The Essence of Permaculture

Design at the Core

The essence of our sustainable existence lies in our design. Because all elements within a system crave efficient and meaningful connections.

Emeritus Prof Stuart Hill reminds us that the essence of permaculture is design. He remarked “It really struck me being in an agriculture faculty in a major university there was no teaching about design”.

In this interview, Stuart reflects on the core power of Permaculture. The essence of makes Permaculture unique. Permaculture focuses on design and drives us to build knowledge about all the components within the design and how they interact. We start to see ourselves in the picture, as part of the system. We can also learn from traditional farmers, researchers and build our own observations.

The future of permaculture is in all of our hands. Stuart urges us to expand our knowledge by adding social understanding to our ‘tried and tested work’ on permaculture design.

Epping forest where delegates from Africa and Hong Kong
marvel at the wasted abundance in a major city

Design requires knowledge

In Stuart’s early teaching years “design was taken as given” and practiced as simplified monoculture with some very simple rotations based on inputs and extraction. Instead we need to give attention to the maintenance of the system. He remarks “When I first saw about permaculture and not just permaculture but also the new alchemy institute [who] had also put out a book and report about what was needed in agriculture. And it was the same concept of design.”

What is design?

Stuart explains “So the question about design is what do you include in the design? And where do you put it? When do you put it? How do you manage it? All that requires a considerable amount of knowledge. Whereas when you’re just practicing monoculture you don’t actually need that sort of same level of knowledge.

And design encompasses an understanding of ecological processes. As well as the functions that the different organisms carry out. Also we need an understanding of what these organisms need. As well as understanding about what their interrelationships are and how that varies over time and space. So, there’s not an assumption that you can do anything anywhere, anytime. Instead, we get an understanding that there are things you can do optimally in certain places and at certain times”.

An Ancient Essence

“This appreciation for design takes a certain amount of experience and knowledge to know when and where those those things are. What has particularly what impressed Stuart about permaculture…is that design is the central issue. Other organizations such as biological agriculture, ecological agriculture, organic farming, biodynamic farming, regenerative farming and convergence farming etc. acknowledge the importance of design. But not with the same understanding and central focus that permaculture does.

David Holmgren‘s list of principles demonstrates the essential core of design. And Stuart notes that we “would only add to his list in terms of the psychological so my take is that our internal permaculture is a foundation for external permaculture. And that has been neglected I think in conventional permaculture until fairly recently. A few people have been acknowledging this you know the whole concept of polyculture systems and succession.”

Design is an Ancient Practice

Indigenous cultures, particularly in the tropics, understand the power of design. Stuart recalls “When I when I worked in Trinidad coffee and cocoa was grown under flame trees which provided shade for them. And they got more optimal production when they had a certain amount of shade. And north American Indians planted squash and beans and corn together. So the beans captured Nitrogen for the corn and the squash grew up the corn as a support. There are lots and lots of those sort of examples. And also, in terms of rotations, moving crops so you don’t follow the same crop year after year. And there are certain things that you can’t follow because something leaves a toxin in the soil that affects the subsequent crop. So, all that sort of knowledge is quite essential.” This creates the essence of sustainable design.

Farming For Her Community

Building community helps farmers. Direct marketing enables the farm to increase diversity and build a fairer income. Flavia Assuncao of  GrowingRootsPermaculture talks about her personal experience in farming and direct marketing.

“Some plants are very important for diversity but people don’t know how to cook” the harvests that Flavia and Bunya grow. But now, they have a whole community of supporters. Flavia says the close contact with customers encourages them to keeping farming. Customers take food to share with their whole family. I guess the main issue is like – sometimes I even cry because they say ‘this food is lifting my soul – or like, when I eat this food I have to the energy to concentrate. it is all an important part of their culture.’

