Permaculture dissertation 'A garden for the future'


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We need to rethink the way in which we produce food. Permaculture designs edible systems in harmony with #nature instead of at the expense of nature. And the beauty of this approach is: everyone can do it!

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Permaculture dissertation 'A garden for the future'

  1. 1. Dissertation Permaculture Course 2012
  2. 2. 2012 Creative Commons Licence-NonCommercial-Sharing 3.0 Unported Licence Dissertation to become certified in Permaculture NR2012036 School for Permaculture The Nederlands - Belgium
  3. 3. In 2005, more than a thousand scientists came together to describe the state of our natural ecosystems in the ‘Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’ study. Their conclusion was that our planet’s natural capital which forms the basis of our life support system – the resilience and biocapacity of ecosystems – is under severe pressure. Ecosystems offer us a multitude of services of which many are taken for granted: purification of air and water, fertile soils, pollination of crops, flood control, carbon sequestration, food, material, leisure, recreation and so much more. It has been eight years since the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Unfortunately, little has changed. In Belgium, 5,5-6,9 hectares of soil is sealed each day (Millieuverkenning, 2030). The traditional agricultural practices that degrade soils and pollute our drinking water are still commonplace and residents use massive amounts of toxic products to get rid of moss, weeds and vermin without asking the question whether the cure is worse than the remedy. In addition, the contemporary food production system is not adapted to deal with the reality of population growth and climate extremes exacerbated by climate change. So why do we not rethink the way we grow our food? The food production system of natural ecosystems has worked for millions of years without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and energy intensive machinery. Natural food production systems develop into resilient polycultures that are able to overcome shocks like drought, floods and fire. It is exactly these climate extremes that are increasing because of climate change. That is why it is now more than ever necessary to search for more sustainable and resilient systems of food production. Sustainable means that it can be sustained indefinitely. A durable way of finding solutions is to learn from nature, which is coined under the term biomimicry. A promising new food production systems that imitates natural systems is permaculture, short for ‘permanent agriculture’. © knowledgeminer A sign that our life support system is under severe pressure is the extinction of bee populations all over the world which is defined as the ‘colony collapse disorder’. A large part of our food production system depends on bees for pollination.1 1 +20081119IPR42549+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN).
  4. 4. Can nature teach us how to design a resilient and durable food production system? A system that is largely self-regulating and thus not in need of intensive interventions? A system maintaining its self-resolving capacity so that it can cure itself when it is ill? A multifunctional system that produces a wide variety of other functions next to food production? A system that restores and maintains our life support mechanisms, like for instance water management, CO2 sequestration, biodiversity, fertile soils...? Permaculture has been developed by scientists Bill Mollison en David Holmgren to overcome the problems of our industrial monoculture agricultural approach. Permaculture designs natural ecosystems that guarantee a sustainable food production based on a systems approach and the deployment of natural solutions. For instance, using natural fertilizers to cycle the nutrients from deep soils back to the topsoil, designing smart combinations of plant families to prevent/cure diseases reducing the need for interventions, developing a smart water system hat can retain water so that irrigation is not needed... By imitating natural systems, our food production system can exist in harmony with the local ecosystems, promote biodiversity and reduce energy intensity. Such a system is less vulnerable to climate extremes or other pressures (compared to the contemporary monocultures). Critics will undoubtedly claim that permaculture cannot feed the world. They believe the answer lies in extreme intensification of the current agricultural system. Intensification might yield benefit in the short term, but it does not resolve the problems of declining soil fertility, of disturbed water management, of erosion, pollution or biodiversity loss. The question is thus whether intensification is a durable solution that underpins the life support mechanism of our environment. What is more, when a region or country has completely depleted its fertile soils, it will become dependent on import of fertilizers from other places. In the case of phosphor (synthetic fertiliser) for instance, more than 75% of the world stock is located in 3 countries: China, Morocco and the VS. This high concentration can lead to monopolisation and high prices. Intensive agricultural practices induce erosion and decrease soil fertility. © BGR
  5. 5. Key principles of sustainable systems: Closed cycles In nature waste is food. Thanks to the very diverse range of cooperation between natural elements, most loops and cycles are closed so that nearly everything is recycled. Optimal use of energy, time and space This principle refers to a smart design that uses the energy of the sun to its optimal extent. It stacks services according to space, location and time. For instance, layers are stacked vertically and succession according to seasons and time optimizes the spatial dimension. Locally adapted This means that the system fits/belongs in its environment. Divers, adaptive and resilient Every important function is carried by several different elements simultaneously. Combined with a high diversity in elements – also referred to as biodiversity – this results in a resilient system that can adapt to change. In other words, change or disturbance does not lead to collapse of the system.
