Back in 1959, Australian Bill Mollison was observing marsupials in the rainforests of Tasmania. As he observed that the rainforests supported a wide diversity of plant and animal life, he had somewhat of an ‘aha’ moment when he wrote in his journal, ‘I believe we could build systems that would function as well as this one does.’
Out of that observation came purposeful attempts to plan and design balanced systems that would produce quantities of food while having little outside inputs once established. It soon became evident that one could design the environment for specific ends. For example, in order to catch rainwater off the roof, we need to install eavestroughs. However, to be able to use the rainwater, we need storage systems, or diversion into flower and vegetable beds, marshes, wetlands or lawns. Just to divert the water into a storm drain is not being mindful of the great potential of that water. If the water is slowed down and kept on the property it can be used to grow crops or wash cars or take baths. It may be used several times if the design is mindfully done.
Another example of design is the use of solar energy. Passive solar heating of buildings uses properly designed south facing windows backed up with heat sink structures such as stone or brick walls, or black painted barrels of water to catch and hold heat during the day in order to release it at night. Then of course there are solar collectors to heat water or to generate electricity. These technologies hold great promise in our world of growing populations and demands for clean energy.
We can design animals into our system that can have many beneficial effects. Bees, poultry, goats, sheep, cows, fish, alpacas and others can help us to become self sufficient in food production as well as caring for the earth in natural ways. For example, bees help with the huge task of pollinating food crops, as well as giving us many useful products. As we learn to care for bees, we realize the importance of knowing their astounding abilities, recognizing their many species, and providing forage crops for them throughout the season. In return, we may benefit from a share of their honey and other products.
Permaculture design uses careful observation of the site, the weather and climate, the soils, prevailing winds, sun exposure, shade areas, and so on, and carefully creates productive techniques to provide for the needs of the human as well as plant and animal inhabitants. A small family in a house on a town lot who want to maximize their food production will assess dozens of factors in their design. They will consider the size of their lot, the sun exposure, the existing trees and structures on the property, their needs for storage of vehicles, play areas for the children, as well as the possibilities for raised beds, a greenhouse, cold frame, water catchment strategies, placement of fruit trees, composting and recycling areas, and so on in order to build a functioning ecosystem that helps to meet their needs.
A family on an acreage or farm have more possibilities in building their site. They can incorporate shelterbelts, orchards, greenhouses, and all kinds of animals into their design, depending on their needs, desires, energy and ambition.
My own definition of permaculture is this:
Permaculture is a design system. It means designing your environment for sustainability. This may mean growing your own food, using alternate energy, conserving and storing water, and lessening your environmental footprint. We plan and design for the long term.