Permaculture: cultivating, producing (and living) imitating nature

What is permaculture, what does it consist of and what are the principles that characterize it? A brief guide to a method of cultivation that is also a philosophy of life

What is permaculture?

Permaculture, what is it? Permaculture is a design philosophy and approach to agriculture that aims to create sustainable and resilient systems. But what exactly does that mean? And how can it be applied?

In 1944, Karl Polanyi, an economist and scholar of the process of creating the modern economic system, wrote:with the advent of industrial society man became unrelated to natural cyclesbecause he started running too fast“. Seventy years later, other researchers define our era as “the age of recognizing limits“. We experienced the ecstasy of speed, but today we find ourselves with a fine on the dashboard. It was put in by nature itself, which we wanted to challenge.

The intensive production models used in agriculture were the first to introduce fast times and methods. And today, the widest panorama of sustainable production alternatives applies precisely to the agricultural world. Permaculture is one of them.

History of Permaculture

Permaculture was invented in the 1970s by two Australians: Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Although concerned about the increasing degradation of the environment and the unsustainability of industrial agriculture, the two researchers devised a system based on observing and imitating the patterns and relationships found in nature.

The term was introduced in 1978 by Australian Bill Mollison. Although it would be more correct to give the copyright to nature, because permaculture is nothing more than a contraction of the term “sustainable agriculture”, the one that nature itself has regulated for centuries. According to the Permaculture Institute, this method makes it possible to design, create and manage “highly productive and biodiversity-rich ecosystems”. A true godsend for an exhausted and fed up country.

Principles of permaculture

Permaculture is based on three ethical principles and twelve design principles:

Ethical principles

  1. Caring for the Earth: protect and regenerate natural resources.
  2. Caring for people: meeting the basic needs of each individual by supporting the community.
  3. Fair sharing: limit consumption and population and redistribute the surplus.

Design principles:

  1. Observe and interact: “By careful observation, we can better adapt and act appropriately.”
  2. Captures and stores energy: “Gather resources when they are plentiful and set them aside for times of scarcity.”
  3. Get the surrender: “Make sure you’re getting really useful results from the work you’ve done.”
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: “This includes recognizing that well-designed systems can self-regulate and correct their own evolution.”
  5. Use and expand renewable services and resources: “Make the best use of available natural resources.”
  6. Do not produce waste: “Evaluate and optimize the use of incoming and outgoing resources and turn what is often considered waste into a resource.”
  7. Design from model to detail: “Move from a general vision to a specific application.”
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: “Putting things in their right place: plants and animals working together.”
  9. Use small, slow solutions: “Small, slow systems are easier to maintain than large ones, yielding a better return on available resources.”
  10. Use and value diversity: “Diversity reduces vulnerability to different threats and takes advantage of the uniqueness of the environment it is in.”
  11. Use borders and enhance border elements: “Most production events occur where two different ecosystems meet.”
  12. Respond creatively to change: “We can play a positive role in preparing and managing change.”

Among other things, these principles underpin permaculture design and guide decision-making in the ways they create holistic and sustainable systems.

What does permaculture consist of?

The first step that permaculture requires isobservation. Nothing more difficult. Are we able to look closely at the thousands of almost imperceptible relationships that unfold in the forest, on the vegetable patch, in the garden? How do birds, insects, worms, mites, fungi and bacteria communicate? The answer is contained there.

Permaculture does nothing but improve the natural characteristics of plants and animals in combination with the characteristics of the environment and the peculiarities of infrastructures with the aim of “sustaining” life, using a small area and changing the ecosystem as little as possible. A practice which, if viewed from a less rural perspective, could affect all areas of social, economic, political and educational life.

