What is Permaculture?

I’ve been asked this question a few times as it comes up during my travels, and I like many other permaculturalists have found it difficult to sum up the movement in a few sentences that would not devalue the concept.

Most people who have a vague understanding may think it’s something to do with gardening. One of my favourite one liners is “Permaculture is revolution disguised as gardening” so I suppose that’s at least on the right track! On the extreme end, i’ve heard people associate permaculture with hippies running away to live in a ‘cult’ like commune. The reality is, most people have no idea what it is.

It’s true that Permaculture is dynamically defined. It is a broad and ever evolving topic of discussion. Permaculture doesn’t just apply to growing food or living on a farm, it could apply to an area as small as your kitchen window sill, or even social systems, business structures and anything that could be designed with a guiding set of principles in mind.

The word ‘Permaculture’ comes from the combination of the words ‘Permanent Agriculture’, although in recent times, one could say it is a fusion of ‘Permanent Culture’ as the movement has grown to a worldwide community that is actively changing the way they live and interact with modern day society.

Here are two definitions given by the originators of Permaculture themselves; David Holmgren & Bill Mollison. The pair coined the term in 1978.

David Holmgren, gives his definition in his book Retrosuburbia; a downshifters guide to a resilient future

A design system for resilient living and land use based on universal ethics and ecological design principles. Also, a global movement of individuals, groups and networks applying permaculture in diverse ways in privileged and destitute communities around the world.

David Holmgren

The definition given by Bill Mollison in his ‘Permaculture Bible’ Permaculture; A Designers Manual is a little more concise:

Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non material needs in a sustainable way.

Bill Mollison

My friend Bree who I’m studying the PDC alongside has given a nice definition. Bree is a Chef who recently quit her job in the city to pursue a more sustainable way of living:

“Permaculture is fluid. Its principles allow us to build a ‘permanent culture’ that provides and looks after both nature and people. It has this amazing ability to apply to anyone and everyone, and it’s not just applicable to the garden or outdoors. Permaculture has ethics and values that apply to the household and the community as a whole. It inspires a creative and sustainable way of thinking and living. To me, permaculture creates a way of life that integrates people care and earth care.”

Bree Spence

There are a range of principles and ethics considered and taught in permaculture. David Holmgren’s system is the most easily understood and capture the concept in a wholistic yet simplified way:

In my second week of completing my PDC I feel as if Permaculture can not be put in any one box, it is the boxes. It is a a system and way of life that encourages self development, reflection and action to do good in the world by taking personal responsibility for your actions, waste and overall footprint.

I’d be interested to hear other people’s definitions of Permaculture. I feel as if everyone has the ability to interpret the ideas fostered by the movement and to bring about action in continually new a creative ways. There is an abundance of potential out there to utilise innovative technologies, diverse resources and traditional practices to create a more sustainable way of life.

Feel free to comment your ideas, questions and definitions below in the comments below.

Thank you for reading 🙂

Mandala Garden Harvest

Today is Wednesday 19th August, the first day that we have been out doing actual farm work. It was refreshing to get moving and the sun shone radiantly all day. We began our day by harvesting some veggies for the veggie boxes that Kate and Mark give to the supporters of purple pear farm. It was a nice fresh morning and it was really cool to see how much you can harvest out of such a small space. We had boxes full of broccoli, beans, silverbeet, rainbow chard and pak choi, potatoes and a few random cherry tomatoes.

We then moved on to a quick demonstration of how to shovel manure (one of the jobs on our roster is to keep the cows/horses stable yard tidy), Mark showed us a very effective technique which involves jiggling the shovel under the cow pat to get it all on there in one piece! We dawdled over to the goats and fed them some African olive branches which are classed as a noxious weed here in the Hunter. The goats love it! Once the goats have grazed all the leaves from the branches they are fed through the chipper and the remnants used as bedding in the goats enclosure. Once soiled, this goes into the compost system and will eventually feed the gardens and fruit trees. We learned about using the chipper safely and had some morning tea. Once refuelled with hoe made cookies we were set to the task of sprucing up the raspberry patch which had been let go over the Winter. The grasses and weeds dominated the trellis’s, so our task was to get in and tidy it up. With 7 of us we got through it pretty well, the grass is very thick and we will have to do some more work on it tomorrow to dig all the deep roots out.

