Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What is permaculture? An introduction for beginners

A Google Earth view of the Dervaes family's urban homestead in Pasadena, CA.
Long Beach residents who wish to contribute to their own food security might consider a permaculture approach to growing their own food. This term, permaculture, has been bouncing around lately. But what does it really mean?

The simplest definition, literally, is permanent agriculture. That is, the cultivation of our land to meet our basic needs in a way that is permanently sustainable. The grander vision, though, is that we sustain not just our immediate personal needs to get through this life but the capacity of this Earth to sustain future generations (of humans and ALL of Earth’s creatures), at least until the next big asteroid hits.

Thus permaculture, if successful, means permanent culture. This will require species conservation, resource conservation, and responsible, low-impact living, not just for those who live in rural locations, but for those who live in urban human settlements called cities as well.

In essence, the practice of permaculture doesn’t really sound like a choice, as was offered to Long Beach residents at the start of this article, but a necessity if we are to conserve our culture. The alternative is dire. Conserving our culture mandates a shift from our current, selfish, resource-greedy lifestyles to a more conscious, conservative way of living.

The permaculture philosophy is based on lessons learned from nature, from those ecosystems that haven’t yet been tampered with by man. These natural ecosystems are balanced, diverse, resilient, stable, yet living and thus evolving.

Most of the food that feeds the world is grown NIMBY on rural land set aside for agriculture, in most cases big ag. Large tracts of land are planted with a single crop, one variety of a particular genus and species, for as far as the eye can see. This is the antithesis of diversity. There is no ecosystem involved. The soils may even be sterilized by chemical fumigation before the mono-crop is installed. This type of agriculture is unstable and lacks resiliency. If afflicted with an infectious plant pathogen, the whole crop will be susceptible since it is all one and the same clone. It will die without constant human attention because it lacks the self-supportive infrastructure of a diverse ecosystem. And with the exception of perennial crops like fruit and nut trees and grape vines, the vast field must be replanted year after year. Farming is inherently labor intensive, but it is made even more so when it includes labor to kill the soil of all life, labor to deplete the soil of fertility, and labor to chemically supplement the soil with nutrients, a destructive rather than sustainable cycle.

The world’s population is expected to approach 9 billion people by the year 2050. How are we going to feed everybody? It seems that it is our personal and global responsibility to break this cycle in part by taking responsibility for our own food security. The more we can do to feed ourselves and to teach others to feed themselves, the less burden there will be on big ag to use unfriendly practices that might temporarily increase yield but ultimately defeat the principles and practices of permanent agriculture.

This of course is going to mandate an attitude facelift and land use reform so that anyone, regardless of where they live and whether they are vegetarians, flexitarians, or omnivores, can grow their own food at home, in their backyards, front yards, rooftops, parkways, and other under-utilized spaces.

In practice, a permaculturist need not merely replicate a natural ecosystem but can apply an understanding of basic principles and work with nature to design a homestead supported by an intentional ecosystem that includes plants and animals that supply his or her needs.

While this article focuses on food, other cultivable resources include plants for building materials, plants for energy generation, and plants for other uses. Learn more about permaculture here.

Enjoy this? You might also be interested in Donna’s other work as Long Beach Urban Agriculture ExaminerLong Beach Restaurant Examiner, National Science News Examiner and founder and executive director of Long Beach Grows.

Copyright © 2011 Donna Marykwas; All rights reserved.

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