Sustainability through Massive abundance.

Episode 19: Understanding Permaculture

In which I take you on a brief tour of permaculture so you can better understand the context of Edenicity without taking an 80-hour course. And if you are permaculture certified, it’s a great quick review of the major concepts.

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How can we meet our needs?

How can we meet our needs without killing the planet?

As I explained in episode five, one of design's major functions is to identify and resolve false dichotomies. And our convenience versus the planet's survival? Well, that's the biggest false dichotomy of our time.

The whole point of this series is to show that we can meet our needs better, even in the short term, by healing the planet. How do we do that? With a tool called permaculture.

Intro [music]

Cities, designed like modern Edens, for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk your guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode 19, where I'll take you on a brief tour of permaculture, the design science behind Edenicity.

Origin of Permaculture

Our story begins with Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, two Australian field biologists who met at the University of Tasmania in 1974.

Mollison had just completed a years long experiment to create a self tending self mulching garden that produced abundant produce with no purchased inputs (well, that is to say beyond presumably the initial plantings). In their discussions the to began calling this concept permanent agriculture, or permaculture.

The idea had been with Mollison since 1959, when he realized that the wilderness routinely maintained large stands of edibles for thousands of years without any commercial inputs. This is true almost everywhere on Earth.

In Southeast Ohio, where I operated a Market Garden, we could wild gather ramps, chanterelle mushrooms, spicebush, pawpaw, hickory nuts... a dazzling abundance. Who maintains it? Oh, birds, fungi, locust trees and other nitrogen fixers, worms, herbivores, predators. Together they do all the work and maintain the system in balance. Everything feeds or feeds on something else.

In other words, all the work and the expense of fertilizers pesticides, tilling and weeding is really just a poor substitute for a balanced ecosystem.

Mollison wondered if he could use the same principles to create a homestead garden that produced more food than nature did while retaining the self sustaining aspects of natural ecology. So he tried it and told everyone who had listened how great it worked. Once he set up his garden, he claimed the only labor was harvest. A true slice of Eden.

Mollison was a sixth generation Tasmanian. He made the point that many tribal societies hadn't understood Western concepts of scarcity, work or waste at first, because their world was so abundant. Their main work was hunting or forage, and they spent less time at it than we spend shopping, eating out and cooking.

Unfortunately, as discussed in Episode 15, the world can only sustain a 10th to a 50th of its current population in a hunter gatherer lifestyle. Mollison's designs were an attempt to bridge the gap without introducing substantial amounts of additional work.

Later, Mollison and Holmgren realized that shelter and commerce could be made self sustaining by design to today these concepts are expressed in passively heated and cooled houses and in local currencies.

So permaculture came to mean permanent culture. That's the goal of permaculture design: to do most of the work for you.

Mollison had long been an activist protesting development that causes deforestation worldwide. Deforestation leads to massive extinctions mainly due to habitat loss. The problem was that there's too much money to be made in lumber, ranching, real estate and mining.

It was an uphill fight. Mollison burnt out. But with permaculture he and Holmgren realized they could tackle the problem from the demand side of the economy.

Now Mollison was no back-to-the-lander. He had no time for people who moved far away from town, cleared some land and tried to live self sufficiently. In his view, this was hippie development, and it too contributed to deforestation.

Mollison wanted to knit the forest and other natural ecosystems back together again. To do that, he realized, you had to bring the forest back to town and back to the farm.

This bucked a trend that has been with us for a long time. As I discussed in Episode 14, people began clearing land for agriculture at least 10,000 years ago, and have been abandoning villages and cities when they depleted their soils starting about 8000 years ago.

Modern life only accelerates this process. Since World War II, humans have severely damaged the soils of a combined area as big as China and India, creating deserts.