  6. 6. Multifunctional This means that every element exerts multiple functions at the same time. Redundant Redundancy implies that more equal elements are present than what is needed. That way there are always back-up elements in case one element fails. Network organisation and natural structure This means that elements are placed in a way that stimulates natural cooperation with other elements while each element still fullfills its specific function. Natural structure refers to the successions and sequence found in nature. For in stance, when planting a tree compost is not blended into the cavety but placed on top of the soil. This way the natural soil layers and soil management are not disturbed Increasing richness and complexity The last principle refers to the natural evolution process in nature: if undisturbed, nature always evolves towards increasing abundance, richness and complexity.
  7. 7. Observation en system analysis The initial state in 2011 of the garden is depicted in the drawing below. Except for the apple tree, no edible plants are present in the garden. The part close to the house has been maintained as a lawn. The second part has not been maintained and is quite arid and impoverished. The location of the forest at the south-west side limits the amount of sun during the autumn and winter. The garden is situated on an acid, permeable sand soil prone to leaching of nutrients and water stress. Analysis of the soil revealed an acidic pH of 5.4, low nutrient content, good structure and very low percentage of organic matter. In addition, earthworms are quite rare and the composition of plants indicates a situation of disturbance (prunus setorina and broom). Also, the soil is lightly polluted with cadmium, which will be absorbed by leafy vegetables in acid soil conditions and thus requires special attention.
  8. 8. Garden in summer (top) and winter (bottom) 2011
  9. 9. Starting from a vision Is it possible to design a garden that provides a wide variety of food and other resources while it is simultaneously beneficial for natural ecosystems? From the insights of permaculture and biomimicry we have developed a long term vision for our garden which is the following: ‘Our garden reflects the perfect marriage between a food garden and flourishing nature. It is a well functioning resilient ecosystem where biodiversity prospers and where natural alliances between natural elements result in a healthy balance. The garden produces an abundance of diverse edible resources for humans and other organisms. The system is based on closed cycles so that external interventions are largely dispensable. The smart design, the collaborations between elements and the many perennials keep the work intensity quite low. The garden is to be a small patch of beauty that surrounds our house.’
  10. 10. What does our future garden have to offer? For nature: – Food like fruit, seeds, nuts, insects... – Shelter – Sleep and nesting cavities – Water retention and drinking spots – Purification of air and water – Fertile soil – Carbon sequestration – ... For us: – Wood – Meat replacers like seeds, nuts, eggs and legumes – Mushrooms – Vegetables for all seasons – Fruit – Spices – Herbs, blossoms and fruit for tea – Flowers – Biodiversity – Effort & relaxation – Pleasure & repose – ... A deer visits our garden (left) and a nice yield of edible mushrooms (right)
  11. 11. Application of the principles Closed cycles – Through variation in root depth and species for the mobilisation of nutrients – Green manure (e.g. white clover, lupine) for a good nitrogen cycle – Mulch and compost for adequate water management and organic matter Diverse, adaptive and resilient – High diversity – Plant alliances to promote cooperation – ‘Pure nature spots’ (zone 5) where nature can evolve undisturbed – Water retention in wadi – Shelter for important insects, birds, mammals and other animals Optimal use of energy, time and space – Through a forest edge design that places the high trees north and where plant size gradually decreases towards the south. Shadow tolerant plants are placed in between the high elements. Adapted from Kitsteiner © (1) High trees like the walnut, (2) middle sized trees like the apple tree, (3) bushes like the blueberry, (4) herb layer and vegetables, (5) ground cover like strawberry, (6) root crops like earth apple and (7) climbers like beans – A smart selection of plant species offers edible crops in all seasons for us and for nature. For example, a specific selection of flowering plants offers bees and other insects nectar during spring, summer and autumn.
