The principles of permaculture design

The principles of permaculture design


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In our introduction to permaculture we made an overview of this design method: we looked for a definition and talked about ethical which are the basis of the approach. Now let's go to deepen the guiding principles identified by Mollison and Holmgren, founders of permaculture, which we had only mentioned in the previous post.

We will discover five of the principles that Bill Mollison included in his fundamental Permaculture, Design Manual, and the 12 principles identified by David Holmgren in the book Permaculture. Principles and paths beyond sustainabilityto.

After this theoretical discourse it will be interesting to see how these points can be achieved decline in concrete practice, will be the subject of the next article. In any case, each of the principles that you will find in this article contains important ideas for anyone, in particular for those who approach nature in everyday life through the management of a cultivated space.

Bill Mollison's Permaculture Principles

Photo by Nicolás Boullosa - CC BY 2.0

Bruce Charles “Bill” Mollison (1928 - 2016) was an Australian researcher, author, scientist, teacher and biologist. It has been definito founder and "father" of permaculture, which as we have seen is not a simple agricultural practice but an integrated system of ecological and environmental design conceived as a form of perennial and sustainable agriculture.

Reading Permaculture. A Designers' Manual, we can realize the overview by Mollison, which defines the principles of permacultural design passing through passages between science and philosophy and a list of laws of natural systems. In particular, it starts from the concept of entropy (in thermodynamics it is a state function that can be used as a measure of the degree of disorder of a system) and from its opposite state: syntropy. It also uses the structure of the myth to describe how unnecessary acts and unconscious distractions cause catastrophes and suffering.

That said it may seem complex, but by listing some fundamental points of Mollison we can better understand the logic that guide these principles, it will be even clearer when we move on to practical applications in the next post. For those who want to learn more by going to the root of Mollison's reflections, we recommend reading his manual, at the end of the article you will find the references.

  1. Work with nature rather than against. Observe the natural elements, the forces that insist on the territory, the processes and evolutions. Support what happens rather than hinder the developments. In a natural environment, the grass slowly gives way to shrubs that finally give way to trees. We can actively support this natural succession not by cutting wild and pioneering herbs, but by using them to provide microclimates, nutrients and protection. Following conventional agriculture, we often work against nature, an obvious example is pesticides, with which we destroy insects that we consider harmful, but also their predators. Over time there will be insects more and more resistant to the pesticides themselves and the amount of poison to be used will always be greater or more aggressive. All of this will enter our body, through food.
  2. The problem is the solution; both ways work. He is alone how we see the things that make them advantageous or not. Everything can be a positive resource, it only depends on us to understand how to use it as such. A specific feature of a site can be defined by the designer as a problem, but also as an aspect that leads to several viable solutions. Generally, a feature becomes a problem when we decide to impose a model that overwhelms or interferes with the existing one.
  3. Make the slightest change for the greatest possible effect.
  4. The harvest of an ecosystem is theoretically unlimited. The only limit to the number of possible uses of a resource, within a system, is within the limit of information and ofimagination of the designer.
  5. Everything "gardens" or has an effect on its environment.

The 12 principles of Holmgren

David Holmgren (1955) is an Australian environmental designer, ecological educator and writer, a pupil of Bill Mollison. Permaculture One, published together with Mollison in 1978, is the evolution of the manuscript prepared for his degree thesis. In 2002 he published his main work, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, where he operated a deeper and more accessible systematization of design principles, perfected in over twenty-five years of practice. Principles and Pathways offers twelve key design principles and is considered an important landmark in the permaculture literature.

1- Observe and interact

To observe the landscape and the natural processes that transform it it is essential to optimize the efficiency of a human intervention and minimize the use of non-renewable resources and technology. Observation must be accompanied by personal interaction.

By observing we above all have the opportunity to ask questions and thus seek answers in the environment in which we are. Where we are? What are the forces that insist on the site to pay attention to while we design? Water, wind, fire, sun, soil, climate, vegetation, wildlife, topography, people… These are some of the elements that are part of our observations. About people and interaction: "What is our neighbor's name?", "How old is he?", "What experience and knowledge do you have?"

2 - Captures and stores energy

Energy is not just electricity. For example, the stored water represents potential energy for the irrigation of future crops. The biomass of a forest is a living repository of building materials, fuel, nutrients and water. Alternative energy systems can transform wind, sun and flowing water into electricity or heat. So this principle gives us the direction to capture and grow surpluses in our system. Bill Mollison said: "If you can only do one thing, store the rain.”.

