Life minus Mono-X!


A term that I am stumbling across every once in a while, is the word „Permaculture“.

I wasn’t especially interested in it’s meaning, until I heard there was a programmer (who was interested in tsolife), who is programming according to principles of Permaculture.
Permaculture? Programming? What?

I had only heard the word connected to agricultural topics, and suddenly I got pretty interested: what kind of agriculture is this, if you can translate it into programmers languages?

On the road I encountered the idea in different projects, over and over again: the use of the word in ecological projects is somehow trendy – and it’s use seems to be almost inflationary. I then visited 2 workshops about Permaculture on our tour (one introduction and one 2-days-workshop), read several books about it, and started to exchange ideas with a lot of people.

In former times a garden always seemed like a burden to me, a really boring place.
Digging, weeding, fertilizing… „what a stupid work!..“ I thought.

Permaculture has deeply changed my attitude towards gardening, and towards many other aspects of life. With this article I want to inspire and motivate people to inform about this interesting mindset.

I say „mindset“, or way of thinking, and not „a biological form of gardening“, because for me Permaculture is not so much about agriculture, vegetable gardens, self-sustainabilty and those kind of things: Permaculture is more like a philosophy. A way of thinking, planning and forming your life. Permaculture is about changing perspectives: to change perspective about yourself. We can change and move things with very simple techniques – if we learn to think outside the box!

Of course school didn’t teach that to us, and maybe that’s why our culture seems like it’s at a bit of a dead end. But the only thing that can bar us from doing great things is our own creativity!

In the end of the article I will try to explain the most basic principles of permacultural design to you, but I won’t give a lot of practical advice in this text, except the pictures and drawings. It seems more important to me to get you into the way of thinking and philosophy behind permaculture, as once you understood the basic permaculturalist approach to problems, you can find own permacultural solutions. Whereas practical appliances can inspire you a lot, but often not get you into the basic philosophy which is more important in the end and confine your own creativity, which would maybe bring up new solutions we could all gain from.

If you feel like you already understand the thinking, skip this part and go directly to the ethics and principles. And if you want to know more about practical appliances of permaculture, go visit some permacultural projects, read a book or have at look at youtube for instance, there you will find a lot of practical input.

Permaculture – what does that mean?

The term „Permaculture“ came up in the 70s as a short form for „permanent agriculture“, and was coined by a Tasmanian proffesor, Bill Mollison, who also won the alternative Nobel price for his theories. To sum up the far-reaching meaning of the idea in a few words is really difficult. Mollison defines permaculture as „a design system for sustainable human settlements“.

Sepp Holzer, Austrian Permaculture-“guru“ who cultivates vegetables, fruits, and also animals in his (commercial) organic farm in the alps (at 1100-1500m above sea level!), simply called the form of agriculture that he „invented“ in the 60s (parallel to his Australian soulmates) a „wilderness culture“, before he found out about the „Permaculture“-movement in Australia.

This already says a lot about Permaculture, namely that it is nothing „new“, but something quite „universal“ – which many of you gardeners out there are unconsciously practising already!

Permaculture is a mixture of old traditional knowledge and newer insights and techniques. It is a form of cultivation using natural cycles, and by this working in a very energy efficient way and needing much less space than mono-cultural gardening. Permaculture works with nature, not against it, and saves lots of energy.

It is an experimental science, that studies the relationships in between different elements (plants, animals, humans, techniques, ..) and the symbiosises they form, rather than isolating them from each other and examining them in a seperated way, like most modern natural sciences do.

Permaculture is ethical, but mainly focused on practical use and solutions. Meaning: it never says: „You may not… “ but asks: „What are the consequences?“.

Nature-orientated – so, back on the trees or what?¶

Contrary to many prejudices, permaculture isn’t primitivist per se, but includes modern techniques in it’s thoughts. Many permaculuralists have a sceptical attitude towards modern techniques indeed, but most mainly want to sharpen the consciousness for actual human needs in a crazy consumerist world controlled by unnatural addictions.

In permaculture it is about learning, how we can create a cycle formed boost of energy for our agricultural projects. And with some creativity also for every other project we want to do. How?

Through close observation, longterm thinking and systematic arrangement of elements („design“).