  12. 12. Locally adapted Through the selection of plants like sweet chestnut, blueberry, lupine... that favour well-drained sand soils. Multifunctional Every element fulfils several functions. The wadi for instance is a water infiltration system that attracts beneficial animals like frogs, toads and predatory insects that eat snails. It also provides a drinking spot for wildlife. The flower garden provides food for bees, butterflies and other insects and brings colour to the garden. Green manure plants like lupines cover the soil and recover washed out nutrients from the deep soil back to the top soil. The large-leaved linden (lime) is beneficial for insect life and young leaves can be eaten as salad. The elderberry provides berries for birds, has a medicinally use for treating flu and respiratory problems and provides ingredients for soft drinks. Redundancy To guarantee yield of a divers variety of food crops and other edibles, two or more plants of the important species are planted. Also different plants providing the same functions are planted so that if in one year yield is low from one species, this can be overcome by the yield of the other species. For instance four different types of nut trees/shrubs are planted: sweet chestnut, almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts. Of each species, at least two trees are planted. Network organisation and natural structure Smart placement of elements promotes natural cooperation so that the self-solving capacity of the garden ecosystem is stimulated. The cypresses that were already present in the garden will be largely removed since they have a negative influence on fruit trees. At the edge of the garden next to the forest, we will leave a couple of cypresses because their thick cover provides shelter for birds in the winter. To stimulate cooperation, plants from the following families will be present throughout the garden: rosaceae, asteraceae, apiaceae, and polygonaceae. Fruit trees will be accompanied with artemisia absinthium because of its medicinal effect and clover will be sowed under the fruit trees for an optimal nitrogen balance. Increasing richness and complexity Careful, considerate and sustainable management of the garden, where negative interventions and products are avoided, allow the garden ecosystem to evolve naturally. This will result in increasing efficiency in cycles. In contrast to conventional vegetable gardens, here the soil will be kept covered at all times and weed control will rarely be used (only in the instances where the weed can dominate the small vegetable plants).
  13. 13. Promoting cooperation and network organisation The plant composition in the garden needs to support several functions: – Nutrient management (closing nutrient cycles and providing organic matter) – Pest control and attraction of beneficial animals – Prevention of disease and promotion of self-healing capacity – Low labour intensity Beneficial plants for soil and nutrient management Green manure plants: comfrey, clover, phacelia, lupine and thistles. Nutrient cycles: In sand soils, nutrients from the topsoil are easily lost due to rain. To prevent loss of nutrients, a selection of plants is used that root deeply and mobilize nutrients to cycle them back to the top soil. For instance, fennel cycles nitrogen, chicory cycles potassium, buckwheat cycles calcium and vetches and lucerne cycle phosphorous. Plants that accumulate minor and trace elements are chicory, comfrey, yarrow, caraway, garlic, pattypan squash and parsley. Beneficial plants for pest and disease control and for attraction of predators Disease control: artemisia absinthium , onion, chives and wild garlic. Pest control: scented plants like rosemary, lavender, thyme and mint. Attractive plants for beneficial predators: thistle, willow, dandelion, sunflower, linden, buckthorn, mayflower. Many of these plants will be present in pure nature patches (zone 5). Perennials Nut and fruit trees, berries, artichoke, earth apple, rhubarb, Egyptian onion, horseradish, apios Americana, asparagus,...
  14. 14. Smart composition and location of elements Not only the selection of plants is important. Also the way they are placed plays an essential role when aiming to promote a self-regulating ecosystem. Some examples include: – To overcome periods of drought, a wadi – a natural infiltration system – is included in the design. To allow gradual infiltration of the water, its walls will be lined with a 5 cm thick layer of clay. The wadi will be placed close to the vegetable beds so that the frogs and toads can eat the snails that might damage the crops. Next to the wadi, a walnut tree will be placed because it deters mosquitoes. – The currant bushes will be centrally placed because they attract heteroptera and prevent them from harming the fruit while the impact of the heteroptera on the currant berries is minimal. – Close to the terrace a black mulberry will provide shade. This tree grows into a beautiful shape, will not become to large and will provide tasty fruits. The fruits will ripen late in autumn and thus not attract many wasps. – The vegetable beds that are located close to the forest at the south-west side receive less sun than the beds at the north-east side. They will be composed out of shade tolerant crops while the beds at the north-east side will be composed of crops that require a lot of sun. – The beds themselves will be configured with a smart combination of annuals, perennials and beneficial herbs and spices. SW beds: salad, rocket salad, chard, purslane, celery (annuals); mint, chervil, wild garlic (herbs); chives, green asparagus (perennials) NE beds: zucchini, pattypan squash, pumpkin, radish, florence fennel, beans (annuals); parsley (biennial); basil, thyme, rosemary (herbs); Egyptian onion, horseradish (perennial)