Plowing and chemical fertilizers and pesticides kill the soil, literally. As explained in Episode 13, healthy soil has perhaps a million species of microbes. With chemical agriculture, less than one in 100 of those species survive. The soil turns gray, the humus breaks down, the soil washes out with the next monsoon. From then on, the remaining soil lacks the diversity required to hold on to major nutrients. It's addicted to chemical fertilizers. You need to keep buying them to grow anything. How could our science fail us on such a basic level? Mollison's view, which I share, is that scientists insist on being value neutral.

Recall from Episode 5 that design embodies intention. A design science without clear intention winds up serving the values of whoever has the power to hijack it. And there's a lot of money to be made selling fertilizers and pesticides.

Permaculture Ethics

Just as medicine begins with the Hippocratic Oath, Mollison began by formalizing the ethics of permaculture. There are 3 ethics which I'll quote from his book Permaculture, A Designers Manual, then follow with my own tweaks.

Oh, by the way, I've created a one page summary of permaculture that you can get from the link in the program notes. I'll be following that summary for the rest of this episode.

The three ethics of permaculture are:

First, Earth care: "Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply." In other words, we should use land in ways that benefit rather than harm the local ecology and the global climate.

Two, People Care: "Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence." In practice, other authors such as Patrick Whitefield have poetically expanded this. Condensing some of Whitefield writings, here's my take on people care: we should find ways to meet most of our needs such as shelter, water, food, fiber and energy locally with minimal waste and work. And we should help others do the same.

Three, Fair Share: This one has evolved a lot among permaculture practitioners. Mollison actually never called it "fair share." Instead, he declared the third ethic was, "setting limits to population and consumption. By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles." His protege at the permaculture Research Institute, Geoff Lawton, focused on the need to return any surpluses to our needs to the first two ethics. From my work on episode 17, 21 and 25. I feel comfortable with my own tweaks on this ethic. In my view, sharing is the natural basis of wealth. So from a design perspective, we should make it easy not to own a lot of stuff that other people and species can't use. Our designs should also redirect individual surpluses to earth and people care.

Mollison began traveling the world teaching people, usually in foreign aid situations, how to apply these concepts at home. He set up a plan to help people lift themselves out of poverty by creating a self sustaining food system and Research Center with ecotourism as an income stream.

He took a systems approach that focused on the overall environment.

Holmgren, meanwhile, wrote the whole thing up as Permaculture One, the first of several books by him or Mollison.

Applied Ecology

Their design ideas really boiled down to applied ecology. Instead of solving problems one at a time, like you do with fertilizers and insecticides, permaculture creates a robust overall environment for a wide range of life. With permaculture, as described in Episode 10, you can reforest a desert.

In permaculture you stop fighting nature and observe how it works, meaning how plants, animals, soils etc relate to each other in the wild. Then you use these ecological principles to design gardens and farms that sustain themselves and us indefinitely.

Pattern Understanding

As a design discipline, permaculture focuses on patterns.

For example, we observe how waterways branch five to nine times from source to outlet, how the smallest branches have the quickest flows, how there are far more small branches than large and how so many other natural systems follow a similar pattern: the veins and bones in our bodies, the branches of trees, the size, number and growth rates of trees in a forest. We learned to use rather than fight these patterns for things like irrigation and distributing pads in the garden. In Edenicity, this understanding could optimize transportation networks and scheduling.

Edges and boundaries, such as those between land and water, are especially productive environments. If you observe them in nature, they're seldom straight. The wavier the edge, the longer the line of interaction between different environments, so there's more opportunity for higher productivity. Artificial environments should be built this way, too. A pond with wavy, lumpy edges has much higher productivity than a straight edged pond.

Design sequence

Many people think of permaculture as a mix and match grab bag of techniques, but in fact, these have a preferred sequence. Just like you put on your socks before your shoes rather than the other way around, you need to complete some parts of the design before going on to the next step. I didn't understand this until my second permaculture course and for this reason my Market Garden could have been a lot more efficient.

Geoff Lawton calls the correct sequence "mainframe design," and it generally proceeds as most design does: first, from the big patterns down to the smallest details.