Out tummies were happy after a delicious lunch of lentils and rice, green salad, broccoli and roast potatoes. We had a nice long break and then it was time to move one of the chicken domes over to the next circle in one of the mandala gardens. We discovered one of the chickens was a little ill with a case of sour crop so we gave it a little massage and took it to Kate to get some more TLC. The mandala and chicken dome system works super effectively. The circle which we moved the chickens over to was a garden of annuals that were all finished producing and needed to be cleared. The foliage was thick and roughly a metre tall, for us to get in there and clear it out would be quite a task. So instead, the chicken dome is moved onto it, providing abundant food for the chickens, they also eat any pests and insects, scratch and manure on the soil and do all the work for us, all while producing eggs. It takes about 1-2 weeks for them to fully clear the circle. The circle we moved them from was ready to be planted into and that is what we did next.

Starting from the centre and spiralling out, it makes sense to plant the annuals with the longest life span or only have one single harvest in the middle so you don’t have to walk into the middle of the garden more than necessary (in this case it was purple cabbage), in between the cabbages we planted tatsoi, its ok to plant them in between because the tatsoi will mature and be harvested well before the cabbages. Once it’s gone the cabbages will fill out the space and mature. Using niches in time and space like this is how you can maximise the yield within a small area. The next circle was planted with beetroot and the outer edge of the circle we planted broccoli, broccoli can be harvested multiple times so it makes sense to have this on the outside where it’s easily accessible.

As I learn more about the mandala garden system it’s a really effective and cohesive way of gardening and producing a lot of food. Everything is there working as one system. The compost pile is right next to the gardens, the chickens are there helping the garden, there’s even resident guinea pigs that help keep the grass under control. It’s a pleasant place to be and work, it feels like a natural setting as opposed to rigid rows of crops that need constant maintenance. Kate and Mark let the ‘weeds’ co-exist with the annuals. As long as they don’t impede the growth of the crop. They let Mallow grow amongst the brocolli and the red spider mites love it, they swarm the mallow and kill it, leaving the broccoli alone. There’s nettles, dandelion, dock and a plethora of other species which are seen as beneficial to the garden, providing nutrients and cover for the soil, habitat for the insects/predators and food for the chickens. Getting rid of these species that grow naturally would take time and effort, only for another ‘weed’ to sprout up in its place. It’s better to leave it there and let it do it’s thing, giving all the benefits I mentioned.

We have been given a veggie box from the farm for our use, we are going to have a communal cook up tonight. I’m really looking forward to a well deserved nights sleep! 🙂

Bye for now.


The Beginning – Purple Pear Farm PDC Induction

I have just finished the first day of a 10 week internship and permaculture design course (PDC) at Purple Pear Farm which is a permaculture teaching and learning site based in Anambah in the upper Hunter Valley. Run by Mark and Kate (Mark whom did one of the last PDC’s with Bill Mollison back in the day). The farm is on 14 acres of land which is set up with gardens, animals, kitchens, learning spaces and a young food forest.

Arriving nice and early I was given a prime spot to park up Bernie (my van) next to a fellow van dweller and was introduced to the other interns who all seem like a lovely bunch. We will be getting to know each other rather well over the course of the 10 weeks i’m sure. There are 7 of us in total, coming from different background and for different reasons.

The morning was a sit down walk through of the rules, and expectations of the course. We’ve been given a roster of housekeeping and farm duties. I’m the kitchen wench for this week 😀
Mark and Kate are our hosts and teachers during the stay. We got given our own garden knife and mini hoe to keep, which was so kind of them and unexpected. We used some paint markers to decorate our tools.

After the formalities we got to see more of the property. We had morning tea under a blossoming mulberry tree which was home made muffins and biscuits. Coffee with raw milk. The site is also home to an outdoor daycare/pre-school, so there were lots of little ones running around. One of the youngens got bitten by an ant and I learned that plantain (a common ‘weed’) is a great antidote to alot of minor stings such as ants, nettle stings, mozzy bites etc.