Growing Support for Healthy Farming Practices

Flavia says “for me is what’s keeping me going”. Everytime when Flavia feels like – ‘argh! its too hard’ – she gets a message that someone coming! “Really the Islanders spirit (vibe) is, you know for them – life is beautiful and everything is okay and if they have it fully they are ahead and normally the bunch is when we sell you know commercial bunch is gonna be little. But I always make sure that I make it for them, Islander style.

I always say to them so they come they get so happy because normally for them food is to share. so you know i always make sure of that and they bring drink and food for us too. When we always get food from them when they come, they bring trays of pumpkin, taro and sweetcorn. “

Two-way exchange

“We learned so much well. We had some guys coming from Fiji /Sydney (750kms), do you know? So we were harvesting cassava and they were telling us: ‘Look, you can plant it like this…’ and so we get the perspective from so many different cultures as well and we learn. and it is so good and this is something that really brings me life,  because I am not from Australia as well, and once I had cassava and all these bananas to eat, I could see that I was really grounded here. Because it really is part of who I am. “

Mixed farming in Food Forest

Customers also show Flavia how to grow a mix of forest and have the animals together in the shade.

“They come here and tell me: ‘This is like Bali!’ (their home)! Where they grow forest,  they grow food,  and they have the animals together. They cook under the shade, together with the trees,  there’s no separation.  They are part (of the Ecosystem),  they live in spaces like this on their islands,  so  it’s so good to see how much inspired (encouragement) they get when they come in here,  and they feel home, this place feels like home for them.  it is very familiar landscape with bananas,  and they use the leaves from papaya, the leaves from cassava,  because on their island theirs resources are a bit short,  so they use so many different parts of plants,  bananas flowers, parts of the banana, they use everything to cook,

So we are learning so much of having all these cultures around us and  this connection  is actually really inspiring and rewarding, because they allow us to grow with  diversity.  and having different plants we have  different “tastes”  for everyone, and  they cannot find this food on the supermarket,  like pumpkin tips (shoots) , chokos tips (shoots) they cannot go to the supermarket to find that.. When they get here , they say: “Do you have taroooo!!! Betel leaf!!! I had a lady that bought  a whole box with betel leaf and while her daughter  was talking to me,  she started to eat in the car everything that had in their box. Because this food is part of who they are, and they miss they food.

Having all this culture around us that this meeting is actually really inspiring and rewarding.

Bunya and Flavia use clever food forest disruption to boost production.

Growing Diversity

I started selling only chillies, but now we have more them 20 produces in our list to sell every week, . It was a very slowly process, but  what we are building with the community is so strong,  that keep us growing (going for longer) as well.

The Value of Feeling Supported

Farming can be lonely but Flavia says “For us, this work is not about make a lot of money, in short time, It is more about building community, and empower people to grow their food., outside of our garden as well.  We also sell plant propagation  and we teach people and empower them to grow food in their backyard,   for example when we sell the Aibika, we always tell them to plant the sticks in their home garden. Our garden keep growing outside of “The farm “.

Flavia smiles “it’s working so well”

Support GrowingRootsPermaculture. Join their upcoming living agroforestry course.

How to Be Merry, Generous and Giving to the Planet

Giving is an act of generosity and an opportunity to choose something good for the environment and to build a cleaner future. To give a present creates a physical reminder of the social connection. Whereas to give an experience, builds memories together.

Giving doesn’t have to cost the earth. In fact, the gift can be good for the environment. Giving can be joyous and an act to build a better culture.

Instrument craftsman in Peru playing wooden flute
Locally handcrafted gifts give three-ways
They give joy to 1. your loved one 2. to your Environment and 3. to the artist and their economy.

Make It Personal

Giving a gift has the power to tell someone “I value you and I know what you like”. The purpose of giving is to enrich the bond. In truth, giving is not so much about the value of the gift. It is more likely that the gift expresses how much you value the relationship. How can we give a gift that reflects what we know they like and not put demands on the planet? One of the safest bets is a paper book about their favourite topic. Ultimately, presents such as books are often reused and in their final stage, they will decompose.

