Permaculture is “the way all agriculture should be,” says Vandana Shiva in a 2020 video for the Permaculture Institute of North America. But the use of the term is widely contested. The word permaculture was first used by white Australian ecologists in the 1970s. In a 2018 Black Permaculture Network blog post, Leah Penniman distances herself from the term permaculture as a repackaging of established farming practices, explaining that it is connected to cultural appropriation and “invisibilizing the really specific histories of our people.”
What Is Permaculture?
Permaculture is a way of farming that seeks to work with nature instead of against it. Permaculture falls within the larger science, global social movement, practice, and food systems approach known as agroecology.
Where Can Permaculture Be Applied?
In an interview with Sentient Media, Baltimore-based certified permaculture designer Crystal Forman advised that permaculture can be applied whether you live in an apartment or on a multi-acre farm. Below are some examples of how permaculture can work in different contexts.
- City Flats, Yards, and Window Boxes: In a 2016 video about Permaculture for the People, Kamau Walton says that a group they are working with is building “rainwater catchments because the city turned off the water.” Yards and window boxes can also be transformed using permaculture.
- Suburban and Rural Houses and Gardens: Jaden lakou or “home garden of Haiti” is an ancestral practice, says Leah Penniman, that intercrops “fruit trees, nut trees, berries, along with annual plants—and poultry sort of scratch around the bottom—and perennial, medicinal herbs.”
- Allotments and Smallholdings: Penniman says that at Soul Fire Farm, “we intensively cultivate five acres, using mounding… which is a technique that is from sub-Saharan Africa. The Ovambo people were the first ones documented to do it. People… call it raised-bed agriculture.” Raised beds are one of the many ways that small farmers can transform their natural habitat without damaging their surroundings.
- Community Spaces: At Permaculture for the People, Walton says they are “creating our own solutions outside of the system that doesn’t necessarily seek to uplift us, keep us safe and healthy all of the time.” Community gardens and other shared spaces are popping up in urban areas all over the country, providing people with healthy food and access to the outdoors that would not otherwise exist.
- Farms and Estates: Janaki Jagganath explains that people can collect rainwater off of their roofs to restore the self-sufficiency they have been deprived of by a system of impoverishment. This is just one of the many ways to use permaculture to transform your farm or estate.
- Countryside and Conservation Areas: One of the challenges of permaculture is that it is based on access to the land, which is uneven and highly political—it is racialized and gendered, as Becky Ellis says in a 2018 Vegan Vanguard podcast. Ellis encourages people to bring permaculture to common spaces and points out that it is common for people who learn about permaculture to “go into places in the global South and buy a piece of land and set up a permaculture farm” that resembles an eco-resort for affluent visitors, and does not give back to the local community.
- Educational Establishments: Permaculture is also taught in schools and by educational programs. For example, Movement Generation’s permaculture project engages urban, working-class, Black and Brown organizers to reclaim land-use practices and rights using permaculture design. “It’s about planting the seeds for a land-based revolution,” a narrator for its 2015 video states. The project is co-developed by the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center.
- Waste Ground: Permaculture seeks to transform unused spaces, also known as waste ground, into a more natural habitat. If you’re looking for an example of how waste ground is being transformed, check out Charm City Farms, a sustainable farming and community building program led by Eric Kelly in Baltimore. He and others were allowed to test the soil of demolished homes in vacant lots in East Baltimore. The tests showed no life, no bacteria. Yet within a couple of years, the group had built up life in those lots by using compost and other materials to grow both crops and trees. The area became a free community space for families, youth, and even people doing yoga.
What Are the Ethics of Permaculture?
According to Forman, “Permaculture is basically an ethically-based design system with three ethics and twelve principles.”
- Care for the Earth: Earth care, Forman explains, is about protecting our natural resources: “We are all interconnected and interdependent. We rely on the air. We rely on clean water… It is important that we are taking care of the ecosystem, rebuilding our soils, making sure we have rich biodiversity so that all beings can have a healthy life.” Earth care also means preserving habitats for all species—including humans and ensuring environmental rights to counter the destructive forces of industrial agriculture.
