutions, use and value diversity, use edges and value the marginal and, finally, creatively use and respond to change. All these principles should be kept in mind when making a design, but some can be more important and dominant than others.
After we learned about the reasons why permaculture can and should be the leading set of principles when making any infrastructural designs and what these principles are in practise, we were taught how to make the actual garden designs. The designs would work as a testimony that we had really understood what permaculture is and how it should be applied. The most important thing to start with when designing a garden, a house or a whole city according to the permaculture principles is to look at the surroundings and think about how to deal with the forces of nature, including climate, soil type, where the sunlight, wind and water are coming from and make a sector analysis of these factors. Then one should think about the practicality of the design or the flow of energy in the design area (zones) so that it serves the people working or living on it the best. When one has measured all the important factors and made a basemap of the area, one can start thinking about the details.
The final design should take into account all the different sectors and zones and offer the best solutions for the particular circumstances. A garden should have plants in places where they are the most suitable and with plants that go best together with them. All the different elements should serve several functions and no one sector should be relying on just one solution. The swales should follow the contours and the maintanance of the garden should be made as simple as possible. When one looks at the nature and uses it as a companion rather than an adversary, the plants grow better, and people get the most use of them and the soil maintain its fertility.
In the permaculture course I didn’t just learn how to make a garden, but I learned to see the world in a different light. I didn’t just learn mathematics, chemistry, biology, geography, but more importantly, I learned to appreciate the life in all its forms: in the microbs working hard to decompose our waste, in the fungi that work as the messengers of our underground systems, in the worms pooping in our soil, in the plants providing us food and oxygen and in the animals that give us food and manure and are an essential part of our ecosystem. Humans have long seen the surrounding nature as a commodity that they can exploit, but now we have to start seeing it as a complex system where all the different parts have an important function and appreciating all the lifeforms that make this planet livable for all.
by Mervi H