What is Permaculture?

I’ve wanted to write an introductory post to permaculture for months now. There are thousands of articles online about it already, probably even more on "agroforestry" and "regenerative agriculture" and many other techniques that are closely related or seen by some as an aspect of agriculture. I'm writing this as a tiny introduction, so in future posts I can write more about this; I'm planning to share techniques I use and ideas I'm experimenting with, write about the social aspects of permaculture and talk more about off-grid lifestyle... This is a bit of a background story.

Permaculture is a set of design principles and techniques that aim at producing, cultivating and using things in a sustainable way, all the while working with nature instead of against it. To me, it’s mainly a way to minimise input (work, money and materials) while maximising the output. It can be put into practice in very small spaces (an apartment balcony for instance) to very large scale (big farms). Permaculture mimics patterns and features from nature: growing different plants together so they can help each other, creating systems including several elements at the same time, accounting for wind direction and sun inclination, and many more.

A lot of people practise permaculture without knowing it or without wanting to call it that. To some, it has a hippie or extremely green connotation. It's taught at university in many countries and used as a way to re-green desert or depleted pieces of land. A growing number of people use permaculture (or aspects of it) in order to provide for their family or community. There are astonishing examples of what it can do on large scale, the only downside being that it takes quite some time and effort to set up - the average permaculture property can take 5 to 7 years to start producing enough to get some return on investment. 

Permaculture is not new or innovative; it mainly assembles techniques and ideas that have been around for a long time. And as the permaculture movement grows, new inventions and techniques pop up from time to time as well.

The first permaculture design for our property, there's the different coloured zones and a few buildings and pond

The first permaculture design for our property, there's the different coloured zones and a few buildings and pond

How do we implement permaculture at Mas del Encanto?

Every permaculture project starts off with a design. I made a first draft for our property as a homework assignment for my permaculture design course (PDC); we’ve made a few changes since then, but the main idea is still the same. I divided our property into zones, zone 1 being the zone closest to the house, where we’d spend most time and have the things we’d spend most time around - to zone 5 being the wilderness zone, where we wouldn’t touch the forest.

Then there's soil; you can't keep animals, grow vegetables or produce fruit when your soil is no good. At this moment we're getting manure from our neighbours' horses, but some time in the future we hope our own animals will produce enough to add to our compost and build up rich soil. We make sure we rotate plants (& animals) on our land so the soil gets richer season after season, instead of being depleted and needing lots of fertiliser like in traditional agriculture.

 
Chickpeas looking pretty tasty

Chickpeas looking pretty tasty

Pest control

We don't use chemical pesticides; we use specific plants to deter certain pests and we try to attract the right wildlife to our land, which will feed on the "bad bugs" and make sure our veggies survive.

Food forest

The terraces to the east of our finca (the barranco or dry river) are being turned into a food forest / forest garden. We’ve planted fruit and nut trees, berry bushes in between them and we’ll keep adding vegetables and edible plants, while at the same time working to make the soil better. We select the plants carefully so they can help each other; the legumes put nitrogen in the soil, trees provide support for climbing vegetables and fruits, and the big pumpkin, melon  and zucchini leaves provide shade so the soil doesn’t get baked by the sun. We plant certain flowers to attract pollinating insects, and other plants to keep pests and flies away from our vegetables.

 

Animals in permaculture

Chickens are very important in our design; with little input, they have a lot of output. Our chickens take care of bugs and weeds, and in exchange they give us daily eggs and a lot of poo (fertiliser) - and occasionally we’ll get to eat one of the surplus roosters. Our chickens have a set run, but we also have a mobile chicken coop and electrical fence so we can drive them to different areas of our land to “clean up”: eat the weeds, scratch up the soil, get the whole thing ready for planting. We plan to implement more animals as working elements in our design; we’ll need grazers to keep the grass short (alpacas? Sheep? Kune Kune pigs?), maybe one day some goats to eat weeds and make us cheese, and (who knows) a pony so we won’t need a tractor… There are plans for an insect hotel and we recently took up vermiculture (worm composting). So many plans, we’ll need quite a lot of time to implement them all!

Hills and trenches (with mustard and beans)

Hills and trenches (with mustard and beans)

Groundworks and waterworks

Managing waterflow on the property to minimise costs and effort but maximise the outcome (irrigation), is an important aspect of permaculture. We started on waterworks here and there on our land; we made trenches around many trees to catch more water when it rains, dug canals in the barranco so the waterflow gets redirected to a pond, and all the rainwater from the roof of our house goes to one point where one day, we’d like to have a natural swimming pool. Hopefully this fall we’ll get to rent a digger to do some landscaping around the house as well.

We know we have many, many more years to come before we can get our little farm to its full potential - but we have so many inspiring examples, challenging ideas and so much time before us that we're mostly looking forward to the potential results.

 

 

Videos for further watching

http://www.geofflawtononline.com/ - Geoff Lawton has tons and tons of videos on all things permaculture. You only need to register (it's free) to watch them.

Green Gold, a fascinating and eye-opening documentary by John D. Liu about re-greening deserts around the world. Worth sitting down for. It's also got a very positive message to oppose the defeatism of global warming...

A Farm for the Future, a fascinating documentary by Rebecca Hosking about farming in the UK. It not only explains what's wrong with relying on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilisers, but it also talks about the many alternatives. The images around minute 25:00 show exactly what the problem is with plowing and killing the soil, these are things that cannot be unseen. And as a bonus, it features the late Patrick Whitefield.