What is Permaculture?

So what is the ‘perma’ in ‘permacyclists’ for? Permanent? Permafrost?”

A question we hear fairly often actually.

And then, when we reply, “No, Permaculture!” there is another small silence, this one a little awkward as if they’re trying to figure out just what language we just spoke. Was that Eskimo?

And then eventually when it’s clear we were speaking English (or French or Spanish or KiSwahili or Cibemba or…) comes the inevitable question: “What the hell is that?” Which honestly is a little frustrating since now it’s our turn to look confused: we’re never quite sure how to answer. It’s just not that easy to give a concise definition of permaculture without completely befuddling the person who’s asked.

So today, for those of you who want to know just what permaculture is without having to pick apart our usually incomprehensible ramblings, we have a special update to try and explain some of it, with photos and references even so you don’t have to take our word for any of it.

For those of you who prefer the usual travel updates, fear not, they’ll be back in two weeks with a summary of our time in Mexico.

And of course don’t forget to check the “projects” section, updated regularly with videos and descriptions of all the good news on the environment that you can handle.

Puerto Vallarta, the first stage of our trip in Mexico, led to us practicing permaculture in a very concrete way and that’s how we’ll lay out this little explanation. Vallarta is a beach town full of resorts and tourists that is generally about as far from permaculture as you can get.

We weren’t there for the beaches though: since our time in Africa the idea of intentionally sitting in the sun has lost all appeal to both of us. Rather, we were there to WWOOF for four weeks with Ana and Krystal, who run a delivery organic grocery network in town and who work to convince the farmers in the surroundings to take the organic plunge (we’ll have more about them in a few weeks in our projects section).

Behind their house, Ana and Krystal have a small experimental garden where they test varieties of fruits and vegetables they hope to eventually commercialize. The problem though is that Ana and Krystal work so much that they don’t have all the time they would like to work in the garden – just where permaculture, “lazy-man’s agriculture” comes into the picture.

So during the first few days, after a short talk, Ana and Krystal were game to let us try and apply some of the permaculture principles in their garden to try and make it as productive as possible in such a small space.

We started with some time drawing all over a plan of the garden trying to anticipate the changes we wanted to make. This is the “design” that permaculture is so often associated with and it can take a lot longer than ours did – but fortunately Ana and Krystal knew what they wanted and how to make their land work.

And then on to that most useful of garden projects: a compost pile.

Compost heaps are so great because they let you “make” quality soil with very little technology or time. All you need are two compartments where you pile up organic matter from the kitchen and garden (keeping a balance between the two). Once one compartment is full, let it sit while you fill up the other, stirring, waiting or even watering it depending on the climate and the time of year. If it’s working, the interior of the pile will get smoking hot. When it’s done, it can be spread out in the garden.

It’s obviously possible to build composts that are more beautiful and more expensive than this one, but reusing and recycling are always priorities in permaculture and we used the materials available on-site. And besides – if you’re going to be piling your garbage somewhere, just how pretty does it need to be?

The next step was to address the always essential question of water. In the tropics just as much as desert regions, it’s important to be able to recover rainwater and to be ready for the natural peaks and valleys of the year’s precipitation.

There are tons of ways to do this without spending much money. For our part, we stuck to croissants and swales…

Croissants are just a built-up barrier downhill from a tree in the shape of a… wait for it… croissant! (Yes, we learned permaculture in Francophone Europe) The idea is that the flow of water is slowed by the croissant long enough to sink into the soil rather than just running along the surface. This way as much water as possible actually goes to the tree and any other plants you put in around its base (this is a great spot for a guild – see below). In the left-hand photo, there’s heaps of organic matter aded to the soil which serves to protect it from drying out when the sun returns, and of course which decomposes itself in time, contributing to the health of the soil (and avoiding the need for the compost pile we talked about above…).

