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Permaculture empowers us to take control of our lives and teaches us the skills we need to take care of ourselves. It makes us think about the big picture. It makes us feel connected to the place where we live. We can easily start to put it into action. The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.
Permaculture literature generally agrees on the first two ethical guidelines, but the third and sometimes fourth and fifth can vary a bit. Note that whenever one ethic seems to be in conflict with another, the first ethic trumps the rest. Urban farmer Will Allen has dedicated his life to developing Growing Power, a nonprofit that educates people and grows food in underserved communities. Care for the earth It may seem obvious, but being good stewards of the planet comes first when we are designing permaculture systems.
The intrinsic value of functional ecosystems, as well as other living beings, is a big part of this. We have a vested interest in maintaining functional ecosystems for our own health and prosperity. The more we damage ecosystems, the poorer the air and water quality become for us and our children.
We want to avoid damaging intact, functional ecologies in the name of fulfilling our dreams of self-reliance, productive food systems, and homestead living. A part of being good stewards of the earth means leaving alone and protecting healthy, functioning ecosystems. From a landscape perspective, we quickly realize that permaculture design is best used to regenerate degraded landscapes.
Such landscapes are often lacking in biodiversity, structural complexity, and resilience in the face of disturbance. Care of people The permaculture systems we design should also address the needs of people. In the developing world and the inner city, we can see plenty of examples of the basic needs of people not being met. For these folks, environmental stewardship may be a lower priority than food, water, and income.
For instance, what if a design for a park in a low-income community incorporated lots of edible landscaping? The local residents might find that they have a vested interest in being good stewards of that park since it now helps provide for their needs in a direct way. If we extend this ethical mandate to include our children, grandchildren, and so forth, our designs start to look very different.
We start to be able to wrap our minds around ecological changes as they relate to geological time scales. We can think bigger and we can set into motion actions with impacts that will be felt well into the future. Many design decisions that seem difficult become much clearer when we ask ourselves which decision would best serve our grandchildren.
The approaches we choose and the context we set with our design decisions are just as important as the end product. This ethic essentially serves as a bit of a catchall for the other ethical concerns we want to address with our designs. It breaks down into two separate concerns: redistribution of the surplus to the ends of caring for the earth and people and self-regulation of consumption and growth.
With regard to the first concern, one goal of the systems we design should be to create abundant yields. This means that permaculture systems often generate surpluses—of food, biomass, electricity, time, knowledge, and such. Therefore, we have an ethical mandate to redistribute those surpluses to turn potential problems into elegant solutions.
What this ethic is really about is taking the surpluses a system produces and reinvesting them where they will do some good. That can mean rolling them back into the system for example, composting food waste and putting that compost into the garden or sharing them with someone else to help increase their capacity to care for the earth for example, giving a neighbor seedling nut trees to plant.
By using our surpluses to make sure the needs of those around us are met, we benefit in many ways. First, if the needs of those around us are met, they are in a better position to join us in our efforts to care for the earth. Second, if the needs of those around us are met, we find ourselves living in communities characterized by hope and pride rather than desperation and apathy.
However you work it out, all surpluses of the system should be reinvested in caring for the earth and people. The second concern, self-regulation of consumption and growth, requires us to look at our behaviors as much as our design choices. Sometimes the best designs require fundamental behavior changes to decrease consumption. Therefore, we need to pay close attention to the assumptions regarding consumption that go into our designed systems.
In nature, nothing grows forever. Body mass, population size, and temperature all increase, decrease, and level off at various points in time. We need to design systems with the flexibility to grow, shrink, or achieve a steady state at least for a while. You can use the income generated to make your land more sustainable. In essence, we can choose to apply self-regulation to consumption and growth, or else nature will ultimately do it for us—in the form of epidemics, disasters, or famine.
Luckily, we have a capacity for independent thought that goes way beyond instinct. We alone in the animal kingdom can actively choose to regulate our own growth and consumption, which will increase the stability of our systems and avoid boom-and-bust cycles. This is where the concept of carrying capacity becomes important. Carrying capacity is the maximum number of individuals of a species that can be supported by a given environment.
Either way, understanding and modifying our expectations around growth and consumption are first steps toward sustainable living. Transitional ethic The transitional ethic is your lucky, bonus ethic. It appears in only a few pieces of the existing permaculture literature, but we find it to be extremely important.
Essentially, the transitional ethic says that no one is going from zero to sustainable overnight. Making that transition takes time. What does that mean for using nonsustainable technologies like excavators and lawn mowers? If we consider the embodied energy in those types of things and we consider that they already exist, we must ask whether the worse sin is to use them or to let them go to waste.
