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The Many Benefits of Permaculture

Robin Pan
Translated by Gan Ruyu
Ever since the start of industrialization, humans have caused unprecedented destructions to Nature. In a way, the many recent natural disasters have waked people to realize that change is necessary. There are in fact many pioneers, those who have awakened much earlier, leading missions to save our earth. One of them is Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture.

During the training camp in Austin, Texas at the end of 2007, organized by Lapis Lazuli Light, Selwyn Polit introduced Permaculture to us. Polit came across Permaculture in 2001, and he later became a Permaculture assistant trainer. He felt that Permaculture has broadened his views, which enabled him to see the world from a different perspective. Even now whenever he is teaching, he feels that he is learning so much.

The co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, grew up in Tasmania, Australia. He was a nature-lover since young. As an adult, he taught at a local university. During 1940s, he joined protests against humans’ destructions on Nature. However, he later realized that these protests were not constructive at all. Thus he became determined to make changes through actions. He developed the framework of Permaculture with David Holmgren. He left his teaching job in 1979 and devoted himself fully to Permaculture. In 1981, the first batch of students graduated from the Permaculture Design Certificate course.

During the workshop, we watched two films: one on Permaculture community and one on how to improve soil desertification. Let’s take a look at the Permaculture community first.

A Permaculture community is very different from a conventional community. Among the first considerations are conservation and efficient usage of energy and resources. The houses are built in rows with front facing back. The foundations of the houses are slightly raised and built near to each other, forming a swale in between, and not the usual driveway (see illustration 1).

When it rains, the swale will store the rainwater which can then be used for irrigation. One way to conserve energy is to build a trellis or pergola outside the south-facing window. Grapes can be grown here. The south-facing wall is also installed with a metal water tank. During summer when the grapes are full-grown, the plant provides shade. When the plant withers in winter, the water tank absorbs heat in the day and releases the heat in the night, providing natural warmth. Outside the house is a veggie garden. The main crops in the community are fruit trees. They are inter-planted with diverse varieties, just like nature.

Such a community brings many benefits, for example:

1. Optimal use of water resource
Rainwater is fully utilized and not drained into the underground pipes. In this way, surface and formation of the ground are taken into consideration for efficiency. A conventional community only selects a “beautiful” site for building houses, without maximizing the potential of the natural environment and giving back to the environment. Of course, when designing for effective use of rainwater, one must consider factors such as the ground’s absorption capacity and the amount of rainfall.

2. Increased sense of spaciousness
A Permaculture community may have a high population density. However, the many fruit trees planted evoke a feeling of spaciousness and one does not feel that there are that many people around.

3. Food utility and income 
The plentiful fruit trees planted in the community means a supply of fruits without additional transport cost (generally transport cost increases the price of agriculture produce twofold). Grapes produced here are enough for consumption and even for making wine; corns can be made into crackers; the surplus of almond can be sold to increase the community’s income. The local rainfall is only 15 inches but it is enough to irrigate all the fruit orchards. This is also very different from a conventional community where trees are mostly planted for ornamental purpose with no practical use.

4. Safety of food source
Residents eat what they grow, without the need to worry about genetic modification or pesticides.

5. Increase of parents’ leisure time
Such a community is very suitable for children because everyone helps to look after them. With the children playing together, parents free up time from having to constantly watch over their own kids.

6. Increase of traffic safety
The community’s priority is on human activities and plant care, not on the convenience of vehicles. Thus there is no driveway within the community, meaning zero traffic danger.

7. Increase of learning opportunities and playing ground for children
Seasonal fruit trees are natural teaching materials on seasons for children. There are also more space for play. Fruit orchards contain secretive spots that make hide-and-seek game more interesting. Children can also learn to pick flowers, make garlands, harvest fruits, and learn to trade.

8. More room for understanding among the neighbors
The play interaction among children increases the exchanges within the community, thus increasing more room for understanding among the neighbors.

9. Expenditure cut down
Compared to energy and food consumption of a conventional community, such expenditure of a Permaculture community is reduced by 30%.

From this example, we see that planting big number of fruit trees within the community can serve multiple functions. Fruit trees provide shade, food and scenery, improve air quality, provide a playing and outdoor learning ground for children, improve soil quality and its water absorption capacity. When Nature creates an element, that element often serves many functions. We should learn from Nature. While designing a community, each element should perform more than one function.

This may be a revival of ancient tribal culture, but in modern times, it can be seen as a new philosophy too.

Mr Polit said that every person can have their own definition of Permaculture. He personally defines Permaculture as: “With patient observation and practical sustainability as the basis, analyze and design a system that is ethical and sustainable.”

Being ethical means:

1. Care of the earth;
2. Care towards the people;
3. Create and share surplus

The goals of Permaculture are:

1. Reforestation or greening of the earth (use less woods and grasslands, re-grow forest).
2. Rebuild and restore soil (eroded soil).
3. Grow crops within human habitat.
4. Create a regenerative system (not poison animals and plants).
5. Create sustainability, gives back to the earth at every season more than taking from the earth.

Permaculture has many principles. Here are the several highlighted points:

1. Observe Nature
To select a good location, it is important to observe. Patiently observe wind, water, sun, shade, activities of animals above and underground, including the microorganisms.

2. Focus on the patterns, edges and shapes created by Nature
For example, the shapes of star, flower, diamond, octagon, hexagon, lines, curves, flow, circles and spirals. These observations can be applied as such — for example, cultivating a herbs garden on spiral-shaped ground-terrain can bring such benefits: as water flows downwards, position the herbs according to their water needs. Plant more drought-tolerant herbs on the upper level and move down accordingly. This is water-saving and space-saving. The plants’ need for sunlight can also be positioned accordingly. Plant them closely together is easier for maintenance. Pest deterring plants can be planted beside. This is like the spiral shell of a snail, a great representation of efficient space management.

