Permaculture 101 – 1.1 Ethics and Design Principles – An Introduction

In this Permaculture Series, I’ll aim to bring a pretty complex topic back to its bare bones so that we (as the lowest common denominators) can get a simple feel for its merits and whether it’s right for us.

Again, due to the holistic nature of Permaculture (in the words of Dirk Gently, referring to the “conviction that what we are concerned about with here is the interconnectedness of all things” Douglas Adams, 1987), the dissection you are about to witness may offend some viewers.  Please forgive me my sins, we’ll come back to the global view once we have the nitty gritty sussed.

So, surrounded by piles of books (some very thick and text-booky indeed!) and an internet at my fingertips…..here goes….


Permaculture – a term blending the words PERMANENT with AGRICULTURE, and is described by its founder as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.  It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” (Permaculture, A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Future; Mollison, B.; 1990)

Science has been described as evolving from seek to (a) name things, (b) categorise them, (c) determine how they work and then onto (d) what they can do for us?  A key next step, not only in Permaculture thinking, but in many areas, is investigating how things work together, influence each other and ultimately result in co-operation or competition.  Seeking co-operation within a design leads to energy expended within the design (or captured from an external influence on the design), being utilised in a common direction rather than depleted by opposing the forces. (Permaculture, A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Future; Mollison, B.; 1990)  I.e. aiming to have everything pulling in the same direction.

Whilst Permaculture represents a garden/home/lifestyle integrated design, there are some underlying ethics and principals which are much less visual to the novice (us) in a design, but which feedback to the Prime Directive of Permaculture – “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.”

We reckon that this sentiment of Permaculture is best captured for “kids” of any age in the immortal words of Theodor Seuss Geisel (Source: The Lorax, Dr Seuss, 1971):

lorax

To back up this directive, Permaculture (as a balcony, courtyard, backyard and farm design and lifestyle integration opportunity) is based on the following ethical basis: (Permaculture, A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Future; Mollison, B.; 1990)

  1. Care of the Earth – Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.
  2. Care of People – Provision for people to access those resources necessary to their existence – this is acknowledged as an extension of (1) in that we are a life system
  3. Setting Limits to Population and Consumption – By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.”   – this is again acknowledged is an extension of (1).

In essence, we are addressing the idea of a permanent agricultural system that meets the needs of all life systems contained within it – i.e. the energy requirements of the system to achieve this are provided by that system.

Ahhhhaaa, the creation a perpetual motion machine, I hear you say!  But, no, there is no claim of providing the epitomy of the Law of Conservation of Energy….. but perhaps the glimpse of a metaphorical holy grail.  The sun will not burn for ever (although it is perhaps the closest we have to a perpetual energy source!), the rain will not deliver water every day, the breeze/wind/gale will not be consistent and we will all grow older – curses.  But…. to design a system to maximise the natural energy that falls on, blows through, crawls in, or causes our muscles to ache the next day within our small plot of existence, is to replace the energy which is lost or unable to be kept within our system (e.g. nature grows the seed, we eat the seed and then poop in the toilet and send that off to the ocean….). Hand in hand with this is the minimisation of this lost or waste energy to even out the balance….

As a (very central!) aside, the Heenan Doherty family operating out of New South Wales, have been redefining the Permaculture concept, by converting the language from sustainable (in the sense of maintaining the status quo, lacking the ambition to improve) to regenerative, while at the same time acknowledging that we (globally) are currently in a state well short of sustainable, which they have labelled atrophy.  While not changing the intent of the Permaculture concept, this provides perhaps a better definition of the goal posts.  Darren Doherty has developed the Regrarian Platform process under the principles of Permaculture, for the development of regenerative agriculture systems – go wild on google learning about this one (or we might together one day in the future)!  They’re an amazing family and one whose philosophies strike the right chord with many.

DohertyI digress again! On with the Principles.


Many dedicated and inspirational people have explained the Principles of Permaculture as it rings true with them and the following schematic looks at the range for you to investigate as you wish.  (Source with technical issues…)

All permaculture Principles - Mindmap - Appleseed Permaculture

To just pick one (keeping things simple!) that I might be able to both interrogate piece meal and pull back together when we get onto thinking about design, I’m going to have a look at David Holmgren’s list.  I’m not saying its the best, nor that any one of them should be held up as the definitive guide (not even the Guru is qualified to do that!), but like all things in Permaculture…. it depends.  If what I look at does not make sense to you, please don’t be put off.  Have a look at the others, or create your moulding of the above list. (Deep Green Permaculture – (from Victoria) provides a look at Bill Mollison’s approach and is both a great read and resource – thank you!).

