Permaculture is a hard thing to describe to people unless they’ve seen it in action. Every garden is different based on where in the world it is and what’s available on site. There are however some common elements that you’re likely to find. Here’s a list of the main ones:
This is a key ingredient in any permaculture garden where size permits. Mighty tomes have been written about food forests including Edible Forest Gardens and Creating a Forest Garden. They mimic natural forest succession by layering components as they would occur in nature. So at the back are the large trees such as fruit and nut trees. Then the shorter fruit trees and the woody shrub layer such as blackberries or elderberries. Herbaceous perennials come next such as collards or rhubarb. Optional is a ground cover layer, root layer and vines such as nasturtiums or the delicious hardy kiwi. The idea is that when established, food forests are abundant, resilient, low maintenance, full of biodiversity and have low water needs. They’re also oodles of fun to walk around with their cornucopia of goodies.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
– (Joyce Kilmer)
If you substitute the word ‘poem’ for ‘techno-fix’, this simple poem nicely sums up our current penchant for silver bullet environmental fixes. For all our advances in science and technology there is nothing we can build that comes close to providing the functions that a tree can provide, let alone something that would inspire poetry. Got an erosion problem? Build a retaining wall. Flooding? Build a floodgate. Too hot? Turn up the air conditioning. And my favourite – too much C02? Build a coal-fired power plant then remove the C02, seal it in capsules and bury it deep underneath the ocean. While technology and engineering has its place, it would behove us to look towards nature for less complex and costly fixes where it makes sense.
After hundreds of thousands of years of R&D perfected by mother nature, the humble tree can help alleviate many of these problems while at the same time providing us with food, shelter, fuel, clean air, beauty and bewilderment.
“If I have any legacy it’s that I’ll leave thousands of acres in better shape than I found it,” says Harn Soper, organic farmer, businessman and one of the partners in Sustainable Farm Partners (SFP). 50-year old Soper grew up on a conventional farm in Iowa “farming the wrong way”, as he puts it. Over the course of his adult life, he’s tried out many types of organic farming, from livestock and vegetables to row crops such as corn, oats and alfalfa.
Growing organic row crops is what he settled on. “To get to a new type of agriculture and to reset things, the system has to be scaleable,” he says. “Switching to organic grains makes the biggest positive impact on the environment.”
Scale is the key to success according to Soper. He thinks that permaculture is undoubtedly the best way to farm because, as he puts it, “nature just explodes under diversity”. However, permaculture alone can’t meet the scale of production needed for our current food systems. Similarly, market garden produce, grown on a smaller local scale, might seem attractive but don’t address people’s needs.
“In an ideal world, market garden produce would be what’s needed,” he says. “But when you walk around the supermarket aisles around 80 per cent of what’s sold is not fresh fruit and vegetables.”
There are a few examples from large scale ecological restoration projects over the last twenty years that provide a glimmer of hope for the planet. They also present what seems like an obvious choice between abundant ecosystems that benefit all, and the empty promises of GM food monocultures and corporate profit streams.
One such project is in China’s Loess Plateau – an area the size of the Netherlands which had been degraded over millennia by exploitation and grazing. Water, no longer able to be absorbed into the land, was just washing the soil away. Most of it ended up in the Yellow river causing clogging and floods. A government project to restore the land using agro-forestry methods began in the 1990s. It worked by giving money to people to not graze the land. Then, villagers enacted a series of restoration techniques including planting trees, terracing the land to stop erosion and building a series of dams. The results are impressive, and encouraging. It turns out not only can humans quickly degrade and pollute land that has taken millennia to form, we can also quickly restore land that has taken millennia to degrade.
I may be veering off point here a little but a couple of articles in the last few days caught my attention and have made me a little sad. First, the report that the world has lost half its wildlife in just forty years. Forty years! The other, a report in New Scientist about extinctions that on the face of it looks positive – we only lost 1-2% of all species by 2000 when it was predicted in the 80s that it would be more like one third to one half. As it turns out though, it’s just the timing that’s off. There’s apparently a lag between habitat destruction and population disappearance due to the fact that populations can hang on in smaller numbers for years but are much less resilient to forces such as predators, disease or changes due to climate. So species are dying today due to loss of habitat 100 years ago.
If you haven’t already seen it, this is an amazing TED talk by Paul Stamets on how mushrooms could save the world. He waxes lyrical about the many benefits of what he describes as ‘soil magicians’. Mycelium, the complex underground network from which mushrooms (the fruit) sprout, help to generate soil by breaking down minerals in rocks and supplying these to plants in a symbiotic relationship. They help to hold the soil together and reduce erosion while some have antibiotic, anti-viral and other medicinal properties. What’s more, we humans have more in common with fungi than plants including the fact that they are sentient. He gives six examples of how we can harness the super-hero like powers of mycelium:
Breaking down toxic waste
After injecting mycelium spores into a pile of earth contaminated with diesel petroleum waste, the mycelium absorbed and broke up the diesel. After six weeks it was covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms. The mushrooms then sporulated. Insects were attracted to the spores, the insect larvae attracted birds, the birds came and deposited seeds, plants started growing. Pretty soon, a lush green oasis stood where once there had been a smelly toxic pile. The levels of aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the pile went from 100,000 ppm to 200 ppm in just eight weeks. Continue reading →
How modern farming techniques destroy our soil and negatively impact the birds, the bees, and all manner of other critters, including us
The EU banned neonicotinoid pesticides last year after scientific studies suggested they were the most likely culprit behind the large scale bee deaths and colony collapses in recent years. In the past few weeks it has emerged they may also be responsible for a drop in numbers of certain bird populations. BASF, Bayer and Syngenta have all challenged the EU’s decision while the current UK government, the only country that voted against the ban, are desperate to roll over and capitulate to the chemical giants.
In light of this, I thought I’d go back to basics with a little soil science lesson. It’s not hard science, anyone who doesn’t get it should not be allowed to make decisions based upon it. Continue reading →