Embodied energy refers to the total energy involved in the production of an object. For instance, the embodied energy in a bulldozer includes the energy spent on mining the metals, smelting the steel, manufacturing the parts, shipping the parts to a factory, assembling the machinery, and shipping the bulldozer to the sales floor. Given that a bulldozer has a huge amount of embodied energy, especially as compared to a shovel, the issue becomes how we will use it.
Using a bulldozer to install water-collecting earthworks in an arid landscape to aid in revegetation and aquifer recharge makes more sense. Using nonsustainable technologies may be appropriate if they are being used to set up systems for sustainability that will last long into the future. Permaculturists avoid designing systems that are reliant upon nonsustainable technologies in perpetuity. From a permaculture perspective, this is where the concept of appropriate technology fits in.
Appropriate technology refers to any application of knowledge and skills that is considered to be appropriate for a given situation. What is appropriate in one circumstance may not be so in another. Typically, appropriate technologies are small-scale, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled.
The Bullock family has been developing their permaculture site on Orcas Island, Washington, for more than thirty years. Their focus has been on getting their own systems established first, then teaching others what they learn. Not only must we examine whether the use of unsustainable or polluting technology is appropriate in terms of our end goal; we must also look at the technologies that we will be relying on for the long term.
Permaculturist Douglas Bullock often says that to determine whether a technology is appropriate, we must look at whether the end user can appropriate it. In other words, the people who will be using it must able to understand, rebuild, repair, and recycle the technology. If this is not the case, we need to think long and hard about whether a technology has a long-term future in our systems even if it is being used as a short-term solution. To this way of thinking, many of the high-tech climate-control systems found in cutting-edge green homes may not be appropriate because the people living in those buildings and their neighbors likely do not possess the skills to repair them.
While those complicated systems may be used in the interim, a long-term shift toward passive solar design and low-tech heating and cooling devices such as efficient woodstoves and swamp coolers may be better options. The transitional ethic is also the one that keeps competent permaculturists humble.
Start by making sure your own needs are met within a regenerative context and only then focus on your family, then your friends, then your community, and so on. We must take care of ourselves and make sure the impact of our existence is a positive one before we can take care of others and help them have a positive impact.
This is why we like to say that permaculture design offers us a perspective, not a prescription. In its simplest form, a system is a bunch of parts elements arranged such that their relationship to one another their function allows some sort of job to get done or some goal to be accomplished purpose. For instance, a bicycle is a simple system composed of a bunch of elements handlebars, chain, wheels, and so forth put together in such a way handlebars connected to frame, frame connected to wheels that they function to accomplish the purpose of transportation.
We can see the same concept when looking at the parts of the human body. A pile of organs sitting on a table does not make a person. However, when those organs relate to each other in just the right way and each performs its functions, we are the result. When all the elements of a system come together in the right way, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts and emergent properties appear. For example, the emergent properties of a human may include the ability to cook Thai food, tell a joke, or write haiku.
Essentially, systems thinking is all about exploring those relationships between elements that allow unique system properties to emerge. That means the landscape is no longer just the pretty accessory that surrounds the house but is just as important as the house. In fact, in some cases we may decide to change the design of our house, energy system, or social structure to accommodate some other part of the design. A number of permaculture design strategies follow from systems thinking.
Anticipate limiting factors. Looking at limiting factors allows us to see where the leverage points are to make changes in a system. However, we must also understand that the nature of limiting factors is that they are dynamic. If we add nitrogen to our garden, at some point it will no longer be the limiting factor, but something else will take its place such as potassium, manganese, or calcium.
Therefore, our designs must both address the limiting factors in play at present and try to predict what limiting factors will come. Thinking about limiting factors will allow us to address upcoming limiting factors before they actually become an issue.
We must always remember, though, that there are environmentally bounded limits to growth for all of our systems think carrying capacity , and if we disregard these, our systems will have unintended negative consequences. Develop a holistic context. Traditionally, Western culture has used reductionism as a way to simplify decision making.
Sometimes this is helpful, as trying to take everything in the universe into account could mean you never actually get around to making a decision, but sometimes reductionist thinking can go too far. For example, a reductionist approach might look at body weight alone as an indicator of human health.
A holistic approach, by contrast, would look at weight, fitness, diet, genetic factors, lifestyle choices, and emotional well-being, among other factors. When we think holistically, instead of looking at how many parts we can throw away when making a decision, we think about how many parts we can keep in the equation without becoming overwhelmed.
In design, this may mean that answering a question like Should I graze cattle here or plant a forest? What are the overarching goals? Allan Savory, founder of holistic management, refers to this process as developing a holistic context from which all of your decisions flow. Once you have a holistic context, you can check each decision in your design to see whether it moves you toward what you really want. Design systems with closed loops. If you think back to your days in high school earth science or physics, you might vaguely recall learning about the laws of thermodynamics.
