I first heard the word “permaculture” in 2010 while staying at La Finca Argayall in La Gomera. Nestled between the mountains and ocean on 1.5 acres of land, despite unfavourable growing conditions, the gardens were lush and bounteous and fed the bellies of guests. I learned this was thanks to the permaculture principles to which they were designed. In 2012 I attended a two-week Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course to learn the magic myself. In a word (or two) it was life changing but when I returned home babbling with excitement it was apparent that permaculture was not a common term… “sorry, perma-what?!”
To explain the word more eloquently than I ever could, I asked one of my bestest mates who (sadly for me but fortunately for Wombarra) lives in a small town an hour south of Sydney, Australia. Yoga teacher Laura Hartley took her PDC last year, relished the experience, and is now sharing her knowledge and skills in her local community.
So Laura, what is this permaculture thing all about?
Permaculture is a way of designing systems of living based on those found in the natural world. In permaculture everything plays a part, is valued and helps sustain the whole. Nothing is wasted. Although permaculture has gained most fame for its organic approach to land-care, its principles (of which there are twelve – see here) provide a complete guide for living as a human on this planet in fulfilling ways.
Permaculture is based on three ethics – earth care, people care and fair share. In practical terms, using these ethics leads to beautiful, inclusive, rewarding and healthy ways of living.
How relevant is it to people living in cities?
Very! The principles of permaculture take into account the differences and variations we experience as humans within society and the environments in which we live. This can mean urban or rural and everywhere in between. Everyone, no matter where we live, can use permaculture for the benefit of themselves, their families, communities and the world as a whole.
Cities have more people living in close proximity to each other so there’s greater scope for people to get together, share resources and have the best of services (think public transport and the internet). There are loads of examples of urban permaculture popping up around the world such as growing food on rooftops/balconies/verges/social spaces, shared work spaces, community and school gardens and urban foraging. The clear advantage to living in the city is having access to people, tons of people! When people get together creatively all sorts of wonderful things start to happen.
What was the biggest lesson you took from your PDC?
Going into my PDC I didn’t think I was qualified to be a designer. I doubted my skills and knowledge and held an oh-so-common mentality that someone else was better qualified to implement change. One of our teachers got us to think about town planning and engineering. Although there are innovative designers, planners and engineers, the accepted norm still seems to be based on inefficient practices, cutting costs (and therefore corners). My teacher taught me to be critical of ‘the experts’, to look at the mess folk have made already and have confidence in the fact that I can do better! Really, being open to learning and working collaboratively is the only qualification you need to be a permie (someone who practices permaculture).
What do you intend to do with your permie knowledge?
I’m already involved in my local food co-op, volunteering regularly in the shop and at community events, but since doing my PDC I’ve started volunteering in a local school working in the school garden (aka food forest). I’m working with a small group of students to create a medicinal herb garden. The living classroom I work in is already 10 years old so produces an abundance of food, including macadamia nuts, olives, tons of citrus, bananas, not to mention all the veggies. The teacher has always wanted there to be a herb garden too so, as an aspiring herbalist, I was invited to lead this particular project. I’m thrilled to have a space to develop my knowledge and skills in.
I believe if more young people knew how to grow their own food and feed themselves the ongoing cycle of social exclusion, poverty, addiction, depression (to name just a few social issues) could at least be slowed down. What’s more empowering than having the skills and knowledge to feed yourself and your family? It’s extremely satisfying growing food, knowing where it comes from and what’s been involved in its production but it’s absolutely essential that we eat! Food, feasting and sharing food are key elements in ALL cultures, it simply brings people together.
Is there anything you do differently now? Has it changed your outlook on life?
I’m more adventurous in the garden now. I scatter more seeds randomly and am less controlled about where plants are planted and at what time. I encourage happy accidents in the garden! Working and socialising with other local permies, I get given cuttings and seeds for things I’d never have considered growing.
I’m more open to learning from the plants now simply by observing them and watching them through the seasons. I made the mistake recently of trimming the sage plant in the same way I trim tansy (fairly roughly) and felt like I got a telling off from the wise old sage! A sage plant demands care and respect. I’ve since apologised and have been forgiven… the sage is growing back healthily again!
I’ve also become much more conscious of my use of resources such as water, electricity and petrol. We live in a rented apartment block so it’s not practical to redesign our plumbing so that all our waste water gets used in our veg plot. However we can control the amount of water we use, recycle it wherever possible and turn off unused lights and electrical switches. I’ve recently changed my electrical supplier to one that uses 100% renewable energy and plan on changing my bank to one that invests in sustainable practices instead of one that funds coal seam gas exploration.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to learn about permaculture?
Start by doing whatever you can in whatever time you have. It’s really important that you do things that truly interest you otherwise you’ll simply lose interest! Also, because Permaculture is based as much on collaborative principles as it is on organic land-care, it’s essential to work with others and get involved in ‘community’. One of the most valuable lessons for me is that I don’t have to be good at everything. I love gardening, baking, fermenting and learning about the medicinal properties of herbs but am not such a great designer or builder. These are skills I can practise and learn but until I feel confident doing this side of things then I can work with and learn from others.
There are so many intro sessions, day workshops and short courses available, the best thing to do is to try lots of different things… just get started! Local libraries are a great resource as well and youtube has videos about how to do just about anything! Do It Yourself, whatever interests you, you can!
It’s easy to watch the news, look at the negative effects of globalisation and feel completely overwhelmed and powerless. Permaculture is a system that gives individuals permission to make change for themselves. You just need to start.
What other permie stuff is happening in your area?
There’s so much around here, I’m really lucky! To name but a few:
- Permablitz the Gong organise community gardening days where residential gardens get transformed by an army of willing permies. Once you’ve partaken in three Permablitz days you qualify to have your place done.
- The Flame Tree Community Food Coop has been open for five years. It’s a shop run by its members and sells organic, local and ethically-sourced food in bulk as to reduce packaging and waste (and cost).
- The Hidden Harvest crew use food that would otherwise be wasted to produce culinary feasting events whilst raising awareness about food waste.
- The Port Kembla Community Project is an umbrella organisation that oversees incredibly inspiring social enterprises such as Green Connect (urban sustainability, food security and job opportunities) and Tender Funerals (not-for-profit community based funeral service).
- Wild Rumpus is a creative social enterprise that promotes doing-it-ourselves and community skill-sharing through workshops and local makers markets.
* Lead photo: Laura with her Permaculture teacher and friend, Aaron Sorenson, on site at a local primary school.