As a designer, I am reliably informed, rather than Holmgren’s principles being a recipe to creating the “perfect design”, (of course, that does not exist as it would depend…..I’ll edit out the subsequent lengthy conversation!) they become the checklist to confirm your thought process through the design will achieve the aims of Permaculture as we defined it above. Fear not, I’m determined to find that illusive recipe to help us all feel like we have a Permacultural Plan of Attack (the PPA as I like to call it).   But for now, lets get back to our “checklist”.

Always good to start with a picture….(Quoted everywhere without source, but the likely Original Location)

Principals

Please note that, once again, I am interpreting the information in an abbreviated form, selecting and defining the chunks so that it makes sense to me.  For more (and, importantly, the original) information directly from David Holmgren’s keyboard head here or to: Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability; Holmgren, D.; 2002 (he has a significant volume in his writing which looks at culture and society under the principles, which I have rudely ignored…. Soil implications only for me! I’ve had trouble enough digesting that…. the info, not the soil).  Please note that all the below information has been paraphrased from these sources unless an alternate source has been referred to or I have put my thoughts in italics.  So, the Soil Hugger version:

ITEMS 1 to 6: Bottom-up perspective (i.e. single items, elements, organisms)

1. Observe and Interact – the ability of an individual to “observe and interpret both traditional and modern methods of land use, is a powerful tool in evolving new and more appropriate systems”  Observation and interaction of the designer within the system (and assisting its carer to do the same) enables the development of a design which builds the relationship between nature and people. Consciously catering for the continuous evolving of this relationship and the design, can maintain the carer’s inspiration and ensure the system meets the needs of all with co-operative energy efficiency. I.e. Moving away from the sentiment of “What can I get from this land, or person?” and more towards “What does this person or land have to give if I co-operate with them?”  (Permaculture, A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Future; Mollison, B.; 1990)

Example: Water runs from high to low – looking for run off patterns, talking to “locals” about rainfall trends and experience of run off / flooding issues, nutrients get washed from high to low so you may see plants flourishing at low points.  This leads onto: how do we reduce the run off, where should be put our chooks (tip…. at the top!), how much water might we expect to collect (is a water tank worth while?)…. should the time be available (luxury!!!), seasonal observation prior to design would be ideal, but indicators are evident to the keen observer who pays attention to the details on a single visit as well as the complimentary interactions with the owner/locals.

Below is just a pretty picture of water run off from Source, interestingly though we’ll refer to this later when it comes to a detailed study of patterns…. the interconnectedness of all things…. but hopefully it makes reading these notes a little less dry!  If you zoom in on this picture to various magnifications, you will see the same general patter repeated in a smaller scale such that the picture looks pretty similar to this – reminiscent of fractal patterns.

A key saying associated with this principle is “the problem is the solution“. Things are not always the way they appear, the negative aspect we see may be coupled with a compensating positive or actually be harnessed in a way to make it a positive feature for the existing system.  Weeds are a prime example – many seek to eradicate them, when they can be seen as nature covering bare soil (to limit temp fluctuations, to shelter micro-colonies), preparing the soil for less hardy species (by drawing nutrients to the topsoil as they perish, compost and replace themselves), a source of high nutrition in salad (and for livestock) and often the most water wise kick start to a barren landscape.

The observations you make and the interpretations you place upon them, should be constructed with the next 11 principles in mind.  This will ensure that our design does not suppress potential gains for our system, before they have the opportunity to demonstrate their true function.  (“protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour” B. Mollison)

2. Catch and Store Energy –  Pretty self explanatory, but the extent of the energy sources is a valuable list to review.  There are all sorts of discussions about fossil fuels, but among other drawbacks, its obviously not delivered cheaply to our garden! The more obvious sources to consider are Sun (solar), Wind (turbine) and Runoff water flows (hydro-electric, irrigation). There are also the “wasted resources from agricultural, industrial and commercial activities” (biomass, heat, discarded by-products, containers, reuseable construction materials…).