Sustainable Gifts

Recycled Birdcage with a wicking garden
Our Recycled Birdcage with Garden
  • preloved fossils connect us with the environment and they reminds us of our place in time. We can give these as a gift or give the experience of a trip to your local museum together.
  • Valuable antiques preserve and honour of the craftmanship. These items will be loved again and again. Antiques are both valuable and durable. They have character and are rare. Even more so, they can an intriguing life-story and the recipient becomes part of the next chapter of the story. There are many amazing pieces of history that need a good home, to be dusted, polished, and treasured again. We don’t need to buy anything new when there is so much stuff from the past crying for understanding and care.
Fossils are treasures
  • Handmade jewellery. For example, Columbia girl makes jewellery is from dried fruits and fruit peel.
  • Handbag or shoe decorations or tags made from nature
  • Bookmarks or spectacle holders made from a recycled necklace

Memorable Experiences

  • Tickets to a museum or for a show (there’s little wrapping or waste, simply pop it in a hand-made card). Incidentally, this is a great last-minute gift.
  • Hire a ride in a vintage car, this is especially good for people who need a special outing but can’t go out for a long period.
  • Photos from their childhood, family members, and travels look great when presented as a small non-plastic poster or collage.
Handmade bespoke earrings at the MONA
  • Hand-made photo frames
  • A real razor blade, not a disposable one.
  • A hamper of luxurious essentials such as under-arm de-odorizing rock salt crystal or natural perfume oils
  • Hiking socks and hikers wool are great for preventing blisters
  • Handkerchiefs or cloth serviettes instead of paper tissues. These are amazingly good finds in the op-shops and markets – You can find some still in their packaging and of very fine quality linen.
  • A silk pillowcase to prevent hair from getting knotty in bed
  • A silk eye pillow with dried herbs and calming oils
  • A basket of homemade ecologically sound cleansers.
  • Cosmetics and toiletries made from natural ingredients and not tested on animals.
  • Their favourite home-cooked meal frozen in a glass resealable serving dish, ready for a weary day. Include the recipe in a card.
  • Food says I love you especially when it is their favourite food
  • A hand made scarf/bow/tie or cloth jewelry bag.
  • A hand-made musical instrument or clothing
Jabuticaba - a decorative shrub with yummy fruits for a gift
Jabuticaba – a decorative shrub with yummy fruits

Homely Gifts

  • A living potted Christmas tree can be planted out after Christmas. This could be a native pine. Alternatively you could pot up a large chilli plant full of chillies (for a Summer Christmas – southern hemisphere).
  • Or give a small shrub that is full of flowers such as a rose (to make rose syrup and other delicacies)
  • Homemade preserves and chilli sauces
  • A Packet/s of seeds. OR make a surprise packet out of mixed seeds (check they are all edible in case they are mistaken)
  • Subscription to a seed saving group, soft technology magazines, organic gardening magazines, rare fruits association etc.
  • A donation to a charity such as Tear or other like the organisation on the recipient’s behalf.
  • Hand-made compost bay.
  • Worm farm made from found materials. The Potted worm farm looks great with a plant on top and you can water it whenever you pop over.
  • A non-disposable lunch kit with a thermos or drink bottle, lunch box with separate compartments so no wrap is required, cloth serviettes. You can add a few fasteners to make a cloth serviette into a durable, washable wrap
  • A fountain pen and coloured inks
  • A cup to carry everywhere
handmade gift - tree decoration
Handmade Christmas Decoration
  • Cloth nappies and a pledge to help hang them out.
  • Energy-saving equipment
  • An eco-tour or eco-holiday voucher (you can offer to take them on a bush-walk or holiday or their choice)
  • A voucher to an eco-hair salon
  • Durable garden tools
  • Books on organic gardening, composting, herbs and flowers, native species
  • Field guides on birds and local reptiles
  • Solar charger for phone – this is great to take on a hike, in case you get lost!
    Also, include a flint or even a little survival kit
  • A garden pond with optional solar powered fountain
  • A fruit dryer
  • A yoghurt maker
  • Rechargeable batteries with re-charger.
  • A tent and small, efficient camping equipment. To encourage clean bushwalking and adventure.
  • Dried herbs and flowers from your garden and instructions on their use as a tea.
painting of woman with a potted plant gift
Plants are pretty gifts

