A design system rooted in the thoughtful observation of living systems.
Our work in the field of permaculture design was born out of need to find an alternative to the land management practices that had degraded our farm site, and ultimately rendered traditional cultivation methods inadequate and obsolete. It is a narrative that is echoed across the world as we collectively face the painful eventuality of thoughtless environmental interaction instigating soil depletion, rising carbon levels in the atmosphere, mass extinction, and the pollution of our great lakes, rivers, and oceans. Motivated by a personal philosophy of deep ecology that recognizes the integral nature of all elements within an interdependent ecosystem, we were drawn to permaculture because it presented an ethical framework that informed and grounded the design practice. The foundational ethics presented in permaculture; earth care, people care, fair share; offer a universal compass to navigate our interactions with our environment, our communities, and ourselves.
DESIGNING WITH NATURE
Permaculture is an ecological design system that aims to mimic naturally occurring ecosystem functions through patterning, and harness their potential for long term sustainable renewal. The term and practical field of study was developed by Bill Mollison & David Holgrem in the 1970s, but many of the techniques borrow from and build upon indigenous land management practices from across the world. Permaculture has since evolved to address the personal and interpersonal relationship dynamics that inform the way in which we relate to the larger social web of life. Since its inception, permaculture design has been applied to homesteads, agricultural operations, community development projects, and organizational structures. Rather than a rigid orthodoxy of perfection, the principles of permaculture invite practitioners into the mutable ebb and flow of thoughtful observation and interaction.
PRINCIPLES & PRACTICES
The principles of permaculture, as articulated by co-founder David Holmgren, present a starting point for thoughtful, sustained interaction with our environment. The degree to which the principles and practices feel intuitive speaks to their elegance. For us, permaculture is not a collection of techniques, but rather a framework for approaching disparate landscapes to enhance harmonious relationships. The principles we elaborate on below operate outside linear convention as each one continually feeds and fuels the others in a cyclical pattern that spirals in unison with the natural world.
OBSERVE & INTERACT
All beings experience the world from their own unique subjective perspective. The natural processes and phenomena that unfold around us are interpreted and acted upon relationally based on our perspective value system. What makes a weed a weed distills down to a matter of opinion. When we take a step back to observe our environment from a shared perspective (that weedy thistle patch is covered with butterflies and native bees!), details emerge that help us to understand how we might interact and design to account for the needs of all elements within a functional ecology.
CATCH & STORE ENERGY
Cycles of abundance ebb and flow with the seasons, and with careful design we can harness that potential by catching and storing energy in the form of solar heat, wind, water, and decomposition for later dispersion. Water systems that we’ve developed and implemented on our farm and other sites are a functional, low tech, example of this principle. Installed terra forms in the earth direct rainfall that would otherwise sheet off the landscape towards ponds that hold the water, allowing it to slowly seep back into the earth. This stored energy then recharges aquifers, and becomes a resource for irrigation, aquaculture, ducks, and other aquatic habitat.
OBTAIN A YIELD
Nature is full of relational reciprocity; give and take. Obtaining a yield is what gives the system its life force and maximizes the energy available to all beings existing within the ecosystem. Yields often include much more than the harvest, and provide for much more than the individual. A persimmon tree in flower yields a delicate fragrance on the air that attracts a bee, which yields sustenance from its nectar. The pollinated fruit swells with the seasons as the leaves grow, flourish, and eventually fall, yielding a small cover of mulch on the ground. The small cover of mulch yields habitat for the insects and microorganisms that inhabit the soil strata. As autumn sets in, the persimmon tree yields a delicious fruit for harvest. A human yields sustenance from the fruit, and plants a seed, which yields a tree.
APPLY SELF-REGULATION & FEEDBACK
We do our best to understand how we fit in natural systems, and remind ourselves that we represent one component in an interconnected ecology, and must regulate our relationship to the whole with humility and understanding. To be in relationship is to grow and evolve in partnership, balancing the healthy functionality of an ecology with the needs and desires of stewards. Every year our perennial gardens change shape as they grow, occupying new heights and vantage points. We too grow in concert, and from new vantage points our perspective shifts and we are able to absorb new feedback. Accepting feedback means we retain a level of flexibility in our approach to thoughtfully respond to environmental outcomes that did not meet our expectations. This is the art of collaboration with the larger web of life. Sometimes there will be unanticipated successes and failures to approaches, either way, they are only the beginning of the conversation.
