An Introduction to Permaculture
by Amy Antonucci
I came to permaculture like many people do – through farming and gardening.
Neither my family background nor schooling was in agriculture, but after becoming involved in social justice and environmental activism in college, I wanted to do work that felt useful and productive and positive. I had a friend doing farmwork, so I decided to give it a try.
Beginning in the late 1990s, I worked for about ten years on an organic farm and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program) in Stratham NH. It was a great place, doing great work, but even there I could see ways in which it wasn’t sustainable. All the machinery especially bothered me. The owner of the farm spent a lot of his precious time trying to fix the various tractors and cultivators, which then drove over our precious soil, obviously compacting and injuring it.
Then at a NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Summer Conference I spotted a workshop addressing the idea of a more long lasting food growing system. Taught by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, it was my first introduction to the concept of permaculture. I was intrigued and excited and kept reading and learning more about it.
One simple definition of permaculture is that it is a design system which learns from nature to create long-lasting ecosystems to support humans and other creatures. But, let’s look at it more deeply.
The term “Permaculture” is a melding of permanent and agriculture, and was developed by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in the 1970s. The premise is to come up with a way to grow our food that is so in sync with the land that it can go on indefinitely, and actually create a healthier ecosystem. It seeks to avoid repeating the collapse that many cultures went through as they depleted their soils and could no longer feed their populations.
But it didn’t take long for the founders and early practitioners to see the potential of permaculture to address challenges other than food production. The environmental and societal problems they want to solve included water use, energy generation, transportation, and shelter.
At the heart of this problem-solving theory are three ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Every decision made and system set up needs to respect those values.
After that, there are principles that can help us make choices, and there are many techniques that have been developed which fit well with the goals of permaculture. Actually, many people equate the techniques they’ve seen used in a permaculture system with the theory itself – but that’s not accurate. Even the best techniques are not appropriate everywhere. Some examples of these techniques are raised bed gardening, swale and berm earthworks, sheet mulching, hugelkultur, and forest gardening.
As a design system, observation, thoughtfulness and careful planning are necessary to truly practice permaculture. We want to set up systems that will support each other with as little intervention as possible, working with natural forces rather than fighting them. A lot of it starts to feel like common sense once you start. For instance, on our homestead, we placed animal housing very close to our home since we have to access it daily throughout the year. Our garden can be farther, since once the snow is on the ground, I’m not going there anyway. We build in lots of South facing windows for cold season solar gain, with overhangs above them that keep out the sun when at its highest. Our water catchment starts high on the property so we can use gravity to send it down lower versus needing electric pumps.
Permaculture is so well suited to food growing and homesteading, but it has great potential to be used well beyond that. There is a whole branch referred to as “social permalculture” now focusing on developing better systems for human interactions, such as group process, economics, and governance. And why not? Humans actually are a part of nature after all!
Most importantly to me, permaculture is about building respectful relationships, being thoughtful and responsible, and getting re-rooted in our environments. These relationships are between animals and plants, between land and people, and between human beings.
The way I live this these days is with simple living and growing much of our own food on our seven acre permaculturally designed property while staying connected to others through activist and community building work, including organizing the Seacoast Permaculture Meetup Group.
Other people would create a different permaculture design of their lives depending on their own strengths and goals… how about you?
Amy Antonucci is a leader in the permaculture movement through the Seacoast of New Hampshire. She organizes the Seacoast NH Permaculture group and, with her partner, Steve, homesteads in Barrington, NH. You can find out more about The Seacoast Permaculture Group at www.meetup.com/Seacoast-NH-Permaculture and about Amy’s homesteading at www.livinglandpermaculture.com