Natural Gifts

  • Natural wool or angora sweaters, scarves, hats, gloves, socks.
  • Hand-made baskets, natural fibre washing baskets, paper waste containers, pot plant containers, picnic baskets.
  • Canvas, string or cane shopping bags, ham bag.  Retrofit a supermarket cloth bag with a favourite fabric pocket sewn over the logo as well as a bit of elastic inside. These bags are often too wide and floppy.
  • Potted kitchen herbs in organic potting mix (you could make this yourself).
  • Edible house plants such as sugar cane for hot spots, mint, shallots, monstera vine.
sprouting jar and seeds - a homely gift
Sprouting Jar
  • Gift voucher for nursery plants or environmental products and courses
  • Beeswax or remade candles.
  • Homemade preserves.
  • Hand-painted recycled glassware.
  • Organic Christmas Cake or other special treat.
  • A homemade Christmas wreath of grapevine and other home grown materials.
  • Blankets (cotton or wool) suitable for the lounge and living areas.
  • recycled material turned into Cloth kitchen washers/cloths/ car washers etc. You can simply cut and hem the edges.

GIVING TOYS

Children today are wanting action. Not only do they like action toys, but they also want climate action. Give them less plastic and a cleaner world.

  • Redeemed toys (repainted bicycle, trike, scooter, rocking horse). Use safe paints, preferably organic paint products. These items could be antiques but beware of the toxicity of old paints and any loose parts.
  • Homemade cushions and bean bags with environmentally friendly safe stuffing.
  • A wooden loom and natural fabrics for weaving.
  • A dolls or action figures tent made of recycled fabrics and stakes.
  • Science and Environmental History books such as Young Dark Emu
  • A homemade backyard swing or tree house, a rope climbing apparatus
  • A small gardening kit, tools, and seeds
  • Wooden or cane furniture.
  • seeds for novelty plants such as giant pumpkins.
  • Roller skates or bicycles to encourage energy efficient travel.
  • Recycled or re-used paper fastened as a book.
  • Craft books
  • Weather-proof boots
  • Be wary of giving Pets. Check that the parents want one. Hens, Guinea pigs or Rabbit in hutch will help to mow the lawn. Adopt a wild animal instead through WWF.
Antique music machine

Re-useable Wraps

Have you noticed how much the packaging is enticing? Some children would rather play with the cardboard box rather than the toy inside. Wrapping doesn’t have to be ripped apart and strewn all over the floor. Start a new tradition of beautiful wrapping that is also part of the gift. Here are some beautiful wrapping ideas:

A Sari is a great wrap for large presents. It can be worn as a dress (it doesn't need sizing) and can be used as a curtain, a tablecloth and much more
Multipurpose Saris and scarves make wonderful gift wraps

Wrap gifts in Re-useable materials

  • Children’s Artworks
  • unused photocopied music scores
  • Material Shopping bags
  • Beach towel
  • Tea towels
  • Hand towel or handkerchief
  • Biodegradable (linen or cotton) tablecloths
  • Sari
  • Beach wrap
  • Scarf
  • Beach towel
  • Picnic rug
  • Natural Fibre placemats ie. Bamboo
A famous antique pearl earring - great gift

When the Festivity has Passed

Feasting Without Waste

Eventually, the time comes to start clearing up and the environment is often burdened. On an average day, in the western world, one-third of all the food grown is simply thrown out. Additionally, the wastage compounds at times of feasting and merriness. At these times, the food wastage dramatically increases. There are, however, simple ways to reduce waste and provide plenty of healthy and delicious meals.

