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Practical fundamentals of permaculture

Red sorrel
Three sisters: corn, bean, squash
Ladybug on Borage (Borago officinalis)
Permaculture garden

The ethics of permaculture shape the basis on which permaculture must rely to achieve optimal well-being for everybody. But how does it work practically? How can we create such systems? In short, what are the practical aspects we need to follow in order to live in abundance while being beneficial to the environment around us?

Mimicking nature

The first important way in which we can achieve such an amazing state of affairs is by adapting ourselves to our environment. This is not done by forcing the environment into what we think we need or what we are used to, but by working with it. Here, as we expressed earlier, it is all about learning the lessons from that amazing teacher that is nature. This is because natural ecosystems evolved by being as efficient as possible, with no wastes. Efficiency then leads to sustainability. This is something we cruelly lack in our “western societies”, be it about energy, food production, or most any aspect of our lives. And there are no alternatives to being sustainable if we are to build stable societies. So, by observing how natural ecosystems work and by mimicking them in our designs, we can improve the efficiency of our systems. For example, if the natural climax ecosystem in your region is a forest, then a food forest could be a great option because each step we take away from the forest will mean more inputs, more work, and more energy to maintain what we are creating. This is a point that must be carefully assessed when designing a system, to make sure that each extra input that goes “against” what the natural ecosystem looks like is worth it; we want to increase the benefits:costs ratio, which nature does…naturally. But if we do still want a conventional garden (pretty far from a forest!), we can still be as efficient as possible, for example by applying mulch on the ground and thus mimicking the forest floor. But mulch might not be a good idea either for whatever reason: we must observe, try, observe again and adjust to meet our requirements.

Another defining character of the natural ecosystems’ efficiency is the fact that they produce and recycle everything they need. Though they are not static in time, they are self-sufficient, self-regulating. This is another trait that we aim to mimic in permaculture, the goal being to produce as much as possible the resources and energy we need. This is a requirement to build stable systems or societies that are to be resilient to changes. Self-reliance is indeed a central aspect of the permaculture concept as it allows us to take responsibility over our lives and only so can we have the necessary consciousness to follow permaculture ethics.

Finally, the efficiency of natural ecosystems can be seen through the fact that, within such systems, all available niches are occupied, no space is wasted. A niche is an organism’s role in its habitat; it describes an organism’s functions and needs. For example in a forest we will find a multi-layered ecosystem composed of bulbs, herbaceous species, shrubs, trees, vines growing on the trees, mushrooms, and so on, all fulfilling different functions and having different growth requirements. As permaculture designers, the aim will be to identify and occupy as many niches (opportunities) as possible. This is also true for niches in time: some species will do great during one season but be dormant during the rest of the year, so we can mix species with different temporal niches. Taking advantage of all available niches will greatly increase the efficiency but also the total yield of our system compared to conventional gardening or agriculture. Again, the aim is to increase the benefits:costs ratio.

Beneficial interactions

From the mimicking of nature ensues what is to our view probably the most important concept of all: the promotion of beneficial interactions and of their diversity. This applies to individuals of the same species as well as from different species. The big natural picture indeed shows us that life is sustained not by competition but by cooperation. The beneficial interactions within a system are what will make it productive, stable, and resilient. There are many examples of essential interactions, from the food exchange between plants and soil organisms to the pest control effects of beneficial neighbors. It is through diversity that we will multiply beneficial interactions and thus improve a permaculture system. Here, both species diversity and the diversity of beneficial interactions are important to create stability and efficiency. While the importance of having more beneficial interactions is obvious, a higher species diversity helps because different species normally occupy different ecological niches (so more functions are fulfilled and productivity increases) and do not have the same pests (so pests have more difficulties spreading). However, it would make no sense to add an ill-suited element to a system just because we want to increase species diversity. We need to carefully assess what is already there and how we could improve the network of interactions and finally choose the right element.

Since we are looking at the interactions between the different elements of a system, we need to always think of them in terms of their niche, so their function or role within the system. For example, one of a legume’s functions is to fix atmospheric nitrogen and make it available in the soil; it increases soil fertility. Other plants need a high soil fertility to be productive (e.g. many vegetables in the garden). Hence planting legumes around will increase fertility and result in a beneficial interaction for plants that need it. In a permaculture design, the idea is to put together a community of species (plants, animals, mushrooms) that will maximize the amount of beneficial interactions. But the end goal here is to make sure that every function we need from our system are fulfilled and aided. So first we have to identify our priority, what functions we want from the system – e.g. food production, soil building. Next we select elements fulfilling our priority functions. Then we select elements which perform functions supporting the first ones through beneficial interactions – e.g. increasing fertility, repelling or controlling pests, attracting pollinators, and so on.


We talked about how systems or societies that mimic nature and are self-sufficient are resilient to changes occurring around them. But what about the requirement for resilience when changes occur within a given system? Indeed, fixed rules do not apply to living systems and this is why our designed systems need to be resilient. First, a high diversity of functions will help achieve resilience. For example, a monoculture crop can be very sensitive to year-to-year variations in climate or to the presence of pests, whereas in a system where the main crop is surrounded by elements fulfilling many different protective and enhancing functions, it becomes much more resistant to variation.

A further, essential step is to make sure that every important function is supported by many different elements in the system. Thus, if the environmental conditions become unsuitable for one particular element (e.g. potato) fulfilling an important function (e.g. food production), many other elements are there to continue fulfilling this function. In the same line of thought, in order to create a highly efficient and stable system, every element in the design should perform many functions. In that way, every element performs multiple functions and every function is covered by multiple elements.

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