How about edge? The knowledge comes from observing Nature. Edge is where the different energies meet. When there is an edge, that’s where the party is! For example, where the tides meet, there is an abundance of special plants, which also attract many animals. Edge also includes the meeting point of water and land, land and air. Generally most farms would plant trees along the boundaries. That is because trees are the habitat of bees and many beneficial insects. Because of edge, rivers do not flow in a straight line. This is one way Nature increases edge. When a river flows in curves, the speed will slow down, accumulating nutrients and thus encourages new life. We can also build a garden in keyhole-shape to increase edges (see illustration 2).

3. Diversity
We do know that when there is a diverse group of people at a banquet, conversations become more interesting. It’s the same with planting. To encourage diversity, plan to save 15% of the harvest for pest. Even if it’s the same species of plant, different varieties should be planted. Why? One example is the great famine of Ireland. Millions of people died. At that time there were only two types of potatoes being grown, both of which could not survive the disease and pest problems. If more varieties of potatoes had been grown then, at least some would have survived.

It’s also not necessary to grow only for human consumption. In Mr Polit’s garden, passion fruits and extra hot chilies crop were planted by the birds. Therefore birds would also plant what they want to eat. Ornamental plants should be given a place too. Bottom line is to create an environment that would encourage a natural balance in the Nature. Mr Polit said that when you have a balanced environment, Nature will naturally help you harmonize it. He gave an example: once he saw a rat in the garage. The next day he saw a green snake in the garden. Another day passed. The snake was gone, so was the rat.

4. Each element performs many functions
We have seen the multiple functions of fruit trees in the community. Mr Polit gave another example of rearing chickens. You get eggs and fertilizer. Mr Polit also built a mobile chicken dome to let chickens fertilize at different spots. Chickens scratch and loosen the soil. They also eat the seeds of weeds, cockroaches, snakes and kitchen scraps. The heat generated from chicken manure and their bodies can be used to warm the greenhouse. He also has a bicycle that can mow the grass while exercising. Therefore, when designing an element, check if the element serves many functions. If not, it’s time to change the design.

5. Each important function is supported by many elements
An important function is best supported by different elements. For example, water resources can be from wells and streams; mulch the ground to prevent moisture evaporation from the soil; plant densely, create curvy swales to slow down water flow, install rainwater tank (with the benefit of no chemical pollution) – these are all ways of conserving and increasing water supply.

Food supply can be from one’s garden, farmers’ market, community supported agriculture (CSA – a co-op system where the residents get the produce from local farms on a regular basis, another way to support local farmers), community farms (grown and shared by local residents). All these will help guarantee the freshness of the produce. In fact, the current industrialized agriculture harvests its crops – tomatoes, apples, etc. – while the crops are still green, resulting in little freshness and nutrients of the food.

6. Relative location
The position of each element should compliment each other. The chicken house is near to the compost area, facilitating the transfer of chicken manure. The veggie garden should be near to the house for easy harvesting. Keeping a chicken cage inside the greenhouse during winter serves as a heater. Mr Polit said that at the East Coast, there are many greenhouses which include many animals in their design.

7. Efficient energy planning
That means, plan to conserve energy. This is especially important as we have diminishing energy resources nowadays. A good placement of elements within our own home is one way to conserve energy. This is similar to the Chinese feng-shui. Pay attention to the flow path of energy in order to utilize it well. For example, make use of the southern sunlight and rainwater. Sunlight, wind and water will affect how and where a crop should be planted. You can also use keyhole garden to increase the edge effect, maximizing the benefits in the smallest area.

The other film that we watched was Greening the Desert by Geoff Lawton. At an area in Jordan near the Dead Sea, 400ft below sea level, the ground there had almost been fully saturated with salt. It was extremely hot. People there used mostly plastic trellis, chemical fertilizers and pesticides in farming.

To improve the situation, Lawton built a curvy swale with raised mound along both sides. With this, Lawton had created an edge effect to encourage life. The swale stored rainwater to moisten the soil over the winter. Once the soil absorbed sufficient water, both sides along the swale were mulched thickly. Drip irrigation was installed, trees were planted. Nitrogen-fixing legume plants were planted on one side, which also served to provide shade. On the other side, drought tolerant fruit trees, such as prunes, figs, pomegranates, etc, were planted. The figs were fruiting within 4 months. Everyone said it was impossible.

Further test revealed that the salt level in the soil had reduced. The main component of most chemical fertilizers is salt. Thus long-term use of chemical fertilizers will cause salination of soil. Planting the legume trees was to help improve soil structure. The thick mulch covering the soil also acted as compost. During winter, mushrooms actually popped out amidst the mulch. The local people have never seen mushrooms because the soil had never been moist enough for mushrooms to be able to grow. Underneath the mulch, insects and other organisms started to appear, meaning that the soil had come alive. The presence of mushrooms also rendered the salt insoluble, thus causing no further harm to the soil. Some people think that mushrooms actually indicate the kind of nutrients needed by a tree. This incident proves that a degraded land can be revived.

Mr Polit felt that we should all have this knowledge, or rather, it’s commonsense. It is not something that requires a high education to understand, nor is it a miracle. It is something that everyone can use and do. For those interested in finding out more, you may check out the books below or search for Permaculture on the Internet.


  1. http://www.Permacultureactivist.net
  2. http://www.austinprogressivecalendar.com/selwyn/Permaculture.htm  for Mr Polit’s website


  1. Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay.
  2. Gaia’s garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway and John Todd.
  3. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, by David Holmgren.

Original article is published in February 2008 issue of Lapis Lazuli Light magazine (Taiwan)