Watching my friend labouring passionately on a windy, exposed hillside at a sloping Kaimai lifestyle block, I thought she was a little bit mad. But no, I am told this is the first stage of her new permaculture area which, she insists, will deliver fabulous produce for years to come by working with all the natural elements.
Intrigued, I realised I knew little about this farming concept that has actually been around since the 1970s and is advocated throughout the world. Permaculture has been described as a way of life, a philosophy. When you shake off the ‘alternative’ and ‘hippy’ tags is well worth a look for anyone considering growing delicious and nutritious food, whatever size plot they may have, by working with nature’s rules.
Rosemary Morrow’s book, Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, is a great introduction to this farming method, highlighting it “developed as a response to Earth’s soil, water, and air pollution by industrial and agricultural systems; loss of animal and plant species; reduction of natural, non-renewable resources; and destructive economic systems”. Big concepts which helpfully environmental scientist and Permaculture leader Josh Byrne provide a more succinct description for: “a practical approach to the problems of modern society. Think global and act local”. One of the financial and environmental pluses of this technique is you end up having to put fewer resources into the land, basically letting nature do its work. As American permaculture author Toby Hemenway describes it “turns every liability into an asset”.
So how is my friend actually going to get her inhospitable microclimate producing such fabulous produce? She tells me it is all about the design, or applied ecological design, where she will spend time observing, analyzing, and synthesizing the environmental elements to ultimately create a high-yielding system that imitates nature.
To start on a permaculture journey requires patient observation, to fully understand the potential of a plot. Patterns in nature are triggered by factors such as temperature, rainfall, day length, and altitude. These triggers have temporal arrangements that match other natural variables, like flowering. Watch over a full year to see changes through seasons and keep in mind that all elements are connected. My friend is choosing her plants carefully to provide food year-round, native varieties suited to local conditions mean ultimately less work for her produce.
Permaculture can’t be compared to organic farming; there is a lower yield of products but more variety. Neat rows of plants don’t exist in a permaculture system. Spirals and waves in the plot design are used to maximise the edge effect. It is a low-impact system where, if time is taken to naturally invest in the long-term health of the soil, spades are no longer needed.
Some great tips on how to get started or to improve a system can be found at www.permaculture.org.nz, and Nicole Faire's book The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture is a wonderful source of insights. Ultimately, by being patient and observing an environment holistically, it is possible to create a productive ecosystem on a lifestyle block that is working with nature.