Permaculture courses

Permaculture is the design of ecological systems to support human life and design of human life to fit within ecological systems without degrading them. It is the creation of “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs” (Mollison, 1978).  Permaculture can also be said to be an “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man” (Mollison, 1978). The word Permaculture (PC) was coined by co-founders Bill Mollison and David Homlgren in the mid 1970’s from the words Permanent agriculture. But since people, their buildings and their way of thinking are central to Permaculture, the vision of Permanent (sustainable) agriculture evolves to one of permanent (sustainable) culture. Permaculture draws together the diverse ideas, skills and ways of living which need to be rediscovered and developed in order to empower the local communities to move from being dependant consumers to becoming responsible and independent productive citizens.

The Permaculture Design System

Permaculture is not just a system for efficient production of food. It has an ethical basis which underpins the fundamental objective of practicing Permaculture anywhere on the earth. There are three key ethics:

• Care For Earth
• Care For People
• Recycle or Redistribute Surplus

If these ethical objectives of are violated in our activities then we cannot define what we are doing as Permaculture.

Permaculture aims to improve the productive capacity of land (care for earth) while yielding from it for human needs (care for people). By yield we do not just mean cash return, but the “sum of yields” i.e. the total yield of all useful products from the land. In Permaculture jargon “Elements” are any part of the house-hold or farmstead into which energy and nutrients flow, and from which they exit. (e.g. the kitchen, the toilet, the vegetable garden, the shower, the fish pond etc.) All the elements functioning together make up our Permaculture “system”. Each element requires inputs and produces outputs. When designing in Permaculture we aim to make the outputs of all elements into inputs for other elements (redistribute and recycle surplus) so that wastage and reliance on external inputs are minimised. The output of the system will be greater than that of the combined output of its parts in isolation (synergy). Observation is the most important tool at our disposal for achieving this aim. By observing and understanding ecological processes we can make them work for us, rather than against us.

Design Principals are “rules of thumb” which we apply in designing how our elements will be arraigned within the system, in order to maximise the sum of yields from the system. Principals apply to any environment or particular situation.

Principle 1: Relative location
The relative location of elements should reflect their relationships with each other and with their operators (us!). The placed strategically to enhance their positive relationships, making the yields of the one element become the inputs or requirements for another element. Conversely we seek to minimise negative interactions.

For example use companion planting and organize species into guilds, selecting species which have evolved beneficial inter-relationships (symbioses) with each-other, and keeping those that are detrimental to one-another (allopathic) apart.

Principle 2: Multiple Functions Singe Elements
As a rule of thumb, every element should provide at least three functions. Instead of simply having chickens for income (one function), they might also serve other needs such as fertilizing the soil and weed control. Another example is an element as simple as a fence. If a fence is needed to contain animals, for example, design the fence in such a way that it provides many functions. A living fence can act as a holding area for animals, provide animals with food and fodder, act as windbreak, and provide food and medicine for the family. One final example is a living resource such as bees. When designed into a system, they serve several functions; food, income and pollination.

Principle 3: Multiple Elements, Single Function
Multiple elements for a single function add diversity and the local farm ecosystem becomes more resilient to local environment fluctuations. For instance, if the single function is soil fertilization, instead of simply relying on chemical fertilizer, introducing multiple elements would include crop rotations, use of legumes, animal manure, etc. As other example, take the function of heating a structure such as greenhouse. Multiple elements would include body heat from animals, heat from compost piles placed against the structure, and the use of thermal mass to store the collected heat.

Principle 4: Energy Efficient Design (zone and sector)
It is necessary to consider exogenous flows of energy onto the site in placement of our elements. This is done through SECTOR ANALYSIS.
We should consider:

– Local wind patterns
– Seasonal sun-light and shadow patters
– Slope and gravity

For example, wind can be bad for the garden and solar radiation can be captured to heat water so we site wind-breaks and solar heaters according to wind a radiation patterns. We plan placement of elements relative to our energy requirements, to “scatter hostile energies and harness beneficial ones”. We look for multi-functionality; For example Hedges can serve as wind breaks, as well as providing animal fodder, fruit, mulch, habitat for insect predators and protecting the garden from grazing animals.

We also consider gravity (i.e. slope) and its effects on the movement of water across the site. We must try to make maximum use of gravity in water management.

  • Swales, Check dams and Keyline Management techniques are used to regulate water-flow across the land, reducing or eliminating run-off if possible, thus erosion is minimised.
  • Grazing regulation is used to allow the creation of new topsoil under living plant materail.
  • Tanks and ponds are used to catch and store water which cannot be absorbed by the ground. It is then released slowly over the dry season through a gravity fed irrigation system.

    For efficient operation of the system we should also consider placement of element relative to ourselves. To simplify this process Mollison uses the concept of ACTIVITY ZONATION. He breaks a farmstead into five zones according to their ease of access from the centre of activity – usually the house:

  • Zone I is nearest to the centre of activity, and contains elements that are visited more than once daily by the worker: for example herb and salad gardens, toilets, fuel storages, tool shed etc.
  • Zone II is further from centre of activity and contains elements requiring less attention; chicken pens, fruit trees, and vegetables not regularly tended like Brassica or root crops. We may set up movable pens to allow a controlled foraging system for our chickens or other small live-stock. Zone III includes elements visited on a less frequent basis such as orchards, forage stands, wood-lots and bees. Agro-forestry is highly favoured over pastoral systems or arable mono-crop.
  • Zone IV is semi wilderness. We may remove fuel, or collect wild products, but only on a sustainable basis.
  • Zone V, lastly, is the wilderness. Here we let nature run its course and observe the patterns and relationships that emerge between species in natural systems. This zone is very important for observation and inspiration for the rest of the system. It also serves for natural hydrological regulation which is very important for this particular area.

