Sustainability is a familiar concept these days. It implies that our actions are beneficial and can continue indefinitely. But, when we mention sustainability, we are also talking about keeping things the same, adhering to the status quo. What if there are steps we can take to improve the condition of our soil, clean the air, and create habitats? This goes beyond sustainable into the realm of regeneration, which can be easier to employ than one would think using permaculture techniques.
Permaculture (permanent + culture, or permanent + agriculture) is a lifestyle choice and set of ecological design principles that were developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. It has us observe nature, and recreate some of the diversity and resilience found in those systems. It does not rely on manmade chemicals or cheap labour, but rather, it employs clever design techniques that make use of the water, wind, and sun that naturally occur, with minimal human effort involved. It also highlights the growth of human community through the sharing of resources, and bartering (trading) systems.
The three main ethics in permaculture are:
- Earth care – Finding ways to encourage growth and reproduction of all plant and animal systems
- People care – Finding ways to provide abundance, fresh water, and nutrition for humans
- Return of surplus – This can be as simple as returning your compost to your garden, or sharing the abundance of your crops with the community around you. It works on the premise that abundance is everywhere and can be shared to make up for any lack.
Many of the plants used in permaculture systems tend to be perennial (they come back year after year) and perform many functions such as supply forage material for animals, firewood, habitats, food, and fertilizer (beneficial nutrients) for other plants.
The following is an example of a food forest (otherwise known as a forest garden) which is a common element in permaculture.
It contains only perennials or self-seeding annuals, and most plants serve more than one function. It consists of seven layers: canopy layer (fruit trees), shrub layer (berry/nut bushes), herb layer (herbs/greens), groundcover layer (creeping thyme, strawberries), root layer (horseradish, dandelions), vine layer (grapes, hops), and fungal layer (mushrooms, and mycelia). With these layers, it operates in the same resilient way that a natural forest would. It feeds itself, houses all necessary beneficial insects and animals, shades itself, and communicates through its roots to warn of any dangers or threats (trees can communicate through the fungal network in the soil to other trees miles apart to start a chain reaction of defense mechanisms).
USDA Zone 3 Perennial Food Forest in its Second Year:
This food forest was planted, and watered once. And only once. It was mulched heavily with wood chips and sawdust, then nature did the rest. Yes, it would grow faster if it was watered frequently; but it survives. Year after year, there are salad greens, fruit, berries, nuts, herbs for tea, medicine, and forage for chickens which provide meat and eggs, all without having to water. Not only is it a lot less work than an orchard or vegetable garden, but the nutritional value of the perennial food is higher than annual plants. It is never sprayed with any chemicals, and the whole system fertilizes itself by composting the leaves that drop, the greens that die back in the winter, and the comfrey that is chopped and dropped around each fruit tree.
The plants support each other by providing shade, repelling pests, or creating a space for predatory insects to live so that they may eat unwelcome pests. The soil is being built and fortified each year instead of being depleted. The plants that are grown are cleaning the air we breathe and their roots are holding the soil in place so that it doesn’t wash away.
This is how regeneration takes place. By contributing more to the natural environment than we are taking away. Creating habitats for insects and animals, community gathering/bartering spaces for people, and food that grows in such abundance that it needs to be given away.
For more information on permaculture, check out permies.com, or elpermaculture.com for workshops involving these principles.
What steps do you currently take to regenerate or improve the land around you?
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