Nearly all of the food grown in the United States (as well as in many other countries around the world) is grown with the use of synthetic fertilizers.
Without chemical-based fertilizers, we would likely have no food. However, as a result, our soils are becoming completely depleted of nutrients, devoid of natural microbes and beneficial microorganisms that our plants rely on to grow.
Even organic farms need fossil fuels, in some way, to thrive. Most farms rely on gas- or diesel-powered equipment or shipping methods, meaning no growing system is free from the guilt of harming the environment in some way.
Permaculture is the design science that encourages observing and understanding nature, then using this understanding to design our human habitat and agriculture to mimic the behavior of natural ecosystems.
So in general we want to make the most of every resource, using them as many times as possible. Ideally we would keep the resources (wood, nutrients, water, heat) cycling within our system.
Also, in forests, each species performs multiple functions at the same time, for instance one plant might attract pollinating insects, signal pest presence, provide shade, and feed the soil life.
So we try to incorporate elements that provide multiple functions at the same time in our designs.
The Benefits of Permaculture
1. It mimics natural ecosystems.
Permaculture includes every aspect of your environment, from the trees to the roadways to the fertilizers that you use.
It is a method of building, designing, and maintaining an environment that allows all systems to support and sustain each other for long-term living. Just as in nature, where one element feeds another, which in turn feeds another, permaculture seeks to restore natural relationships and rhythms as much as possible.
2. It reduces the use of fossil fuels.
There is no arguing about it anymore – climate change is very real, and it is mandating that we switch to alternative energy sources as soon as possible. Unfortunately, driving an electric car or shutting the lights off when you leave a room just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
We need to look at another major source of pollution – our food systems.
Permaculture helps reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by providing a system in which all energies are cycled back within the systems.
You don’t need fertilizers to be shipped halfway across the country, and the food that you produce is sold locally, meaning you aren’t putting it on a tractor trailer to be transported thousands of miles away.
3. It is self-sustaining.
Permaculture creates a system that provides for its own energy needs within a closed-loop system. Because of this, it is self-sustaining, allowing the system to survive for years without outside input.
You don’t need to use fossil fuels or other outside influencers in a permaculture system, and can instead rely on natural inputs like solar power or wind energy.
This system can provide its own fertilizers, using livestock manure or cover crops to nourish the soil instead of chemical fertilizers that deplete the soil of microorganisms.
You can produce all of the food for your animals on site, growing forage crops or recycling your kitchen waste as animal feed.
This closed-loop system turns all of your waste back into resources and utilizes the resources you have instead of bringing in outside solutions.
4. It integrates food supplies with settlements.
When you think about permaculture, it’s important that you consider all aspects of the environment, including those that are human. It has a place in all walks of life and allows you to integrate your food supply with your living areas.
You can use your roof to catch rainwater, which can be used as a gray water irrigation system. This can feed your plants, which provide you with food. Those food scraps can then be fed to your chickens, who will, in turn, fertilize the soil. See the pattern?
Permaculture systems are interactive. The design elements of your home work with your food supply. It’s about designing eco-friendly ideas that are based round the idea of resource conservation and renewing every source of energy in the environment.
Permaculture meets human needs, while at the same time caring for the planet.
It also recognizes that caring for the planet allows us to care for ourselves and others at the same time.
When we begin to take responsibility for our existence, putting our own resources back into the earth, we can avoid companies, products, and behaviors that exploit ourselves and other people.
5. It is one of the oldest methods of farming in the world.
Permaculture is not a new process. It has been used for centuries in places like Vietnam and Morocco, helping civilizations like the ancient Aztecs survive in the world’s most challenging climates.
These ancient peoples understood that nature was not an open loop system, in which each element had only one purpose.
Instead, these civilizations recognized the beauty and functionality of all living things and sought to return natural elements back to their environment for future use.
6. It requires observation.
For permaculture to be successful, you don’t need to give up the comforts of your everyday life, but you do need to be observant.
Permaculture requires you to be cognizant of your environment’s natural rhythms and conditions. You utilize only what works best for your area.