The first two have specific importance for permaculture designers. They can only change form. In permaculture, we design systems with closed loops as best we can. For example, instead of throwing away food waste, we can compost it that is, change its form and reapply it to our garden. Make use of by-products. The second law of thermodynamics says that whenever something is used to do work or whenever it changes form, some of the energy is lost as heat or light. For example, if you put your hand near an incandescent light bulb, you feel heat.
The goal of that bulb is to create light so we can see, but turning electricity into light actually involves losing a lot of the energy as heat. If we keep this in mind as designers, we can do our best to make use of that by- product. As designers, our job is figure out how to either minimize this loss or, better yet, take advantage of it. What if you put your compost pile inside of a greenhouse in the winter to keep it warmer than it would otherwise be?
In a greenhouse with no active heating strategy other than compost piles in the corners, Will Allen produces hardy crops of salad greens all winter. Avoid shifting the burden to the intervener. Taking on the burden for system function can lead to a feedback loop where more and more intervention is required over time to keep systems functioning.
Therefore, we should strive to design systems that are largely self-maintaining. Even systems that require lots of work from us during establishment should be designed so that the system will provide for most of its own needs as it matures. Ask yourself how much maintenance your systems require and whether those systems will require more or less maintenance in the future. Then rethink any systems that will require more maintenance in the future to help them become more self-maintaining.
Maximize positive emergent properties. Emergent properties of a system show up when each element in the system is performing its function. Emergent properties can be expected or unexpected, good or bad. The key for permaculture designers is to look at each aspect of our designs through a holistic lens so we can try to anticipate as many emergent properties of the systems we design as possible. Keeping these things in mind enables holistic designers to maximize the positive emergent properties and lessen the negative ones.
We can use them to test different solutions to design problems to see which ones will lead us closer to our vision and to sustainability. The lists of permaculture principles found in various publications range in length from four to forty. What follows is a distillation of the principles that we have found to be most broadly applicable to permaculture design in our experience. We also offer a few questions for each principle that you can use to work through your design. Locate elements for functional interconnection.
Putting elements in the right place in the landscape and in relation to one another can create beneficial relationships and allow systems to function. These functional interconnections between elements result in systems with closed loops, which are more efficient and lower maintenance than those without. For instance, a greenhouse attached to the sunniest side of the house may help heat the house through solar gain and create a productive growing space.
These benefits would be downplayed or lost if the greenhouse were on the shady side of the house. Questions to ask: Does this element relate to those around it in a way that makes sense? In this garden, greens are being grown between bean poles and a greenhouse to provide shade in the summer, which prevents them from bolting.
Choose elements that have multiple functions. The elements we include in our designs should have multiple functions, and they should be used to the fullest. When we have a choice of different elements that could do a particular job, we should aim to use the ones that do more for us and the surrounding ecosystem. This could provide food, flowers, medicine, habitat for wildlife, and a nectar source for pest predators as well as screening. This sauna stove located in a greenhouse not only heats the sauna for people but also for dehydrating produce; it also has a flat spot on the upper surface to hold a teapot.
Questions to ask: Does each element in my design provide multiple functions? Are there any elements I could swap for others to provide more functions? Am I taking full advantage of all the functions offered by the elements in my design? Design for resilience. Each essential function in our designs for example, potable water, income, food production should be supported by multiple elements. As a rule of thumb, we like to have backups for our backups.
The more essential a function, the more backups we want to have. For instance, if the water main breaks during a hot, dry spell, we need to have other ways to irrigate our crops such as cisterns, rain barrels, and, if necessary, bucket brigades from the nearest water source. All of these approaches require some forethought in the initial stages of design.
Will my systems keep functioning in the face of these disruptions? If not, how can I add at least two layers of job redundancy to improve system resilience? Obtain a yield. We want to design systems that provide yields for us. Our systems should start yielding early in their development and continue to increase yields as they grow until they reach maturity. For example, in the landscapes we design, first-year yields are primarily annual crops.
In the second year, berry crops come online while we still harvest lots of annuals. The third year brings light yields from tree fruits. In the fourth year, we might add in yields from mushroom logs. Eventually, perhaps five to ten years along, we can start to receive yields from nut trees and small-diameter timber crops. We must also make sure that we recognize all the yields that our systems provide and take advantage of them when we can. This means acknowledging yields that may not have a direct economic value such as carbon sequestration, aesthetics, and wildlife habitat.
Questions to ask: Will my systems provide yields throughout their development? Can I make any changes to my design to insure both short- and long- term yields? Do I have any gaps in the development of my system or annually where I receive no yield? Look for small-scale, intensive solutions. Whenever possible, we should aim to use solutions that are small-scale so they are more easily manageable and easier to adjust and control. Even for designs that may eventually grow to have large positive impacts, it is important to start small.
