In permaculture, designs are guided by a few key principles and strategies that, when followed, produce regenerative and resilient systems. These principles and strategies lead to such stable systems because they are based off the study and observation of some of the most resilient systems on the planet: ecological systems.
- Stacking Functions: This concept refers to using the same element multiple times for different goals. This design feature is not original to permaculture, nor is it original to human design. Natural ecosystems utilize this principle constantly. For example, a fruit tree in a forest bears fruit (obviously) that animals feed on. The same fruit tree will often times provide habitat for nesting birds & insects, provide shade for other plants, provide mulch for the soil to hold water & build topsoil, recycle CO2 in the air, provide building materials for animals, extract nutrients from subsoil’s, and the list goes on. In natural ecosystems, not only does each element provide multiple functions, but each function is supported by multiple elements. This is often called ‘repeating functions.’ For example, the same fruit tree from the example above may meet its water requirements through rainfall, stored water in the spongy topsoil & mulch layer, or from a nearby creek or river. Stacking and repeating functions in this way creates resiliency in a system as any time an element is destroyed or removed, there are other elements contributing to the same functions.
- Maximize Diversity: This strategy goes hand-in-hand with the one above. The more elements we have in a system, and the more assorted those elements, the greater chance a system has of being able to stack and repeat functions nessecary to its survival. This strategy also increases the resiliency of a system in a different process. This is illustrated by the following scenario: Take 2 forests, one entirely made up of elm trees, and the other made up of elm, poplar, spruce, and aspen. If elm bark beetles were introduced to both systems, the system made up entirely of elm will be much more susceptible to the rapid spreading of Dutch elm disease (DED), whereas the second forest will remain much more stable. The elm trees in both forests will no doubt suffer, the difference in the two cases is that the second forest, the more diverse forest, will suffer less when the forests are compared as entire systems. Permaculture attempts to design for diversity in order to create resiliency.
- Catch and Store Energy: Due to our understanding of the Law of Conservation, which states “energy can neither be created nor destroyed by itself. It can only be transformed”, permaculture attempts to catch as much energy as possible into a system, and then re-circulate it as many times within the system before leaving the system. Just as many animals (including humans in some climates) collect and store food during seasons of abundance to get through seasons of scarcity, ecological systems save abundances of carbon, water, nutrients, etc. to be used later in time.
- Use Local, On-Site Resources and Biological Resources: Save a few anomalies, nearly every location on earth inhabitated by human beings has the local resources to support human life. Although this reality has become skewed due to a rapid rise in population, large scale environmental degradation, and shifting dynamics of social & political power, permaculture designers strive to find local resources whenever possible. This saves infrastructure costs and prevents further environmental degradation though limiting transportation costs.
- Produce No Waste: All elements in a system require needs, without them they cannot survive. Additionally each element has yields, a byproduct of their survival. If these yields are not used by another element, they are considered waste. Tying into the above point regarding catching and storing energy, healthy ecological systems use one elements yield as another elements need, producing minimal waste. This can be seen in a very simple example: A fruit tree produces fruit (a yield), which is considered food for an animal (a need). The animal will turn this food into manure (a yield), which is given to the soil in the form of deposits. Eventually the deposits break down into the soil in the form of carbon and nutrients. The tree eventually takes the nutrients (a need) back up through the soil, which in turn allows it to produce more fruit (a yield). In most conventional systems we produce enormous amounts of waste or unused yields, seen in the form of unused garbage, pollution and heat. In permaculture design we attempt to put these unused yields back to work in systems that pair elements needs & yields so virtually no yield is gone unused.
- Maximize Edge: In ecology, “edge” refers to the areas in which two or more eco-systems meet. These areas are important as they usually represent areas of enormous diversity and thus have an increased number of resources (think yields). Designing with edge in mind allows for permaculture systems to mimic these hyper-diverse fringes, and thus their broad abundance of yields.
- Plan for Decreasing Intervention Over Time: It is often said in permaculture circles that “work can be considered a failure in design.” Plants, animals, and other elements within eco-systems do not explicitly worry about the conservation of their eco-system. They do not consciously till the land, water the forests, or recycle their nutrients. They simply operate within in a system that allows them to harvest other elements needs as their yields, and allows other elements to harvest their yields as needs, all while following the ecological cycles of each element. Permaculture designers attempt to replicate this principle by designing systems in which users can harvest desirable yields from the system and easily return the needs of the elements within the system (ideally coming from within the system), all with minimal effort.
Alex Villeneuve and I kept these principles in mind when we teamed up with Mayja Embleton of the Parkallen School Council and Parkallen Elementary School to design a garden for the front of the school. The goal was to convert an aesthetic nightmare, a tangle of wild grass and thorny wildflowers that had taken over the school front garden bed (seen below) into a lush, edible garden that the school could be proud of (and eat from!).
