Permaculture Controvery–Tom’s Reply to Elsa

by Tom Gibson

I hear and respect Elsa’s pain.  And I empathize further with anyone unconvinced by permaculture founder Bill Mollison’s rather blithe definition of the term as “working with the processes of nature to grow the most food with the least amount of effort” and his frequent invocations of “hammock time.” (Ha!)

But I think there’s also danger in conflating permaculture with organic gardening.  “”Permaculture is always “organic”, but “organic” is not always “permaculture.” And, done correctly, permaculture can bring greater yields with less effort. Moreover, as I’ll try to demonstrate  in a bit, the last 15 years have brought fresh thinking on how to increase the yield/effort ratio.  (Kind of amazing if we contemplate all the millennia humans have focused on this very problem!)

First, some essentials on how permaculture increases yield per sq./ft:

● Planting perennials instead of annuals. This eliminates the standard practice of tilling, among other things, and builds soil rather than degrading it.

● Filling available ecological niches with companion plantings of different height, root size, fruiting times.  This eliminates significant weeding and often–say, if one companion plant is a nitrogen fixer–strengthens companion plants.

● Slowing water flows via swales, fairly heavy mulch and other methods. Making water available to plants longer means less watering.

There are others (many of which we’ve seen work in practice), but you should get the idea. 

Second, here’s some of that “fresh thinking” that may or may not fit any formal definition of permaculture, but certainly complements it.

● Nutrient balance.  We’re learning just how important to plant health it is to have full nutrient balance, and it’s having a dramatic effect on yields.  One of the leaders in this thinking is an Amish wunderkind from near-by Middlebury. See this article in the Atlantic:

● Biochar.  Biochar is wood cooked in the absence of oxygen (like any charcoal, but without the petroleum additives), but used for growing plants instead of cooking them.  It seems to be especially good at restoring highly depleted soil–just as it did for the pre-Columbian dwellers along the Amazon who used it to create rich, productive food forests.  Starting with anthropological studies of this version of biochar called terra preta, it has become one of the hottest topics in soil science, as well.

● System of Rice Intensification. It turns out that rice actually grows more productively when it isn’t flooded!  (Think of all those geography book pictures of water-filled rice paddies and farmers working their water buffalo!) Instead, farmers in India and elsewhere have been quadrupling yields simply by coming up with a different routine.

In short, conventional organic horticulture/agriculture is undergoing a dizzying rethinking. A lot of that is already feeding into permaculture.

Besides, permaculture has also broadened significantly since Bill Mollison’s early definition.  The concept now fully embraces such concepts as energy (solar power, rocket stoves), water (cisterns, gray water, leaky tile), and, especially, community.

The most immediately accessible example of such holistic thinking that I have found is this series of videos from Alberta:

When I look at the neighborhood in these videos, I also see Cleveland. We’ve got the same naked roofs waiting for solar power, the same gutters waiting to be fed into cisterns and leaky tiles, the same barren lawns just waiting for low-maintenance food production.  And, not least, we likely suffer from the same frequent human isolation—–isolation that is waiting for a chance to escape into the embrace of real human   community.  We could do what Rob Avis and his wife have done in just a few years and have the same energy, water, and food independence–with modest long term cost and effort.