Capture and Storage of the energy can be as simple as fertile soil with high humus content, productive perennial systems to the more complex of the solar passive homes.  All life is dependent on the solar energy collected by plants.  Solar energy also dictates the weather and hence the other forms of renewable energy.  Water is required for the plants to photosynthesise, so this too is a stored energy.  The banking of macro-nutrients, micro-nutrients and carbon in the soil is also seen as a captured future energy source.  A non-regenerative approach to these minerals will leads to the repeated need to import energy (external fertility).  The crop’s seed is a critical energy storage device, especially in annual crops.  The list goes on…

Example: If we consider the solar energy required by our plants, we need to assess sun angles in our design and identify in what season we can deliver the appropriate amount of sunlight to enable selected productive plants to thrive – to produce food, to attract insects, to prevent the ground from getting too hot and damaging the soil life, etc.  We have a large front verge which faces north – in winter this zone harvests huge amounts of sunlight to produce veges, herbs and microscope-able creatures for us.  As the garden consists mainly of wicking beds, the rain falling in winter is captured, as are the nutrients which might otherwise have been washed out of the “resident free draining soil”.  In summer, this area gets baked, so we depend on our hardier chaps to keep the soil covered and the area as cool as possible on limited water supplies.  The remainder of the front area is planted with natives (and the deciduous trees) which slow down in winter, but attract birds and insects to the garden all year round.  They don’t complain about the limited water and hot conditions of our Perth Summers as well as protecting the ground and north facing walls below the reach of the eves.

3. Obtain a Yield –  In Principle 2 we looked at capturing and storing energy for future use, now we need to use some of that energy to meet today’s needs. All life obtains a yield from the environment around them, without which the life would cease – Darwinism at its core.

“Without immediate and truly useful yields, whatever we design and develop will tend to wither while elements that do generate immediate yield will proliferate.”  This statement can be applied to the withering of an individual plant unable to photosynthesis adequately in a shady spot, a business unable to compete in the market, or a clients enthusiasm with a new design concept.  The yield encourages, sustains and can develop replication in and expansion of the system.

Example: In the essence of needs : A truer word has not been spoken than “you can’t work on an empty stomach.”  But we also, in a less “needs based” and more “wants based” society…. we must have short term encouragement to persist with anything.  If the first product of a garden design is a magnificent apple tree producing its first harvest three-five years down the track, then this principle has not been achieved.  If nitrogen fixing planting is done to improve the soil (in preparation for that gorgeous fruit tree forest!) in one area, then in another position, a yield for the household will be required in the short term to keep the attention on the garden as a whole – i.e. planting some seasonal, quick and prolific food producers.  Alternately this can be viewed on a larger scale, one person has a visibly productive garden and others see it…. a portion of those look to start their own garden – getting tips off the first gardener, but later swapping seeds perhaps with the first, but also with the next friend who saw value in the second person’s garden….. and so the web expands.  Each of these examples looks at the need to supply a yield to enable the continued production.

4. Self-Regulate; Accept Feedback – In Principle 3 we talked about a yield, which is a type of positive feedback (we will start seeing more and more cross over of the principles as we proceed).  In nature we see feedback both curb and encourage growth and behaviour.  Adaptations stemming from initial or local feedback is seen through the implementation of self-regulation to “pre-empt and avoid the harsher consequence of external negative feedback” which may be incurred in the future.  Negative feed back can be viewed as the “brakes that prevent the system falling into holes of scarcity and instability from overuse or misuse of energy”.    Positive feedback is described as the accelerator, pushing the system towards more efficient harvesting of the freely available energy sources.  The theory here is, that if we seek to better understand how feedback works in nature, “we can design systems that are more self-regulating, thus reducing the work involved in repeated and harsh corrective management”.  Additionally the more self regulating and self reliant a system and its parts, the more robust it is to disturbances.

Example: Predators and pests work to meet their needs to survive, effectively controlling and regulating growth and populations. Let’s call this a feedback example. High pest populations draw in predators, but as the pests reduce so do the predators.  Back to the balance of supply and demand which in the garden world fluctuates with climate conditions, which impact the micro-climates (evolving within the garden) differently both over time and across the garden.  High pest numbers in one area may bring in the predators…as the numbers of pests in this first area drops, the predators prevent the infestation in an alternate area as they are forced to look farther afield for food. As we looked into with aphids, this is a feedback loop we can work with.  A familiar example for self regulation could be the clown fish which lives is a very structured society of one dominant female (the largest), one dominant male (second largest) and an array (up to 4) smaller non-breeding males.  Should the female of a society (within a single sea anemone) die, then the dominant male grows and becomes female, with the largest of the non-breeders becoming mature to fill the vacated position. Or more simply (and commonly) a high population with a limited food bank will typically reduce female fertility as nutrition falls.  This reduces the group’s reproduction capacity, population and consumption leading to an increased food availability per individual…. assuming food sources have not been irreparably damaged.