That way, initial failures will also be small. Perhaps just as important, when people fail big they tend to quit. Failing small means you are more likely to try again. Intensive land use means using the least land possible to supply our needs. Ultimately, if we design intensive systems and meet our needs on less land, we can afford to leave more land to return to functional wilderness ecosystems.
Immediately after planting a new perennial landscape, Jessi likes to plant winter squash or pumpkins to make a quick ground cover that provides a yield the first year. Questions to ask: Regardless of how grand my ultimate vision may be, am I starting small? Could I start smaller? What will be the consequences if this idea fails?
Could I achieve my goals in less space? Mimic nature and use biological resources. The way things are done in nature should provide many clues as to how we might get the same jobs done within a context of sustainability. In other words, emulating relationships found in nature is where we want to focus our energy.
Often this means using biological resources. The wonderful thing about biological resources, ranging from yeast to lettuce to cattle, is that they are inherently regenerative. They can use energy from the sun either directly or indirectly to make more of themselves. The same cannot be said for nonbiological resources such as tractors, concrete, and even solar panels.
Therefore, when looking for the solution to a problem, we should make sure we explore biological solutions first and use them when practicality allows. For instance, to mulch a garden we can use a biological material like wood chips or we can use black plastic. Both will maintain soil moisture, prevent the sun from baking the soil, and minimize weed problems. However, the black plastic is made from petroleum, which is a nonrenewable resource.
It will eventually degrade and need to be thrown away. Conversely, the wood chips will slowly break down. Questions to ask: Is this how this problem or situation would be dealt with in a natural system? Does my design rely on nonbiological resources? If so, as the design matures are the nonbiological resources replaced by biological ones?
Strive for diversity. This principle is intimately tied to several of the others. High diversity can help to maintain a dynamic sort of stability in a system. Economically speaking, people often talk about diversifying their portfolios. Diversity helps to build resilience in a system. More diversity in the cultural makeup of your community means more perspectives, more ideas, and more opportunities for learning. A good example of using diversity in our landscapes is to plant more than one species together an arrangement known as polyculture.
Within each species we plant a range of different varieties with different characteristics. If a disease strikes the apples, other fruits will still produce for us. Perhaps even some of the apple varieties will prove to be more resistant than others. Questions to ask: Does my landscape design increase biodiversity at the species and genetic levels? Does my social system design value and honor diversity? Does it encourage greater diversity? Are the economic opportunities in the design diverse or are they all contingent on one element?
Solve problems creatively. Permaculturists have embraced the idea that every problem contains the seed of its own solution, or simply, the problem is the solution. Adjusting our perspective can help. Think outside the box. Think at both larger and smaller scales. We could look at a tree falling down as a problem, or we could see it as an opportunity to use the wood for firewood or mushroom production.
Espaliered fruit trees can be grown in tight spaces but also require a lot more maintenance. This may be fine, but we need to be aware that it will take more work. Questions to ask: Does my solution address the core problem or just a symptom?
Is it worth it? Are there other problems that could help solve this one? Is there a solution that would involve less work? When our designed systems are in harmony, this is not the case. Therefore, when designing our systems we must make sure that we are using elements in a way that is in line with their nature. Whenever we force an element to perform an unnatural function, it results in more work for us.
For example, if we were to plant an apple on standard rootstock in a container on the back porch, the tree would soon become root-bound and would need to be dug up and root pruned frequently. We would also have to prune the top severely several times a year to prevent it from blocking our view. All of this disturbance might cause the apple to become more susceptible to pests and disease, which we would have to manage.
After all this extra work, the calories we spent on tree care would probably outweigh the calories in the apples harvested. We would likely have less work also known as more hammock time and greater success. Questions to ask: Are the elements in my design stressed? If I used different elements in place of stressed elements different species, varieties, breeds, makes, models , would I have a more harmonious result?
If I put the element somewhere else, would it be less stressed? How could I alleviate that? Manage edges. When creating our designs we must always pay attention to edges or the places where two distinct things come together land and water; forest and field; one cultural group and another. These edges are often very dynamic—that is, conditions found at edges support individuals unlike those found in either of the things coming together. Some of these edges are beneficial, but others create more work for us.
Therefore, we strive to increase beneficial edges and minimize problem edges. For instance, when fencing we often try to minimize the perimeter of the fenced area while maximizing the area enclosed. This minimizes the materials we use and the time we spend walking the fence line to check for damage.