There are many real estates that are being implemented in Italy dissemination activities in favor of this practice. The Permaculture Academy or the Italian Permaculture Institute are just a few: they organize courses, workshops, in-depth or training sessions. It’s also easy to find farms and agritourisms that host similar events, such as Cascina Santa Brera south of Milan. AND we are not only reaching out to farmers. PUSH the urban declination of permaculture allows you to get equally effective and sustainable results.

in Introduction to Permaculture (Terra Nuova Edizioni, 2007), the book that brought permaculture to the world alternates numerous concrete examples, applications and practical suggestions developed by the authors themselves and verified by long and in-depth observations in the field. The principles behind all of this are few and simple:

  • the use of diversity (and not its production, which represents a significant paradigm shift),
  • use of resources found on site (biodegradable and recyclable),
  • use of renewable energy.

Specific applications of permaculture

We briefly suggest some of the most popular applications in the field of cultivation and horticulture.

A synergistic garden


L’synergistic garden it is a method of cultivation that requires respecting the physical and biological structure of the soil and it is based on the “no-cultivation” of the land. Unlike the plowing system, which disturbs the soil, the synergistic vegetable garden involves the construction of autonomous earth pallets, approximately 40 cm high and at least 120 cm wide, inserted into grooves made in the ground. Pallets are covered with straw and mold natural mulching which allows water to be retained in the soil, weeds multiply less (whose growth is thus controlled according to the season) and supports those organisms useful for protecting plants from frost and bad weather.

At the time of germination, the mulch opens up to allow the plant to breathe. Meanwhile, the straw decomposes and enriches the soil, while additional layers are added to the surface, which in turn compensate for those, acting as a natural fertilizer.

Unlike conventional industrial agricultural crops, in a synergistic garden, perennial plants coexist with seasonal ones, and the same vegetables are present in different stages (even decomposed) at the same time.

Drip irrigation

If heaven sends us rain, why invade the gardens with waves of water that flood the earth? Permaculture does nothing but mimic what the water cycle does forever. To do this, it is sometimes sufficient to place a perforated rubber tube inside or on the sides of the mulch, from which drops of water taken from a nearby canal, well or rainwater ditch can escape.

Promiscuous culture

It was a practice commonly practiced by our ancestors and they had to earn a lot in a small space. Elms and field maples, useful for wood or fodder, alternated along the rows of vineyards, now laid out in arithmetical geometries. In the middle were plots of legumes and vegetables, and at harvest time a portion was always left on the ground as a form of natural fertilization. In hilly areas that were more difficult to plough, this method allowed for low soil disturbance and at the same time high maintenance of soil compactness. Tractors and the mechanization of agriculture forced full and empty fields at the expense of promiscuous forms.

Permaculture rethinks coexistence of diversity: plants and animals naturally create reflexive interactions and synergies which alone allow us to reduce our dependence on technological tools and non-renewable energies.

Another application of permaculture


A few examples are already useful for understanding what is permaculture based on. These are the ways (not) to act on nature which appears almost paradoxical when compared to the vulgus on which contemporary agricultural practice was formed. This is why they seem tedious, long and difficult.

However, the magic of the methodology lies primarily in it Broad application to the changing needs of the real world: independence from oil, nutrition, restoration of the relationship between man and nature, restoration of degraded areas…

It is because of these universal aspects that permaculture has taken on broader meanings than strictly agricultural, and movements such as Transition have borrowed its observations and translated them into principles of change towards a social system based on complexity rather than conflict.

  • L’observation therefore, it is nothing more than an anteroom of awareness, a factor that makes us less susceptible to information manipulation.
  • PUSH prediction of effects of our actions means not only building with durability in mind, but also acting in a way that is less disruptive to space or causes less fragility of the system.
  • Don’t waste resources it is not only a peasant warning, but also a lesson in economic thrift applicable to every aspect of daily life.
  • Multitasking is not an ability that belongs only to modern man, but an inherent property of nature that multi-functionality becomes an element of survival: so an element can perform multiple functions, or another element can replace its use if the first one is missing.
  • Error it is part of the process and should not be outsourced. Just as it is good to consider the physical and psychological marginalities and limits of our production/perception to give each side the opportunity to express their bestor with regard to his position.

A table of rules that belong to us much more than industry (versus nature) has contributed to our belief.

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