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Permaculture — Many Names, One Awesome Idea

Oct 07, 2009

by Krystal Meiners, Junior Designer at VIA Architecture

Permaculture: permanent agriculture, permanent culture, sustainable gardening, sustainable agriculture, agro-forestry, food forest, ecological design; call it what you like… it’s awesome!

I recently started school again for Ecological Planning and was both excited and overwhelmed by my summer line-up of classes which included Environmental Science and an Introduction to Permaculture; both classes were outstanding. My permaculture class served as a much needed link between the environment, human landscapes, and community sustainability, all of which piggyback on the principles of sustainability in the built realm. Throughout architecture school and in the course of my time at VIA, I have learned how to create sustainable communities through density, infrastructure, street realms, setbacks, massing and so much more. However, I have come to learn that agriculture and food security is an important system that governs community health and success, not as an exception to the built environment, but in addition.

Before taking this class I would often come across articles about urban farming, bioremediation, sustainable site design, community gardening, etc. I was always inspired, but reluctant to file these projects under fringe architecture and urban design experiments. I have learned, however, that this movement towards sustainable landscaping and permaculture has begun to reform industrial agriculture practices around the world and has become increasingly influential in community planning.

Permaculture is sustainable garden and landscape design that focuses on food security, maximizing space and getting the most output from the least input. By taking cues from nature, permaculture gardens exploit the diversity of plants and animals and their ability to grow harmoniously. Rather than using the industrialized agricultural systems of monocropping (growing one crop per farm), permaculture designs use principles of layering and plant partnerships to create food forests that serve both the human consumer and the needs of the plants.


The principles of permaculture are founded on how things grow in their natural setting as well as the maturity of ecosystems and the diversity of plants and animals within those ecosystems. While many permaculture gardens would appear “overgrown” or a little on the “wild” side, these gardens actually simulate the patterns found in nature and try to fill as many niches as it can. However, nature doesn’t always produce a habitat that caters to human consumption. Permaculture gardens take the guesswork out of nature by utilizing plants that are used in food, medicine, tea, clothing and other consumer products. These gardens serve multiple functions, leveraging our knowledge and observation of nature to partner these items together in a way that reduces human input.

One of the founding principles of permaculture design is that each component must serve multiple functions, and each function must benefit multiple components. For example: plant partnerships or “guilds” use multiple plants and insect species to help each other grow and need less input from the farmer or gardener (in the form of weeding, tilling, fertilizer, etc.) to remain protected and fruitful. Many of these partnerships are age-old, but became outdated when industrialized farming methods swept the nation. One such guild is the Native American “Three Sisters” garden. Here, corn is planted with beans and squash; each serving the other in its own way. The legume uses the corn stalk to grow, while the squash fixes nitrogen into the soil for the other two plants and creates a ground cover, protecting the soil from erosion and holding in moisture. Adding a fourth “sister” such as a sunflower will also attract bees and other pollinators and in turn will give us yummy seeds. The “Three Sisters” garden respects the properties of each plant in its natural setting, yet yields a great harvest to humans. At the end of the harvest several of the plants are chopped down for in-place mulching to build the soil until the next season.

The goals of permaculture design or ecological design, as some like to call it are to use what you already have and to make the least change for the greatest effect. The principles call for greater observation of site and regional ecosystems, and in turn can change laborious landscapes into productive environments. We can see the effects of permaculture design changing our communities already. In India, permaculture founder Bill Mollison changed a community farm blighted and desertified from monocrop farming and the overuse of pesticides and herbicides, into a lush food forest with all of nature’s principles in place to:

•    keep the soil moist to avoid erosion and improve production
•    attract beneficial animal and insect species
•    use biological and renewable resources and catch and store energy
•    produce food products for a healthy community
•    produce a low input sustainable community agriculture

The images show a similar transformation in Malawai, Fiji.

We can also see permaculture design at work relatively recently in our communities here in the PNW too. Things such as bioswales, bioremediation, and p-patches all help build and beautify our communities and are all under the umbrella of permanent agriculture and permanent culture. It is my hope to bring permaculture principles to the design of livable and sustainable communities that will foster healthy relationships between the environment, the built realm and the public.

Image Credits: Permaculture Garden, Food Forest Layering, Three Sisters Garden, Malawi, Fiji example, Eastlake Bioswale: Krystal Meiners