As awareness of permaculture grows, so does the question: What is permaculture?

what is permaculture
  • Permaculture is an ecological design system that improves the wellbeing of people and the environment.
  • Permaculture creates cultivated ecosystems using nature and natural processes as design tools.
  • Permaculture helps reduce carbon and eliminates the need for artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

Permaculture is a powerful whole-system way of viewing the world that can positively change lives and communities, improving wellbeing, and increasing self-sufficiency and the environment.

Admittedly, that’s still a somewhat heavy load for a first introduction. So here is our take on simplifying the answer to What is Permaculture?

Simmering within concerns about climate change, loss of natural habitats, decreasing biodiversity, food safety and insecurity, and so on, is the question about what personal steps can be taken to be part of the solution to these problems. There are many things that can be done, from the purchasing and transport decisions we make to recycling, reuse, and much more. All are important things that can reduce further damage from being done.

Permaculture goes further than reducing damage – it is a wholistic design system that helps repair environments by applying an interconnected network of nature’s ecological, regenerative, nurturing elements to our homes, yards, shared spaces, and urban structures.

To put it another context, when asking what is permaculture, it can be useful to consider it within the framework Theodore Roosevelt’s famous words:

“Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Unpacking that quote in reverse order shows us the power for positive change permaculture holds when we use what we already have to its full advantage.

Where You Are

Whether you live in a city apartment or suburban home, the size or type of residence does not limit the role you can play to be part of permaculture-inspired solutions.

With What You Have

Space: In an apartment you might have a window box or a balcony with pots. A suburban home may have a small or large yard, or just margins of space surrounding the house.

Natural Resources: Permaculture builds a realization that you have many more resources to work with beyond just space. Among the many resources available for use are sun, rain, soil, and wildlife (pollinators, birds, insects, and so on). Elements we often take for granted but are immensely powerful when carefully considered. Permaculture design is about fully utilizing those resources to improve your environment, your wellbeing, and to contribute to a sustainable future for you, your family, and everyone.

Think of how some of the most functional elements in your home work. Your toaster, blender, or coffee maker – they work because each one was designed with the right parts put together in relationship to each other to achieve the desired function. That’s how permaculture works.

Here’s a simple example of permaculture as it applies to plants:

There are some plants that naturally put certain nutrients into the soil as they grow. There are other plants that need those same nutrients to grow. Put the two plants next to each other in a window box, pot, or garden, and you have a self-feeding micro system. It’s a simple technique that can scale to a strip of space next to your house, a small garden in your yard, or an entire farm crop.

The sun provides the energy and warmth your plants will need to grow. Rain provides the water for your plants. When there’s not enough steady rain to provide for your plants, it can be captured and stored using containers or rainwater collection barrels placed beneath your roof’s gutter drainage spouts.

The soil will need to be nurtured over time. For this, you have food scraps which can be composted in a small bin under your kitchen sink or outdoors and added to the soil to enhance its nutrients and water retention abilities. Everything that forms the core needs for permaculture already exists in what the world naturally provides and what you already have at hand.

Do What You Can

With a system of just two plants in place, you’ve created a simple self-sustaining system that removes carbon and toxins from the air. At the same time, you’re providing a welcoming, nurturing destination for wildlife. Birds, pollinators, beneficial insects, worms – all are an essential part of our larger environmental and ecological wellbeing, and all benefit from the small step you’ve taken.

If the plants you chose produce fruit, vegetables, or spices, you’ve increased your self-sufficiency, food safety, and food security, even if only in a small way.

If you can create a larger space, the benefits scale accordingly – the power of permaculture is its ability to scale and create beneficial systems at all levels. Adding more space and more plants that have more permaculture-based interconnected relationships exponentially increases the benefits you and your immediate environment will receive, both in terms of food for yourself, and in creating a self-sufficient and self-regulating microenvironment for your community and region.

What is Permaculture?
You’ll never need to worry about aphids if you have plants that attract ladybugs.

For example, plants that attract ladybugs provide a natural pest control systems for aphids on other plants; plants such as wild garlic act planted at the perimeter of a garden act as a natural deterrent to animals, so they don’t wander further into your garden and nibble, and so on.

Add some trees to the mix and now you’re absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Adding some milkweed plants provide a habitat for butterflies – a key at-risk pollinator – to feed and reproduce and provides a source of fiber in the milkweed floss and stalk for use or financial gain by selling it to crafters. A simple pile of rocks, leaves, and twigs become a beneficial insect sanctuary to control harmful pests and reduce the need for pesticide use. Planting catnip on your porch can deter mosquitos (and makes you quite popular with your or your neighbor’s cat).

So, to reconsider the question of “What is permaculture?” with the previous examples in mind… Permaculture is the overarching design system that can connect these – and many more – elements into a cohesive relationship of natural elements, each performing part of a larger self-sustaining natural system to provide food, reduce waste, improve biodiversity, and work towards restoring a healthy ecological balance between the built environment and the natural one.

For those who want to go further towards self-sufficiency, a more rigorous permaculture design system can transform a suburban house into a mostly or entirely self-sufficient homestead, providing all food, water, energy needed. Weaving permaculture into community and urban spaces can be a break-through opportunity to create a sustainable system for food and wellbeing for underserved populations.

What is permaculture? Not this - an ecologically dead suburban development.
An example of an ecologically “dead” suburban development in need of permaculture.

The permaculturist and author Toby Hemenway once answered the question of “What is Permaculture?” by defining permaculture as “applied ecology,” which is about as concise and perfect a summary as there is. Permaculture is about applying ecological solutions to many of the environmental and food stability challenges many individuals, communities, and cities face. All by just doing what you can with what you have, where you are.

There’s a lot more that permaculture offers than just the above example, but it is a good starting point for those who ask, “What is Permaculture?” Below is an excerpt from Toby Hemenway’s superb book The Permaculture City that gives a sense of how permaculture can reach into so many areas of life.

“Because permaculture’s concepts can be applied in so many ways, permaculturists today include software designers; water, waste, and energy engineers; social justice activists; educators and school administrators from the kindergarten level to graduate studies; community organizers and government officials; restoration ecologists; teachers of yoga, bodywork, and spiritual practice; in short, almost anyone.

As permaculture teacher Larry Santoyo says, it’s not that we ‘do’ permaculture, but rather that we use permaculture in what we do–whether that is farming, law, medicine, science, or accounting. Permaculture has something to offer everyone.”

Toby Hemenway, The Permaculture City

Please get in touch if you have further questions about what is permaculture and how NurtureStructure’s permaculture design services can transform your space and your sense of personal and environmental wellbeing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *