I like to define Permaculture as a philosophy that follows three core ethics with systems designed based on twelve principles. Permaculture combines natural systems that mimic nature while incorporating modern technology. It aims to create a more sustainable future by producing more, consuming less and working together.
This Article was my April edition of my monthly Gardening and Permaculture column in Centwal Portugal Connects Magaizine
David Holmgren´s 12 Permaculture Principles
Once I have established what project I will work on based on Permaculture Ethics (see last month’s article on Permaculture ethics ), I then need to create a permaculture design based on the following 12 principles.
Observe and interact.
I know someone that bought land during a hot year and built a yurt in a lovely flat area with a nice view. The following year it was wet and rainy; she realised she had built her yurt on a river bed with flowing water. We must observe the land or area we will work on for at least one year to avoid issues like this. The land will speak to us and give us feedback that will help us with our design.
Catch and store energy
Energy comes in many forms, including sun, water, gases, heat and wind. The more of this we can catch and store, the less money we have to spend on gas, petrol, electricity and usually anything that costs money and degenerates the planet. We should first spend effort storing energy before starting our project so we can save energy and money down the line. On our farm, when it is sunny, we cook with electricity from solar. When it is cold, we cook with heat from our wood-fired oven. The rest of the time, we used bottled gas. We really want to develop or invest in a biogas digester to convert methane from organic composting matter into gas for cooking during those times.
Obtain a yield
A yield is a measurement of the amount of something you have produced. So it could be creating gas for cooking and heating, growing vegetables, raising animals and processing meat or making your compost. I aim to produce more each year than I did the previous year.
Apply self-regulation & accept feedback
Nothing ever goes to plan, but mistakes and failures are our biggest asset when it comes to learning. We must take note of our failures and be prepared to change our direction, method or philosophies from what our systems and nature teach us.
Use & value renewable resources & services.
I like to focus on things that will provide a yield or make our life better in the future. Plants should be perennial (like trees and asparagus that you plant once and provides food for years). Systems should be automated so that I will only add a little maintenance each time I add a system.
The less we can rely on the oil industry and the more self-reliance we can be for energy, the better. Installing solar panels is a must for a Permaculture project in Portugal. And if you want to take things to the next level, a donkey and cart will use less oil than a diesel tractor. I am interested to hear about and connect with people using this donkey and cart method as it is something that we aspire to have on the farm in the future..
Produce no waste.
Producing no waste is impossible, but waste tends to correlate with consumption. We should consume less each year and produce less waste as a result. When we go to recycle, we can look at the items we regularly recycle and see if we can use these products for something else by upcycling our waste and using waste materials from others for construction. I would love a big shed where all my waste is stored for future projects.
Design from patterns to details
Nature creates natural patterns, such as how plants distribute seeds or water carves through the land. We also want to base our designs on these patterns, especially as it makes them easier to maintain. For example, my pattern for agroforestry is an area of pasture with a fence; I dig ditches along contour lines with a 10-metre spacing. These are called swales. I then plant trees on the swales. I repeat this pattern each time I design an agroforest. But within each agroforest, I design with further detail and have one type of fruit tree per swale with three shrubs between each fruit tree. Further into the detail will give me the types of fruit trees and some companion and supportive trees and plants chucked in depending on soil, climate and species selection. First, we design the patterns and then design the detail.
Integrate rather than segregate.
This is my favourite principle and can be compared to a circular economy. Waste from one permaculture system should be an input to another system. For example, grey water from a washing machine can be diverted to a plant bed or tree. Unwanted straw from my sheep is used as mulch for my veggies. My composting is placed inside my chicken run, where the chickens help process and the chickens get additional food. I have worm farms in my chicken run, guess what happens to the worms that escape the worm farm?
Use small and slow solutions.
If you have little experience, you first need to learn, and we don’t only learn from books, youtube and articles. People leave university with agriculture or medical degrees but still need practical experience. And on a homestead, we learn from our mistakes. So this principle is for those of us that are in the learning stages. Don’t start on a large scale; first, test out on a small scale. Learn and then design a more extensive system. When we first got pigs, we got two which we rotated through our agroforest with an electric fence. After we processed them, we could design a more extensive and automated pig system based on our observation. The new system was perfect until they gave 17 piglets that were very cute but could escape under the electric fence. Then when I sold the piglets and picked them up the mother tried to attack me. So now I need to adjust my system if we will have piglets again. Always learning.
Use and value diversity.
Nature rarely has monoculture, forests are diverse and thriving, and we should always try to mimic nature. We don’t want to plant one crop across our whole land; we want to include diversity to create an ecosystem that supports itself. For example, nitrogen-fixing trees are fertilising fruit trees. With big trees shading shade-tolerant shrubs. These monocultures in Portugal usually need to hire groups of migrant workers at once to harvest, and if their monoculture has a bad year, they lose a considerable amount of income. If they instead planted 12 cultures with harvest times spread over the year, they would have less to harvest at once and could hire a permanent staff member to harvest and spread their risk. An example of a diverse plantation of trees could be, Loquot, Cherry, Fig, Almond, Persimmon, Apple, Orange, Pear, Olive, Carob, Ash & Alder (in wet areas), Madronia and Cork (in dry areas). I would try not to diversify too much as I have done at Keela. Here I have over 200 types of fruit trees to manage, I think 12 is enough! Add on an understory of perennial pasture, nitrogen-fixing coppice trees, grapevines, goji berry and trees that give a lot of flowers.
Use edges & value the marginal.
At the edge of a river or land, we have a larger diversity of life than in the water or land. The same goes at the edge of a field on a fence or wall. This edge also has a larger surface area when it is not in a straight line. For example, if fence lines follow the contour instead of a straight line
Creatively use and respond to change.
As with principle four, we need to use the feedback we get from the system and use this information to change what we are doing for a better system. It could be that the cultures we choose do not fit, the building material we use isn’t available from regenerative sources or the land we bought just isn’t right. We need to make changes so we can adhere to all of our ethics and principles.