Why Permaculture?

At a family lunch, some were heard to say, “We have no idea what Permaculture is, but we know it’s a load of rubbish.” Someone interjected, “It’s just another new-fangled idea.” Yet another queried, “So you want the world to starve, do you?”

Permaculture is the very opposite of new-fangled. It is a return to old wisdom. It is an attempt to mimic the abundance of Nature.

Nature does not dig, it does not weed, it does not plant a single crop in rows (monoculture), it does not use chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.

In nature, mixed farming is the rule. Plants are always found with animals, and there is never any attempt at monoculture. Soil is protected from the direct action of sun, rain and wind. Leaves break up the rainfall into a fine spray. Trees and shrubs reduce the power of the strongest wind to a gentle breeze. A large portion of the rainfall is retained in the topsoil; the surplus being gently transferred to the subsoil and, in due course, to streams and rivers.

The soil is made porous by a network of drainage and aeration channels made by earthworms and other burrowing animals. There is ample humus for the absorption and retention of moisture, and there is remarkably little run-off. The streams and rivers in woodland areas are perennial because of the vast quantity of water in slow transit between the rain storms and the sea. There is little or no drought because so much of the rainfall is retained where it is needed.

The woodland manures itself by making its own humus and supplying itself with minerals. A gentle accumulation of vegetable and animal residues is constantly taking place, and these are being converted by fungi and bacteria into humus. The processes are sanitary. There are no unpleasant smells, no flies and no dustbins. The process ensures that the topsoil carries a huge reserve of fertility. In nature, the plants and animals look after themselves. All manner of diseases is present, but they never assume large proportions.

Clearly, Nature has no idea what she is doing! Surely science can improve on this chaotic abundance?

In 1840, Baron Justus von Liebig proclaimed that only three soil nutrients were required for plant growth. These were nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). The reductionist NPK mentality was born and survives to this day. No longer was it necessary to rotate crops. Mixed farming could die and be replaced with monoculture. And no longer was it important to preserve topsoil. The results have been devastating.

The first of these has been soil erosion. It can take hundreds of years for a few centimetres of topsoil to form naturally and, without topsoil, little plant life is possible. The soil that remains has been progressively depleted of nutrients, which is reflected in a steady reduction in the nutrient content of the food we produce, and a steady increase in the prevalence of plant and animal diseases. But this is of little concern to a farmer who is trying to maximise yield, because he is paid by tonnage, not by nutrient content.

But we have done worse things to the soil than erode it, deplete it of nutrients, destroy its humus-bearing top layer and damage its ability to conserve water. We have destroyed its very life.

Deep ploughing and the indiscriminate use of pesticides and fungicides destroy the habitat for earthworms and mycorrhiza – a term given to a symbiotic association between a fungus (myco) and the roots (rhiza) of most plants species.

Mycorrhizal associations are the rule in nature, not the exception. This association involves the movement of energy, in the form of carbon compounds, from plant to fungus, whilst inorganic nutrients move from fungus to plant. It is now known that mycorrhizal fungi confer a host of additional benefits, including increased nodulation and atmospheric nitrogen fixation in legumes, disease suppression by secreting antibiotics and by reducing the susceptibility of roots to soil-borne pathogens, and the increased production of plant growth hormones.

In 1905, Sir Albert Howard was sent to India to train local farmers in Western agricultural techniques. He was clever and observant, and he soon realised that he had little to teach and much to learn. He became aware of the connection between healthy soil and healthy people, livestock and crops, and he was soon supporting traditional Indian farming practices over modern agricultural science.

Unlike von Liebig, Howard understood the importance of humus and mycorrhiza. He began with the restoration of his own garden using humus. When he acquired the property, the apple trees were smothered in greenfly and caterpillars, and the quality of the fruit was poor. He did nothing to control these pests, other than building up the humus content of the soil. In three years, the parasites disappeared, the trees were transformed, and the fruit was excellent. In his book, An Agricultural Testament, he declared, ‘The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.’

Howard felt confident that the first step in managing any plant disease in the future would be to ensure that the soil was fertile and that the mycorrhizal association was in good working order. He campaigned for this, but his confidence was misplaced. The industrial farmers of today still listen to the Baron and Big Pharma. They are not interested in Howard’s ‘new-fangled’ ideas.

Although he never used the term, Howard is considered to be the father of modern organic agriculture.

So, what can be done about our soil, or is it too late? At a personal level, there is much that we can do. Probably the most fertile soil on the planet is to be found in our own gardens. So, grow your own vegetables and eat seasonally. At this juncture, if you are thinking in terms of beds of lettuce or carrots or beans, then you are still thinking modern agriculture.

Instead, think edible wilderness; think Permaculture. Bill Mollison of Tasmania is considered to be the father of Permaculture, a self-maintained agricultural system, modelled on natural ecosystems, which he developed with David Holmgren in the 1970s. Permaculture has become a worldwide movement encompassing all aspects of how we can live harmoniously with our planet and its finite resources.