Permaculture, the Future of Sustainable Agriculture?

Tinetendo Runako Wamambo
Cansbridge Fellowship
4 min readAug 23, 2021

The permaculture movement started in the 1970s with Bill Mollison, an Australian researcher, teacher, biologist, and David Holmgren, an environmental designer, and ecological educator. He sought to popularize a sustainable form of agriculture and directly opposed the ever-growing industrial agriculture market. Unlike conventional agriculture, which is extractive and tends to degrade soil, permaculture practices put the environment, society, and equity at the forefront of its design approach. Ultimately, permaculture seeks to build food forests with diverse yields.

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of then and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”

-Bill Mollison

The second month of my internship at Fiddlehead Nursery focused mainly on permaculture design. I went through an intensive two-week course that outlined the principles of permaculture design provided by Micheal Schimp of Three Acre Permaculture. The course went through the ethics related to permaculture and how it defers from conventional agriculture, it also outlined aspects of land design, including but not limited to zone and sector design, earthwork for water retention, soil enhancement, multipurpose elements, and yield.

Zones and sector design in permaculture are defined as follows: zone 1 refers to the homestead on the land, zone 2 contains high maintenance plants and animals, zone 3 requires less maintenance than zone 1–2, zone 4 contains large water retention systems like swales and ponds along with low maintenance animals and plants; finally, zone 5 is kept entirely wild and not interfered with at all. The reason behind keeping a zone wild is to observe nature establish its natural equilibrium and inspire ourselves from it. This approach is a different way of organizing farmland. Significant space is not managed or extracted from, which could be seen as a loss. However, considering that “unmanaged” land can provide habitat for local fauna and flora, it is valuable from an environmentalist perspective.

The adjacent graph is an example of how Fiddlehead Nursery could have been designed by applying permaculture principles. As you can see, there is a large area designated to low managed zones (4–5). All the sections that outline gardens contain various species to imitate the way forests form naturally with multiple levels from the sub-earth to the canopy and vines. Most permaculture farms do not use pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers, which means all weed control is done manually or through mulching. I spent many days weeding gardens on my hands and knees, and believe me, it is labor-intensive. The tendency of these farms to be as low-tech as possible means they require many workers, and human labor limits the size of gardens. As for soil fertility, an organic way of enhancing it is making compost tea, which we did several times over the summer. Compost tea is essentially an oxygenated mixture of water and compost aged to grow a bacterial culture that improves the activity and health of the soil.

“Full Bloom,” portrait by Mike Nagy

Another crucial aspect of permaculture is the integration of multipurpose design elements. An example of this applied at Fiddlehead Nursery is the use of grapevines inside the greenhouse. The grapevines don’t only have a visual appeal; they also provide shade and produce food, so they are a better alternative to painting the greenhouse for shade.

In my time at Fiddlehead Nursery, 100% of our leafy greens were harvested from the land, and we had much excess. Being able to eat vibrant salads every day positively influenced my quality of life.

Although the concept of permaculture and its design practices seem to promote sustainable living and long-term environmental benefits, I still have a few questions that I feel need to be addressed before considering it as the be-all-end-all of positive agriculture.

  • How accessible is farmland and what are the ethics surrounding land acquisition in Canada?
  • Is permaculture scalable?
  • Is permaculture profitable?
  • How does it relate to Asian multinationals?

I will be addressing these issues in my next post in a video format on my Youtube Channel

Final Vlog