On the other hand, if we were putting in a pond and we really wanted to grow lots of cattails, we would want to make the pond edge extremely sinuous to maximize the amount of edge for our chosen crop. At her house in Seattle, garden mentor Robin Haglund catches rainwater from her greenhouse roof and uses it in her landscape to increase productivity.
Questions to ask: What kinds of edges am I dealing with? Would it be beneficial to increase or decrease them? Would increasing or decreasing the edge in question create more or less work? Cycle and recycle energy. Electricity, money, time, steel, potatoes, and potentially love are all just different forms of energy from which we can benefit.
This principle asks us to look at how we can keep beneficial forms of energy in our systems as long as possible. How can we take full advantage of an energy source and then use it again and again until it is no longer useful? Part of the goal here is to create as many closed loops as possible. Also, as parts of our system degrade, we should look at how to use them for the next highest use.
Finally, we must figure out how each resource in our design responds to being used. Does use cause it to increase or decrease, or is it unaffected? Is it lost when unused? Does it create pollution or system degradation when used? The idea of next highest use is a way to take maximum advantage of the resources we consume before the end of their useful lifespan. For instance, if our old farmhouse is getting old, we can choose to rebuild, reusing any timbers that are still good.
Any timbers with rot can be cut into good and bad pieces, and the good pieces can be used to make chairs for the kitchen table. Some years down the road, if one of the rungs on the chair breaks, we can carve spoons out of the wood. When the spoons break or get ratty, we can add them to the wood chips on our garden paths or use them as kindling for a cooking fire.
The ash remaining from the fire can then be used to make soap. Notice how this is very different from tearing down the original house and turning the timbers directly into firewood. This same thinking can be applied to everything from water to heat to electricity. Solar pumps lift irrigation water from a pond at the lowest point on their property to the highest point. From there the water feeds by gravity down to irrigation systems in the gardens. Water escaping the root zone of plants reenters the water table and eventually finds its way to the pond again.
From there it cycles again and helps to supply much needed water for a homestead with a three-to-four-month dry season. Questions to ask: Am I using each resource in my design as much as possible? Am I closing loops with the systems I design? Am I making use of resources that degrade when unused? Am I avoiding using polluting resources as much as possible? Learning from Nature A fundamental understanding of ecology is critical to permaculture design. Ecology is the science of looking at living organisms and how they interact with and relate to each other in the habitat in which they live.
The spectrum of what ecology covers is vast—everything from the microorganisms found in streams to carnivorous mammals living in the Amazon rainforest. Thinking in this context gives us a much broader and more holistic perspective when creating our own designs and solving problems. Breadfruit is an important staple crop in many tropical locations.
A large, fast-growing evergreen that casts dense shade, breadfruit prefers to grow in deep, fertile, well-drained soils. These are all aspects of its species niche. Here we highlight some core concepts of ecology that are useful to think about during the design process. Some important questions to keep in mind when you are stuck with a challenge are: What would nature do?
How would this play out if nature took its course? What can I do to mimic natural processes? Niche The term niche describes the lifestyle of a species or its unique job description within the community or ecosystem in which it lives. Niche can be expressed in two ways. One is the species niche, which is what makes that species unique.
Niche can also be expressed as the community niche, which defines the specific role in which the species contributes to the community—like a job description. Nitrogen fixer is one job in a community that could be filled by many species; a more specific role is a canopy-dwelling insect that eats leaves. Some species, such as humans, can be defined as generalists, which are widely adaptable and less likely to suffer when their habitat changes. Specialists, on the other hand, have very specific jobs and depend on conditions that are just right in order to survive.
Through a pattern of interspecies relationships and cooperation, the resources of a given habitat are divided up among species. However, depending on the job of the species and on the environment, competition for resources will exist if other species in the area have the same niche.
In our designs, we want to minimize competition and maximize cooperation by mimicking beneficial relationships found in nature. Ecological succession Ecological succession is a core concept in ecology that relates to the dynamic process or sequence of development in an ecosystem.
These changes often follow a predictable pattern in the classic linear view of succession. However, variable site conditions and further expected or unexpected disturbance events can change the direction in which an ecosystem develops. Disturbance can include human-caused types such as land clearing and pollution, as well as natural occurrences such as fire, lava flow, or landslide.
Primary succession is when the ecosystem starts developing after a severe disturbance has left no ecological community in place. This is usually the result of volcanic eruption, desertification, glaciation, or severe erosion from either natural causes or intentional site scraping for land development.
Secondary succession occurs after a previous biological community has been disturbed but leaves behind legacies such as organic matter in the soil, seed banks, and organisms from that previous ecosystem. This often follows forest fires, wind blowdowns, or clear-cutting. After disturbance, a group of plants known as pioneer species that are highly tolerant of extreme or poor growing conditions usually moves into the newly disturbed space.