3 - Get a crop

This principle promotes self-sufficiency and tells us that we must design and build to harvest from our permaculture system. Indeed you cannot work on an empty stomach. This affects both horticultural crops and trees. What is the best location for planting? Which will give us more "yield"? Can we plant something that bears fruit instead of just an ornamental plant?

But, surrender is not just food: it can be building material, fuel, wood, nectar for bees that will give honey. In any case, having a lot of food growing around us is a real safety!

4 - Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

This principle urges us to live in a simple and conscious way, to limit our consumption and our emissions. It is our responsibility, when we observe the ethics of Permaculture and take care of the Earth and people. Accepting feedback is a fundamental aspect of recursive design: it means learning from our successes and mistakes to redesign and re-make better choices, while learning what works and what doesn't.

5 - Use and enhance renewable resources

Renewable resources are those that regenerate with a modest effort. It could mean planting an orchard downstream of a wood, to take advantage of the drift of nutrients and water that is constantly moving down the hill. It could be the wind that helps us to raise water from a well. The use of renewable resources is the key to creating stability: in an attempt to learn from the natural world and replicate it, we should consider that rarely a natural ecosystem uses all its resources to the point of leaving an impoverished and unusable landscape.

6 - Do not produce waste

What is a refusal? Anything we define as such! Applying this design principle, every waste of one process is energy for another.

If we integrate the cultivation of vegetables and animals, the manure of the latter is nourishment for the soil. The stems of the vegetables that we do not consume are compostable. We can clean and recycle the water we use in the kitchen and also in the bathroom, if we have the foresight - for example - to use surfactant-free soaps, foaming agents, dyes, synthetic fragrances. How? Just learn how to make soap, one of the simplest things there is! We must and can fight against planned obsolescence, repairing broken equipment and reusing objects with different purposes. How many useful and beautiful things can be made with pallets?

The 5 Rs of Waste - Reduction, reuse, recycling, collection and recovery - become the 5 Rs of Rebirth.

7 - Design from models to details

This is a very important principle. It means that before we have to study the climate, topography, catchment areas, ecology and get an overview of how we can interact with the earth in a regenerative way. Our design decisions will be based on this. For example: if we understand how water moves in the soil we cultivate, we can channel it and induce it to benefit cultivation (this may make us think: is it always the most advantageous choice to have perfectly level ground?). In hilly terrain, contour lines (isoipse) are used to dig level ditches (swales) that slow down the water and allow it to permeate the ground and recharge the water table. The detail of the positioning of a swale is based on the general model of the flow of water in the landscape.

8 - Integrate rather than segregate

This principle states that the stronger the relationships between the parts of the system, the more productive and more resilient the system becomes. If we have a vegetable garden, a grazing space for a few hens and a rainwater collection system close together, the elements all interact with each other: the garden gives feed for the hens, the hens live in a small chicken coop with the pitched roof, from this roof we collect water, the hens drink and then produce droppings. Which returns to the garden. All of this is also true in relations within a community: cooperation can give more than the efforts of several individuals. More hands make the work lighter.

9 - Use small and slow solutions

Small and slow systems are easier to maintain compared to large ones, they make better use of local resources and produce more sustainable results. The snail is small and slow moving, carries its home on its back and can retreat to defend itself when threatened. The tortoise in Aesop's fable teaches us that "starting on time", slow and steady, wins the race over the fast and presumptuous hare. The proverb "the bigger they are, the harder they fall"Reminds us of the disadvantages of excessive size and growth.

To have fertile soil, is it better to buy a large sack of fertilizer, to spread immediately or to rely on small clover seeds and give it time to grow?

To produce income, is it better to do monoculture that erodes the soil year after year or to plant fruit trees?

Can the old woodpile become fertile soil if we inoculate edible mushrooms?

These are just examples of the long-term game, using the small and slow design principle.

10 - Use and value diversity

This is one of my favorite design principles. Diversity is one of the key aspects of permaculture. We want to conserve different native habitats and make our human habitats rich with an abundance of many productive elements. David Holmgren says: "Diversity reduces vulnerability to a series of threats and takes advantage of the natural uniqueness of the environment in which it resides.”.