1. Site selection

First of all, you need to select your site with care. Make sure the climate suits you. If it's forested, leave it alone. Seriously, as I explained in Episode 17, we already destroyed half of the plant biomass in the world, mainly by replacing many tall layers of forest with a single layer of cropland, lawn or concrete. Forests are the main energy producers for life on the planet. So whatever you do, don't further deplete life's overall energy budget! What you're looking for is oldfields: land already degraded by agriculture.

Next, check for safety from flooding, wildfire and other major disasters, check its water supply. Does it draw from a large watershed? That's a nice bonus, especially if it's relatively clean. How much infrastructure will you need to install for water access and storage? Some sites are ready made, others may take too much work. Ad check the slopes: you want them to be not too steep, preferably much less than 10 degrees to avoid soil loss, as I explained in episodes 14 and 15. In hot climates, slopes should face east to minimize afternoon sun exposure. In cold climates they should face toward the winter midday sun.

2. Water

Next comes the detailed water design. Geoff Lawton has you start at the lowest point on the highest property boundary. That's where to start digging swales, which are long trenches on contour going neither uphill nor down. Why? You want to store water as high in the landscape as possible, so you can gravity feed to lower elevations. Swales capture floodwater from a catchment and channel it into ponds. Sepp Holzer, who independently invented permaculture in Austria, uses hydro power from a cascade of ponds to provide all the electricity on his Alpine Krameterhof farm.

Even without ponds, swales slow, spread and soak water into the landscape, which makes them great tree growing systems. They also buffer floods and droughts and recharge groundwater.

3. Access

Once the water design is in place, it's time to think about access. Basically, you want to minimize the amount of hard surface. Roads and paths on Ridge lines require far less maintenance than road cuts at various angles on a slope. You can also build roads above and parallel to swales, which put their runoff to good use.

4. Sectors

Next, identify the directional flows of energy (things like sunlight, wind noise...), and map these according to their sectors, that is to say, their compass directions relative to your landscape. Now start playing with where to position your structures and plantings so they can capture desired flows such as winter sunlight, summer shade, or deflect unwanted flows, such as wind, noise, or fire risk.

5. Zones

Once you understand your sectors, start thinking about how you'll move around and interact with your landscape. Permaculture organizes these spaces by zones. Zone 1 is closest to the house and Zone 5 the farthest away.

Zone 1 is for things that require the most frequent interaction. For example, a fussy kitchen garden or a grape arbor. Some would put chickens in Zone 1, but I prefer them in Zone 2 or 3. Zone 2 is larger and farther from home. It would include larger garden crops, orchards that need tending only a few times a year, food bearing hedge rows, and animals that you don't want so close to the house. Zone 3 would be your broadacre crops such as wheat or corn or soy, pasture, ponds, and food forests, which are a mixture of food bearing trees, vines, shrubs and ground covers. Zone 4, a little bit further out and still bigger, would be for farm forestry, timber mulch, wild gathering of nuts and mushrooms, bee forage and recreation. Finally, as much land as possible, certainly much bigger than the settled area, should be set aside in Zone 5 for wilderness. This is unmanaged. This is where we go to learn and recharge, no hunting, gathering or foraging.

I can't emphasize enough how important zones are to permaculture planning. It's a joy to have the things you need most closest at hand. It's misery to always be running all over a large landscape for everyday tasks.

6. Building for stability

Now finally, you're ready to position your structures for maximum stability. You want to bring areas that interact frequently closer together, for example, things like gardens and kitchens.

Here's where normal housing and other structures really cry out for ecological design. In nature, nothing only has only one function. For example, a single tree such as mulberry can provide fruit greens, mulch, shade, building materials, fuel and habitat for beneficial animals. So analyze the needs of people, plants, animals and structures on the landscape. And recalling how we greened deserts in Episode 10, start stacking functions.

