Queensland, Australia. In the middle of a tropical fruit jungle I look around in amazement: 17 kinds of bananas, 3 kinds of passion fruit, oranges, mangoes, star fruit, lychees, grapefruits, tangerines, jackfruit, Japanese cherries, edible bamboo, pineapple, etc. I stand in one big edible jungle. Besides my amazement, there are also many animals that enjoy the same jungle. Possums on the hunt for bananas, bush turkeys eating the fallen passion fruit and butterflies the size of my hand flying by. It is strange to hear that this oasis was still grassland 10 years ago. The neighbors neighbors' neat, short-cut lawn shows exactly what this tropical fruit forest must have looked like in the past. The owners explain to me that they built the piece of land with the help of Permaculture. “Permaculture… ??” I ask.
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is an abbreviation for permanent agriculture and permanent culture. It was developed in the 1970s at the University of Tasmania, Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The inventors developed permaculture to find solutions to a large number of problems that monoculture agriculture entails.
The biggest problem of today's agriculture is the enormous consumption of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. For every calorie output of food produced, 10 to 100 calories of fossil fuel input are required. With fossil fuels becoming scarcer and therefore more expensive, this agricultural system is therefore not sustainable in the long term.
But there are more problems. Monoculture systems are extremely susceptible to disease due to the great lack of natural diversity in the system. This problem has often manifested itself in the Netherlands in both crops and livestock in recent years, resulting in preventive mass destruction of millions of chickens, pigs, goats and cows. In Australia, desertification and soil erosion also took alarming proportions. And finally, problems such as fertilizers that pollute the groundwater and the use of too many pesticides, resulting in bee deaths, are a major problem worldwide.
Permaculture has found solutions to these problems by studying the ecological laws that apply to a natural ecosystem. On the basis of these principles, a system is designed that has functions for humans, eg food supply, with the resilience of a natural ecosystem. Permaculture differs from organic farming in this respect. Permaculture is a design system. You literally design nature around people and see people as part of the entire ecosystem.
How does it work?
A permaculture system is created by looking at the three main ecological factors: sun, water and wind, and how these can be integrated into the system while respecting soil structure and relief. In the Netherlands, it is important to make permaculture design in such a way that a lot of sun is captured and that strong winds are diverted. In dry countries, the designs are mainly made for optimal water collection and conservation. In Jordan near the Dead Sea, they are greening a piece of desert using a well-designed permaculture system and with success. This can be viewed in the short film “Greening the Desert”, see below.
A detailed explanation of the ecological principles on which permaculture is based can be found on the website www.permacultuurnederland.org where a free downloadable course introduces interested parties to the main design principles of permaculture. The following examples also come from this website:
The Solar Circle
This top view shows a number of trees surrounded by shrubs in a semicircle oriented to the south. As a result, the trees compete with each other for the light as little as possible. In addition, the north wind is led around the system, so that the heat is collected where the water is. As a result, the water heats up faster and can serve well as a swimming area for people. By smart design, this permaculture system yields profit for the plants in it and for the people who use it.
Another typical permaculture concept is mulching. Mulching is the covering of the black soil with organic matter. Because the soil is covered with organic material such as leaves, straw, dead plant remains, sawdust, etc., no light can reach the ground, which means that weeds sprout less quickly and grow less quickly. In addition, the dead organic material retains moisture well, so that the soil dries out less quickly when the sun is shining brightly. In winter, this layer protects the roots from frost damage. Finally, microorganisms start to digest the dead organic material and this waste is converted into nutrients for the plant around it. Mulching has many advantages and it also saves a lot of hoeing.
Old, local and new knowledge
Permaculture is a new term, but it is a design system that integrates both old and local knowledge into the design. The Romans planted hazelnut bushes, sweet chestnuts, fruit trees, etc. in the areas they had just conquered. Thus, they set up newly conquered areas for long-term survival.
Another interesting technique was already used by the Aztecs and is aimed at grouping together plants that have positive effects on each other. First corn seeds are planted, when they are around 30 cm high, beans are added, beans have bacteria in their roots that bind nitrogen, an important fertilizer, from the air. This nitrogen fertilizes the maize, the beans use the maize as a climbing stick. Finally, pumpkins are placed between them, they crawl over the ground and with their large leaves they ensure that little light reaches the ground so that weeds cannot grow properly. In this way, all these plants help each other in growth.
New knowledge is also usefully integrated into permaculture systems. Grapes, kiwis or other climbing plants can be well placed near a greenhouse. In the summer they have a lot of leaves that prevent too much sun from shining in and thus prevent it from becoming too hot. In winter, these plants have lost their leaves and the sun can heat the greenhouse very well. In this way you include plant growth in the system and the house is literally part of the ecosystem.
Permaculture also certainly uses new techniques that offer sustainable solutions. Solar panels, efficient water collection and distribution systems are good examples of this. Permaculture is not only limited to growing food but also has branches in the construction of houses, neighborhood development, social interaction, etc. After all, it stands for permanent agriculture and permanent culture.
Permaculture has been an established concept in Australia for some time, but it is also well known in America and England. Permaculture is slowly but surely gaining ground in non-English speaking countries. Partly because it is seen by the scientific world together with agroforestry as a realistic solution to the environmental issue that humanity will be pushed deeper and deeper into in the coming years. Sustainable solutions are no longer a choice but are becoming necessary for survival.
A number of very interesting example projects can be found in the Netherlands. The first project is located near Culemborg station, covers 24 hectares, and offers space for 250 sustainably built homes; the project called Eva Lanxmeer uses, among other things, the knowledge from permaculture. It is in full development and well worth checking out.
Another great project based on permaculture is the Bikkershof in Utrecht. This project was started in 1979 after two old garages left and the neighborhood joined forces.
This is now a beautiful green area where residents often meet each other in the communal greenery. It is a pleasant village in the middle of the city.
Ah .. so that's permaculture. After Rene and Lorraine van Raders' clear explanation about permaculture, I get to hear something completely different. Before he was involved in permaculture, Rene was the chief manager of the largest McDonald's in New Zealand, in Oakland. Lorraine was a secretary. They made the switch of lifestyle after traveling the world by bicycle for five years. When they arrived in Australia, Lorraine turned out to be pregnant and they settled here at the Atherthon Tablelands in Queensland. Both now have a part-time job with the local fire brigade, are committed to many green development projects in their neighborhood and have two cheerful sons. It's funny to think that people who had such a different lifestyle have made a completely new choice and are now engaged in things that they really care about and enjoy. “Yes”, says Rene: “How we had to break down ecosystems we already knew well, but with the help of permaculture we now know how to rebuild them and that is very positive. ”
A free downloadable course that explains the basics of permaculture and a database with around 400 edible plants and mushrooms that grow in the Netherlands can be found at www.permacultuurnederland.org
Title: Introduction to Permaculture
Authors: Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay
Title: Earth User's Guide to Permaculture
Author: Rosemary Morrow
Title: The Earth Care Manual
Author: Patrick Whitefield