- Care for the People: In Forman’s view, people thrive and have a greater impact by working collaboratively and by sharing knowledge and resources. “People care is designing a system where people are taking care of each other and have other beings in mind as well. We are not just looking at taking care of ourselves, because that type of system doesn’t work.”
- Fair Share and Reinvest the Surplus. Fair share, says Forman, means “making sure you take only what you need and not taking more than you need to sustain a healthy life, and sharing that surplus with others.” That could mean giving away excess produce or selling it or otherwise reinvesting back into the earth. The fair share ethic “helps bring equity for all systems.”
What Are the 12 Principles of Permaculture?
Below are some of the many ways that the 12 principles of permaculture can be used.
- Observe and Interact: Forman says that she works with children aged 8 and over and has them practice meditation and sit-spots, to observe all the natural sounds and sensations around them before designing or acting on any farm strategies.
- Catch and Store Energy: This principle deals with the transfer of energy. Because energy is fleeting and essential for life, permaculture practices the conservation and careful storage and transfer of energy in all of its forms.
- Obtain a Yield: When Forman teaches permaculture practices to youth, she says, the youth share produce from their gardens with elders in the community. The element of sharing one’s yield is essential to permaculture.
- Apply Self-Regulation and Feedback: Making sure you are keeping consumption in check and being mindful of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, are key parts of permaculture, says Forman. For example, she asks, are you choosing to use Hügelkultur because it is trendy, or because it will help the soil? To avoid overusing the system, one must observe and accept feedback from other people and nature.
- Use and Value Renewables: This principle is about making sure you have a system where everything is used not just once or twice and making sure it is a self-sustaining system, says Forman.
- Produce No Waste: Greywater is recycled water that “you can’t drink from”—maybe from having taken a shower. But it could be used in a toilet, for example, instead of the “very pure water” that toilets typically use, says a participant in a 2013 Indigenous permaculture-themed video promoted by the International Institute of Indigenous Science.
- Design from Patterns to Details: “Some interpretations of permaculture seem to… be just focusing on… land ownership and how we use land” rather than questioning colonial concepts of why land is “divided in this way, why can we even own a piece of land,” says Ellis. These general principles govern how land is managed, which natural structures are enhanced by permaculture, like the shape and general make-up of a dirt bed, and which are left to their own devices.
- Integrate Don’t Segregate: An ideal system will focus on nurturing “cooperative relationships and helping them to flourish”—that is, nurturing “relationships between different plants, between soil organisms, between people who use the land, between non-human animals that use the land as well,” says Ellis.
- Use Small, Slow Solutions: Permaculture tends to favor “small scale and local, over big scale and global” approaches, according to The Permaculture Association’s Knowledge Base.
- Use and Value Diversity: Pandora Thomas and Starkhawk cited permaculture’s principle of diversity—among other principles and ethics—when stating their support for the Black Lives Matter movement in Permaculture in 2016. The movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion is central to permaculture’s core philosophy.
- Use Edges and Value the Marginal: Ellis writes in a 2018 Re-enchantment blog post that seeing life at the edges can help people get along with each other. People who practice permaculture often use self-reflection and their own experience with marginalized communities to inform their practice.
- Creatively Use and Respond to Change: Some of the most creative responses to change often come from the most marginalized members of society. “Black people invented the sprinkler. They invented the CSA [community-supported agriculture]. Black people invented regenerative farming, also called organic agriculture. Invented pick-your-own. Popularized using certain kinds of crop rotations with legumes,” says Leah Penniman when discussing the role of Black people in developing agricultural technologies.
How to Design A Permaculture Farm
“Anyone can use the principles of permaculture for urban gardening, as well as suburban or large acreage,” says Forman. “That can look like different things for different people.” She explains that there are different zones in permaculture, from zero to five. Zone zero can start within yourself. “Observing yourself and what you need, and observing what’s inside the house,” then moving outside the house to a kitchen garden. Zones can be contained within an apartment or 100 acres.