A swale is a ditch dug along a contour line so that it is on level the whole way across. Rather than funneling water away like a drainage ditch would, it stops the water and lets it soak into the soil (where hopefully there are plants waiting to drink it up). The photo here is of our half-dug swale from Kenya. There is no limit to how many swales you can put on a given bit of land, and if you plant on the downhill side you can make sure you’re using that infiltrated water to grow things and that you’re doing everything to fight erosion. In a few years, the plants’ roots infiltrate enough to take the place of the swale. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and check out this video to see just how effective it can be: Greening the Desert.

Once the question of water is solved, it’s time to decide where will be planted. One way to do it is to decide where the pathways are going to go – and then you just plant everywhere else!

In Vallarta, we started by putting clearer edges on the existing pathways with bricks – the material that was available, almost anything else could do. And then we laid out new beds with the “double-dig” method, which we had learned back in Malawi and which is no one’s favorite way to prepare a bed since just as the name implies it entails a lot of digging. It’s a great way to get through hardpan clay soils though and that was what we were working with here.

Generally with beds, the idea is to maximize the space available for planting, which means breaking away from the image of the square and rectangle garden – spirals, water-drops, circles, H’s, keyholes, amoebas – all are more efficient uses of space than a straight line. This also falls under the heading of “learn from nature” – there are no straight lines in the natural world, only in the man-made one.

Here the beds were dug, covered with a layer of cardboard (which eventually decays but which serves as a weed barrier for a time), powdered with agricultural lime, and then recovered with straw, compost, and the soil we’d just dug up. We then planted them with peanuts: a legume, which means among other things that it has a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it into the soil to make them a sort of natural, work-free fertilizer. We then covered the beds with a layer of straw for mulch (again, the material that was available).

Mulch is again learning from nature: bare soil almost never occurs naturally. In a forest, in a grassland, anywhere where the natural world lives without human interference, the soil is covered by decomposing leaves, by grasses, or by other plants. Just look at what happens to an untended bit of city sidewalk if you leave it alone: how long before grass starts sprouting up to cover it? Less time than you might think.

Oh, and don’t forget to mark out pathways through the beds so you never have to walk on planted soil!

Since Ana and Krystal do a lot of cooking as part of their delivery service, an herb garden is an important bit of their yard, and it is also a good example of how permaculture principles can be applied. An herb spiral is a more efficient, more diverse way of planting a garden and it can be built in two hours with locally available materials. Since the planting space is sloped, a spiral has greater surface area than if it were flat, and then the spiral shape creates a series of microclimates that let you plant a wider variety of species (the north side gets less sun, the south more, and the bricks and stones of the structure hold the heat or cold longer). You can even vary the type of soil as you go up the circle and add another level of specificity to your garden.

Our hostesses also wanted an area to build a huge fire for their sweat-lodge. Before, the only barrier between the plants and the fire was a bit of iron sheeting that would get so hot that it was really barely a barrier at all. We decided instead to replace it with a cob wall, which would keep the heat all on the fire side of things and let them plant right up to the edge of the space.

And of course the nicest thing about cob is that it’s made from things readily available in or just near any garden: clay subsoil, sand, straw, and a little water.

It’s worth it to make a few tests to be sure the soil is right and to get the mix down pat – just vary the mix for each test and then let them sit outside and dry. When they’re dry, bang ‘em up and see if they’re strong enough. The strongest mix wins!

Then mix them well…

With the base laid out of old bricks, you just pile on the cob, making sure to not put too much on at once (or it will squish down) and to let each level dry out a bit before putting on the next. Just keep going on up until you reach the height you want, and feel free to sculpt and mold any shapes you want. Just google “cob wall” if you want inspiration – or better still, check out our friend Eva’s beautiful work over at Fire Speaking to see about building cob ovens, rocket stoves, and barrel ovens.

In Vallarta, the wall was very simple, and with the rainy season we didn’t have time to finish it. We explained the technique though, it’s simple enough that it can be finished easily.

And voila, after 4 weeks of working, the basis of a working permaculture garden was set up, with space used as efficiently as possible to make it as efficient as possible.

Here again, as in nature, no planting monocultures in straight lines, instead laying beds out in guilds or just tossing seeds. Guilds are groups of plants which work together symbiotically and can let you maximize the space used.