However we knew to align with the ecological principles listed above we needed to get the design right before we implemented it. We realized we could do more than just beautify the current garden; we wanted to create a system that took the surrounding available resources and turn them into an ecologically inspired system providing yields for the school, community, and the environment. We decided to go back to those ecological principles and see how we could achieve them individually:
- Stacking Functions: Our original instinct was to use this space not only for beauty, but also to grow food! Keeping in mind that we did not want to burden the school with hours of extra gardening and harvesting, we had the great idea to create a berry patch. Choosing to dedicate a large portion of the space to perennial fruit trees and shrubs meant minimal gardening work on behalf of the school while providing an abundant, healthy snack alternative for students and the surrounding community. The elements in this design are also deliberately chosen, as they will each accomplish multiple functions. The first component of the design was to complete a sheet mulch in the current garden bed. For those unfamiliar, a sheet mulch is a layering of organic materials that kills off grass and other invasive species while composting into rich soil. This rich soil will act as the growing medium for our plants, store water for periods without rain, and host beneficial microorganisms for breaking down organic matter. We’ve also selected to plant a cover crop of peppermint, squash, and nasturtiums. These species not only yield food, but also act as mulch on top of the soil to hold water, and can be chopped-and-dropped to provide the soil with some extra carbon. Perhaps most importantly, the berry patch will also provide opportunity for student and community learning on principles of ecology, such as succession, stacking functions, and edge.
- Maximize Diversity: With over 26 different species in our design, including Jostaberry, Cherry, Saskatoon Berry, Jerusalem Artichoke, Emperor Beans, etc., we aimed to please everyone’s palette. More importantly, we deliberately built diversity, and thus resiliency, into the system.
- Catch and Store Energy: The second component of the design is the rainwater harvesting system (to be installed this fall). By collecting the rainwater off of the roof of the school through eavestroughs, in 2 55-gallon rain barrels, we will be able to store water from virtually every rainfall. Additionally, by running drip-line hoses from the rain barrels through the garden, we will ensure the garden is consistently watered without the need of a sophisticated user. As mentioned above, we also included a sheet mulch in the design, which builds carbon-rich soil that can also store water and nutrients. This system is self-sufficient due to its ability to store its own energy.
- Use Local, On-Site Resources and Biological Resources: We were fortunate enough to partner up with Apache Seeds, a local gardening store, to source all of our seeds and fruit trees. Our sheet mulch was comprised of what would typically be considered waste: leftover cardboard from retail shopping malls, manure from Whitemud Equine Center (Thank you Cathie Heslinga), woodchips from a local arborist (Thank you Ace of Trees), and composted soil from a nearby University garden. Perhaps most important, all of our labor during installation periods is sourced to local community members and volunteers through workshops and other educational opportunities. Thanks to River City Permablitz Network we will host the installations as permablitzes. Permablitzes are free events hosted to gather volunteers within your community in order to implement edible garden systems and other permaculture designs. Permablitzes are a great way to get substantial projects (private or public) done in a short amount of time while offering education and community networking to volunteers. For more information check out their facebook page.
- Produce No Waste: All the yields this system will produce are either reused within the system or used to fill a need of the school or surrounding community. The students of Parkallen and community members in the area will enjoy food yielded by the garden. The leftovers will be composted within the system or in the school’s compost bin (which will produce soil for the garden bed years down the road). This system will also produce a large amount of mulch through leaf litter and decaying plants, this yield will also be composted either within the system or in a nearby compost bin. Through cellular respiration this system will have a byproduct of oxygen for all in the surrounding area to revel in. And finally, this system will have the endless yield of aesthetic beauty, education, and fun for the Parkallen community.
- Maximize Edge: The vertical wall that sits behind the garden bed, monolithic and barren, provides excellent thermal mass but has otherwise been unutilized thus far. We recognized the opportunity to use this as growing space, growing vertically. Setting up a simple trellis system we hope to grow some grapes and hardy kiwi to cover the once white walls in a stroke of edible greenery. What happens on the edge between the vertical wall and the horizontal garden bed remains to be seen, but we anticipate the abundance and yields common in these ecological edges. Another edge we considered in the design was the social location of the garden itself. Located in the middle of Parkallen community and right in front of Parkallen elementary school, this garden not only provides edible snacks but also a place for education. Involving the community in each step from design to installation to maintenance and from harvesting to preserving, this garden bed becomes much more than a food source or an aesthetic component of the front entrance, it becomes a classroom.
- Plan for Decreasing Intervention Over Time: Deliberately choosing hardy, perennial fruit trees & shrubs, we hope to move this garden bed through ecological succession so it will act much like an edible forest. By building carbon rich soil, chopping-and-dropping mulch, and with plans of installing a rainwater harvesting system, this system will flourish solely off rainwater. This design eliminates the need for tilling and weeding. The perennial trees and shrubs will grow to fill the garden bed and outcompete (through shade & water/nutrient uptake) any invasive species. Boosting the mycorrhizal activity in the soil by inoculating our fruit species in fungal spores will create resilient soil biology also effective for favoring the larger edible perennial species rather than the quackgrass and other invasive species prevalent in the garden today. Facing southwest, this garden will get more sunlight than it could ever need. Leaving the community with the duties of harvesting fruits and veggies, eating together, and continually learning new ways to utilize more fruit than they’ve ever wanted.
Although we tried to pack as much use into this one system and think of every possible oversight or plausible connection, all ecosystems evolve, and require users to continually learn with them. This can be viewed as work, or the ultimate form of education in which we learn how to sustain ourselves and the elements that sustain us. We look forward to the installation of a rain water harvesting system (Fall 2013) and the planting of the first full season of the Parkallen Berry Patch (Spring 2014).
Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3 of the Parkallen Partnership blogs: Installation & Inter-School Connections.
By Sean Bradley