Principle 5: Biological Resource
Natural (biological) resources (preferably those available on our site or locally) are used where-ever possible in preference to artificial and/or imported resources. For example compost is preferable to artificial fertiliser, because it can be produced from kichen, garden and animal wastes available on the farm, while artificial fertilisers are produced in energy intensive industrial processes and must be purchased from external sources reducing our independence and increasing our ecological footprint.

In Permaculture designed agriculture systems, animals would be introduced into the farm. Ponds and water lands might also be created. The idea of this principle is to attempt to mimic the diversity of natural systems and, hopefully, the resilient and resistant qualities of those natural systems. It is also important not to forget the most often neglected biological resource–people!

Perennial crops (especially trees) are very important in the system for a number of reasons:

  1. Trees do not need to be re-sown annually and require less work-load and less external inputs.
  2. Perennials do not require ploughing so their use does not cause soil-erosion.
  3. They protect soil and add to fertility by laying down leaf litter. Legume trees (like Acacias, Sesbania, Leucinnea) may also fix huge amounts of nitrogen, so are an essential source nutrient input for the whole system.
  4. The multi-storey of the forest can produce many yields which sum up to a huge productivity relative to annual mono-crops.
  5. They give many useful products: food, fuel, tools, mulch for the gardens (leaves), building materials, animal forage etc.
  6. They put down deep roots which direct water into the ground, recharging aquifers and can access ground-water during dry periods so will survive and produce when annual crops fail.

Principle 6: Energy recycling
When redesigning a farm it is necessary that energy flowing through the system is used in many different ways. Water is always caught at the highest possible point. Structures are created to intercept water as it passes through the landscape and distribute it by gravity (key line system, dams, swales, etc.) which saves unnecessary pumping. Energy recycling would also include recovering biogas from manure and orienting structure to obtain maximum solar gain.

Principle 7: Maximize diversity
For Permaculture systems, the idea is to build more stability into a farm by maximizing diversity, both in terms of plant and animal species, but also in terms of income or livelihood. In terms of plants and animals, diversity refers not only to the total number of species, but more importantly to the number of beneficial interactions between those species. It is important to create as many niches, micro sites, and habitats as possible by increasing edges, patterns and creating plant guilds. In terms of diversifying income, this might include energy tree / perennial grass planting for biomass and liquid fuels, medicinal plants, etc.

Principle 8: Stacking
Stacking means making use of multiple dimensions in our design. For example, in a forest garden there can be production from seven (!) storeys; canopy, sub-canopy, shrub layer, herb layer, ground-cover, under-ground (root layer) and from climbing plants. E.g. Coffee, growing under the shade of Moringa, may itself shade chillies, pumpkin and sweet potatoes as well as being a climbing frame for lablab bean, all in one small area of land. In Permaculture design, stacking in time, space (using vertical space with trellis structures, etc.) and schedule (time x space) is often discussed. Stacking is allows more intensive food production systems.

Principle 9: Appropriate technology
In this principle, “appropriate” refers to its’ relation to the local culture. For instance, use of implements that are locally made, can be applied locally, and made use of with the skills of local people. Also, there should be less reliance on fossil fuels.

Principle 10: Scale
Start small and get it right, then expand when you have succeeded; “Small scale intensive systems insure that (1) much of the land can be used efficiently and thoroughly, and (2) the site is under control… it is easy to make the mistake of spreading out too quickly with expensive gardens, orchards, wood-lots and chicken runs. This is a waste of time, energy and water.”  (Mollison, 1991)

Permaculture principals are universally applicable and have been put to use in every climate on earth, from The Arctic to The Amazon. But in Africa their application could prove to be of the greatest benefit to both the people and the ecology. Permaculture has the potential to increase the self-sufficiency of the rural poor, to help them to manage their assets more effectively and reduce their dependence on the plough and unpredictable markets for their monoculture crops.

A Global Permaculture Movement has emerged since the 1960’s in response to Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s ideas and those who have developed them, such as, Rosemary Morrow, Geoff Lawton and Patrick Whitefield. Permaculture organisations have been established world-wide. People are taking up these principals and applying them to their own situations from Senegal to Hungary to New Zealand to Costa Rica. As yet the bulk of the Permaculture movement remains in Europe, Australia and North America.

In the third world farmers have been practising many of the techniques used in Permaculture for many generations anyway, as with aquaculture systems in China for example. However increasing population growth and energy consumption is putting more pressure on the land that supports us, and people are tending to move out of ecological harmony with natural systems, often following the advice of people keen to push “modern techniques” (i.e. techniques that involve lots of synthetic chemicals and heavy machinery) onto the rural sector in less developed areas of the world.

It is therefore becoming a critical responsibility for the movement in the west to begin undoing some of the damage that is being done to developing world agricultural societies by agro-industries, which have tricked them into a state of dependence on external inputs. We

A Global Permaculture Movement has emerged since the 1960’s in response to Bill Mollison’s ideas and those who have developed them, such as David Holngren, Rosemary Morrow and Patrick Whitefield. Permaculture organisations have been established world-wide. However, it is in Africa where Permaculture promises to give the maximum benefit to the ordinary people, helping them to insure food security, that it is least known.

Permaculture design schools around the world offer a standard certificated 72-hour Permaculture design course. The curriculum covers all the topics outlined in Mollison’s basic text The Introduction to Permaculture.

Permaculture literature:

If you want more detailed info, and there is some very good info out there, get hold of one of these titles, especially The Introduction to Permaculture, The Designer’s Manual, or The Earthcare Manual (better for temperate climates).


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