Permaculture Primer

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Permaculture is a contraction of “permanent” and “agriculture.” Instead of using artificial fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, instead of watering and irrigation, instead of planting in straight lines and single species, permaculture uses natural techniques to grow food and conserve resources like soil and water. It is organic gardening taken to the next level.

In the 1970s, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren studied ecosystems in Australia to create sustainable farms and gardens. Their research resulted in the encyclopedic Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (Tagari, 1988) followed by shorter introductory books.
 
Mollison and Holmgren’s idea caught on and expanded. Permaculture is now practiced all over the world. Books and magazines have proliferated, too, with related movements in urban agriculture and local food. Here in the United States, a popular book is Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green, 2009).
 
 Although grounded in scientific observation, much of permaculture consists of common sense, simple how-to directions, and the idea that gardening should be a rewarding activity, not a chore. The natural approach also means less expense and use of chemicals. Take pest control as an example. In his first chapter, Hemenway says: “In a balanced landscape, diseases and insect problems rarely get out of control. That’s because in the diverse, many-specied garden each insect, fungus, bacterium, or potentially invasive plant is surrounded by a natural web of checks and balances. If one species becomes too abundant, its sheer availability makes it a tasty, irresistible food source for something else.”
 
Hemenway describes his experience with voracious deer in Oregon, and how he created a “deer-deflecting food hedge.” He returns to the topic later, after he has moved to Oakland, CA, and describes how he planted a hedge of Maximilian sunflowers as a barrier. The spiky stems repel deer, while the plants yield edible seeds and shoots. What’s more, they grow in red clay and resist drought.
 
The sunflowers are typical of the permaculture approach. The plants perform several functions: they are pretty to look at; they are adapted to their environment; and they require little work. Right after this passage, Hemenway describes another multipurpose species, goumi, a relative of Russian olive. This shrub yields cream colored flowers and nutritious red berries, is drought-resistant, and is one of the rare shrubs to have nitrogen-fixing nodules on its roots. And these are only two of the many plant species he extols, from bamboo to stinging nettles.
 
One chapter deals with soil—what is in it, how to cultivate it, and how to build soil over time. Healthy soil is alive with humus, organisms, roots, fungi, insect larvae, microscopic worms called nematodes, and the more familiar earthworms.  Mulch is a gardening standby, but permaculture has an interesting take on it. A layer of mulch inhibits the growth of weeds, as it decays and adds organic matter to soil. But the process of decay uses energy and water. In some cases, planting a ground cover provides more benefits than mulch. Even tilling comes into question in a section called “To Till or Not to Till.” Hemenway shuns mechanical methods of turning soil in favor of natural processes.
 
Another chapter deals with water—how to capture it, divert it, save it, and use it both to grow plants and to create ponds. Much of this discussion applies to a dry climate like Australia or California.  Permaculture encourages swales to slow down and direct rainwater. Collect runoff from roofs and paved surfaces, and use graywater from the home to water garden plants. Storage tanks are described, and construction details for pools and ponds. These water features can be functional as well as ornamental. Ponds can be used to store water, biofilter it, and provide a habitat for fish, birds, and aquatic plants.
 
Of the innovative methods used in permaculture, companion planting or “garden guilds” deserve mention. Based on the observation that certain plant species often occur together in the wild, this method mixes things up in a way that benefits each species. A guild is a way to boost the productivity of a small plot, increase diversity, provide a habitat for birds, and raise more food. An example is the Native American “three sisters” of corn, pole beans and squash.
 
Locally, a group called Blue Ridge Permaculture Network gives classes and workshops. Their website includes a blog which acts as an information exchange for anyone interested in the practices of permaculture. BRPN is headed by Christine Gyovai and Terry “Tiger” Lilley.
Pierre Constans experiments on his farm in Nelson County. When he lived in Santa Barbara, CA, Constans educated the public in the virtues of compost, worms, and straw bale construction. Today, he grafts and grows fruit trees, berry bushes and vines, and he cultivates a “wheel” of salad greens and vegetables, with compost at the hub. 
 
Robert Boucheron is a Charlottesville-based architect.
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