So yeah, that’s the idea, and there is no reason you can’t do the same in your own garden! Whether it’s an herb spiral near the kitchen door or a small patch of tomatoes and basil, it’s an easy way to make life a bit more delicious and to do a little for the planet, cutting down on food miles, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers!

For more information on permaculture or on any of the specific bits mentioned here, just click on the links in the text or check out the “resources” section where we mention some interesting books and links. And of course, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any comments or questions.

Permaculturally yours,

-Anna and Dave

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10 Responses to What is Permaculture?

  1. val says:

    i am so impressed. you accomplished so much in your four weeks at the farm. now.. if only vermont were on your radar… ;)

  2. And if we happened to arrive during the four weeks of summer! Thanks for reading Val!

  3. Emily says:

    This is fantastic! I had the pleasure of visiting Organic Select in May while visiting my mom, who knows Krystal. What they are doing is so great. The space looks really wonderful with all the things you guys did!

  4. Hi Emily, so glad you like the photos! I’m sure that it all looks even better now that Ana and Krystal have gone to town planting – in their hands the place is really going to flourish for sure. Did you see the video we made about their project as well? Hope it captured some of the great work they do!

  5. Nicos says:

    Very nice article ! Just two small remarks :
    Nitrogen, it’s azote in french (sorry my scientific side ;) )
    And there is no limits at the imagination !


  6. Winnie Fouassin says:

    Vraiment, vous êtes formidable !
    J’ai lu avec plaisir l’article sur la “permaculture” et ce projet au Mexique !
    Très intéressant !
    Bonne poursuite à vous !

  7. Chère Winnie,

    Merci beaucoup, cela nous fait très plaisir que notre petite présentation toute personnelle de ce sujet tellement vaste vous ait plu! Nous espérons que votre potager à vous se porte bien!

    A bientôt,
    Anna et Dave.

  8. Hey Nicos! Mille fois merci pour ta remarque sur l’azote! A force de parler Anglais et Espagnol toute la journée, j’en perds mon Français. C’est bien dommage! Merci pour ton attention et surtout ta fidelité. Nous sommes impatients de découvrir ce que ton imagination sans limite peut produire dans un jardin ;) ! A bientôt l’ami!

  9. Virginie says:

    Holà!! J’ai vu le lien sur Allô la planète et j’trouve ça excellent. Si tu peux me donner quelques pistes ou adresses pour faire du wwoofing, j’serai enchantée. Au fait tu connais The BOSQUE FOREST? C’est au Mexiqueet et ça à l’air vraiment pas mal. Tu peux regarder sur leur site ou sur facebook. Bon courage et surtout amusez-vous!! Paz Amor y Libertad!! Besos a vos dos. Virginie

  10. Hello Virginie! Gracias pour ton message et pour l’adresse au Mexique. Malheureusement. nous sommes bien au sud du Mexique maintenant et n’aurons probablement pas l’occasion d’aller voir ce qu’ils font là-bas! Peut-être une prochaine fois!
    Pour les pistes pour le wwoofing, je peux te recommander le projet de ferme bio sur l’île de Mfangano au Kenya. Sinon, je pense que le wwoofing est un système génial qui fonctionne surtout dans les pays développés (pour toute une série de raisons). Le mieux pour trouver un chouette lieu c’est le bouche à oreille car il n’y a pas vraiment de système de feed back sur wwoof et du coup, chaque engagement est un coup de poker. Je te conseille cependant de lire le guide pratique sur le wwoofing écrit par un couple qui a voyagé et wwoofé en France, Canada, Nouvelle-Zélande et Japon. Tu trouveras plus d’infos ici: “http://wwoofguide.com/a-propos-livre/. Je ne l’ai pas lu moi-même mais il est sorti en avril 2011 et l’auteure a l’air vraiment sympa et enthousiaste. J’espère que cela t’aidera! Bonne chance à toi et à bientôt peut-être, Annabelle.

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