5. Use and Value Renewables – David defines renewables as resources “which are renewed or replaced by natural processes over reasonable periods without the need for major non-renewable inputs.”  A Permaculture design should seek to make the optimum use of renewable resources in order to meet the other principles.  The use of renewable resources can be categorised as consuming that resource (using the wood from a tree, “selling the shares”) versus non-consuming (the shade/shelter of the tree – for us or perhaps more delicate plants, “living off the dividends”).  The first requires a harvesting energy and removes the impact of the resource on other elements for a period.  The second requires no energy expenditure and is termed a passive function or service which does not change the impact the resource has on the existing elements. Utilising the renewable resources available in the best, non-consuming way is a design strategy employed in Permaculture.  Each resource has multiple products and hence consumption of that resource deprives the system of the other products (in the case of out tree example – capturing solar energy and CO2, supplying micro-climates above and below ground ….). The two questions which should be asked when reviewing this principle as part of our “checklist” should be (1) have we made the best use of that the renewable resources available can offer; and (2) is the use “within the renewable limits of the resource”?

Example: Apart from the tree example – integrating animals into the landscape – chooks (collecting eggs and fertiliser versus eating the chook), working dogs (sheep dogs rather than motor bikes), etc; composting (using microbial services); edible weeds as a high nutrient source (consumed, but short replacement period); yabbies in dams fed by water runoff bringing nutrients, similarly fish in ponds aerated by aquatic plants and fed by run-off, insects dropping in, algae + other plant matter and larvae hatching (great for keeping the mozzies at bay); the list goes on, but you get the idea.

6. Produce No Waste –“Waste not, want not” – “This principle brings together traditional values of frugality and care for material goods, the modern concern about pollution, and the more radical perspective that sees wastes as resources and opportunities.” As a fabulous mind once stated (well actually he’s said it many times!) “there’s no such thing as waste…. only stuff in the wrong place…. opportunity to be embraced.” (Charlie McGhee website, video).  System design needs to consider the use of one components output and/or byproducts as a support for the growth of another component – this prevents the depletion of energy in the system which occurs when “waste” product is removed and disposed of (i.e. Principle 2).

Example: The most obvious example is that seen in a forest, where old leaves are shed and fall as waste products to the ground.  In an urban garden, we might pick them up and put them out for a green waste collection…. However, of all that work we did to condition our soil, build our garden food webs and make nutrients available to our solar harvesting plant, a portion of the total energy exits our system with the dead leaves.  In the forest (and to be honest we are vehemently protective of anyone trying to take away our precious green “waste”, so in our garden too!) the leaves are broken down by the soil macro and micro organisms into humus and the accessible nutrients are made available to the plants’ root system.

When introducing non-organic products or other external feeds of energy into our household or garden, the constantly evolving saying of “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, re-purpose or recycle” proves a valuable mantra.  When purchasing for ourselves or designing for someone else’s garden, the world’s “waste products” (where the fossil fuels have already been expended to create it) are a great comodity – e.g. wicking beds – do we purchase a bed or can we use food barrels, old baths, etc.  In our climate, water should also be studied and designed for to prevent it becoming a waste stream where-ever possible.

ITEMS 7 to 12: Top-down perspective (i.e. broader patterns, relationships, co-operation) (Yep, the source is still: Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability; Holmgren, D.; 2002)

7. Design from Pattern to Detail –  Now we start to get technical…. The ability to recognise spacial (across a space) and temporal (over time) patterns in nature enable us to make sense of what is happening and of converting/capitalising on the pattern within a different context or size of system.  “Complex systems that work tend to evolve from simple systems that work, so finding the appropriate pattern for that design is more important than understanding the details of the elements in the system.”  This topic is at the core of Permaculture Design and should be a whole blog (if not textbook) in itself.  So I will promise to come back to it and do it the justice we deserve, but the exploration of one very important example should at least help us understand where this principle fits within the whole.