  • Plan your menu
  • Write a Shopping list
  • Measure your serving sizes or let people serve themselves
  • Store Food Correctly
  • Upstyle the leftovers turning them into curries, pies, lasagne, and sauces.
  • Feed old leftovers to your chickens, the worm farm or soldier-fly farm.
Giant pumpkins – a popular novel hobby.

Process of Permaculture Design

The basic stages in the design process are research, creating ideas, creating the design, and presenting it. But this is not a linear process. The process is more like a spiral. Deeper understanding and more ideas come as you dive in. Each time we take a step back we build a better design.

Research, Ideate, Create, Present – Four stages of Design Process

To be honest, one of the biggest sections of your design process will be the research. In the research phase, we collect the goals of the clients and ourselves and the ethics. And then we look at the data. Like: all the different types of maps and the permissions that you need to apply for. And the sectors of natural energies that are reaching the site. And then we look at the capability of this site and the people that are going to be involved in changing that site.

identifying elements (component) of the design is an important part of the process

So, we have goals, your objectives and the client’s objectives. We have ethics and sometimes, there can be a conflict of ethics. And we have dreams.

Process Starts Boring, Gets Exciting

In the data we’re going to be looking for permissions required. And different types of maps. To be honest, we will need to do some mapping it ourselves to get the finer details. From this, we will identify the sectors: all the different natural energies that come to the site. When we’re looking at the social aspects of a design, we’re going to look at the historical use of that site. And then, the community values.

By listening to the community, we connect with them. The capability assessment of a site will look at the different assets that are on the site: the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. And the risks. And then the skills and the interests of the people involved.

stages of design process - research, ideate, create, present

IDEATE – Understand Components

When we get to the ideation stage (where we put ideas onto paper), we’re going to look at the different elements that we can use (or the different components in the design). We identify the different components wanted by the client. And those needed. And we analyze them. Then we look at the function.

Look at Functions

And we look at different functions from each element. And different elements or components that will meet those functions. ‘Sort of like having safeguards. Then we put this all together in an array a pattern or a shape.

So getting to the elements: we list them. And we analyze them for how useful they are going to be. And how useful connections. There’s a whole bunch of elements you can use in a design. But let’s just take one. For instance the bee. We know what its needs are. We identify the level of expertise

required. And we know it produces or what its function can be. And the main function of the bee is to actually pollinate crops. Not just give us honey.

analyse components such as bees as part of the process

Process of Functional Connections

We use three factors to work out the best placement for an element these three factors are the sectors, zoning and the integration with other elements. So, let’s take an example of the worm farm. The worm farm benefits from shade. It also benefits from being in a nearby zone.

So, it’s not difficult for the user to carry waste food waste from the kitchen to that worm farm. Then, we integrated them. We ask: “What other elements can benefit from the worm farm? The castings and the water from the worm farm is fertilizer for delicate plants in the nursery. So, we position it between the kitchen and the nursery and in the shade.”

integration of worm farm and kitchen and plant nursery is part of the process

The Design Creation

Then we move on to that stage of creating the design. We’ve got some ideas for the strategies that we can use to achieve the function. Remember, that strategy of using and cycling the waste by using chickens? But, we know we can also use worms and compost piles. Our strategy is to cycle the nutrients. But, the different ways to do that with chickens or compost pile are the techniques. The third thing within the creation stage is looking at patterns – where things will flow.

finding resources, different techniques and strategies is part of the process

Feedback Enriches Process

In the discussion stage you’ll be talking to your client about the concepts. And you’ll be setting about to make a staging plan: what should come now, what can wait until later. And finally, you want to think about how you can accept feedback. How it can improve your work every stage in this process. We can have little feedback loops. Oh! that’s a good idea. I’m going to put that into my next plan!

The ultimate goal of your design is to empower the client. Maybe the client is yourself. By finding ways to empower the client you will find a way to bring the design to life. And by having that design implemented you get to assess how good it is.

Finding joy in the creation process