USE & VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES
Renewable resources possess the same regenerative quality that imbues the natural world. When resources are finite, they are incapable of regenerating at a rate that ensures their continued existence. While sunlight and water are renewable, fossil fuels and plastics are not. We live within a culture that values the short term convenience offered by resource extraction and disposable, petroleum based plastics, even as they accumulate and linger in our environment for generations to come. In creating new ways of being as individuals and farm operators, we try to limit our use of non-renewables; no plastic mulch and no fossil fuel heated greenhouses. But our machines require oil and our unheated high tunnel is constructed with plastic and polycarbonate, so we recognize our own complicitness in the very systems we seek to subvert. We are representative of the culture, even as we work toward shifting our personal and collective lives toward a renewable future. It’s an evolving process, and we are humbled to count ourselves among those working for a regenerative tomorrow.
PRODUCE NO WASTE
Functional design is self-sustaining because it addresses the needs and yields of each element within the system, while limiting the auxiliary input and outbound pollution. We mimic the behavior of natural systems because the natural world is not oriented toward waste. The beauty of biology is its capacity for transformation - fertile soil will midwife a seed which becomes a plant which is consumed by an animal whose metabolic process transforms that plant into digested material that fertilizes the soil. The ability to cycle organic resources is integral to “waste not, want not” cultural design. With a permaculture framework we can employ creative solutions to common waste producing scenarios.
DESIGN FROM PATTERNS TO DETAILS
There is an implicit design resonant within the landscape that can be understood through careful site assessment. It is the culmination of all natural processes as they relate to the functionality of the ecology. Our farm is situated in a river watershed, while a client’s homestead sits at the headwaters for a critical stream corridor - every location on earth is playing a role within a set of interconnected biological behaviors that culminate with the “functionality” of our shared landscape. Beginning with the basic geography of landforms, permaculture design reads integral patterns present within the landscape, and uses that knowledge to create informed design that enhances the health and functionality of the environment down to each detail present within it.
INTEGRATE RATHER THAN SEGREGATE
Elements within an interconnected ecology exist within relationship to one another, and fill complementary roles that support the overall integrity of the environment. With a permaculture approach to farming and landscape design, we enhance the collaborative potential of agroecology systems by combining elements for enhanced function. For instance, on our farm plants grow in complex polycultures, meaning that different plants are integrated with one another to simulate the way nature tends to organize itself. Plants with disparate root patterns, growth habits, life cycles, and ecological niches grow together to guarantee there is always cover on the soil, forage for the animals, and harvests available to the stewards.
USE SMALL & SLOW SOLUTIONS
Utilizing small and slow solutions preserves energy while maintaining room for growth. Working with the complex set of interconnected unfolding processes we refer to simply as “the environment”often involves navigating unforeseen emergent outcomes to our actions. Aggressive modification to the environment comes with, unfortunately, the risk of unintended aggressive consequences. Permaculture invites us to take a more measured approach. When we first began working with water in our landscape we were striving for maximum effects with minimal consequence. To this end, we chose to work with small depression water features, rather than large dam wall ponds. We knew that walking away from our small ponds meant they might eventually silt in and become wetlands, and walking away from a dam wall meant we’d run the risk of flooding out our neighbors if our dam wall failed. The small and slow solution treads lightly in the landscape, and in the end leaves little trace.
USE & VALUE DIVERSITY
Each element offers its unique gifts to the entirety of the whole. Nature develops toward increased complexity, and as permaculture designers we embrace the emergent chaos. On our farm, diversity begins with the naturalized juxtaposition of meadow, woodland, and aquatic habitat, extends to our complex polyculture plantings, and encompasses our approach to the products and services we offer. Diversity builds a resiliency into a system as each component supports and maintains the functionality of the whole, virtually guaranteeing that should one component fail, the overall integrity of the system as a whole is not at risk. Complementation and collaboration is the spirit of diversity, and indeed it is built into the very organization of our universe.
USE EDGES & VALUE THE MARGINAL
Emergent properties of interacting elements create opportunities. Edges, where one habitat meets another, are incidentally some of the most diverse ecological niches on earth. Forest edges, pond edges, and meadow edges dominate the landscape on our farm for this reason. We embrace the diverse collection of niches presented by a multifaceted landscape, and utilize a diverse set of conditions to accommodate a wide range of plants and purposes. In the wild, edges have so much to teach us about the behavior of plants in relationship with one another. To this end, one of our favorite places to derive inspiration from are unmaintained highway shoulders and meridians. The complex succession of plants emerging next to one another is prime for insight, even as it resides in the margins.
CREATIVELY USE & RESPOND TO CHANGE
Dynamics systems require dynamic response. Participating in a long term relationship with the natural world, means one must evolve in tandem. Resistance to change creates friction, while embracing the impermanent shifting quality of the universe opens one up to unforeseen opportunity and growth potential. The only consistent feature of our universe is change. Permaculture invites us to open our minds to the winds of transformation, lift our spirits in understanding, and ground our feet in the earth.