  15. 15. Beneficial animals for a garden: hedgehog, robin and common buzzard. Pics © Raf Gorissen
  16. 16. Activities in 2012 Making space for high trees. Some old bushes, non endemic bird cherry trees and cypresses have been cut to make room for the high trees. Some other cypresses will need to be removed by professionals, this will be done later on. Soil improvement. First the soil cover has been cut. Since soil improvement is a slow process, we accelerated this by addition of a truck load of compost. At the same time a compost bin has been made to allow future use of compost. A large amount of green manure plants have been sown. The natural structure of the soil has been respected while planting the trees. This means that in contrast to popular recommendations, compost was not added in the planting hole but on the surface around the new tree. Planting of perennials. The trees are the first plants that have been planted since they take a long to mature. For the other perennial plants, a collection of organic seeds has been started and cuttings of the selected species have been made and planted. Elevated beds for leafy vegetables. Since the soil is lightly contaminated with cadmium, leafy vegetables will be grown on elevated beds of compost. For leafy vegetables like salad accumulate cadmium in their leaves when the soil is acidic. The elevated beds of compost lower the acidy of the soil and the root depth and so limit the accumulation of cadmium in the crops. The garden in the summer of 2012 (left) and a bed for leafy vegetables (right).
  17. 17. Increasing biodiversity. Specific attention has been paid to select a wide variety of different plant species. Wild flowers have been sown and some vegetables have been let to bloom to attract butterflies, bees and other insects. Dandelions which are usually removed from lawns have been left to bloom in our garden since they are very important for the insects that keep the fruit trees healthy. Shelter. We have started to make a hedge of branches at the side of the maize field. This hedge will be between 0.6 – 1 meter thick to provide shelter for many beneficial animals such as birds, hedgehogs and weasels for instance. Also, nest boxes for small passerines have been provided because these birds feed caterpillars to their nestlings in spring. In the next years, more nest boxes will be provided for owls, swallows and bats.
  18. 18. Building the vegetable beds in spring (top) and garden in summer of 2012 (bottom).
  19. 19. Permaculture in practice What went well? • We had a nice yield of: zucchini, pattypan squash, pumpkin, peppers, cauliflower, rocket salad, cabbage and fennel. • We had a small yield of tomatoes (outside) and pumpkins which were very sweet of taste. • A long period of blooming flowers. • In autumn many mushrooms emerged which indicates that the soil is improving. • Many more butterflies and birds in our garden compared to the 2 previous years. In summer a barn owl visited the garden several times. • Even though the cabbages were covered in caterpillars, these disappeared before they could do harm which indicates that natural predators have removed them. • We experimented with a mobile chicken coop which worked well. The amount of ticks was significantly reduced since we adopted chickens. What went wrong? • Salad was hard to grow since the little plants got eaten by snails. One time we used grains to kill the snails (those that are allowed in organic agriculture). In hindsight this was not a good idea because these poisoned snails can poison the natural predators which we would like to attract. • Also the beans, strawberries and chard have been consumed several times by deer. • Some plants died. E.g. the vine, the kiwi berry and the peach tree. • One chicken has been killed. We suspect the common buzzard since the other chickens were left alone. Conclusion The first year was a year of experimentation, be it one bearing fruit. A lot more needs to be learnt in the coming years. Soil improvement is one of the essential things to do so composting and mulching will be repeated. To prevent deer from eating our crops, we will have to find a way to keep them out of the vegetable beds. The next years we will have to observe, experiment and learn more to realise our future vision, which might also require adjustment for the forest edge ecosystem to fully function.
