A Brief History of Permaculture
However passionate you are about something, starting a new blog can be hard. Where do you begin? What, where and why seem like logical starting points but they can ignore how something came to be. To appreciate permaculture it’s important to know how it began and to understand it’s history. Therefore, this article provides a history of permaculture.
“History is boring” I hear you say.
But don’t worry! It’s only a brief history of permaculture.
I will publish a detailed history at some point but for now I’m keeping it brief. So brief that you can read it in under 10 minutes and come out the other side with a basic understanding of:
- Permanent Agriculture
- Two-story Agriculture
- Permaculture’s Early Influences
- Permaculture’s Early Pioneers
- Foundations of Permaculture
- Permaculture Today
- A Brief History of Permaculture
If you don’t have 10 minutes, you can click on a link above to jump to the section that interests you the most. Otherwise, let’s begin.
Let’s begin with the word ‘permaculture’. As you can see, it’s the combination of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. But what is permanent agriculture?
To answer this, we need to go back in time. All the way to 1929.
In 1929, J. Russell Smith published a book called Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. The book describes how tree-based permanent agriculture “is much more productive than mere pasture, or mere forest” because trees have greater permeance compared to standard agricultural crops.
This was important to Smith because he was interested in saving natural resources which were being depleted through typical agricultural practices. He recognised that nature was interconnected. It was meant to be whole but was being divided.
Therefore, permanent agriculture was a means to introduce a less intensive agricultural system. One that respected and worked with nature. One that was more productive and less energy intensive.
These ideas are still prevalent in permaculture today but Smith didn’t stop there. He also relied on two-storey agriculture.
BONUS TIP: A free PDF copy of Tree Crops is available to download from the Soil & Health Library.
Two-storey agriculture is a type of vertical farming. It is a popular system used across the Mediterranean. The idea is that smaller crops are planted under larger ones like in the image below.
As you can see, smaller crops have been planted underneath taller trees. This benefits both crops. For example, the larger tree provides shelter and protection for the lower crops while the lower crops protect the soil and roots of the trees from potential pests.
Small animals can also be used on this level. They can help with pest control and can also add vital nutrients back to the soil through excretion.
The benefits of two-storey agriculture are abundant. It demonstrates a connected productive system. It is clear that Smith was onto something when exploring a permanent two-storey system because these ideas are still prevalent in permaculture today.
However, Smith was not the only person to influence permaculture before it became popularised.
Permaculture’s Early Influences
Many permaculture concepts can be traced back to a time before the term ‘permaculture’ was coined. For example, P. A. Yeomans developed the idea that permanent agriculture should be indefinitely sustainability. In other words, agriculture should be sustainable and permanent.
This idea is still central to permaculture practices today.
Similarly, natural farming, no-dig gardening and no-till agriculture are commonplace in permaculture design. Why? Because they look to mimic nature. They leave the soil undisturbed. Undisturbed soil is important. Why? Because, to paraphrase Smith, humans live by plants and plants live in the soil.
It’s that simple.
BONUS TIP: Check out this awesome no-dig gardening method by Charles Dowding.
Permaculture’s Early Pioneers
Every philosophy or idea needs a founder. Permaculture has two.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the idea of permaculture in Tasmania, Australia in the 1960s. In doing so, they studied and developed Indigenous knowledge systems to counter failing western industrialised agriculture.
By 1978, they published Permaculture One and introduced permaculture to the world. The book described permaculture as “an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.”
However, their definition has evolved and developed over time. As evident in the video below.
Permaculture’s roots (excuse the pun) can be traced back to the early influences mentioned above. However, today’s permaculturists owe nearly everything to Mollison and Holmgren. Without their work, there is a possibility that permaculture would not exist as it does today.
Sadly, Bill Mollison passed away in 2016. His legacy lives on.
Foundations of Permaculture
Mollison and Holmgren developed the permaculture philosophy. They’ve designed hundreds of permaculture sites and educated hundreds of individuals. They are responsible for many of the foundations of permaculture.
For instance, they popularised the twelve principles and three ethics of permaculture (Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share).
The twelve principles of permaculture and the three ethics of permaculture are foundational to permaculture. You can see from the image above how important they are. And that’s without me going into detail about them.
The great thing is, you can become an expert in them yourself.
The Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) teaches people the philosophy of permaculture and how to become permaculture designers. It has been accessible to people all around the world. It demonstrates that another foundational pillar of permaculture is education.
Permaculture education has blossomed (excuse the pun, again) since the launch of the internet. Websites and social media channels have made it more accessible. It’s continuing to grow at an exciting rate.
The world is now filled with inspiring permaculture teachers and guides such as Morag Gamble, Aranya, Rosemary Morrow and Lis Bastian. There is a wealth of resources (books, blogs, videos and podcasts).
Permaculture is becoming a household term.
Why is this important?
Because it brings hope.
Permaculture has a wider reach than ever before. It has greater resources than ever before. Plus it has more teachers than ever before. Permaculture brings hope. Hope that we can work with nature. A chance to undo the damage already done. An opportunity go overcome the ecological challenges that face us.
Permaculture has developed a lot since Smith introduced the idea of permanent agriculture in 1929. However, both are responses to the failure of modern industrialised agriculture.
Permaculture today helps nature survive tomorrow.
BONUS TIP: Fruit trees are a great addition to any permaculture garden. Learn how to grow a lemon tree from a seed!
Phlox subulata Fabulous Blue (left) and Saxifrage arendsii Highland Red (right). Flowers of hope from my current garden.
A Brief History of Permaculture
See, I told you it would be brief. The truth is that even a brief history of permaculture covers many concepts. I’ve covered some of the key ones here but there are also many others. I’ll get to these in the coming weeks and months.
In the meantime, I hope this post provides you with the basics about the history of permaculture. Key ideas underpinning permaculture. The key pioneers of permaculture. The importance of permaculture. And an insight into permaculture today.
If you liked learning about the formation of permaculture you’ll love our Permaculture Definition Database (PDD) where you can add your own definition.
Not sure what it is? Read the PDD launch post first!
Finally, if you’ve learnt anything in today’s post I’d love to hear about it! Comment below and let me know. I reply to all comments!