The world is changing at an unprecedented rate. Human populations are soaring. Resources are being consumed faster than they ever have before. We are quickly overextending the earth’s ability to sustain our species.

How can YOU help to resolve these problems through your gardening practices? A number of alternative agricultural and gardening approaches have been developed over the past few decades as possible solutions to these concerns. A popular one is permaculture.

Permaculture is a term that was coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-1970s. It is a contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” This approach is based on three primary principles: care of the earth, care of people, and the setting of limits on population and consumption. Together, these concerns help to guide the development of permaculture systems.

Mollison describes permaculture as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.” Permaculture is not a fixed school of thought. It is a way of thinking about elements within a landscape so that we can use their products and processes to provide for our own needs and the needs of the landscape. It is the very first design system devoted to the development of sustainable human settlements.

Permaculture systems can be as simple or as complex as the designer chooses. The main intention is to provide ways for individuals to take some responsibility for their own food, shelter, energy, water, and more.

As gardeners, many of us are already attempting to do some of these things. As permaculturists, we are constantly looking for ways to minimize work and maximize yields. In doing this we can look to natural landscapes as a model. They provide us with examples of diversity, productivity, and stability that we can try to reproduce in our own gardens. Traditionally, we tend to think of gardens as organized rows of plants separated by species. A permaculture garden, on the other hand, may be an intensively planted space with both cultivated and wild plant species mixed in with each other.

This type of garden much more closely resembles a natural grouping of plants and brings with it a number of benefits. Because plants are spaced much closer together, the same area of land will provide higher yields.

Mixing plant species helps to deter pests and protect against disease. This mixture of plants also ensures that the mineral resources of the soil will be used much more evenly.

In permaculture, the emphasis is on perennial plants. Because perennials do not need to be replanted year after year, they allow us to create a stable landscape that will grow and evolve over time.

Another important aspect of permaculture design is diversity. Diverse systems are much more resilient than monocultures and can provide for many different needs. Permaculture systems also focus on elements that have multiple uses so that they all benefit the system in a number of ways.

An example of this might be a fruit tree that provides shade, beauty, and food for humans and wildlife. Or consider an evergreen hedge, which provides visual screening, a habitat for birds, and a windbreak.

“Permacultural living” is not a new concept. It is a series of common sense approaches applied to everyday living. Though the idea was born more than twenty years ago, permaculture is slowly beginning to take hold in the United States.

If we truly hope to make the world a better place, it is up to each of us to do what we can. We all have the capacity to be designers. Finding ways to provide for our own needs on our own property through the development of integrated permaculture landscapes is one initiative we all can take.

A good reference for more information about permaculture is Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, which was published in 2001 by Chelsea Green Publishers.


By Mark Krawczyk
Plant and Soil Science Department
Special Topics Student University of Vermont

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