It’s almost spring – all right, it’s the middle of winter – and I’m reading about gardening. It’s my yearly ritual to keep hope alive in the dark months. I sort my seeds, draw up garden plans while standing by the snow-covered garden beds, and flip through the glossy garden porn that the seed companies mail me every January.
Some winters I’ve delved into more serious study. Recently I spent months reading about permaculture and talking with practitioners. I like their underlying concept of growing things in a sustainable and sane way, although I don’t see it as the only solution to our environmental and food production challenges. But, to quote Leslie Nielsen, that’s not important right now; reading about permaculture also led me to three related thoughts.
Permaculture, I’ve learned, is not only a method but a philosophy, one that emphasizes the relationships among all the elements of the environment rather than its individual parts in isolation. The opposite is big-farm monoculture. In monoculture, corn or soybeans are removed finally and completely from the environment where they were raised, leaving behind a barren field. In order to grow the corn or soybeans next year, external inputs of seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation, and petroleum-powered machines are necessary.
The goal in permaculture, however, is to have an almost perfectly closed system that reaches a natural maturity and sustains itself there with minimal human help. Once properly established, an ideal permaculture system fertilizes its own soil through a mix of deep-rooted plants that bring up nutrients and aerate the soil, nitrogen-fixing plants, plants that drop leaves as mulch, and animals that plow, fertilize, and control the plant and insect populations. This system stores water in its soil and loses very little to run-off. Because more of the plants are perennial, as opposed to monoculture’s annuals, plant populations remain in place and in balance – an ever-shifting balance, but a sustainable one – for decades.
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