If you live in a dry climate, you grow perennials that prefer arid soil. If you live in a hot climate, you will grow different plants than if you live in a cold one.
You need to be aware of the conditions you have so that you can build up your soil (as well as your other natural resources) to make it work well over time. You don’t adjust the land to what you want to plant – you plant what will work well with the land you have.
7. It allows for energy to be stored.
Permaculture has built-in methods that consistently revitalize the earth. Your plants will be healthier because they have access to the nutrients they need, which are recycled in the soil when you add compost or introduce earthworms.
Permaculture recognizes that we are only as healthy as our plants and planet are. It is important to care for the environment and to store energy, instead of selfishly keeping it for ourselves in the form of fossil fuels or plastics, for example. Permaculture feeds other life forms, which in turn feeds us.
8. It assumes that each element performs multiple functions.
In permaculture, every aspect of a landscape has more than one function – nature is the ultimate multi-tasker.
This helps encourage a self-sustaining landscape in that every element of your ecosystem helps meet the needs of other elements, while at the same time receiving everything it needs in turn.
For example, you can use a rain barrel to raise edible fish, while at the same time collecting water for irrigation. A drainage pond used to collect runoff and prevent erosion can provide necessary habitat for ducks.
Every element of your permaculture landscape should be viewed with multiple purposes in mind, instead of just one means to an end.
9. It can be conducted on a small scale.
You don’t need to own a ten-thousand-acre farm or have major livestock holdings in order to engage in thoughtful permaculture. All you need to do is have a commitment to reviewing the way you think about the environment.
Start small, with one minor change at a time. Permaculture methods can be implemented on a large scale, or a small scale. Just start with one thing, for example, your rainwater.
Think about where your water comes from and how you can return some of that back to the environment.
By looking at the waste products you create and how they can be recycled back into the environment (with logic and boundaries, of course), you can create a permaculture system. Even if you start off small, you are still doing something to benefit the environment.
On that note, you don’t even need to live in a rural area to incorporate permaculture principles. Even in the heart of Detroit, one of the largest cities in the United States, there are organizations who are producing thousands of pounds of food every year on lots the size of postage stamps.
10. It involves perennials.
One of the prime components of permaculture is that it must contain perennial crops. Tilling the ground even once a year is not good for the soil, as it kills beneficial microorganisms and stunts the growth of plants. Perennial crops help eliminate the need for constant tillage.
Unfortunately, most of the plants that we eat are not perennials, particularly in the northern climates where seeds have a hard time surviving through tough winters.
However, encouraging the growth of local, perennial crops as opposed to the monocultures of corn and wheat can help reduce our reliance on annual food sources.
11. It lets nature do the work.
Have you ever heard of the mantra, “work smarter, not harder”? This is one of the main tenets of permaculture.
By working with, instead of against, nature, you can use the resources you have without needing to reinvent the wheel.
For example, you can build chicken tractors to help feed your birds and allow your chickens, in turn, to scratch for bugs and add nitrogen to the soil.
By allowing your animals to return to their most natural state – scratching in the dirt for their food instead of huddling around a crowded chicken coop – you reduce your workload.
There’s no manure to shovel or diseases to deal with, and you fertilize your ground and feed your birds in the process.
12. It allows for water to be conserved – and used wisely.
Water conservation is an important focus for permaculture farms, particularly those in more arid climates. In permaculture landscapes, the earth is designed and sculpted to help direct every ounce of precipitation toward a purpose.
You could build terraces on steep land to capture runoff or build a system of canals. This is not a new idea – in fact, the Aztecs used these kinds of models to grow food and raise fish.
13. It is for everyone.
Permaculture benefits everyone, from people to livestock to earthworms. Once a system is created, the yields from a permaculture system are the highest per hectare of any system in the world, surpassing all other agricultural designs. They require minimal inputs and also allow for the most diversification.
Basic Permaculture Concepts
There are several basic permaculture principles and methods you should be aware of. Here, we will break down the basics so that you can implement the principles that work best in your current situation and lifestyle.
One of the most basic permaculture concepts is that of the food forest, which incorporates several principles of permaculture but recognizes that you can engineer your land to produce an amazing amount of food with minimal care -as compared to a traditional vegetable garden.
