Permaculture is defined by Oxford University Press’ Dictionary of Environment and Conversation as:
A sustainable form of agriculture that is designed to enhance local ecosystems and increase local biodiversity, for example by providing fuel, materials for shelter and home, and habitat for livestock, as well as food.
This denotes a system of agriculture that intensifies and naturally encourages local ecosystems to perform as if there is no human intervention, yet at the same time, humans are able to benefit from the resources provided by nature. It is quite easy to stray from following permaculture standards, especially with monoculture and large-scale productions on commercially-run farms.The three core tenets of permaculture are: care for the Earth, care for the people and return of surplus. These tenets manifest naturally in the methods and works of people who have holistic approaches to practicing agriculture, taking into consideration the effort our Earth makes and our fellow human beings with whom we collaborate.
David Holmgren, the co-originator of permaculture, presented 12 “Design Principles” of Permaculture which can be universally applied to many disciplines of life. The first, “observe and interact,” implies that slow living and peaceful, placid observation is the key to understanding the deeper meanings behind Earth and life, and to learn how to decide wisely and live fuller, more sustainable lives. The second, “catch and store energy,” connotes the maximization of resources, using everything to its greatest capacity while showing respect for the Earth, and becoming a more durable, efficient people. The third, “obtain a yield,” relates to harvesting what one has put his/her hard work into. Our respect for the Earth shows, for example when gardening, in our effort to ensure that nature also benefits from the transaction.
The fourth, “apply self-regulation and accept feedback,” signifies the necessary good in claiming responsibility for all of our actions, no matter the consequence. The fifth principle is to “use and value renewable resources and services,” stressing the importance of sustainably reusing our supplies. This is an extremely important principle as people can easily lose touch with acts of sustainable disposal and food production. Next, the sixth principle states “produce no waste,” which directly ties back to principle five. More efficient, wholesome utilization of materials helps to prevent waste. In a permaculture garden, it is imperative to not let any crop go abandoned and unused, and to protect those crops in natural, harmless ways. The statistics regarding the waste of our generation are quite shocking, considering the amount of people who die of starvation yearly.
The seventh, “design from patterns to details,” highlights that we must first consider the full picture, and then proceed into planning the smaller details. Everything in our world is both interconnected and interdependent. With the broad image in mind, one can consider the effects of all actions as well as use the broader perspective to weave the “detail” into the “pattern.” Dan Barber cogently writes in The Third Plate, “see what you’re looking at” (60). We must understand what we see, not only superficially, but in a way that is deep and intimate with our environment. The eighth principle, “integrate rather than segregate” relates back to the previous principle in that we must understand the interconnectivity between the Earth and all life. Cultivating diversity is important not only to crop resistance, but also to aesthetic pleasure and fertile soil. I recently watched an episode of Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics, in which Ina Garten timely and wisely observed, “What grows together, goes together.” By allowing crops to grow diversely — our only intervention being to tend to, care for and respectfully pick crops — nature inspires chefs to craft marvelous marriages of flavors and to create incredible recipes. Chefs just need to listen and see.
Next, the ninth principle states that one must “use small and slow solutions.” We live in a world that picks up pace daily — filled with clocks, deadlines and impatience — causing us to lose track of the beauty and pleasures that naturally surround us. This dovetails nicely with the goals and values of Slow Food; we must live slow, deliberate lives and take fair pleasure in the food we eat. The Argentine chef Francis Mallmann often speaks about the importance of waiting with the logic that after waiting for an extended period of time, the senses are quenched and ready to be nourished. The tenth principle asks us to “use and value diversity” with the goal of creating healthier ecosystems by promoting variety in all senses.
The eleventh principle, “use edges and value the marginal,” embodies where “edges” lie in nature, and using those edges to represent the value of transition. That is, allowing diversity to flow from one area to another, naturally. In The Third Plate, Dan Barber comments on the edge effect:
The most productive and diverse habitats for marine life are where the vast sea finally meets the shore. These edge zones are hotbeds of energy and material exchange, thriving with life in a way that makes the deep sea or a large stretch of land seem dull by comparison (201).
These edges may seem to separate two realms, but, in fact, they entwine the two in an interdependent dance. Finally, the twelfth principle is to “creatively use and respond to change.” Life is constantly evolving. We must embrace change and revisions, and move with nature’s organic flow. Given the chance, we must imaginatively take advantage of random opportunities guided our way. Without change and motion, our lives would be boring and monotonous.
Permaculture is crucial to creating a healthy, timeless ecosystem that supports diversity and natural evolution, and consequently generates flavorful produce. Adopting an agricultural system that promotes using methods born in nature frames a philosophy by which producers can live their lives both on and off of the field.