Permaculture getting more popular amid food-supply fears


April Sampson-Kelly on Silk Farm, which is carefully laid out in line with permaculture principles. Photo: dpa

Visit April Sampson-Kelly and you immediately get a sense of wildness – the place almost feels enchanted.

Giant trees grow in the front garden and an enormous bamboo reaches up into the sky, while little fig, lime and carob trees grow between them, alongside coffee and ginger.

Further away, you can hear the sound of geese and chickens clucking away. It might seem chaotic but there’s order at Silk Farm, Mount Kembla.

Sampson-Kelly, 55 and a mother of two, set up an urban farm two hours south of Sydney, Australia, designed in line with the principles of permaculture, a sustainable and ethical approach to land management.

She’s proud of the lush flora, the 200 plant species growing on her farm’s 1,600sq m. With bananas, guavas, mangos, taro, sweet potatoes and a slew of herbs, her family is virtually self-sufficient.

The goals of permaculture include feeding your own household directly from the garden.

“Some people call it a cool form of organic gardening,” says David Holmgren, co-founder of the movement more than 40 years ago. “It’s a design system for both sustainable and resilient land use and living.”

David Holmgren, author of Permaculture One, helped to found the movement more than 40 years ago. Photo: dpa/Melliodora Publishing/Holmgren Design/Jesse GrahamDavid Holmgren, author of Permaculture One, helped to found the movement more than 40 years ago. Photo: dpa/Melliodora Publishing/Holmgren Design/Jesse Graham

Together with biologist Bill Mollison, Holmgren, an ecologist and environmental designer, published the book Permaculture One in 1978, spelling out the 12 key principles involved.

The manual includes practical ideas such as waste avoidance and the use of renewable energy, as well as mottoes such as “seek slow and small solutions”. All have the ultimate goal of developing agriculture that enables survival in harmony with nature.

“Permaculture is applied in so many different ways from denser environments to rural environments, from some of the most affluent socially comfortable contexts to some of the most destitute on the planet,” said Holmgren.

The principles, he says, are universal. Designs vary, though, depending on your context and location, whether you are in tropical northern Australia or temperate central Europe.

So as wild as the Silk Farm in Mount Kembla may appear, in fact a precise design applies. Plants that need a lot of water are supplied with recycled waste water, while the high tree canopy provides shade. Meanwhile prickly plants placed along the outer perimeter of the property deter any unwelcome animals.

“Observation is the key,” says Sampson-Kelly. “I would say, it’s less maintenance to have a permaculture site than to have lawn that needs to be mowed. But it’s more maintenance in terms of skills and decision-making. When you have a permaculture system, you do need to observe.”

Interest in permaculture is steadily increasing worldwide and it’s now taught at universities, too. But people are also eager to learn about the principles as their fear grows of food shortages. The appeal of self-sufficiency has increased, amid forecasts of scarcity due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the pandemic and the climate crisis.Self-reliance and resilience

“In practical terms, when you follow an integrated permaculture design approach, you find a focus on greater self-reliance, greater resilience which in a language of climate change that’s adaptation,” says Holmgren. “And you find that you are automatically also mitigating greenhouse gas emissions – even if that’s not your motivation.”

Many around the world are now wondering whether permaculture could be a solution in the fight against climate change and if it works commercially, on a large scale.

Permaculture is not yet making waves politically but it has reached many citizens, says Florian Wichern, Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, in Germany.

He says they are motivated by a desire to support a better world. “And the realisation that there also has to be a change of action due to the various ecological crises.”

Change in thinking

For Holmgren, his principles have the potential to contribute to a change in thinking worldwide: “Permaculture – some people have described it as revolution disguised as gardening.” But whether the teachings can really bring about change globally remains to be seen.

Either way, anyone and everyone can start by making changes on a small scale: “First, there’s the question: Where am I losing nutrients or energy? How can I plug that?” says Sampson-Kelly, who also offers permaculture workshops on her farm.

Start with leftover food in the kitchen, for example, she says. “There’s always kitchen waste – so that’s a nutrient source that could easily go into a worm farm.” The worms convert the food scraps into compost for the garden and the cycle begins. – dpa/Michelle Ostwald

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