Our main question is: how do we have to arrange elements (plants, houses, humans, groups, animals,… ) in relationship to each other, so they can cooperate as well as possible?

We always try to do the smallest change as possible for the biggest effect as possible.
And prefer thinking about it a bit longer.

Many Permaculturalists whom I have met told me, that Perma-Culture is mainly about culture, and this is very true I think. It is not so much about permanent agri-culture, but about permanent culture! The concept can be tranferred to almost everything, and the field for research and experiments is gigantic!

For example I watched that surprisingly, for many (totally not primitivist!) people who got a lot to do with computers and internet, Permaculture seems to be an interesting concept. Maybe because of the common concern with relationships, networks and connections. And in the open source movement because of the ethic of sharing, making gifts and redistributing goods and knowledge, which the two philosophies have in common.

I am sure that it is also because of their life attitude Permaculturists and Programmers have in common – their own role as creators: a point of view where you not take things as unchangeable, but try to understand the immanent „code“ that lies within the things instead and create something new built on this language.

So, but how does this way of thinking work now?¶

Before I lose myself in philosophizing: what concretely do we do different now, as Permaculturalists?

Well, at first: nothing. And that already is a huge difference to other approaches to the solution of problems.

For a while we just observe. And observe. And observe. (Normally you say one year of watching before you start to do things). We sit and think a lot about how natural cycles work. We observe wind, sun, stars, water cycles – we fathom the „code“.

Then we think a lot, and also quite a long time, about how the elements of our system have to be arranged so they can enrich and support each other best – and after all this thinking we develop a base design.

In the end we implement the design, and from then on experiment with improving it. We react to changes, we adapt. And if everything goes well, after some decades of thinking, designing and giving input we’ll have a system that doesn’t need any more work from our side. Our idea is growing and sprouting and blossoming just through it’s own energy. And we can promenade through our garden and watch, if everything is going as it should – almost like in paradise.

Mono-X minus life?

Sounds incredible?
Sure, as we are neither born nor educated as out-of-the-box-thinkers.
We grew up in a totally different, and very short-term-thinking philosophy: we grew up in the mono-society.

Example: monocultural agriculture.
We destroy the soil and the cooperating, living network of micro-organisms in it, by digging, chopping, plowing. Methods which are used for providing the earth with air and making it light and loose, especially as the heavy machines used are compressing it a lot.

A logical idea – but this method destroys the natural cycle and furthermore costs a lot of energy. Energy is, for example, production of chemicals, of machines, and mainly: human work.

Then after digging the soil we plant one variety of plant. The soil is totally destroyed already, cannot feed the plants any more. So we have to use fertilizers to provide nutrines for the plants– again this needs a lot of energy.

The network of living beings who were supposed to feed and protect the plants was destroyed before, and they are more vulnerable now. Pest and vermins can spread more easily. Also because of the fact that there is only one plant in all the field: Imagine a potato bug who finds a whole field of weak potatoes, only potatoes! Yummie!

We need to use pesticides to get rid of them. Of course this again costs a lot of energy. Moreover it poisons the drinking water, poisons also other animals which would be good for the plants, and the whole ecosystem is severely damaged.
All this is a long chain of wasted energy, a vicious circle, a down-ward spiral. Sepp Holzer rolls on the floor laughing (maybe crying with one eye), how much of their energy people waste, when they could have a much more easy life, if they’d turn the down-ward spiral into an up-ward one!

He just leaves the soil, as it is in nature: he doesn´t dig. A floor in a forest, for example, is always covered, there is no naked earth. Leaves and plants are protecting the soil from the sun and from drying out, keeping the soil loose and light, and protecting the soil biota, who are doing their job well and keeping the soil friable.

The logical conclusion: covered soil is more productive than a naked soil. So: what we should do is mulching instead of digging. In Holzers gardens there is always enough air in the ground, the micro-organisms in the soil have a happy life and provide him with a good soil.

Digging, if necessary sometimes, is a job for Holzer’s best assistants: his pigs.
Every once in a while he throws some treats for them onto a certain field that he wants to dig, and they dig it for him.
Who else is digging in nature? And don’t things grow better in nature anyhow?
Holzer lets the plants grow in a cycle system, in which they get all nutrients they need from each other, and protect each other from pests. He researches which plants benefit from each other.