Zone two could be a home orchard that might have a composting bin. Zone three might be a farm a mile away, where crops are growing. Zone four is a forage zone. Forman’s own forage zone is across the street from her house where she can pick mulberries from an urban park. Zone five is a wild area that would require minimal management. For Forman, zone five is the park. The grass is cut, she says, but there are natural edges to the park where foraging can occur.
- Layers: Layers are a way for humans to mimic the natural layers of a forest, according to Forman, such as a tree, a shrub, and other elements in a raised-bed garden.
- Guilds: In her community work, Forman helps young people cultivate guilds.
- Edge Effect: Using the edges of the farm, Forman says, means controlling the microclimate there and making sure you have diversity at your edges, including having windbreaks, a border, a filter, and caring for water for the next area.
Permaculture is about planting things that will return year after year, such as perennials, and that can serve multiple purposes such as “pest resistance, building up the soil, providing food, providing shade,” Forman says.
Certain techniques are widely used in permaculture, as Ellis outlines: intercropping, dependent planting, food forests, and integrating wild and domestic animals. Permaculture’s goal, she says, is a human-created system that mimics natural ecosystems, where humans are “just one of the beings that are flourishing in this environment,” with little human intervention.
- Agroforestry: Soul Fire Farm’s practice of jaden lakou or “‘courtyard garden’ in Haitian Kreyòl” is “an agroforestry system where vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees grow together.” Learn more about Black Agroforestry here.
- Suburban and Urban Permaculture: Ellis sees permaculture as a design system “that transforms your life in a way that you are living out the permaculture ethics to the best of your abilities.” It is about how you interact with other people in your neighborhood and your community, according to the Vegan Vanguard. For her, permaculture is not just for use in gardening or farming—it is a way to build communities.
- Hügelkultur: Forman once helped a group use Hügelkultur to cultivate when a friend inherited land in Carroll County, Maryland. She says of the technique, “You’re building a hill. We put wood in a ditch and built it up until we made a hill with a large amount of wood to help retain water and soil. As it breaks down, it gets super rich soil.” Hügelkultur, Forman says, helps maintain a good water supply: “when it snowed, it meant a lot of water would [join the system].”
- Vermicomposting: Vermicomposting involves the use of worms to enhance the composting process. Soul Fire Farm encourages worms to aerate their soil and to create compost, according to their website.
- Natural Building: One way to approach natural building is using natural materials to build structures on the land by hand, and to heat them using solar energy and wood stoves.
- Rainwater Harvesting: Forman explains that rainwater harvesting is when you are purposely collecting water from your rooftops, or other places, for a storage tank, for bathing, for watering plants, and more. A lot of people use rain barrels.
- Domesticated Animals: Guinea hens are used for pest management and meat by Soul Fire Farm, though Ellis speaks about vegan permaculture in her 2018 Vegan Vanguard podcast. Vegan permaculture discourages the use of animals in the permaculture process.
- Sheet Mulching: “I love sheet mulching,” Forman says. She says that layers of cardboard and greens, without tilling, are one of her favorite practices, along with composting.
- Grazing: Some permaculture farms rely on animals to help them maintain the ecosystem. Soul Fire Farm cares for sheep and a goat in a practice known as silvopasture.
- Fruit Tree Management: Forman says she helped her permaculture teacher design a food forest in Clifton Park in Baltimore City. It was a “few hundred years old” forest in Baltimore, with a canopy of walnut trees and other mature trees. They added younger fruit trees for the lower tree layer. The purpose of the project was to make a self-sustaining system for the health of the forest and a place where people take refuge in nature and eat, said Forman. Five years on, most of the younger trees have since survived with low maintenance.
Leah Penniman says she would like to see ancestral farming practices decreasingly termed permaculture and hopes the permaculture movement evolves towards “understanding the unique contributions of each people to our agricultural heritage.”
Penniman is not alone. As a result of participating in Permaculture for the People, Quinton Sankofa says that he has been able to “heal wounds that were wounds of my ancestors. My ancestors had an adversarial and often tumultuous relationship with the land because they were enslaved and forced to work. So, I can come as a free person today in a way that is healing and beneficial and not damaging.”
Hemi is a writer, educator, and founder of Learning with Donkeys.