How Permaculture Works

Permaculture in Action

Farmers eager to try permaculture don't just set out with a list of principles and hope to make the best of it. Permaculture texts and classes encourage a slow adoption of permaculture practices following careful observation and study of what would work best for a specific piece of land. Some permaculture farms eventually reach levels of full-time sustainability, while others focus on particular areas of their farms. Results vary as farmers continue to explore methods that follow the principles of permaculture design.

forest garden
Victor Englebert/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
A Yanomami Indian weeds a forest garden in the Amazon, illustrating how permaculture practices existed long before the term itself.

While full-scale permaculture farms are mostly found among activists and educators of the movement, many of their methods have gained widespread usage. It's now easy to see examples of permaculture in action. Planting a forest garden, for example, is a permaculture activity available to anyone with lawn space. A forest garden is simply a food garden created to imitate a natural forest. This cuts out gardening chores like tillage and crop rotation. To start a forest garden, choose a selection of food plants and soil-enriching plants that work well with each other in a forest system. This consists of four layers:

  1. Trees make up the largest part of a forest garden and soak up the full light of day through a wide canopy of leafy branches.

  1. Shrubs such as blackberry and raspberry bushes thrive in the tree canopy's shade.

  1. Vines grow in the shade but also climb up trees to benefit from full sunlight.

  1. Ground plants such as strawberries and lettuce grow in the shade on the forest floor and cover remaining available ground.

As highly developed urban areas continue to grow and depend increasingly on food imports, permaculturists and architects have begun to explore the application of urban permaculture. This involves applying the principles of permaculture design to urban settings. The aim is to make cities greener with higher degrees of sustainability. Examples include buildings that support outside plant life, backyard and balcony gardens, and energy-saving green initiatives such as the installation of gray water reclamation systems.

The permaculture movement has its critics. Some dispute the possible crop yields forest gardening can offer and criticize some studies' alleged lack of comparative figures between permaculture and contemporary agriculture.

Also, the use of exotic plants in permaculture has provided a great deal of controversy. Many permaculturists, including co-founder Bill Mollison, have pushed for the import and use of exotic plants to create effective systems. The problem, critics argue, is that many of these plants could become major weed pests and potentially push out native plant species.

Critics charge that the introduction of exotic plant species could inflict considerable damage on natural ecosystems. In answer to this, many permaculturists stress the use of native plants whenever possible. Still others, including Mollison, insist that modern agriculture has damaged Earth to such a point that providing for a sustainable future is more important than preserving current ecosystems.

Want to learn more about how to apply the permaculture principles to your own yard? Explore the links on the next page.

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  • Beck, Travis and Martin F. Quigley. "Forest Gardening in Ohio." Ohio State University Extension. (June 10, 2008)
  • Diver, Steve. "Introduction to Permaculture: Concepts and Resources." National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. May 1996. (May 30, 2008)
  • Fisher, Mark. "Not seeing the woods from the trees." Self-Willed Land. January 2002. (June 10, 2008)
  • Holmgren, David. "Weeds or Wild Nature?" Permaculture International Journal. Dec-Feb 1997. (June 10, 2008)
  • Quinney, John. "Designing Sustainable Small Farms and Homesteads." Mother Earth News. (May 30, 2008)
  • Robinson, Joe. "Guerrilla gardener movement takes root in L.A. area." The Baltimore Sun. May 29, 2008.
  • Tapner, Catherine. "Holistic permaculture looks at whole system." The Peterborough Examiner. May 28, 2008. (May 30, 2008)
  • Ussery, Harvey. "Plant an Edible Forest Garden." Mother Earth News. Aug. 1, 2007. (June 10, 2008)