These are often nitrogen fixers or plants that produce a lot of biomass; they create better living conditions to facilitate the success of future species. The niche strategy of pioneer species is that they are fast growing and sometimes spread aggressively. These plants can often be labeled weeds, but they are simply acting as a Band-Aid to disturbed sites. During the intermediate stages of succession, the plant communities grow more complex with time.
However, vegetation will vary with differing site conditions. The niche strategy for survival for these mid-succession species is that they are competitors. The large-leafed plant is burdock Arctium lappa , a biennial pioneer species that produces many seeds and spreads them by attaching its burrs to passing animals. In this system the burdock is grown in a barrel for easier harvest of its long roots, which are both edible and medicinal. The late successional community is traditionally seen as a stable ecosystem, but it is certainly not static.
The plants are taller, grow more slowly, and in many cases are able to support a more diverse population of organisms in comparison to earlier stages. The matrix of late-successional species varies widely from region to region.
Mountain ranges offer a different mix of conditions and species adapted to those conditions than a low valley nearby. The niche strategy associated with late successional species is that they are stress tolerators. Often succession is illustrated in a linear fashion, from disturbance through several phases to a climax. However, that image lacks the complexity of the real world.
At any point during the development of an ecological community, patches within it can be set back by disturbance. Then the process starts over again but not necessarily always in the same direction. Most landscapes hold a mosaic of patches at different stages of succession.
The same disturbance can impact an ecosystem differently in different areas. However, it tends to move in the same direction within individual patches, or ecological units within which conditions are largely the same. In many cases, we can accelerate these stages through careful selection and management of species. However, we must have a clear idea of which successional stage we would like to achieve. We are not always rushing toward late succession. In fact, most abundant food plants tend to be early to mid-successional species.
Bioregion A bioregion is an area of land defined by geological boundaries or ecological similarities rather than political boundaries. Bioregions often follow watershed boundaries and encompass a distinct area that shares unique characteristics of flora, fauna, geology, and climate in comparison to its neighboring regions. If we look at human history within a bioregion, we find embedded local traditions that are adapted to the local resources available.
This includes food production, architecture, and health systems. We can often replicate those cultural patterns in our designs to make them appropriate to our bioregion. Biodiversity The diversity of species is usually an indication of ecosystem health. Natural ecosystems contain a wide variety of organisms—humans, plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and so forth—that interact in the web of life.
The more species within an ecosystem, the more potential for beneficial interaction we have. The same goes for genetic diversity within a species. In our designs, it should be a goal to increase or maintain biodiversity to achieve greater stability.
Species may come and species may go. The same goes for individuals, but if there are many species and genetically different individuals present, the whole system will not collapse with those changes. This means the ecosystem, on the whole, is more adaptable.
Interaction between species allows resources to be exchanged—whether those are food and nutrients, oxygen, shelter, or predation. One organism may protect or be symbiotic with another. The more species we have, the more opportunity there is. Genetic diversity within a species is also an important component of biodiversity. Instead, we can plant ten different cultivars; then, if one or more proves resistant to the disease, we still get a harvest. Monocultures and polycultures Monoculture is the agricultural practice of growing one species in large quantity to minimize the need for labor inputs and create easier and more cost-effective maintenance.
For instance, an industrial farm might grow 2 acres of carrots. However, monocultures preclude biodiversity. That means their populations will grow much larger than they would in nature. This is a huge part of the reason industrial agriculture is so reliant upon chemicals. How else can you do battle with massive swarms of ravenous insects?
This picture shows a fall harvest of storage apples that will be eaten in ripening order all the way through early spring. Permaculture designers favor polyculture, the practice of growing multiple species in an agricultural setting in the same space and at the same time.
For example, if our carrots are being grown in smaller plots mixed with other vegetables and possibly even perennials, it will be much more difficult for the carrot rust fly to find a carrot. Even better, all those other plants may support predators that eat carrot rust flies! Growing plants in polycultures also means a greater diversity of products served up throughout the year.
Instead of just one big harvest of carrots, we can have an entire smorgasbord of fruits and vegetables. These beehives at Kailash Ecovillage in Portland, Oregon, are a home for beneficial insects, in this case honeybees, which provide valuable pollination services. Ecosystem services The term ecosystem services refers to the benefits that functional, healthy ecosystems provide.
Examples of ecosystem services include pollination, water filtration, carbon sequestration, and erosion prevention. As designers, it is in our best interest and the interest of other life forms and future generations to strive to make sure that the landscapes we design provide plenty of ecosystem services for the benefit of all. It is also important that our designs do not impede ecosystem services from happening.
