Better living through Permaculture

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glover st garden
Permaculture gardening in full flight – Glover St Community garden, Sydney NSW

Curiouser and curiouser. Recently I attempted to write a ‘Permaculture in a nutshell’ type affair for SuperLiving Magazine – which I assume is a publication for, um, people who like reading about superannuation. Or their lack thereof, given recent global developments. This was a slightly strange commission, as I felt it unwise to make too many jokes about other, more preferable forms of ‘natural capital’ and ‘nest eggs’ – or allude to the concept of not poo-ing in your drinking water and so forth.

I also held back on how I felt that everyone should really get together and plant an orchard and a nut grove right now if they really wanted some long-term investments, rather that fiddling with their stocks. However, I managed to restrain myself and here’s what I wrote:

Better living through Permaculture

Growing some of your own veggies, composting your food scraps, redirecting that air-conditioning drip onto the fruit tree on the patio… it’s the little things we decide to do that can lead us toward a more sustainable existence. In Permaculture, these small gestures are sometimes called examples of the ‘one percent rule’ which can, when we do enough of them, add up to significant benefits in our immediate environment – and a happier, healthier and decidedly more interesting life.

Permaculture? Isn’t that just veggie growing or something?

Not by half. Permaculture is a system of design principles for building and cultivating sustainable human habitats, drawing inspiration from patterns in natural systems. And in this case, ‘habitats’ means whatever you call home – apartment, farm, terrace, suburb or even houseboat. A functioning Permaculture system is a habitat that takes into consideration as many of its inputs and outputs as it possibly can, and aims to become as efficient and sustainable as possible for the sake and comfort of its inhabitants. This includes growing food wherever you live (window-sill tomatoes – yum), finding creative and useful ways to reuse waste (what will I water with the bath water today?), thinking carefully about how to make things do more than one job (left in the sun for the afternoon, the back seat of your car is a brilliant spot to rise bread dough or make yoghurt in a flash) and basically working with what you’ve got (Balcony seems too small for a mini veggie plot? Go vertical and harvest climbing beans, peas and passionfruit from the balcony walls and barrier instead).

How to integrate some Permaculture principles into YOUR habitat

Catch and store energy: Energy means things like water, heat, a cooling breeze – anything that passes into your system that you need, try to find a way to catch and store it within your system for your future use. Collect rain run-off in a tank (or a bucket) to catch and store water, paint a sunny north-facing brick wall a dark color to catch winter heat, create the ultimate airflow path to direct and divert that cooling breeze throughout your whole house.

integrate rather than segregate: Aim for multi-tasking in all aspects of your habitat, and try to make sure that everything serves more than one function. This can apply to objects, structures, plants and any other element of your system. For example, remember that north-facing brick wall? As well as painting it a dark color to catch and store heat energy in winter, you could plant a passionfruit vine to trail up it. The northern aspect will help ripen the fruit, the leaves will shield the wall from collecting heat energy in summer, and, being deciduous, the passionfruit will lose its leaves over winter when you want that wall to be catching all the sun it can. That wall is now multi-tasking with the best of them and providing you with both passionfruit and a more comfortable environment throughout the year.

Use and value diversity: Permaculture is big on diversity. Diversity, frankly, is what any stable system hinges apon. An enduring example of diversity being used to stabilize and enhance a system is the French cottage garden, known as the Potager. A Potager garden is a part ornamental, part kitchen garden, where cabbages nestle under roses and beans twine amongst oregano with poppies nodding overhead. The diversity of plants in a Potager, which is frequently without rows of any single particular vegetable, creates an admirably stable system through diversity, where pests are often confused by the riot of shapes and colors, and therefore cannot wreak havoc on more than one of your cabbages before they get picked off by either birds, ‘good bugs’, or you.

An Aussie Potager garden in Brogo, NSW

Creatively use and respond to change: This principle is particularly pertinent at this juncture in our society, as it can be applied with far-reaching effects, way beyond your veggie garden or your physical home. Whether it’s taking out the front lawn and putting in water-wise, bird attracting plants and groundcovers in response to water restrictions, voluntarily down-sizing (which incidentally gives you more time to make your habitat more sustainable), or just opting out of the culture or More in favor of an outlook of Enough, change is the main constant of any system. Welcoming it in allows everything (including us) to grow and flower.

Use small and slow solutions: We’ve all attempted a project that was ‘bigger than Ben Hur’, only to get overwhelmed, worn out, or simply stuck. Moving towards a more sustainable existence can be daunting, even if you’ve read all about what to do and how to do it. Permaculture advocates a simple solution to this problem: start at your back  door, and work outwards from there. You can do this metaphorically, in terms of attitude, immediate community, or simply aiming to observe and identify whatever that is growing through the crack in the back step. Or you could roll up your sleeves and begin with nurturing just one pot of herbs on your windowsill, and take the adventure from there. Who knows what, in a few years time, you might have created beyond that window.

Where to learn more:

To learn how to integrate Permaculture into your habitat, including a range of practical and theory courses at both introductory and more in-depth levels, visit Milkwood Permaculture’s website at

**note: In this article I’ve used David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles. David was co-originator of the Permaculture concept, alongside Bill Mollison. Both these fine fellows now have slightly different riffs on the same idea, but both are complementary to each other. And both are well worth checking out. David has just re-released The flywire house (as a free download), a book which deals with designs for systems in bushfire-prone areas. Pertinent stuff for those of us in the Australian bush.

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