As a lockdown present to myself, I signed up for an online Permaculture Design Course (PDC) to keep the brain cells ticking over and to provide another activity whilst we are limited in where we can go and what we can do. This is a 28 week course and there is a lot of content and so I needed somewhere to reflect my thoughts and learning that is more than just a notebook and that place is here.
There are lots of PDCs available online and I decided to go with the Geoff Lawton PDC because he trained with Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of Permaculture. The course is not cheap – none of them are and it does make me wonder about how those who do not have the money access such training but that discussion is probably for another day. The participants are from all over the world, mostly Canada and America although Geoff Lawton lives on Zaytuna Farm in Australia.
Module 1 – What is Permaculture?
The end assignment for the first module was to explain what permaculture is in about 30 seconds. Every time I have been asked this question, I give a long rambling reply as it is so difficult to sum up in a short space of time. However, I’ll give it a go and then come back to the definition at the end of the course to see how the intervening weeks have changed what I think.
Permaculture is a way of working ethically to design a space to develop and support stable planting, food abundance and communities of people. The systems are designed around the way nature works and are used to regenerate the soil and everything which flows from that.
Module 2 – Concepts and themes in design
One of the big ideas in permaculture is the idea of designing to store the energy that comes onto your land (no matter how big or small it may be) and keeping it there for as long as possible. The example always used is water and gravity. You always store water on the highest part of your land so that you can use gravity to run it down to where you want to use it. The idea of store it, spread it and slow it is very apt here because it is what you want to do. So, digging extra ponds to store the water, collecting rainwater from roofs and then channeling it around the land all helps to produce an abundance of whatever you are growing and slows down the rate at which the water leaves your land.
Everything gardens. This concept raised one of the larger, more animated discussions. If you observe nature closely, and that is what we have to do on our own land, we are not the only things that prune, cut grass or dig. Sheep, cows, horses etc will mow the grass and other vegetation, goats will prune small trees and shrubs, chickens and ducks will find and dispatch pests and rabbits will dig. But what these all also do is provide manure which can be composted and returned to the land. If we recognise this, we can make the land more productive and integrate animals into the systems to work for us. Of course, the animals add more than just manure. They add food, company, hard work, pleasure if we design their natural behaviours so that it benefits all. In fact, many permaculture farms include animals and I can see how this is of benefit. With three allotments, I struggle to create enough compost to mulch all of the beds because I have no animal manure to use. I have to buy it in. If there were chickens, their bedding could be used which would increase the amount of material to compost and the composition of the compost. There are many people farmers who understand that animals are a key part of soil regeneration such as Gabe Brown. The plant-based eaters and vegans were not all necessarily happy with this message.
Yields – these are the surpluses that are created after the system’s needs have been met. Forcing a system to produce yields results in over supply, pollution and depletion, e.g chicken farms with caged animals fed antibiotics and grown as quickly as possible. In Permaculture the yields can be much broader than just one crop and we should be designing so that the work reduces over time but the yields increase.
Cycles – niches in time. Cycles as recurring events are the way that permaculture looks at time and increasing cycles increases yields. We are designing to increase and improve the cycles so for example, after cows have grazed the land, you can wait a few days and then introduce chickens to scratch over the manure, spread it and eat the fly maggots that are around before leaving the land to grow for a while. This introduction of the chicken cycle increases diversity and yields. Somewhere in there you could also probably introduce pigs. What you choose to do is dependent on the context, climate and landscape.
The food web – this is not a pyramid with a human at the top but a complex, web of relationships. If we remove any element, the whole web collapses. A good example of this is the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park – or closer to home – the reintroduction of beavers to a local river.
We also design to ensure complexity and connections between elements. Industrial farming removes and simplifies connections leaving them unstable and reliant upon a lot of time, resources and energy. Our role is to replace the connections which know are missing and we can measure this by the yields, happiness of the system and its stability (the means of providing what it needs to be successful with as little input as possible).
Order and chaos – we are designing for order which is stability but there are a number of things that can create chaos: too many inputs, a natural event such as a flood, trying to keep things neat and tidy such as a lawn where the energy inputs are enormous. Nature’s systems may look ‘untidy’ but are in complete order according to nature. Take a rainforest. Every niche is filled and it may look untidy but it is a self-sustaining system that needs no inputs from us. That is what we are aiming for and we know it is working or not through observation of the system/s and what they tell us.
Diversity – we design for this but not for its own sake. We are not after diversity on its own but for diversity of functions (everything has more than one function) and here information gathering as a resource is crucial. The more information we have, the more we can adapt and develop what we are doing. The example used is polyculture where different species are grown together in guilds where the connections ensure that the sum is greater than the parts. The more information we have, the more likely we are to try different plants in the polyculture and to eventually create greater yields. As the guilds mature, more animals enter and cause disturbances which can again create greater diversity.
Stability is where a system self-regulates and where our intervention can increase yields where there is constant feedback and readjustment. We can intervene with a nutrient response, introduce fire (hmmm!) or prune to let more light in. Stability is also created through the connections between elements, e.g. growing corn, squash and beans together where all benefit from each other. This mind-map demonstrates stability well.
So, when I look at the land I have, these are all the things I need to think about to come up with the best place to have each element and why. It was quite a lot for the first week!
Bill Mollison from his book Introduction to Permaculture– “It is not the number of things, but the number of ways in which things work.”