You use the natural shape of your land to plant your food, growing your crops in layers and using them for purposes besides your own sustenance while they grow – such as providing food to pollinators or shade for plants growing at a lower layer.
Perennial food sources also tie in to the concept of the food forest. This theory recognizes that our current agricultural system is lacking in that annual crops take more energy to produce, both from the soil and from our dwindling supply of non-renewables.
This concept of permaculture requires landowners to produce food with minimal inputs in a variety of conditions, focusing on perennial crops that will produce higher yields over their lifetime with fewer upkeep needs.
Thermal Mass and Passive Solar
Thermal mass is a concept of permaculture that involves making use of materials that have the natural ability to store heat.
For example, you can use materials like rocks or concrete to build your chicken coop, which are very dense and hold heat for a long amount of time.
Closely related to the idea of thermal mass is that of passive solar. Passive solar is a critical element of permaculture that requires building design to conserve energy and take advantage of the natural environment.
To engage in passive solar, all you need to do is understand the position of the sun and to figure out a way you can incorporate it in the design of your buildings and other structures.
Social permaculture applies the core principles of permaculture to society, and while it’s a newer concept under the umbrella of permaculture, it is essential.
This theory recognizes that people are equally valid in the environmental realm, and embrace the multiple functions that people can perform when they come together with a purpose.
This concept involves utilizing a gathering, like a potluck dinner, as a way to conduct multiple functions. At this gathering, people can eat, educate, organize, and more.
Rainwater Harvesting & Berms and Swales
Rainwater harvesting is simple, and many homesteaders already engage in rainwater harvesting to some extent.
This process allows you to catch as much rain a possible through barrels or other large-scale collection methods, to be used for irrigation, cooking water, and even drinking, in some cases.
The idea of berms and swales is one of the most basic permaculture principles when it comes to water conservation. Most permacultures incorporate these ditches and other natural land formations to help hold water and raise the water table.
This allows farmers to increase the amount of water retained, allowing you to make the most of natural precipitation and your existing landscape without building new irrigation systems.
Plant guilds embrace biodiversity and utilize layers to create a landscape. Your property will contain multiple different species, all of which work together and serve multiple functions.
Companion planting is a form of plant guilds, but this is conducted on a larger scale and incorporates multiple layers, such as roots, vining, groundcover, overstory, and shrubs, to name a few.
Stacking functions is at the root of all successful permaculture systems. In this design, each element performs more than one function, with each element performing as many different roles as possible.
For example, if you own chickens, you can use them to turn over your compost pile.
This will improve your compost’s viability and oxygen content, while the chickens will add nitrogen and eat bugs and other pests. In turn, your chickens can then provide you with nutrient-dense fertilizer and a steady supply of eggs.
Each function layers over the next and serves multiple purposes.
Real-World Examples of Permaculture Ecosystems
The best way to “get” permaculture is just to see a bunch of examples that you can actually apply at your homestead or farm. Below you’ll find three “tools” that you can apply to better work with the living systems on your land. Enjoy! 🙂
1. Chicken Moat
The chicken moat is a great example of a design that creates many mutual relationships between the elements of your homestead.
A chicken moat is a hallway all around the outside of your garden in which the chickens run. The chicken moat would also be attached to the coop and other basics not pictured here. Benefits:
- Excludes varmints like rabbits, woodchucks and deer from the garden. (deer wont jump a double fence)
- Exclude rhizomatous/spreading weeds from entering your garden area.
- You can toss your garden weeds and bad veggies into the moat for the chickens to eat.
- You can throw seedy mulch in there for the chickens to pick through. So you’re feeding the birds while adding value to the weeds by making them almost seed free, and rich in fertilizer (chicken poo), which you can then apply back into your garden.
- You can place a pergola across the top of the moat and grow vining plants like grapes or hardy kiwi to increase the growing area, and create a shaded shelter for the birds.
- You can plant the outer perimeter with nutrient accumulating plants like Comfrey. These will mop up all the fertility coming from the chicken waste, turning it into biomass which can be used to mulch the garden. The leaves will grow through the fence for the chickens to munch on without being able to kill the plants.