Each earthwork, structure or planting should be positioned to meet at least three needs. For example, you can plant a fruit tree to the west of a house for afternoon shade in summer. It can also mulch or garden downhill of it. You can harvest pears for example in the fall and use fallen branches for fuel or chip mulch.

Ecologies also achieve stability through interactive diversity. So plan to meet every need at least three ways. This is hard, but it's the ecological key to wealth. Don't just plant potatoes for food. Grow squash, beets, sweet potatoes, perennials, such a skirret and ground nuts. These make the design robust against blight and other threats.

7. Planting

Finally, we get to the part most people think about when they hear about permaculture the plantings. Permaculture uses guilds, our word for groups of organisms that help each other to create self mulching, self fertilizing systems with built-in pest control.

In his book, You Can Farm, Joel Salatin points out that you can't grow organically on big farms because birds won't hunt insects more than 200 meters from a forest. So pretty much all permaculture designs include tree cover.

How do you get started? First reforest any bare ridge tops and slopes greater than 10 degrees. Cover Crop and mulch any other bare spots, too.

Permaculture uses the concept of succession. This is where we use several succeeding generations of organisms to prepare an environment for the next generations. This happens naturally with weeds. Their job is to prepare bare soil for less hardy generations to follow.

But we can speed up this process by choosing what to plant and when, to get that food forest off to a good start. You'll sow swell soft mounds with cover crops at four times agricultural density, and plant with edible trees along with pioneer legume trees at 10 times the agricultural density. You'll chop and drop these pioneers for mulch at 12 to 18 months, releasing a massive boost of nitrogen from their roots to the food trees.

Test yourself

There's a small section of one of my permaculture designs at the top of the one page summary that you'll find in the program notes. That design contains at least two errors.

Can you spot them? One is quite clear from the material above. Unfortunately, the client required it despite my strenuous warnings. The other is subtle, and has to do with following the design sequence above only once. This was a student project, so I didn't catch the error at first, although it would have been glaringly obvious and easily fixed with one more pass through the design sequence or at the construction stage.

I'll reveal the answers in Episode 42, at the end of the season, when I critique this show, and the Edenicity reference design.

Uncovering and fixing errors in multiple iterations is normal because, as I discussed in Episode Five, design doesn't happen all at once, but instead, it happens through many iterations.

There’s more

The standard permaculture design certificate involves at minimum an 80 hour course crammed with detail, plus a student design project. Clearly, I've only scratched the surface today. There are so many more important tools that I'd love to share. But as they get into details, even certified designers often lose sight of the main points I presented today.

Did you get the impression that permaculture focuses mainly on farms and homesteads? True enough? It does. That's a problem, and I'll get into that in the next episode.

But if you look at the reference design from today's show notes, you'll notice that Edenicity does use permaculture Zones, and its Bicycle Transportation System stacks the functions of transportation for both bikes and emergency vehicles as well as solar energy. It should use all of the other things we talked about today. But those will depend on the sites chosen for development. So for now, I've left them in boxy schematic form.

If we want permanent wealth, we need a permanent culture of abundance to support it. Such a culture can only arise by becoming conscious of its own design.

Look around you. From what you learned today, how much of what you see is arranged according to permaculture principles?

We must be willing to redesign our world to benefit not just people, but also the soils, waterways, air, plants, animals, fungi, protists, bacteria, and so on that sustain the whole web of life. Because we and especially our cities are part of that web.

We can fight nature as we always have. But instead permaculture invites us to get to know it, use our intelligence to understand its patterns, and harmonize with them in our new designs.

Close [music]

If you enjoyed Episode 19 please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss a show. If you haven't already done so, please visit to download a copy of the reference design and the one page permaculture summary from this episode. And you won't want to miss Episode 20 where I'll discuss the fatal flaws of permaculture and how to fix them before it's too late. You won't want to miss this. I'm Kevin Polk and this has been Edenicity


Edenicity 19: Understanding Permaculture

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