Essentially this means abandoning the idea of ​​classic row gardens, each with a single vegetable. And for example, cultivate on pallets and flower beds where various vegetables live nearby.

If there is biodiversity, the risk of parasitic and fungal attacks decreases capable of destroying a crop. Bedbugs come in droves when they have plenty of nearby tomatoes to attack. Cabbage cannot stand the smell of tomatoes and this is why the two vegetables can be grown together. Root exudates and essential oils from aromatic plants and flowers repel harmful insects. They attract pollinators that make our vegetables proliferate.

This year, the cold of May, in almost all of Italy, caused a decrease in pollinating insects. I read on social media about vegetables that did not bear fruit from flowers. Well, it was really cold here (for May), but the presence of flowers and herbs attracted bees in abundance and the problem did not affect us in the least. It only took a little longer.

If you have the opportunity, the vegetable garden should not be a space in its own right, but integrated into a system with fruit trees, hedges, borders, ponds ...

Diversity is also to be cultivated in the means we use: compared to water we use bins, a rainwater collection tank and now we have "found" a well on the property.

Even more, diversity is to be used and valued in the relationship with people: our two neighbors are very different from us and they are teaching us a lot.

Diversity is therefore in all respects resilience: if one part of our system fails, there are others that will thrive.

11 - Use the borders and enhance the margin

Hedges have many functions: they can slow down winds, create shade, attract pollinating insects. They can give us food if they are edible fruit. They create micro habitats that teem with life and consequently support our crops. A properly contained bamboo hedge can donate building material. If it is close to a water source it will give more biomass than you can imagine.

THE margins they deserve a separate discussion. When two environments meet, they create an area that has characteristics of both origins. A wetter area and a drier area, close in space, which merge into each other, can create a mixed habitat that allows us to harvest fruits with two different characteristics. Fertility lies in the margin.

This is also true in relationships, we think of two different people who meet, each with their own wealth of experience, knowledge and culture. If they share with each other, all this becomes a common heritage and the formed couple is richer than the two individuals.

12 - Use creativity and respond to change

To have a vision is to see things not as they are, but as they will be. To understand change we need to go beyond a linear view and adopt a circular thinking. After all, isn't the garden entirely based on cyclicality?

The life cycle of a crop, from seed to seed. The alternation of crops in the soil. The constitution of the soil itself that is generated by the decomposition of dead organic, vegetable and animal materials.

Creativity is something we can train ourselves for, a precious ally that offers us solutions out of stale schemes, a behavior that may appear risky to most and that leads to looking out on different paths, sometimes less traveled.

Conclusions and Restarts

But, if you have read this far, it means that you are on road of change. Permaculture is said to be the possible way to save a suffering planet.

This is what it is: a journey, to go through together, to learn how to have a positive impact on the inevitable change, observing carefully and intervening at the right time.

So we just have to make the principles of Permaculture into action. In the next article we will see practical applications of permaculture principles: with the help of photographs I will show you how the Urban Permaculture Center of Rivalta Torinese is being structured and growing, as part of the Permaculture Training project.

Essential bibliography

We have dealt with a complex theme such as design and this inevitably leads us to synthesize and select. We have presented you with the tip of the iceberg. If you liked this article, the invitation is to go to the source and rediscover the thinking of Mollison and Holmgren. Here are the texts to start from and with which to deepen the theme.

  • Bill Mollison, Reny M. Slay, Introduction to Permaculture, Terra Nuova Editions, 2007
  • Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements, Tagari Publication, 1978; in Italian Permaculture. A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements, Florentine Publishing Bookshop, Quaderni d’Ontignano Series, 1992

In this article I always refer to:

  • Bill Mollison, Permaculture. A Designers' Manual, Tagari Publication, 1988. In Italy MEDIPERlab - Mediterranean Permaculture Laboratory took care of the translation of the original text in Italian. Permaculture. Design Manual is available by contacting the Mediterranean Permaculture Laboratory APS on [email protected]

To deepen the 12 principles of Holmgren instead:

  • David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, 2nd ed., Permanent Publications, 2010; in Italian Permaculture. How to design and implement sustainable ways of living integrated with nature, 2nd ed., Arianna Editrice, 2014.

Video: An Introduction to Permaculture Design Principles and Zones of Design - By Jack Spirko