Your ecological context encompasses your climate, your soil, your watershed, and your surrounding human settlement pattern. Learning some earth science will help you better understand your context and make appropriate design choices. In fact, many of the least functional and least efficient designs we see in the world are a result of ignoring climate. While there are many aspects to climate, three stand out as important for permaculture designers: Temperature.
What are your average highs and lows? What are your extreme highs and lows? How much rain do you get? Does it generally come as sprinkles or torrential downpours? How does it relate to your evaporation rate?
How much of it comes as snow or ice? When does your precipitation occur? When are cold snaps most likely to occur? What other climatic factors change with the seasons? You can easily see these aspects of your climate by looking up or creating a climatogram for your area. A climatogram shows precipitation and temperature extremes throughout the year to give you an idea of your climatic patterns. It overlays a line graph for temperature highs and lows with a bar graph for precipitation, with a temperature scale on the left, a precipitation scale on the right, and the months labeled along the bottom.
The USDA map planthardiness. Note, however, that temperatures can and do dip below that. This information is useful as a tool to determine which plants will survive and thrive in your climate. For instance, Seattle is classified as Csb: warm-summer Mediterranean climate. However, it is still useful for identifying the broad climatic conditions in a location.
In Houston, Texas, the climate is hot in the summer and mild in the winter, with an average of 50 inches of rainfall spread throughout the year. At this residence in Houston, a huge variety of plants, such as Mediterranean herbs and pomegranates, can be grown. A climatogram for Hillsboro, Oregon While much further climatic subdivision is possible, design decisions often ride on which of these broad classifications a project falls into: Temperate. This includes most places at midlatitudes with four distinct seasons.
Ocean and air currents, proximity to large bodies of water, and topography can cause some variation here. The temperatures here tend to be moderated as compared to those in the polar regions or the tropics. Day length in summer and winter is noticeably different, creating seasonal temperature variation. Within the temperate zones are areas far from the moderating influences of large bodies of water or topographic extremes referred to as continental climates for example, Kansas City, Missouri, United States; Kiev, Ukraine; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
They tend to be hot, with the coolest temperatures found at higher elevation. Day length remains relatively constant throughout the year. The term subtropical loosely denotes places near the tropic lines that have tropical conditions for part of the year for example, Cape Town, South Africa; Los Angeles, California; and Barcelona, Spain. This modifier could be applied to any of the previously described climates.
However, it refers specifically to precipitation. In arid climates, evaporation exceeds precipitation. This is important because there is a whole set of techniques that may be necessary for a permaculture system to thrive in arid conditions that are not necessary where precipitation is more plentiful. Examples of arid climates can be found in Tucson, Arizona, United States; northern Africa; northwest China; and all of interior Australia. These are places within the polar circles, where daylight is scarce in winter and the growing season may be insignificant.
Putting all this information together for your site will result in a climate profile that you can use in a variety of ways during the design process. Your microclimates Microclimates are areas within a climate zone that are a little different from the area that surrounds them. These areas, which can be very small next to the dryer vent on the side of your house or quite large the north-facing side of a hill that runs for several miles , can differ by being warmer, colder, wetter, drier, windier, calmer, and so on.
In design, the patterns of the overall climate are the rules we must work within; however, microclimates allow us to use our creativity to bend or break those rules. The aspect of a slope is the direction it faces. Depending on your climate and latitude, each of these aspects lends itself to a different use. Closer to the equator, north and south aspects matter less. However, east aspects are cooler in the late afternoon when the sun is at its most intense, and west aspects tend to get very hot in the afternoons.
Essentially, if your land has areas with different aspects, you should take note and plan uses for each aspect that match the conditions found there. Solar orientation. Solar orientation refers to where something is in relation to the path traveled by the sun. As designers, we need to look at existing and planned landscape elements with an understanding of how the path traveled by the sun will interact with them. Understanding the path of the sun where you live can help immensely in planning to take advantage of the free solar energy that hits the earth.
For instance, if you had a rectangular house near Chicago, Stockholm, or Tokyo, it would be beneficial to orient the broad side toward the south and cover it with windows. That way, more of the house would get hit by low-angle winter sun that could do part of the job of heating the house in the winter.
In this case, it would make sense to put a root cellar on the north side of the house so it would receive minimal heat from the sun. This would work exactly the opposite in the mid-high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. Clearly, this is closely linked to aspect, but even on flat land, solar orientation can make a huge difference in microclimate effects. The way air moves across the land can also have major impacts on the climatic conditions there.
While extremely windy conditions can be detrimental anywhere, in cold-winter climates they can be especially damaging and cause loss of much-needed heat. In hot, humid climates, still areas with no airflow can be stifling and oppressive, and can create conditions for fungal outbreaks. In many climates, cold night air drains into low spots.
