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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

The Power of Permaculture - Care for People, Sustain the Planet, Share the Surplus

Mar 23, 2011 10:48PM

by John D. Ivanko

The ethics of permaculture are simple: Everything revolves around caring for people and the planet, while sharing the surplus. A term coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, permaculture melds the needs of human habitation and horticulture, creating viable integrated designs based on natural ecological systems, in which what’s produced by one element of the system becomes the input for another.

“It’s about design and relationships,” explains Bill Wilson, co-founder of Midwest Permaculture, with his wife Becky. “Permaculture is larger than gardening. It’s a creative and artful way of living where people and nature are both preserved and enhanced by thoughtful planning and the careful use of resources. Practices mimic patterns found in nature. Principles reflect a respectful approach to life. Embraced, these attributes create an environment of diversity, stability and resilience, where all may thrive for untold generations.”

Self-Sufficient Systems

Permaculture is widely adaptable to suit local climates, soils and geographies, and can scale to any size location that can sustain life. Because nature fosters no waste, permaculture-inspired gardens recycle or reuse all nutrients and energy sources; this approach regenerates natural systems, while boosting the self-sufficiency of human settlements and reducing the need for industrial production systems that rely on polluting energy sources.

Plants are selected and planted according to the way they help one another. Animals also play key roles in garden sustainability. Free-range chickens, for example, can help fertilize and work up the soil and control insect pests, while providing nutrient-packed eggs; humans, meanwhile, provide shelter, security, a water source and supplemental food. Surplus produced in these gardens is freely shared.

“Many permaculturists are concerned about their relationships with others—all others—and the planet,” continues Wilson. “We believe that it is possible to redesign our lives to provide an abundance of food, fiber, energy and shelter for every person on this planet, while dramatically improving overall quality of life.” He notes that only 20 percent of the permaculture process is about growing food.

“Permaculture is the big picture,” agrees Heather Lanier, who has developed a plan for Hill of the Hawk Farm, in Big Sur, California. “It’s about how relationships are built and how these relationships help care for one another in the circle of life.”

At her farm, the staff are transforming abandoned chicken coops into living spaces and artist studios, and planting a forest garden that will provide shade and fresh fruit, while attracting beneficial insects. Chickens and ducks meander around a series of ponds that collect water in preparation for the region’s long dry season.

Just down the road, the Esalen Institute offers educational workshops, which Lanier’s staff have attended. An instructor there also helped complete the permaculture plan for Lanier’s property.

Place-Based Living

Permaculture is equally appropriate for the urban and suburban areas where most Americans now live, says Wilson. “It’s for any size property, including an apartment, and for any climate... any place.”

He and other permaculture enthusiasts maintain that, “With more and larger settings, together we can have a great positive effect on the total environment.” When it comes to the potential for rural areas, “We can harvest a far greater amount of resources than we do now—water, sun, carbon dioxide and wind—and greatly improve productivity, while improving the overall quality of the region.” However, he quickly clarifies: “One can be very successful in small spaces, too.”

John D. Ivanko is the co-author of Rural Renaissance, describing Inn Serendipity’s journey toward sustainability (, based in part on permaculture and onsite generation of wind and solar power.

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