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Permaculture: What is it?

permaculture in action - chickens scrabbling around a veggie patch

Messy. That was my first, horrified response to the permaculture community my friends had joined in Mudgee.

There were no neatly edged lawns and carefully coiffed rose bushes. Rather, a rapturous jumble of vegetables, herbs and flowers, companionably planted together to protect each other from the nasties, chaotically grew.

I felt like Margot Leadbetter in the 1970s’ British sitcom, The Good Life. In my city clothes and high heels, I picked my way through the narrow dirt paths, and took a deep breath. And then some more.

Huge doonas of straw covered the soil, while fruit and nut trees jostled for sunlight in their close plantings, again designed to deter cockatoos and caterpillars.

Chooks, ducks and geese scratched, quacked and honked in delight as they seized on snails foolish enough to venture out of the macadamia-nut shells mulch.

Through the middle ran a dam for fish and yabbies, with overflow draining into the swale (ditch), which followed the land’s contours.

Welcome to the self-sustaining world of permaculture.

The Origins of Permaculture

Born in Australia 30 years ago, permaculture – a blend of the words permament agriculture – is now practised worldwide.

A young Fremantle student, David Holmgren, was hitching around Australia in the mid-70s and became fascinated with self-sufficiency. He enrolled in Tasmania’s Environmental Design School and met Bill Mollison, a wildlife biologist and university lecturer who’d help found the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society.

Permaculture was founded in 1978 when David Holmgren and Bill Mollison co-wrote and published Permaculture One – A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. The work looks at the redesign of agriculture using ecological principles and was ignited by the energy crisis during that period.

Holmgren and Mollison were approached by several mainstream publishers who wanted to publish Permaculture One after a series of radio interviews the pair gave in 1977.

“You could say a lot of that was timing,” Mr Holmgren says. “If Permaculture One was published in 1984 or ’85 it would have been a dead nothing from the media.”

“The other aspect of course was Bill Mollison’s charisma. He was probably the most popular university lecturer in Hobart, but he was also a scandalous figure – a rat-bag and a difficult person, but he had that ego and charisma to be a real performer. And he was also a genius.”

Holmgren says that as a 23 year-old, he was skeptical of the very ideas he upheld, and was more interested in proving them and getting his hands dirty than becoming “an environmental rock star.”

“I come from a family of radical political activists,” Holmgren says. “My parents generation were galvanised by Utopian socialism in the 1930s and ’40s, and then in the ’50s, about the time that I was born, they lost faith thanks to Stalin, but still had a continued commitment to social justice.

“I grew up in the Vietnam years and was highly schooled in wariness about ideologies and mass-movements, so I thought permaculture as an eco-ideology could similarly have its downsides. But you look back historically and wonder how that could ever be a problem.”

David Holmgren is an inspirational figure in the environmental movement and has helped change global thinking about what is possible when it comes to living with resilience, strength and purpose in the shadow of earth’s dwindling natural resources. You can check out his website here.

permaculture - Senior gardener gardening in his permaculture garden -  holding

HOw Relevant is Permaculture Today?

Holmgren and Mollison published their seminal book, Permaculture One, in 1978.

It envisioned human-made ecosystems that were as self-sustaining as possible, with each element chosen and placed so that it performs many functions. It was all about creating a framework for sustainable human environments, to be in harmony with nature.

The initial focus was on the suburbs: fruit and nut trees growing on the nature strip; edible and medicinal front-yards; chooks and bantams in the backyard; and solar panels on the roof.

In the ’80s and ’90s, permaculturalists moved to rural enclaves, but now there’s a return to the ‘burbs and a revival of the 1950s’ choko growing over the chook pen.

Permaculture takes time. And money. I know, as I’ve seen it first hand. These reservations aside, permaculture can be huge fun.

Almost nothing comes close to the joyous exhilaration when the first chickens hatch, or the early corn glows silkily in the dawn. Those are the moments that make the seemingly endless hard work all worthwhile

The term ‘permaculture’ was first coined in Australia, and the practice is only 40 years old, but somehow it feels like it’s been around much longer.

Perhaps that is just the point. Permaculture is a going back to natural design systems already present within nature and re-establishing or further enhancing them for the health of the environment and living creatures.

But despite its deep benefits, and the degree to which it has spread around the world as a grassroots movement, history shows that permaculture comes into vogue as recession looms, and has slower periods of interest during more stable economic periods.

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