Pesticides? Fertilizers? He doesn’t need them.
And also less machines. Even though he produces for many customers and not only for himself. His farm proves that this way of doing agriculture is efficient even in an economic way of thinking.

On the basis of the functionalities of nature he creates a „sustainable form of agriculture with surprisingly high area productivity, through highest diversity possible, mutual support of species, biological self-regulation and cycles“ (Prof. Dr. Lötsch, biologist)

Mono-Culture in institutions and day-to-day life

Holzers books tell (in a half amused, half annoyed manner) about public authorities who grant subsidies for polluting projects (maybe encouraged by chemistry conglomerates),
and about educational institutions who impart knowledge that mainly serves the interests of fertilizer and pesticide producers, but not the farmers, and especially not the comsumers, the plants, the animals – the ecosystem.

No wonder in a world where schools and other institutions are pervaded by mono-thinking:
trying to standardise knowledge and people as much as possible, make them fit in the system of exploitation of resources, searching for solutions while being totally cut off from all practical, individual experiences people could have in a healthy, diverse community.

Children to children (kindergarden), seniors to seniors (rest home), criminals to criminals (prisons), sick to sick (hospital and psychiatry), everyone who cannot work should please go to places where they do not disturb anyone. And men are naturally good in maths while women can learn languages easier – this is mono-thinking.

No wonder, that big business can rule these kind of institutions and the knowledge which they spread so easily, when there is no space for individuality and thinking outside of the box there. No wonder that in these places the prevailing opinions are pretty hostile towards community and life and natural cycles through diversity of mindsets.

No wonder that GMO is promoted as a solution to many problems on earth: plants which can provide their own pest control, how clever! Would this be necessary at all if these plants could have mutual support in relationships with other plants and beings, who would keep them healthy and strong, like in nature?

As GMO illustrates clearly, it is much easier to control mono-thinking, to copyright and to own mono-thinking, to earn money with mono-thinking, than with individuality. Diversity is dying out, and single people gain profit with the few genes which remain.
GMO is just the newest step taken in a low row of mono-cultural process, in which since hundreds of years all diversity has been destroyed for machine processing and production lines for the profit of a very small elite of people.

Permaculture shows the power in individual thinking and creative thinking. It shows all the inconsistencies in monocultural approaches, wanting to save time, wanting to save work, and in the end just creating a long chain of energy waste.

Where and how can I learn about Perma-Culture?

If the institutions are mono-culturalised as well, where would you get the knowledge for a perma-cultural life?

The answer is: everywhere. And in whatever way you wish. You ARE the knowledge already, get aware of it! Learning is a different thing in our permaculturalist view: it is a very individual thing. It is not Mono. We cannot learn permaculture in a mono-learning way. And so there is no standardised way for your apprenticeship. The most common way is „action learning“ – learning by experience.

There isn’t even a clear definition about what is and what is not Permaculture: there are clear ethics, there is some guiding principles to help you along, and a lot of practical inspirations. But you have to find out yourself in which way you want acquire this knowledge – it doesn’t really matter and the more unique the ways of learning can be and the more people with different ways of learning give mutual support to each other, the better the outcomes can be.

It is possible to study Permaculture in different academies all over the globe, and to become a proven „permacultural designer“. But most permaculturalists got their knowledge from books, from the internet, from practical experience and experiments and exchange with like-minded people.

There is many ways to do it: You might learn best in nature. Watching, observing, and thinking what different species provide each other with: food/nutrients, water, shade, pest control, shelter, …
Try for instance to just sit in the same place everyday, and take some notes. Where does the wind come from? Where do shades fall in this season? Which animals do you find? What colour do the leaves have today? Write whatever seems important to you… and try to find connections and explanations for what you see.

You might be another type who is learning in university researching about the natural ecosystems and cycles. I knew one girl for instance who wrote her diploma work about building a permacultural clear watersystem, which she practically started to build aswell. She was studying all kinds of different water and coastal plants and microorganism in ponds, and which pollutants they absorb and transform.

You might also be someone who needs to do a lot of practical work with other people.
You can visit permacultural projects then, and participate in workshops and voluntary building projects for example.

Another good way is to find out about the knowledge of old people in your region, who are doing gardening. Or about other old traditional knowledge. Try to get this knowledge, try to save it, or it will die out!

