No garden? No problems.
Permaculture is a concept integrating an ecological approach to all aspects of human endeavors. It is a design system for sustainability encompassing agriculture, building, living and other aspects of human activities.
The description was written by science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR). Permaculture comes up in a number of his books and talks.
I want to start out with what is missing in KSR’s idea of permaculture.
Let me put it this way: what a relief to find KSR’s authentic understanding of the permaculture design system, one that doesn’t say it is a form of gardening, one that doesn’t mention gardening at all. Contradictory it might be, I want to use what KSR said to riff awhile on permaculture and gardening, growing your own food, that is.
The misplaced centrality of the garden in permaculture
Gardening in permaculture, the practice of growing some of what people eat, became a motivating focus because it offers householders a sense of limited control over their lives by partially decoupling from the mainstream economy’s food supply chain. At the same time it became a limitation on the full application of permaculture when practitioners believe permaculture is solely about home or community gardening.
The home garden is where many, probably most people make a start in permaculture. It is the available opportunity and, with exceptions, all of the work can be done by the householder. It offers an affordable introduction to permaculture. The skills are easily learned. Other approaches, such as retrofitting a home for energy and water efficiency, require specialist skills. Gardening does not.
Bill Mollison was at the same time a gardener and a critic of its role in permaculture. He once said — I don’t recall where — that having your own garden is not necessary to practice permaculture. You might be better, Bill said, buying your potatoes from someone who has grown them ethically rather than growing them yourself.
Extrapolating what Bill said, we might have greater impact on regenerative food systems when we to buy our food from food co-ops, CSAs and food hubs like Brisbane Food Connect, Sydney’s Ooooby and Melbourne’s CERES than grow a little of what we eat ourselves. We would also be supporting the regional fair-food economy, the small farmers and the employment it creates. For the many living in rental accommodation or in an apartment, the option of growing what we eat might not exist.
Let’s remember, too, that many rural and coastal places have none of those alternative food supply options and that farmers’ markets, if they exist within driving distance at all, are usually too infrequent to become a regular source of food. The only larder in town might be the supermarket, one of the duopoly or an IGA franchise. What we do then is what food writer, Michael Pollan, said: we learn to ‘shop the periphery’ of the supermarket where the less-processed foods are found.
As Bill saw how gardening was becoming synonymous with the practice of permaculture, he warned that it should not become the sole focus and the world beyond the garden gate ignored:
I’ve realised… being a good gardener can be like being an ostrich with your head in the sand. You will inevitably die in your own good garden if you don’t pull your head out and see what is happening in the real world.
Therefore, for us to continue to live on the earth, stop for a while from just being gardeners and look at what is happening and try and stop it.
…Interview with Bill Mollison, Permaculture magazine, 1983.
Permaculture is not a farming technique. It’s a design science that applies to everything. If we gut it and make it into just gardening techniques we will have failed in the mission of permaculture.
We can read Bill’s statement as a defence of the design system as he and fellow-co-creator, David Holmgren, devised it at the end of the 1970s. The creeping identification of permaculture as a type of organic gardening threatened to put it into a gardening box that would in future define it and lose its original meaning. This happened to some extent, but fortunately not completely. Yet, we still see today how many people coming into the design system approach it as a type of gardening technique.
Bill was talking about permaculture in the same was as KSR did decades later — as an integrated system of design to provide human needs in a sustainable, regenerative way. He was a complex character and like all such character, and probably like the rest of us who live with our own contradiction, cherry-picking his quotes to support an argument like the non-essentiality of gardening to the practice of permaculture can lead to confusion when other quotes appear to contradict them. Take this one, for example:
We’re only truly secure when we can look out our kitchen window and see our food growing and our friends working nearby.
So, is Bill saying that people who practice permaculture in ways other than gardening—who, for instance, might buy their food from growers who have produced it using regenerative farming techniques—are not truly secure because they cannot see their food growing and their friends working in the garden? It seems a contradiction to his other statements.
I suspect Bill was just being contingent when he made those seemingly contradictory statements. He would have known that looking out your window to see your food growing nearby, and your friends, could not be the reality for a great many city dwellers, and that’s most of us. Bill knew domestic food production was just one tactic in the practice of permaculture and that anyone can practice permaculture and not be a gardener. He had hinted as much in his comment about not growing your own potatoes and, instead, buying them.
I appreciate how home or community gardening can give a sense of personal food security. But unless we have enough space to grow the range of vegetables and fruits necessary to a nutritionally balanced diet, that sense of security might be illusory.
When Covid-19 struck and governments introduced lockdowns and movement restrictions to isolate the virus, what did we see? Shops ran out of seeds. Seed suppliers stopped trading as their stocks ran low so they could fulfil existing orders. Some limited the number of seed packets per order. The cause was an upsurge in orders as people, many now with time on their hands to garden and some getting into home gardening for the first time, sought to bolster the security of their food supply at a time when going to the store could expose them to the virus.
This raised an often-ignored aspect of permaculture’s approach to food production: the security of the food supply.
An authentic take on permaculture and food
When it comes to food, to growing it in gardens or farming it at larger scale, shouldn’t permaculture be about the sustainability and security of the food supply rather than just about home gardening? If we take the design system’s second ethic of ‘peoplecare’ seriously, then food security becomes the permaculture priority in regard to food. That is a social rather than an individualistic approach. It transcends whether the food should be organically produced and other questions commonly raised about the food supply.
Home gardening benefits mainly the gardener. It is individualistic rather than social. Sure, gardeners might give away their surplus, maybe at one of the food swaps we see here and there, however the home garden’s benefit in feeding people, in equitable access to nutritional health, stops at the garden gate.
To better understand this we can extrapolate an analogy Bill made to home gardening:
A lending library enables people to help themselves to information; a locked-up book collection is useful only to the person who owns it.
That’s lending library as food security and locked-up book collection as home garden.
I don’t say any of this to denigrate home gardeners. I am one myself, however I have no illusions about it benefiting anyone else. I also buy from a small, local home delivery grower. Doing that offers a little financial support to a person growing food ethically and makes a small contribution to the local food economy.
Where else to start in permaculture?
Let’s look at the opportunity for home food production this way:
opportunity = access to land + knowledge + available time.
We can see that the variables — land, knowledge, time — are not always present and, so, become limiting factors on growing veges and fruit at home. That can discourage people from making a start in permaculture. It can be partially offset where there is access to a community garden, however those are far from universally accessible.
That leaves other routes into the design system as starting points. It might be making our homes or apartments more thermally efficient or harvesting and storing rainfall in tanks. It could be making changes in personal behaviour when it comes to using resources and creating waste. It might not be an initiative at home at all. Perhaps we join a community group as a means of learning and action. Perhaps we focus on improving social conditions for others.
Home and community food growing are valuable parts of permaculture practice but they are not the sum-total of the design system. Nor are they compulsory elements in the practice of permaculture.
More on gardens in Permaculture 3.0
Designing a small urban garden
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Permaculture and food—the edible nexus
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The legals: Overhanging fruit
This is not legal advice and reference to legality is based solely on the author’s understanding the law.
Why Permaculture Version 3.0?
A new iteration of the permaculture design system for new times.
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