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Basic Principles of Permaculture

We are called by God to be stewards, gardeners, of the world he made. To effectively fulfill this role, we need to understand and follow the basic principles underlying Creation.  Permaculture is a design method which abstracts the underlying principles from Creation and then uses them in anything we design— from a workshop or chicken coop to a thousand acre ranch or a whole village.

The Three Basic Principles of Permaculture.

1. To realize the dignity and worth of all people, known or unknown to us, and to love and care for them. We must realize that our actions impact every person now alive in some way, that the repercussions of our actions will affect all those still to be born, and that the wisdom handed on by our  ancestors should inform our actions. We should especially strive to protect those who are weak or vulnerable in any way; the unborn, the poor, those suffering persecution.

2. To realize that the earth was given to us by God for our stewardship, and that as such it merits our respect and care. It can only be brought to its full perfection if we fulfill our role.

3. We have a duty to responsibly use and invest all surplus “wealth”, in the broad sense of the term, in following the first two principles, realizing that all “wealth” originally flows from others and from the earth.

Unlike the ethical principles listed above, the practical design principles very from author to author. Here are some that I find important, in my own words.

1. Multi-functionality. In nature things always have more than one function.  A tree not only provides for its own growth and regeneration, but fills dozens other roles as well. We could follow it, for instance, by choosing trees to shade our houses which also provide fruit.

2. Diversity. In nature, everything is diverse— diversity on many levels. There is diversity of landforms, diversity of organism types, diversity of plants.

3. Redundancy. In the world around us every function or “job” is preformed by many players. That way if something goes wrong and an element permanently or temporarily drops out, the web of life remains intact and functioning.  When we do not mimic this redundancy, there is no safety net when things go wrong, as in the Irish Potato Famine, or the American Corn Blight. We need redundancy on many levels, from having several complementary sources of income, to growing several varieties of tomato.

4. Sustainability and Localism. Natural systems gain materials and energy from local and sustainable sources. Sustainable means able to carry on till the sun burns out; coal and oil are thus not sustainable. Local varies with the object spoken about, but anybody would agree that a massive “sustainable” wind farm or solar panel array in some desert, with the power being sent to a far-off city, is not local.  Everything which can be grown or made onsite or near at hand should be. If this were done, it would be easy to get the small amounts of energy necessary from local sustainable forces.

5. Permanence. In the world around us most things are permanent. Trees and other long-lived perennials make up a high percentage of most plant communities. Fertility in the soil is held there for thousands of years. The very word Permaculture is a contraction of “Permanent Culture, or Agriculture.”  We must come to rely more on perennial crops, (although annual crops are certainly important) must build up permanent fertility in the soil, and most of all, must develop permanent communities.

6. Stability. This principle is closely connected to the principle above. Natural plant communities are stable and not easily unbalanced, whereas our yards and gardens are easily destroyed by storms, droughts, or lack of attention. We must try to mimic the patterns of the natural world in our designs. That way, when medical emergencies or other factors in our lives necessitate leaving our yards untended, they can tick along without us. Perennial plants of any sort are more resilient than annuals, as we do not have to be around establish them every spring, their roots have a greater depth to obtain water, and they are through the vulnerable seedling stage. Stability will be greatly enhanced if we adapt to our climate; a bluegrass lawn in a desert will never be stable.

7. Low disturbance. Disturbance is anything which comes from outside of a system and affects it. Natural disturbances exhibit two features; moderate intensity and impact, and moderate frequency.  We should mimic this pattern of disturbance in our landscapes.

8. Catching and storing energy. Natural systems are extremely efficient at catching and storing energy. The stored wealth is principally in two forms; living and dead biomass, and genetic diversity stored in propagules of all sorts. The biomass (carbon) stores minerals and holds water while protecting life, while the genetic wealth provides the  necessary diversity and redundancy that the system needs to survive day to day, as well as providing for its regeneration. In keeping with this, our landscapes should build reserves of water, minerals, organic matter, live biomass, perennial plants, and various forms of energy.

9. Cooperation. In a forest, plants share resources among themselves. The roots of many types of trees graft to one another, sharing nutrients, water and signals over wide areas, and mycorrhizas, beneficial fungi which grow into plant roots, link the whole forest into one functioning unit. We can mimic this in our yards, and in our society.

10. The true role of “Pests.” Pests are merely the natural mechanism for removing organisms which are weak or defective. Thus, it makes more sense to work on raising healthy plants and animals, and maintaining a balanced food web, than poisoning “pests.”

11. Succession. This is a very important principle. If a natural or manmade disturbance leaves bare soil, weedy annual plants jump in to fill the gap. Gradually, more permanent and complicated organisms take their place. We make lots of work for ourselves by breaking this principle, tilling gardens and mowing lawns. Instead, it might be easier and more productive to guide succession in the direction we want, learning to use late succession species in our gardens, as well as the more common early succession annuals.

12. Integration versus segregation. In the world around us there are few rigid separations. Conflicting forces and elements are generally integrated instead. In our big cites we have paved or roofed over much of the ground, and compacted whatever ground remains open. Then rivers, swollen during storms and dry at other times, threatened to sweep us away, so river channels were straightened and walled with concrete, and blocked with vast detention dams, at huge cost to the taxpayers. At the same time, growing city populations demanded continued growth of the water system. Both of these problems could be solved with small cisterns under every downspout, and simple swales and basins in the soil to trap the water and let it soak in.  Then the rivers would run slowly and steadily again, with their water filtered slowly and naturally through the soil; huge concrete works would become unnecessary; the strain on overburdened water works would be relieved; and the people would be safer and more independent each having water security.

To successfully imitate these principle found in Creation, we need certain attitudes, as well as the guiding principles, and the kind of humility which realizes that we do not “know it all” and probably never will.

1. We must be observant— before, after, and during the implementation of our design. We will have either “prolonged and thoughtless labour or prolonged and thoughtful observation.”

2. Our landscapes must help to support our basic needs. It is not enough to have a shining green lawn and tidy beds of petunias. Neither is it enough to have a “Green” yard full of native wildflowers.

3. Small is Beautiful. In all of our work, we must use small scale, slow methods and systems. This relates to our lack of total understanding discussed above. One does much less damage on smaller scales, and if something goes wrong, it is easier to fix.

4. Home. We must develop a home and family based mentality. We should look at the home and the family that lives therein as the center and hub of the world. Families must take their rightful place as the basic unit of society.

5. Wealth. This attitude is connected to the one above. We must develop different standards for measuring wealth. A family who own the house they live in and the land they farm, have many children and relatives, posses skills and crafts, have a year’s supply of food and a steady source of water, and have access to enough sustainable energy for their needs, should be considered truly wealthy.

6. We must realize the interconnectedness of everything around us.

7.The Commons. The commons have been largely destroyed by greed. We must restore and protect them. As well as the common land of the Middle Ages, there are many other commons; the air we breath, the water supply, open pollenated crops, and the energy of the sun and wind. We must stop big government and big business from controlling them.

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