Regular readers will have no doubt wondered what has happened to the nef blog in recent weeks. Truth is I’ve been on holiday. Although perhaps ‘holiday’ is too strong a word, given that my colleagues have teased me for giving up my hard-earned annual leave to do a course in environmentally-friendly land management. Perhaps I should take it as a compliment: getting mocked for being too much of a greenie at nef of all places shows that I must be doing something right.
I mentioned a while back that the practice of permaculture might hold some answers to our present predicaments around energy, climate change and looming food scarcity. Now, having spent two weeks in the Forest of Dean actually studying the thing, I feel knowledgeable – or foolhardy – enough to attempt to explain it here.
Permaculture was first developed during the energy crisis of the mid-seventies by two Australian scientists, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. Its name stands for both permanent agriculture and permanent culture: a way of growing food and organising human life in a manner that is genuinely sustainable. Permaculture seeks to be fossil fuel free: while organic agriculture dispenses with pesticides and fertilizers, it still relies on diesel to run farm machinery and operates on a similar scale to conventional agriculture. When oil becomes expensive and scarce, even organic farms will feel the pinch. To many, it is hard to imagine how we could even grow food without the help of oil. We certainly wouldn’t be able to return to a life of hard physical labour to get our daily bread: most of the knowledge and physical strength simply isn’t with us anymore.
Permaculture’s answer is a fairly simply one: rather than struggling against nature, either by hard labour or with big energy input, aim to work with it by designing food growing systems which mimic natural ecosystems. This means creating more or less closed systems, where human input is kept to a minimum (read: less work) and all outputs are used in a productive way (read: no waste). Permaculturists always avoids monocultures. Diversity – an important aspect of natural ecosystems – is used to create beneficial relationships between different plants, people, animals and other aspects of the land and living space.
Imagine you have a house at the top of a slope. You dig a pond beside it, because this will reflect light into the house, meaning you need to use less energy. And because the pond is at the top of the slope, you can use its water to irrigate vegetable gardens and orchards at the bottom of the slope. The pond will provide a habitat for ducks, who you will periodically invite into your vegetable garden so that they can go on slug patrol. You can also dig a trench coming out of the pond and fill it with reeds. This can be used to filter gray water (waste water from sinks, showers and baths), cleaning it for later use. In the pond you might also have some carp, who feed on tiny animals in the water, turning unusable protein into a human food (fish). On one side of the pond you grow willow, which can be used for fencing, decoration, craft materials and firewood, while on the other you dig out “chinampas” – fingers of land that jut into the pond. Here you can grow yet more vegetables, particularly those which need lots of water. Note how inputs such as water for the garden and food for the ducks and fish have been removed or minimised, and otherwise unused outputs such as light from the pond, waste water from the house and slugs in the garden become useful parts of the system.
By clever design and a keen understanding of the kinds of ecological relationships which animals and plants need to survive, permaculturists have been able to do some remarkable things. According to a documentary we watched on the course, the self-dubbed ‘rebel farmer’ Sepp Holzer has managed to grow figs, cherries and even kiwi fruits at an altitude of over 4,000 feet in the Austrian mountains, all by using permaculture principles.
Permaculture is satisfying because its solutions are so elegant, so simple and yet also so ingeniously thought out. We tend to have the notion that “technology” must mean something complex, and yet we forget that some of the best technologies, the ones we use everyday without even noticing, are perfected in simplicity and need no further work. Witness the button, the stairs, the pencil. You reach the end of a permaculture course armed less with a host of facts than a way of thinking which informs a huge range of decisions you might take in your life.
And contrary to my colleagues’ jibes, the course did manage to hold its own as a holiday. Staying on an organic farm, with beautiful scenery, fantastic food, good company and regular camp fires, it hardly felt like I was doing any work at all. And that is a crucial permaculture principle. As permaculturist Andy Langford put it: “Ask yourself, as a permaculture designer, how many siestas can I easily take this week? If its less than three or four, be worried.”
- Patrick Whitefield – a pioneer of British permaculture, and the brilliant teacher of my course
- The Permaculture Association of Britain
- Permaculture Magazine
- The Agroforestry Research Trust – if its hard facts and practical research you want, you’d do no better than see the work of Martin Crawford.
- “High time agriculture got back to its healthy roots” – veteran environmental journalist John Gibbons, who recently completed a permaculture design course, writing in the Irish Times.