  20. 20. Permaculture in society The permaculture course was quite enriching and illuminating. Often we do things out of routine, without questioning and reflecting. When it is the right thing to do this spares us time. However, the grand challenges facing society today point out that there are things we are no longer doing right. That is why it is necessary to question the customary systems, to reflect on what is appropriate and what is not. This implies that we will need to leave our comfort zones now and again. To experiment with permaculture in our own back yard was fun and satisfying at the same time because it allowed me to do to something with my own hands: realizing sustainability in practice. It allowed me to make sustainability concrete and literally pick the fruits of our efforts a couple of months later. Of course, one permaculture garden will probably not make a whole world of difference. But what if more gardens would be redesigned in this way? Many little gardens together form an ecosystem. What if many small gardens in the city produce food and support nature so that biodiversity will flourish also in these gardens? What if owners of small and large gardens together can promote biodiversity so that butterflies in the future do not only exist digitally? What if a part of the ‘impoverished’ maize fields in the country side are transformed into permaculture orchards? What if these farmers would earn a decent and fair salary for producing healthy food and ecosystem services that support nature’s life support system at the same time? What if consumers would become producers of food or co-owners of permaculture orchards? Localizing healthy and sustainable food production is a good strategy in times of increasing food and energy prices. Permaculture gardens are also less vulnerable to climate extremes than monocultures. Healthy food will become the medicine of the future. Healthy food is the most successful strategy of preventive health care. Perhaps this is a topic in need of questioning as well. Why do we maintain a curative health care system where medicines often cause unintended side effects? Would it be easier, perhaps cheaper, and more sustainable to invest in high-quality and healthy food without side effects to prevent future health problems? What if students would not only learn about nature but also from nature? And what if students would learn how to translate and apply natural solutions to societal problems and to work with nature instead of against? Nature is an enormous library of sustainable solutions. However, at present that library is in decay. Although we mostly look to others to realize sustainability, we can undertake many things ourselves. Permaculture is – at least for me – an ideal way of making a real and beneficial contribution and create a positive impact. In the end, every single one of us holds the key to a desirable and sustainable future in his/her hands.
  21. 21. Can you redesign small city gardens with permaculture? Yes, permaculture principles can also be applied in small gardens. A thoughtful design is essential for the maximal use of small spaces. Can you copy a permaculture design from literature into your own back yard? No, every design needs to be adapted to the local circumstances. Of course you can be inspired by a design in a similar climate or soil type, but you will have to experiment what will work and what not. Observation of the local conditions and of the designs in nearby nature are important first steps. Does permaculture only work with native plant species? Not necessarily, although native species will always make up the majority of the system. Nature reflects a dynamic equilibrium and migration of species has always occurred. So non-native species can be part of the system as long as they will not dominate the native species and become invasive. Is permaculture a synonym for organic agriculture? No. Permaculture imitates natural systems and works with nature. Conventional and organic agriculture are still based on an approach and mindset of exploitation. Permaculture is based on a mindset and approach of cooperation. This implies a transition in thinking and practicing. Is permaculture a perfect sustainable solution? The first question is whether perfect solutions exist. For me, the permaculture framework is the most promising practical form of smart and sustainable land management of the non-natural landscape that I have encountered so far. Still, a lot more needs to be learned, so it is never to early to start experimenting with permaculture! One of its indirect merits in addition, is that it brings us closer to nature. It is because of our separated thinking that the destruction of our natural ecosystems has prevailed so far. The current crises and the dynamics of change however require us to rethink our separated world view and acknowledge that we are - in fact - part of nature and that we can develop beneficial impacts. So no ending here, but a beginning... ‘The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. Paths to it are not to be found but made and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.’ John Schaar
  22. 22. Below a selection of recommended information for inspiration. To learn more about Permaculture: (in Dutch) Whitefield P. 2011 The Earth care manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and Other Temperate Climates. Permanent Publications, UK. (one of the best basic books for temperate climates) To learn from nature (biomimicry, bionics etc): (highly recommended!) To learn more about how to make the transition towards a desirable and sustainable future: Nowak M. 2011. Supercooperators. Beyond survival of the fittest. Why cooperation, not competition, is the key to life. Canongate books, Scotland. (the science behind cooperation yet very readable!) Rotmans J. 2012. In the eye of the hurricane. The Netherlands in transition. Aeneas, the Netherlands. (in Dutch, applicable to many countries and highly recommended!) Hutchins G. 2012. The nature of business. Redesigning for resilience. Green Books, UK. (learning from nature for future proof businesses)
  23. 23. About the author of this dissertation Leen Gorissen holds a PhD in biology and currently works as a researcher at VITO (Flemish Institute for Technological Research) in the unit ‘Transition Energy and Environment’. Her activities are focussed on research that studies how to make the transition to a sustainable society and includes an integrated (systemic) sustainability approach interlinking land use, ecosystems, biodiversity, climate change, clean tech and transition management, with a focus on what society can learn from nature in respect to adaptability, redundancy and resilience (biomimicry and permaculture).