Kate also suggested that we could paint a mural in the playground area on the canteen/kitchen. A project I’d really like to take up. I already have some ideas of a garden theme with butterflies, frogs and flowers.

Morning tea conversation was interesting as we were just all getting to know each other. We discussed making Biogas as an alternative energy source. The infrastructure itself is more difficult to built and design, perhaps we could build a tank style stand. The process involves using manure and food waste to harvest methane that can be used for cooking and heating (as an alternative to unsustainable gas sources). Mark pointed out that although its a great idea, the fuel that would be used to make the gas would mean there wouldn’t be much organic waste left for compost/pig food so we were thinking about where we could get it. Partnering with Oz Harvest or local cafes is an option.

After morning tea we set off on a farm tour to get a feel for the property and learn more bout our roles and duties moving forward. It was a super windy day and you could really tell when you were in an area with good wind breaks. Casuarinas (she oaks) are notably the most effective on the farm.

Mark says we will be doing some building of large picnic shelter in the playground area, which I’m sure will be a challenge. Bana Grass was pointed out as being an excellent grass as it has many uses such as: fast growing, easy to propagate, used as animal fodder, drought tolerant and although it isn’t native to Australia it is easy to control/doesn’t go to seed. In this instance it was being grown to shelter some young peas.

We only just scratched the surface about bio-dynamics. We were shown some experiments that Mark is doing involving hollowed cow horns filled with clay and manure and buried in the soil over winter. You then spread the contents throughout the farm, apparently. I’m looking forward to getting into more detail about this seemingly strange technique and the benefits of it.

The resident dogs are very sweet, Rusty and Jessie Jr and very friendly and followed us as we did the farm tour. We also met the gaggle of Geese who are pretty funny looking and make a lot of noise.

We met the pigs (who are huge) Nutmeg and Wiggy, they are kept for gardening and manure generating purposes only as the farm is vegetarian. We also fed the goats who are pretty cool, they eat a lot of weeds and are used to control overgrowth on leads throughout the farm.

During our stay on the farm, we have all been allocated a Mandala Garden to take care of. My Mandala’s name is Henry, and it seems I have been allocated the garden which has had the most upkeep (compared to the others). We had the task of going and observing what was there and seeing how we might improve it. Purple Pear farm does not have any market gardens (in rows) they just have 7 interlocking mandala gardens which I thought was quite interesting. The mandala gardening concept was created by Linda Woodrow and seems to integrate perennials and annuals together in a cohesive system.

The mandala gardens are teaming with bees from the on-site bee hives. Mark told us that that they purposely let a-lot of their brassicas go to seed because the bees love it and it makes a delicious tasting honey. The bordering dams are bursting and theres a lot of mud about. I will wear my gumboots tomorrow for sure. We also saw some swales in action, absorbing and controlling the dam overflow and some newly planted guilds to protect young citrus trees on top of the swale.

Full dam with the swale on the right. In the middle are newly planted citrus trees and support species

Lunch was absolutely delicious. Funnily enough the table was set with a Gulgong tea towel, and we sat down to a feast of curry and home made bread. The curry was made from some wild growing Warrigal Greens and cheese that was kind of like feta.

After lunch we spent some time with our Mandalas and wrote some notes in our journal about it and then called it for the day. We went back to the hut where we enjoyed an Indian style drink which was home made yoghurt, water and honey. It was tasty and is supposed to assist digestion.

It has been a full-on day, I’m quite exhausted and looking forward to day 2 and getting used to being here. I’m not sure that I’ll write a post for each day, perhaps each week so I can actually make it a worthwhile article. I’m also collecting some footage to make a video 🙂

I’m sitting in my van now enjoying my first ever cup of nettle tea and eating an Anzac cookie my mum made for me.

The sunset is glorious now as the wind has settled down. I took a stroll and said hello to the two resident dairy cows and two shaggy ponies – Coco and Sir Bowie Charles.