- You can also plant other perennial fodder plants in and around the moat for added chicken food: Siberian Pea Shrub, Dwarf Mulberry, Goumi, Chicory, Sunflower, Amaranth, Buckwheat, Chard, Mustard, Clovers, Plantain, and Dandelion.
- Put your open compost pile in with the chickens to pick through for bugs and veggies.
2. Ground Covers
A ground cover is a plant that densely covers the ground to out compete unwanted weeds, and act as a “living mulch.” This ground cover also helps to shade the soil, reducing moisture loss to evaporation, and it reduces the erosive effects of rain and wind.
Some ground covers can also be chosen which fix nitrogen from the air which fertilizes the soil such as White Dutch Clover. These plants tend to grow and spread vigorously, creating a thick mat that self-repairs indefinitely.
These can be used in the garden, or in orchards, or simply to replace your lawn. These plants can have a few different behaviors.
Some are runners which spread indefinitely (Apine Strawberry), some are clumpers which tend to stay put in a tight bunch (Dwarf Comfrey) and others form a thick mat and may run or clump. (Creeping Bramble).
For the best results, use a combination of these, combining runners, clumpers, and mat formers.
Other ground cover species to investigate;
- Wild Ginger
- Apple Mint
- Miner’s Lettuce
- Chinese Artichoke
- Netted Chain Fern
Clumpers and Mat Formers:
- Milk Vetch
- Thread-leaved Coreopsis
- Chinese Indigo
- Prostrate Bird’s Foot Trefoil
- Creeping Blueberry
*A great resource for plant research is Plants For a Future.
Many woody species can be cut down, and the stump will regrow many new sprouts. While this may be a nuisance to some land managers trying to eliminate what nature wants to be there, we can use this behavior to our advantage.
When you have a plot of woody plants that you chop down on rotation, this is called coppice.
The wood that’s removed can be used in many ways including construction materials, firewood, mulch and more! This practice actually lengthens the life of the tree, keeping it perpetually in an adolescent stage of development.
If planting a coppice plot, it’s best to plant a diversity of species, some nitrogen fixers, some hardwoods, some soft etc. Plant densely to encourage the sprouts to grow straighter, seeking the light.
The nitrogen fixers fertilize the soil by self-pruning their roots when they are cut back. This releases the nitrogen locked up in nodules on the roots slowly into the surrounding soil.
For initial establishment, cut the initial tree stems at the diameter you intend to continually harvest them at.
- Firewood – small diameter (2-4 inches) is the most efficient
- Mulch – you can continually “chop-n-drop” the resprouts to mulch garden beds, trees, and plants
- Fertilizer – some species (autumn olive) accumulate nitrogen, and slowly release it as they break down
- Mushroom Production – hardwoods like oaks can be inoculated with edible or medicinal mushrooms
- “Pseudo – Dwarf” – by coppicing some fruit trees, you can get production from smaller sized trees versus, for instance a fully mature 50ft Mulberry tree. The sprouts will produce fruit at 3-4yrs.
- Linden/Bass wood
- Black Locust – (Nitrogen Fixer) Careful, it suckers like mad!
- Honey Locust
- Alders (Nitrogen Fixer)
- Autumn Olive
You don’t have to incorporate all of these principles at once, but gradually embracing them one by one should be a goal for you and for your homestead.
By implementing a self-sustaining food system, you can create a landscape that most naturally mimics the local environment.
While scientists continue to search for alternatives to petroleum and doomsdayers wonder what our world will look like without fossil fuels, you can sit back without a worry in the world, knowing that the permaculture system you designed will provide for you and future generations of life without requiring any outside input.
Now that’s modern agriculture!
We are currently building our farm, Realeyes Homestead based on these Permaculture principles in Northern Michigan. But we need some “seed” money to help get us fully operational. We also provide Holistic Nutrition Consulting and Permaculture Design Consulting. (via Phone and Email)
~Levi Meeuwenberg @ Realeyes Homestead
updated 04/07/2019 – Rebekah White
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.