Example 1: Forest Patterns –  One type of plant grown in the same location year in year out, creates individual mineral deficiencies in the soil, poorer soil life diversity (and every ailment that comes with that!) and ultimately the need for the importation of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides to correct the imbalance (which nature is trying to do with the weeds and pests!).  No natural landscape on earth operates in this manner, but conventional agriculture does just that. 

Nature does not have “weeds” and it does not do “weeding”.  Weeds are natures pioneers they are deliberately prolific, opportunistic, vigorous and short life cycled.  They are the first plant species to move into a damaged area of soil to ‘fix’ it for more complicated, sensitive plants and eventual succession to forests.  Shallow mat rooted weeds are designed perfectly for bare soil stabilization and the shading bare ground.  They stop the top soil blowing or washing away, reduce the temperature extremes and allow time for deep rooted weeds and other dynamic accumulators to bring up minerals and trace elements deficient in the top soil (initial germination and growing zone). Once a few generations of weeds have grown, seeded, died, composted and provided habitat for an accumulating little ecosystem, the more advanced but sensitive plants can start to germinate. Various plants then develop to perform various functions (e.g. nitrogen fixing trees) which in combination with each other and the animalia, build up the soils (both in minerals, carbon harvesting (leaf litter, roots), water holding capacity….) to then support even larger trees.  The forest ends up with multiple layers (canopy / understory, low tree layer / mid-story, shrub / small shrub / herbaceous / understory, ground covers, root dominant plants, climbing plants and fungi ) all with their respective function. We can draw on this pattern in design, by looking for shade zones already existing for the canopy to protect our sensitive plants or by mulching and planting nitrogen fixers in advance of our fruit trees. 

As well as Sun/shade patterns across a garden across the seasons, attention to this patterning of plant purpose and potential structure seems to be up near the top of the list for the DIY Permaculture design tips and tricks. 

We’ll come back to this – and have a lot of fun at a later date (plant-nerdy as it might be) – as every design I see created, has these layers defined and their implementation phased through time depending on the starting point. This principle also covers zones, sectors, slopes etc

seattle park2 (Source – but these diagrams are everywhere.)

Water flow  and the erosional scars it creates on the landscape can be seen as a pattern also, see the patterns in the above photo. So much in nature follows fractal patterns from massive river systems to pineapples and crystals structures to our blood circulation system…. fun for a future blog: Patterns – how to recognise and employ them to help a system meet its needs.

8. Integrate – Integrate rather than segregate. The “purpose of a function and self regulating design (Principle 4 – Self-Regulate; Accept Feedback!) is to place elements in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements (Principle 6 – Produce No Waste + 7 – Design from Pattern to Detail!).” (Permaculture, A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Future; Mollison, B.; 1990)  Being aware of the relationships and the relative importance of them enables the integration of the elements for mutual benefit.  It is important to remember that (a) every element performs several functions and (b) every important function is supported by several elements – getting the elements to pull in the same direction to optimise the functions throughout the design reflects back into our earlier reference to co-operation.

Example: Relationships within the ecology can be split into several groups, the main being:

  1. Predatory relationship – one group benefits from the death of the other – the predator impacts the prey population, typically removing the weak or sick, but is dependent on  healthy prey to maintain the renewable food source. The rabbit / fox relationship.
  2. Parasitic relationship – lifeforms feeding off and weakening the larger, longer living host, but often also with the ability of moving onto the next host. Aphids would fit in nicely here.
  3. Competitive relationship – where common needs lead to a struggle (in growth or behaviour) for inputs to meet those needs.  This is often between individuals of the same species, but also between species – parrots and farmers for instance with a fruit tree!
  4. Avoidance relationship – where the need for the same resources is overcome by the two elements either specialising or adapting behaviour to share what is available – eg forests containing trees with different root types (shallow versus deep) can grow more densely than those competing in the same horizon (level in the soil profiles).
  5. Mutualism relationship – multiple organisms with different needs, but where the process of meeting those needs provides benefit to all. Rainforest trees shading, cooling and maintaining moisture levels in the understorey for those resident plants who further improve the decomposing environment to rapicly return the leaf litter to accessible nutrients for both.
  6. Symbiotic relationship – where the two become dependent on each other for survival – i.e. lichen, N2 fixing bacteria on the roots of legumes.

