The term “permaculture” was described in 1978 by Bill Mollison as an intentional plan for living within our own needs while supporting the needs of the animals and environment around us. Contracting the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” is perhaps a more efficient way of understanding this term. With the natural ecosystem as a guide, permaculture promotes diversity and cohabitation in order to establish life-long designs.
Permaculture is way of life where people coexist with their surroundings in a mutually beneficial way. Environmental responsibility directs this lifestyle so the overarching goals include more than just a focus on human wants and needs. Organic gardening is practiced but permaculture goes beyond the garden to the entire property including the residence. Using plants to create shade, wind screens and even to help filter the air are all strategies for this sustainable practice. Plants in this landscape are ideally suited for their environment. Natural resources are used for fertilizing and weed control reducing the need for synthetic products. All of these efforts ultimately reduce the amount of manual labor required.
Contour farming is a permaculture practice used on hills to overcome the challenges of this landscape. During heavy rain events, exposed soil on hills is rapidly washed away taking much of the nutrient-base with it and leaving behind a poor-quality soil. Contour farming works with the landscape by planting row crops in curves that mimic the natural waterflow. Troughs or swales dug between the rows slow and direct the waterflow so soil is not washed away and the water can be better absorbed. This method also prevents damage to the crop from heavy rain.
Garden bed borders are often made of wood, concrete or plastic. A border of perennial companion plants can help define the garden space while also providing a habitat for beneficial insects including pollinators. To use this method of permaculture plant selection is key. Choose smaller, slow-growing perennials to avoid crowding. Shallow-rooted plants are also a good choice as they will not compete with other plants for nutrients. Some plant options include thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca).
Harvesting natural resources is another way to implement permaculture practices. Rain catchment, solar panels and wind generators are all examples of using natural resources. On a small scale, many permaculture sites recycle leaves and animal waste for composting and providing nutrients for the soil. Creating healthy habitats for microorganisms and wildlife while simultaneously benefiting the plants and gardener is fundamental to permaculture.
Kansas is home to the Permaculture Institute, a not-for-profit that offers training for individuals interested in becoming certified in permaculture techniques. They provide guided walks, workshops and educational programming to the public (www.kansaspermaculture.org). Internship opportunities are also available through the University of Kansas.
Traditional farming and gardening focus on growing for the benefit of humans whereas permaculture focuses on the environment overall. There are myriad strategies on the large and small scale to provide benefits for the gardener while working with nature to benefit the environment as well.