The most important thing is: permaculture works everywhere. In a nature reserve as in the city jungle. No matter where you are and what resources you have, just start! It can be as instructive to watch the blossoming of trees in a city as it is to be outside in nature. The essential influences can be observed everywhere: earth, water, wind, sun… the „code“ is omnipresent and there is many possibilities to implement Perma-Culture.

If you are not so interested in plants or agriculture try to find new implementations: the basic thing is try to make diverse elements support and enrich each other mutually in the most energy efficient way. Look what people are doing anyhow and what can fit with what they are doing.

Examples could be: old people who are bored and lonely anyhow taking care of the children in the neighbourhood. Or „tandem learning“ of languages.

earthcare, peoplecare, fairshare!

The ethics is short and sweet: care for the earth, care for the people, and redistribute surplus.

None of those three points is more important than another: if you care only for the earth, and not for the people, then people won’t play the game. You cannot ignore that a permaculture construction has to be efficient in an economical way: people have to profit from it, they have to be able to make a living from it and not starve, otherwise they will search another concept. Caring for the people is as important for the earth as other aspects of earthcare.

So one method in permaculture is clear input-output-analysis, and as Holzer shows Permaculture is not made exclusively for self-sustaining hippie communities, but it is an economic approach too.

The „fairshare“ point is an interesting one, as it covers many different aspects of redistribution: it can mean to give overproduction for free to others, maybe animals or people, it can mean to support fair trade cooperation with so called „3rd world“ countries, it can also mean to leave parts of your garden to wild animals or to give some mulch to the hungry ground that is waste in another place. There is no trash. You give to someone else what you don’t need, trying to find it’s best use.

Some principles and methods

These are all examples from agriculture, but I am convinced they can be also transfered to other topics. For your inspiration …. :-)

Multi-functionality and relative location

This maybe is the most important principle:
each element in a design system has different functions, also depending on relationships with other elements in it’s surrounding.

A tree, for instance, provides shade, stabilises, the soil, offers food, and so on. A tree next to a lake has other functions than a tree next to a house.

A stone in a vegetable bed stores more warmth than the earth, it is more humid under it, and this is why soil biota and warms like to live under them. So to include some stones in your bed can make plants grow better, because they got more heat and better soil.

An example which is used very often is this one:
To build a greenhouse directly onto the wall of a house has a lot of advantages. The greenhouse is heating up the house and vice versa. This relationship house-greenhouse is also multi-functionally related to another element: to human beings living in the house: those have to walk less to get to their plants, saving their own energy. They can have a nice selection of herbs just next to the house nearby their kitchen, which would not grow outside in the cold. They also have a nice light but warm winter garden to hang out in the colder months of the year. They will spend more time in their greenhouse, take better care of their plants. All these are factors to think about.

If they put a tree next to that greenhouse there is even one more good effect: if the sun is high, the crown of the tree throws a shade onto the greenhouse and regulates the heat. If the sun is low, like in the cold months or in the evening, there is only a very small shade of the trunk. So the temperature in the greenhouse is more constant and never too hot.

Depending on how we arrange elements we can save a lot of energy. But it is not necessarily better to make everything as multi-functional as possible by all means. Just think what functionalities you really need. Think about it a long time!

You can write whole books only about this principle, and methods related to it, like „zoning“, and so on… but those books exist, so I won’t tell much more here.
Just one more thing: who ever wondered about spiral and wave formed beds and thought „these hippies“, should think about his/her prejudices, and start to think about the reasons beyond aesthetics which might have led to this design. It is simple actually: waved and round forms break wind and protect seeds and plants – a knowledge totally ignored by straight-edges-mono-Culturalists…

Leave the soil as natural as possible

No digging, no chopping, no plowing.

Use mulch instead and keep the soil covered.
Mulch protects the soil, and helps against weeds, as there is not enough light for them to sprout under the mulch. Be careful though to not make the layer of mulch too thick, as snails might put their eggs under it. You can use almost anything for mulching, even cardboard. Experiment with it. Straw is the most used mulching material I saw in my travels.

If possible use perennial plants instead of annual plants. This preserves the ground and saves you a lot of work, as you don’t have to plant everything new each year.