9. Use Small, Slow Solutions – “systems should be designed to perform functions at the smallest scale that is practical and energy-efficient for that function” and speed in the short term does not translate to better, sustained outcomes for the long term.  Now this one got me a little muddled, so I’m going to explain it by a list of ideas followed by examples….

  • small (low capital spend and limited effort) solutions to achieve a function mean that if you’re heading down the wrong track, or just simply change your mind, then the lost money and effort is not substantial.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall.  For example, a recycled brick border to the garden bed surrounded by a mulched path rather than a rendered neatly finished limestone with a cemented path…. say the garden bed is too exposed (because you forgot to look for patterns and observe the system prior to planting…. we all make mistakes – “failure is useful as long as we learn from it”) and you find you require a deciduous tree to protect the bed from the summer midday sun.  To fit the tree you need more space – it’s much easier and costs less time, energy and money to move the mulch section, expand the bricks and throw in some more soil from somewhere else in the garden.
  • small changes – allows observation to act on less variables to better understand the influence a change is having and whether the modification being implements is benefiting the system as a whole, or just addressing the “problem” observed without acknowledgement of the effect on the other elements.
  • slow changes generally result in the building up of the system for long term self reliance. E.g. “The fast response of crops to soluble fertilisers is often short lived. Manures, compost and natural rock minerals generally provide more sustained and balanced plant nutrition. A good result from a little fertilizer does not mean better results from more.”  Repeated applications of “off-plot” fertiliser and a failure to build up the soil condition leads to a dependence on an external energy sources.  (combined with Principle 2 – Catch and store energy and 8 Integrate) Slow and sure wins the race.
  • approaching change in a slow well planned manner – Planting a nitrogen fixing plant in the first year and a small mango in the second or third year will do better than buying a bigger mango in the first year when it comes to financial cost, sustained yield and a means to learn about the location (soil building, sun angles, space functionality, lower story planting can commence etc).

10. Use and Value Diversity – “Diversity needs to be seen as a result of the balance and tension in nature between variety and possibility on the one hand, and productivity and power on the other.” “Diversity provides alternative pathways for essential ecosystem functions in the face of changing conditions” leading to greater stability and resilience to external change.

The agricultural convention of monoculture farming is now recognised as a significant contributor to the crops vulnerability to disease and pests, leading to the need for the widespread use of toxic chemicals and system bulk energy import to control them.   The use of many plant varieties and crop rotation (polycultures) enables the balancing of soil nutrient use, self-regulating predator/pest relationships, and sustained production through seasonal changes.  The review of any forest will reveal the natural evolution towards polycultures.

Structural diversity through different root and canopy structures enables the shared harvesting of soil nutrients and solar energy throughout a daily and seasonal cycle.  Genetic diversity is reflected in adaptation to new conditions or strengthening of a species to overcome a population threat, and is seen across regions and time.  Some plant varieties are better suited to soil and climatic conditions…. when Perth climatic conditions were noted as Mediterranean during our early settlement, the import of crops from that region failed to thrive due to the different soil conditions….until they found Mediterranean locations with the same soil pH.

Consideration of the diversity available and required for a stable, water wise, energy cycling and self-regulating system forms a critical item in the designs which, in Perth, must evolve in poor starting soils and water limited conditions.

11. Use Edges; Value the Margin – This is another principle at the core of Permaculture Design and worthy of a whole blog (if not textbook) in itself.  In the simplistic sense, it is the edges that enable the ecosystem to harvest the best of two worlds rather than just one.  There is the pure forest ecosystem, the pure field ecosystem and then there is the interface which covers the band between the two pure areas.  The edge of a forest that opens out onto a field has the shade, leaf litter etc, but with sun for a period of the day for smaller plants thriving on solar energy rather than below the canopy, obvious positioning for advertising for bees and easy access / cover for birds and other wildlife.  The field crops get all the above but perhaps most important of all some nice, high humus soil if they reach far enough.  In essence at an edge, you get biodiversity time three (Principle 10).

The edge of any water source also provides a massive opportunity for plants and animals to reap the rewards of both habitats.

On a smaller scale, the human lung has a structure to maximise edges to produce maximum air/blood membrane interface for efficiency (using fractal patterns! Principle 7).  Similarly plant roots have little volume, but large surface area to enable maximum absorption of water and nutrients to meet its needs.  This area around the roots, rhizosphere, we have described before and it typically has a higher concentration of micro-organisms operating in co-operatives and in a complexly integrated manner.

