Permanent agriculture, also called permaculture, incorporates design principles based on patterns and features of natural ecosystems that work effectively to support healthy growing environments. Permanent agriculture can be sustained indefinitely by using nature’s characteristics of soil, ground slope, weather and plant interactions wisely. Over time, well designed environments will serve to make soil healthier and improve ecosystem well-being. Permaculture was conceptualized in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison. Part of its basic definition are 12 design principles which provide a holistic approach to healthy agricultural environments. These principles are cyclic and iterative (Bane, 2012).
Observe patterns and interact with them. Think holistically.
Catch and store energy. Green energy, carbon, water and drought prevention are all part of this process.
Gain a yield on investment in terms of food, shelter and energy. Obtaining a local yield is environmentally healthier and also more reliable.
Self-regulate the process while reusing and recycling resources.
Use and value natural systems. Natural biological systems are safer than industrial systems.
Avoid waste. Plant materials can be reused for mulch. Manufactured materials can be donated, repurposed or recycled.
Design from patterns to details. Consider location, sun, wind, pollution and threats.
Integrate design considering multiple functions, relative location and vertical stacking.
Start slowly with a small project.
Incorporate diversity into systems design.
Observe transitional areas. The edges are interesting. Ask questions about what is happening for example at the edge of the forest and meadow or the marsh and woodland.
Respond to change.
Design guilds are configurations of plants that work well together. A guild may include mulching systems to conserve moisture and plants with deep roots that bring minerals from lower levels in the soil closer to the surface, providing nutrients to nearby plants (Hemenway). One of the best guilds for temperate climates was one created by native Americans, sometimes called The Three Sisters. It includes corn, beans and squash. Peas can also be included in this group and are members of the same family as beans. The Three Sisters Guild is an example of both ancient and contemporary permanent agriculture design, and is the most trusted guild planting in continental North America (Kaplan & Blume, 2011).
When these plants are together each plays an important role. Corn serves as a trellis that squash and beans climb upon. Beans support nitrogen fertility for themselves, squash and corn. Expansive squash leaves create a mulch which keeps soil moist and support growth during hot and dry summers. The squash leaves also keep the sunlight from reaching the ground, thus preventing weed growth (Hemenway). Other plants that might work well with these are nasturtiums and radishes. Nasturtiums attract pollinators and radishes repel insects (SFGATE).
A beneficial structure for growing might include planting the beans, squash and corn on a hill, just like the native Americans did. Corn is the tallest and is planted in the center of the garden where it can support the clinging vines of both squash and beans which can be planted around it in a circle. The nasturtiums can be planted within 20 feet of the beans and squash. Pollinators will be able to enjoy these flowers as well as those of the squash and bean plants. Two or three radishes planted on squash hills can keep pests like beetles and squash bugs away. Each of these plants appreciate full sunlight (SFGATE).
Permanent agriculture is helping people to overcome the devastation caused by thousands of years of monoculture in agricultural production. It is helping to reclaim deserts in Australia and the Middle East and is enabling poverty stricken countries like Eritrea to use new farming approaches to revitalize desert coastal areas with seawater farming (Weiss, 2015). A simple guild like The Three Sisters is an easy way to begin using permaculture in your own backyard.
- Bane, P. 2012. The Principles of Permaculture. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8zdvj4wxqg
- Hemenway, T. (2013). Permaculture Guilds with Toby Hemenway – Lesson 15 – Full course at Organic Life Guru. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UFV2uZ9Cms
- Kaplan, R. & Blume, R. (2011). Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living.
- SFGATE. Companion plants for squash and cucumbers. Retrieved from http://homeguides.sfgate.com/companion-plants-squash-cucumbers-52389.html
- Weiss, H. Greening of Eritrea. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ym8HX_EnrvM&t=30s