permanent + agriculture = Permaculture

I’ve been living on Hollengold farm now for close to two months, though it honestly feels more like two weeks.  Time seems to move differently here though not as slowly as you’d think.  I haven’t yet taken the time to really introduce you to the farm and I plan to do so, but not in this blog post.  The reason I bring it up at all is instead to introduce the concept of permaculture, a principle which has guided many aspects of this farm’s design and operation (and which could/should guide landscape, garden, farm and all implementations of human design into the future).

Permaculture is a contraction of the terms “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture,” coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren when in 1959, Mollison thought of the idea while observing marsupials in the Tasmanian rain forests.  What Mollison was struck by was the way that life was interconnected and interdependent at every seam, the beauty of an ecosystem functioning exactly as it was designed to function.  On this experience he noted, “I believe that we could build systems that would function as well as this one does,” and in the 70’s, he and Holmgren began to pinpoint the principles at work which enabled the natural ecosystems they observed to operate in an efficient, sustainable and richly diversified way.  If indigenous cultures have been living in harmony with the earth for thousands of years, modern civilization can also learn to build sustainable human settlements which imitate natural ecosystems, and whose scope extend far beyond agriculture.  From the way we design our farms, gardens, buildings and wastewater systems to the way we plan school curricula or make everyday decisions, permaculture serves as a collection of design principles and tools for us to use in our quest to live more sustainably.  Permaculture has far reaching implications because it is not limited to specific techniques or “how to’s” per se, but instead teaches us how to link different scientific and sustainable practices and select an assortment of tools which may be beneficial or applicable to a specific project (in a specific climate, etc.).  There are a million more things that could be said about permaculture, but hopefully that sufficiently explains it in a nutshell.

So skipping ahead, what are some examples of permaculture design, how do we decide what to put where and how has permaculture influenced the design of Hollengold Farm? One place we can start is by looking at zones and sectors.  Very simply put, if we are looking on the scale of a home from above, imagine the area radiating out away from it as consisting of overlapping (not actually concentric) circles which all influence each other as well as how we interact with them.  In brief, Zone 0 is the home; Zone 1 is the zone of self reliance which is both used the most by us and requires the most care from us (ex: trellis, birdbath, worm bin, herb garden); Zone 2 is the domestic production zone which is in semi-intense cultivation (ex: greenhouse, barn, staple crops); Zone 3 is the farm zone which is considered low intensity and is managed through many different methods (ex: feed storage, cash crops); Zone 4 requires minimal care and is considered the forage zone (ex: firewood, timber); and Zone 5 is considered the wilderness zone which is unmanaged, but demonstrates for us a natural ecosystem (ex: native plants, mushrooms).  Though not shown on the diagram below, sectors could be added to this zone map which tell us things about our environment: how much sun do we get seasonally and where does it rise and set? What direction do winds tend to blow across the property? What areas flood? How do different forms of pollution influence our property and where are the attractive/ugly views?  Permaculture design takes these factors into account to create a aesthetically pleasing, functional and sustainable landscape.

Another component often added to a permaculture design is an edible forest garden.  An edible forest garden mimics a forest by incorporating multiple layers of plant life that can live in harmony (and provide nutritious food, medicinal plants, etc.)

And since permaculture is about modeling our yards, farms and lives around natural ecosystems, identifying patterns or ideals seen in nature can help create sustainable designs.   We might build an herb bed built in a spiral 3-D pattern to mimic a shell or horn (and because doing so entirely changes the way sun, shade, wind, water, microorganisms, etc. interact with our plants for the better).  A pond might be constructed to have wavy (rather than round) edges, to optimize and sometimes in the process, maximize edge – the place in ecosystems where biodiversity is often the richest, while a garden might be modeled after a leaf to maximize growing space and minimize foot paths.  These are just a few examples of techniques which might be employed in a permaculture design.

At Hollengold Farm, permaculture principles were used to design much of the farm thus creating a small-scale, beyond organic, sustainable and beautiful family farm.

Image descriptions from top left:

1. Barn, Compost piles and Cold Frames.  Composting turns food and yard waste into valuable soil and nutrients for plants. Cold Frames enable a longer growing season and were built from recycled materials.

2. The Farm: Designed in a circular pattern (because there are no straight lines in nature), for aesthetic appeal, to optimize edge and growing room, and to create an efficient and fun space to walk through.

3. Sheet Mulching is used on all garden beds to create rich, healthy soil which holds in moisture and reduces weeds. The circular garden bed has been watered fewer than 10 times all season.

4. Sheet Mulch around a new transplant.

5. A row of colorful flowers lines a garden bed to attract beneficial insects.

6. Variety attracts a variety of beneficial insects while helping to prevent harmful insects and disease.

7. An outdoor table on the barn porch provides a relaxing place to eat and work and to observe the garden from.

8. A keyhole garden design maximizes growing space and minimizes path space.

9. Zinnias and other colorful flowers line the edge of the barn for aesthetic appeal, while medicinal flowers grow close to the home so they can easily be harvested for use.

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