Soil improvement activities work on increasing the depth of the topsoil in an effort to “widen that edge” perhaps the most important edge we have.  Its all happening at the edges!

With respect to the marginal reference, it is important to realise that in the good times, food is abundant, we have meet our wants as well as our needs, but what happens when times are not good – the depression (large scale) or (first world issue!) the electricity goes off after a big storm or there is an incident at the plant supplying gas to a major city…..  There are hardy foods, old school trades and lost traditions which have been marginalised due to the ease of acquisition of foods and products that we are conditioned to expect from our local big chain supermarket.

No, I’m not wearing my foil hat, but looking to the items cast aside or marginalised might just be the way to create a low energy, co-operative ecosystem design in an environment where water is scarce, but sun is abundant.  Interestingly, while I hate to be a slave to fashion, there appears to be a movement evolving (a healthy shift) bringing such things as edible weeds, various teas (nettles, lemon verbina etc), bush tucker and many other opportunities (for the design to weave into a design) because they are now “officially fashionable”.  Many of these are far better suited to our climate and ethics than the lettuce (watered heavily, transported from the country then sold by a big chain supermarket with little return to the farmer and in turn earth), or the nectarine in winter (imported from the USA because it is demanded but not in season here).

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change – This principle has two angles. “Designing to (a) make use of change in a deliberate and co-operative way, and (b) creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change which is beyond our control or influence….Permaculture is about the durability of natural living systems and human culture, but this durability paradoxically depends in large measure on flexibility and change.”

Part (a) describes how a knowledge of the behaviours which lead to a positive or negative change and hence how to ensure the other principles are met with the changes we invoke.  As mentioned previously, the planting of nitrogen fixing plants for soil improvement, shade, etc in preparation for the slower growing fruit trees exemplifies using the knowledge of change. Conditioning of the soil early in a design whilst having quick win crops to meed the “Obtain a Yield” principle represents an understanding of the use of change in keeping a client’s interest in the whole design implementation process.

Part (b) is captured in the philosophy of the below picture:

When a change beyond our control comes through, it needs to be examined for opportunities.  This is exemplified by the two story triplex built both on the east and south sides of our block, coupled with the existing double story on our west side….. the area where the buildings meet in the south east corner of has been set aside as a low wind area where the bananas do okay.  Banner grass stretches almost half way up the second story of the back place and the huge bottle brush next to it, means that greenery dominates the outlook.  Due to the flexible nature of the garden structure, new areas of shade can be used for alternate plant species or our other trees were more harshly pruned to compensate.  Best of all, through an arrangement with the neighbours, we acquired significant volumes of long term cared for topsoil to fill many of our wicking beds out the back.

The ability (and need) of the system to moderate the impact of change has been outlined within the other principles.  Where that impact cannot be moderated, alternate strategies are required to capitalise on the positives of the change and to facilitate the adaption of the ecosystem towards the optimum (energy) new stable mode of operation.


Well I did not make it under 5000 words (yet again!), but congrats for sticking it out.  Hopefully it was segregated enough that you could skip over the bits that did not strike a chord with you.  To make us feel better (after exploring all those examples), I will add in closing a quoted from Bill Mollison: “The problems of the world are becoming increasingly complex but the answers remain embarrassingly simple.”

So here we stand armed with our trusty checklist, but with no design to check…. where to from here?  When does it get “simple”?

As a bit of “fun” (Soil nerd version of fun, of course!), some months back, I started to write a book.  It was to be a step-by-step guide to designing a garden on the basis of the Permaculture Principles, but with only limited theory included…. essentially I was re-writing the Permaculture Design Certificate Course Manual into a do-it-yourself guide.  Whilst I am only part way through it, the chapter layout might help guide us through the method of garden / house / lifestyle design on the basis of the above principles.  And, maybe, just maybe, we might create our own “simple” recipe along the way…..

Until next time, I hope you’re enjoying the ride.

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5 thoughts on “Permaculture 101 – 1.1 Ethics and Design Principles – An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design: For Rural Only? Not in the slightest! – Part 1 | The Soil Hugger's Journey

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  4. Pingback: Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design Part 3: The Client Interview Sheet – Part 2. | The Soil Hugger's Journey

  5. Pingback: The Permaculture Design Course – To Do or Not To Do? On the 1st Day of the PDC…. | The Soil Hugger's Journey

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