The midslope is often referred to as the thermal band because it stays warmer than both the frost pocket below and the exposed hilltop above. As the hot air rises, cooler air moves in to take its place. On slopes, this usually means breezes blow uphill in the late afternoon, an effect known as convection. As you can see, understanding how air moves on your site and looking for the spots that are different can provide opportunities for good design.
The vegetation on-site can have profound impacts on microclimate. In temperate climates, evergreen forests generally stay warmer in the winter than surrounding areas due to the insulating and wind-stopping effects of the trees. Deciduous forests have a similar effect but to a lesser degree. Vegetation standing between an element and the prevailing wind can block it, which may be good or bad depending on what you are trying to do.
In snowy regions, this can result in snowdrifts, which can block your door or provide free spring irrigation. Some trees, such as western red cedar Thuja plicata , can actually create dry spots under their dense evergreen foliage. This is important to know before you think about what to plant there.
The key is to look at the existing vegetation on a site and determine how it is modifying climatic conditions. For starters, identifying existing microclimates on a site is essential for good design. From there you can decide what you want to do about them. As we get into the design section, you will see that each microclimate can be enhanced, buffered, or neutralized.
It is growing successfully in this warm microclimate. This row of trees at New Forest Farm in Viola, Wisconsin, stops the wind and causes snow to drift on the leeward side. When that snow melts, the water infiltrates into the land. Your soil Many of your design decisions will be based on knowing your soil and its capabilities. Healthy soils have a few different components: they consist of 40 percent pore space, 30 percent minerals, 15 percent water, 12 percent biota, and 3 to 12 percent organic material.
Much of the soil is pore space, which means healthy soils are well aerated. Water, which is necessary for soil life and plants to flourish, also accounts for a large percentage of a healthy soil. These properties determine many things, from drainage characteristics to nutrient holding capacity. These aspects of soil can be hard to change or may require a lot of management to get what you want from your soil.
To assess soil texture, look at the relative amount of sand coarse particles , silt fine particles , and clay super-fine particles in your soil. In the field, you can assess this by feel. Get the soil moist and rub it between your fingers. You may feel more than one texture at the same time. Gritty indicates the presence of sand.
Smooth indicates the presence of silt. Slippery indicates the presence of clay. Dig up a sample of your soil from the top 12 inches; try to get a slice through all the layers. Remove any rocks and organic particles, place the soil in a jar, and fill it with water. Shake the contents vigorously until everything goes into solution. Allow the contents to settle for a few days.
Make a rough estimate of the percentage of each and look up your soil type on the soil texture classification chart here. You can then look up the more detailed properties associated with that type of soil. A term from soil science, consistence refers to how loose, light, and airy or conversely, compacted your soil is.
If it gives when you press on it, like a sponge, we call it friable. This is the sweet spot. Different colors indicate the presence of different minerals in your soil. For instance, red soils are typically rich in iron, while yellow and olive soils are rich in aluminum or manganese.
Dark coloration generally indicates organic matter. Gray indicates a lack of oxygen, usually due to a high water table or frequent inundation. For climates where moisture is not spread evenly throughout the year, it is important to look for mottled soils. For instance, gray soil with patches of red generally indicates inundation for at least part of the year. This could be due to compaction or a high water table.
Either way, it is important to know so you can plant the right species there or modify the soil conditions. If you dig a hole in your landscape, you will likely notice that the soil actually appears in layers. These are called soil horizons. In undisturbed soils they tend to occur in a predictable pattern: O—the organic layer at the top of the soil profile; the least broken-down organic material is usually at the very top in a forest this would be the recently fallen leaf litter , and below that the organic material is typically broken down to varying degrees.
A—where the organic material gets mixed into the existing soil matrix; usually dark in color, containing most plant roots. B—where nutrients end up after they leach out of the A and E horizons; the last chance for plants to take up those nutrients before they leave the system. C—mineral soils with no organic material; at this layer, all weathering is chemical as no other influences are present. D—bedrock or parent material, often but not always the original nutrient source on a landscape; in some landscapes this is buried too deep to find, while in others it is right at the surface.
For instance, the top layers are not intact in an agricultural field that is ploughed annually. On urban sites that have had fill dumped, the entire site often looks like a uniform mishmash. It takes a long time for horizons to develop.
Dark coloration in soils typically indicates the presence of organic material and potential fertility. The 2-liter bottle is being used as an inexpensive hot cap in this image. These can occur at any level and indicate compaction. This can lead to drainage issues and can also be a barrier to roots. Infiltration rate. I would hate to have missed the boat on this, so I'm sharing it here in case you have! I have 1 extra ticket for the show at the ogden tonight on the 3rd of July, dm me for details, first come first serve.
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