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Designing in permaculture

Jonas Gampe, permaculture designer, and his mulch garden requiring no watering
Ladybug eating pest on corn
Bees on sunflower

Permaculture designing necessitates changing a lot of preconceived ideas we normally have. It is not so much a matter of inventing new ways or elements but rather it is the art of using ancient as well as new knowledge and rearrange what we already have to create systems that conserve energy and produce more than they consume. The reason why this necessitates a drastic change of perceptions is because the current conventional systems we know are often inefficient and harmful to our environment, and sometimes directly unethical.

So when making a design, the objective is to greatly improve the performance of the landscape per unit of invested energy. The role of the permaculture designer is thus to prevent the energy entering a system to leave before all the needs of the system in energy were met. This means being able to conserve energy, to slow it down and store it until it can be used. A very simplistic but illustrative example is the use of tanks to collect and store rainwater from the roofs. If we install those tanks higher than, let’s say, the garden, then we can water our system using the rest of the rainwater’s potential energy (through gravity) as it fell towards the ground.

A well-known permaculture saying states that: “the problem is the solution”. This probably best describes the state of mind one needs to have when designing a permaculture system. It is actually simply a catchy way of saying that we should design with what we have instead of forcing elements that do not necessary belong exactly where we wanted them at first. For example, imagine we have a patch on our lawn where water always accumulates and make it muddy, annoying, and difficult to maintain. We could put drains and send the water away (where?) to maintain a perfect lawn. But following the idea of working with nature instead of against it, nature is actually showing us the perfect spot to build a pond that would partly maintain itself and add extra diversity to our system. It all depends on our needs and what we want from our land. It could of course be more practical – and less efforts – to just divert this water away if we want a nice lawn fulfilling a particular aesthetic function. Or we could just do nothing to the water and cultivate mint for us and the bees. This was a very simple example with few elements. Recognizing what is there and what to do with it is however not always so obvious and this is where ecology and permaculture experts come in handy.

So basically the idea is to make the least changes for the greatest possible effect towards our goals. We should not force a function or an element in our system unless absolutely necessary; whenever possible, we should take advantage of what is already there and place all elements in a way that they naturally – and stress-free – fulfill their functions. How do we know how to do that? Well again, we need to observe. Through thoughtful observation of what is there and of what we have to work with, a permaculture designer can get an overview of what the landscape actually “wants to become”. Then, we can combine this overview with what we need and want from that land and design in consequences. In this process, only our imagination and understanding will set a limit to the efficiency of the environment we are creating.

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