The Basics of Permaculture

Permaculture Concepts

Permaculture Basics

An Ecological and Sustainable Way of Life

I was recently introduced to the concepts of Permaculture by a woman I met while teaching yoga at a women’s retreat in Mt. Shasta.  I love how the Universe provides so many twists and turns, and surprises in our every day lives, opening up new doors of understanding and enlightenment.

After the initial conversations with this woman about Permaculture, I decided to do my own research and investigation which resulted in my radio show (Holistic Living with Barb on 101.1 FM The Bay Islands Buzz) this morning.

I learned through this research that the concepts of Permaculture encompass an entire way of life centered around a few key tenets which ascribe to integrating plants, animals, buildings, people and communities together in such a way that provides an ecological and sustainable way of living.

As you see this is quite a broad approach to living.  Many will say that Permaculture is so broad that is is difficult for anyone to follow.  There are no step by step instructions to implement this in our life.  There are no recipes if you will of how to employ these concepts into daily living.  But, what I hope to impart on you in this blog is that there are aspects of Permaculture that each of us could incorporate into our daily lives without requiring too much change.  For the purposes of today, I will be focusing on one aspect specifically of Permaculture and that is related to gardening.  It is these concepts that we are incorporating within our lives at Upachaya.

However, before we step down that path, let me first share with you the core, or key concepts ingrained within the Permaculture way of life.

* Care for the earth – Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.  Without a healthy earth, humans can not flourish.  Ok, so this is obvious.  If Mother Nature isn’t around, we as a populace won’t be either.  It is the responsibility of each and everyone of us to do what we can to respect Mother Nature, and to help her stay healthy and flourish.  You may think that task is too big or too broad for you to undertake.  However, please understand that even simple things like reduce/reuse/recycle, or water conservation, or not polluting are ways we can each make a difference.
* Care for the people – Provision for all people to access those resources necessary for their existence.  This does not say exploit those resources.  It says to provide access to those resources.  Think about how many people worldwide don’t have access to potable water on a daily basis.  How many homeless don’t have access to warmth during winter months, or basic toilet facilities?  We need to work together to insure everyone, and I mean everyone in the world, has access to basic necessities.
* Return of surplus – Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics.  This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle its usefulness.

Permaculture design seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input.  These systems when designed properly produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.

It may be beyond the scope for you as an individual to assist with incorporating Permaculture into communities, but you can still incorporate these concepts into your own environment.  Let’s focus on how this can be done through gardening.  This is the approach I personally am taking here at Upachaya.

Permaculture is designed in layers.  Layers that are sustainable and have direct benefit to humans.  There are 7 layers of design in a garden.  This is comparable to 7 layers found in a forest as well.

1) Canopy – large trees found in the forest system
2) Understory layer – Smaller trees under the large tree canopy
3) Shrubs – Woody perennials mostly bushes
4) Herbaceous plants -These typically die back each year and may be used for culinary or medical purposes.  These also may be annuals, perennials, or biennials.
5) Soil surface / ground cover – These plants grow very close to the ground helping to retain the soil and lesson erosion.  They also provide nutrients to the soil, especially nitrogen.
6) Rhizosphere – These are root layers formed from root crops, fungi, insects, nematodes, worms, etc.
7) Vertical layer – These plants are climbers, and vines such as runner beans, lima beans, passion fruit, etc.

A Permaculture designed garden will encompass all of these layers.  It will also consider where placement of these layers should be based on the plants.  For example, plants that require a lot of attention, such as starter plants, or those that need extra watering would be planted close to a dwelling.  Plants that don’t require as much attention would be placed farther away, and those plants that grow wild not requiring any human intervention would be found furthest from the dwelling.  This activates the concept of less human energy needed to tend to a garden.

There are many common practices utilized in Permaculture gardening: rainwater harvesting, fruit tree management, Hügelkultur, and sheet mulching to name a few.  Upachaya is undertaking incorporating sheet mulching into our gardening processes.

Some may call this Permaculture concept sheet mulching, others have called it lasagna gardening.  Whatever term you use, it is powerful, requires little effort for maintenance once it is established and promises to provide an abundance of harvest.

Sheet Mulching, or Lasagna Gardening is simply layering various materials, one on top of the other to create a system that is in a perpetual state of decomposition.  This system mimics the leaf cover found in the forests.  It can generate a healthy, productive and low maintenance eco-system capable of creating a “nutrient bank”, attracting beneficial earthworms and other soil micro-organisms, adding humus to the soil, and once again producing bountiful harvests.

We are incorporating this within the gardens at Upachaya for a few reasons.  First, our soil is lousy.  Pure and simple.  We have a lot of red clay on this island, and it is extremely difficult to grow anything that is hard like a rock and has little nutrients.  Second, this Permaculture concept is a way of sustainable and eco-friendly gardening, which fits well with Upachaya as an eco-lodge.  Finally, if there is a way that we can create gardens that require less effort, yet provide for bountiful harvests, it not only saves us time and energy, but also provides us great foods to provide our guests.

I see this Permaculture concept of sheet mulching a win-win situation.

The multiple layers typically start with cardboard covering right where you want your garden to exist.  No need to till to get started.  The second layer may consist of brown leaves or newspaper.  The third layer may be vegetable scraps, garden trimmings, or grass clippings.  Then you repeat with a layer of brown and green until you have layers about 2 feet deep.  The final layer would be compost or manure.  Each layer should also be watered to dampen the area before placing the next layer on top.

Once your garden is in layers, you can immediately plant your plants.  There is no need to wait for it to begin to decompose.  As time goes on and the decomposition does take place you will want to add more layers.  Overtime, you will have a very rich thick soil filled with nutrients ideal for producing those wondrous crops.

We will begin this process at Upachaya over the course of this summer in anticipation of planting season in late August or early September before the rainy season starts.  I intend to keep you posted on our progress.

For more information on Permaculture and how you might be able to incorporate it into your daily life, visit these websites:

Permaculture Basics and More
Permaculture News
Information All About Permaculture
Lasagna Gardening

Also a special thank you to We Are All Farmers for the picture in my post.