Guide written by:
John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge
The term permaculture was first coined by two Australians in the mid-1970s. An abbreviation of the phrase 'permanent agriculture', the word originally referred to a method of cultivating the land without causing harm to humans or the environment; all this while remaining economically viable and sustainable in the long term.
It's actually quite difficult to define what 'permaculture' means today, since the word is used variably to describe a philosophy, a way of life and a collection of practical methods. In reality, the term has relevance in all these contexts.
The ultimate aim of permaculture is to create societies in which nature and humans are treated with respect. This concept applies to all spheres of human activity but concerns, above all, our homes and energy sources, our relationship with the natural world and, of course, how we produce food (which forms the basis of any sustainable human society).
Permaculture is based on a foundation of three basic principles: looking after planet Earth, taking care of humankind, and dividing resources equally.
Taking care of the natural world involves protecting soil, water, plants and all animals that populate the surface of our planet. All life is considered important since humans are considered just one part of an interconnected biosphere. Human habitats and activity should be developed in harmony with existing ecosystems. More explicitly, this means aiming for a responsible use of resources. The environmental impact of humans should be reduced by limiting consumption and moving away from the model of infinite economic growth.
Every human being should have access to the resources we need to live. Permaculture aims to sustain human populations so that they can thrive. In this respect, human relationships should be based on cooperation and sharing rather than competition.
This point is all about sharing food resources and experience, and is perfectly illustrated by food-growing schemes such as Incredible Edible. Founded in Yorkshire, the movement is taking off around the world. The idea is to sow a few seeds wherever there is available space and then share out the harvest with your neighbours or passers-by when your crop is ready.
The benefits of permaculture relate back to its rooting principles.
The main ways in which this can be achieved is to use natural forms of energy (solar, wind), save resources like water (e.g. by collecting rainwater) and avoid the use of fossil fuels.
We can also make the most of the resources provided to us by nature. This includes things like using deadwood as a heating fuel or for growing mushrooms, harvesting medicinal plants which grow naturally in the wild, growing anti-pollutant plants to improve indoor air quality, strategically planting trees to provide shade in summer and keeping chickens and ducks to keep on top of pests. We should also avoid any form of waste and make sure to reuse waste materials. For example, why not protect your vegetables using transparent plastic tubs, lay your grass clippings out to mulch a lawn, or use pruned branches as stakes for climbing plants?
One method favoured in permaculture is to avoid actively working the soil in a vegetable garden. Instead the soil should be left to be processed naturally by insects (with a little encouragement from some natural mulch). Using a tiller or cultivator can do significant damage to underground insect populations.
Unlike conventional agriculture, permaculture doesn't set itself up against nature. On the contrary, it takes inspiration from nature and works in tandem with it, celebrating and benefiting from the immense diversity it presents.
Permaculture avoids the use of pesticides and insecticides – even those of organic origin – in order to protect biodiversity. As nature is relied on to self-regulate, herbicides and chemical fertilisers are never used. A permaculture gardener might even choose to sacrifice a portion of their produce to pests rather than use chemicals.
Permaculture is great for health, not only thanks to the organic produce you're consuming, but also because you'll be spending more time on yourself and others. Spending more time with your children, family and loved ones is an excellent antidote to stress and anything else that can affect our mental health.
Producing a large amount of produce in a smaller area requires less space which frees up space for other activities.
Finally, there is one last advantage that can't be overlooked: you'll get to enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you are working for the greater good and causing little harm to the environment in doing so.
Nowadays it's clearer than ever that we all have a responsibility to protect the environment by managing our resources properly and making sure that sustainable development is at the forefront of everything we do. Gardeners have an important role to play in this green revolution and should take the opportunity to speak out for nature wherever possible.
Today, more and more gardeners are growing organic gardens, using biodynamic methods and recycling their waste according to the tenets set out by permaculture.
Permaculture allows us to make the most of what is already provided to us in nature, biodynamics improves seed growth and harvests, and organic gardening protects the soils that feeds us. By combining these three approaches to gardening, we can all have a positive effect on the environment.
Guide written by:
John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge, 103 guides
When I was young, I was already working in the family garden. Perhaps that is where my interest in plants and gardening came from. So, it was logical for me to study plant biology. At the request of various publishers I have, over twenty-five years, written many books on the subject of plants and mushrooms (a subject that is close to my heart). They were mostly identification guides at first, but shortly after they were about gardening, thus renewing the first passion of my childhood. I have also regularly collaborated with several magazines specialising in the field of gardening or more generally in nature. There is no gardener without a garden, I have cultivated mine in a small corner of Cambridge for the last thirty years and this is where I put into practice the methods of cultivation that will I advise you in as well.