If the soil in your place is already destroyed by former usage, there are permacultural approaches to revive the ground: for example by using pioneer plants which enrich the soil with nutrients, for instance legumes/vegetables, like beans, provide the soil with nitrates. You can leave a field covered under mulch for a year to destroy all roots of weeds, and let the soil recreate – and plant things there for the next year. For really bad ground, seed bombs (see recipe) can be a solution, too.

Create diversity and symbiosis

We aim to have cycles: an ecosystem in which energy, nutrients, and resources circulate and don´t get lost. We don’t take any away and if possible we don’t want to add any artificially.
Diversity provides green manuring, and natural pest control.

A famous example is corn and beans sowed together: The beans can climb up on the corn, and manure the corns with nitrates, which they accumulate in little nodules on their roots.
In northern Spain we saw that the traditional way of planting „escanda“, a regional variety of spelt, is to plant it together with beans as well.

An example for pest control would be to plant garlics around a bed, which frighten off many insects with their strong taste and smell. As garlic is good for the human immunity system, it is also said to be good for the immunity of other plants.

Another example would be to settle ladybugs against vine lice.

In general there is to say that mono-cultures are much more vulnerable than poly-cultures. Vermin can easily spread from one plant to another while natural enemies are missing. In nature there is no „vermin“, there is cycles and chains.

Permacultural systems are based on diversity. Even if the population of one plant would be totally destroyed in a year, you’d still have many other plants and varieties that the vermin who killed the plants did not like. If there is a disease which is killing wheats, that is by far more problematic for a farm who has specialised in wheat, than for one who has 10 other types of grains.

Micro-climate zones

An important keyword of Permaculture is „microclimate zone“.
In nature this is a very common and normal thing, but us, used to widespread mono-fields might have to think a bit about what that is.

It is a small unit of land with a different climate than the one next to it, where another micro-climate zone starts. Think about a small clearance in a forest, about a pond, a pile of stones…

By integrating stones, water, or other elements into your design you can change factors like temperature, light or air humidity and create small micro-habitats, so many diverse species can find an adequate niche for themselves on a small piece of land even.

With the technique of creating micro-climate zones you can even plant kiwis and citrus fruits in the alps on 1100-1500 meters above sea level, as Holzer proved.

Best is to use the given circumstances and think about how to make them more micro-climate-like. For instance if you have extraordinary wet grasslands or hills with higher sun irradiation than flat land, work with those factors, instead of ignoring them!

„Edge effects“

The most productive and creative places of your ecosystem are the places where two or three different climate zones meet each other: the „edges“. Like a waterside on a pond, with the edge „water-land“.
In Permaculture you try to create as many edges as possible, to increase productivity.

This concept can easily be tranfered to another topic: when there is groups of people of different social backgrounds and cultures clashing, the contact area is a very creative and productive one: either in positive or negative sense. If you use this clash in a constructive way there is a lot of room for new ideas and innovation.

Multi-dimensionality and „small scale“

As you try to create as many edges as possible, you also try to interlace as many dimensions as possible. It is not only possible to do, but it can even be very useful for beginners to practice on a very small scale, like on your balcony for example. The experiences you collect while nesting elements on a very small piece of land can be more intense than when you start with a big piece of land. You maybe even learn more there in the end.

By the use of all four dimensions you can increase the productivity rate of your land to the limit.
We use not only the horizontal dimensions, but also the vertical dimension and the time: we let twiners climb up on walls, on balustrades, on other plants. We grow plants of different heights in the same bed („vertical stacking“), and plants which have a different size in different times of the year („time stacking“). We create raised beds, hanging beds or whatever else comes to our minds.

Do it like the trees: branch out and interlace as much as possible to the sky, to the ground and to the sides and try to create as much surface and edges as possible.

Get started!!!

The most important thing about Permaculture: do it! Start! No matter where you are, you create your world!

The elderly neighbour with her straight weed picked beds and her black flower soil will be confused about so much „chaos“, but nevermind, as we know: in greek philosophy „chaos“ is the creative state from which the order of the world just originated in the first place!
And when we will eat the more tasty tomatoes than her, small yellow ones and big violet ones, then she will want to learn how you did it…:-)

Be creative and remember: the problem is the solution!