Sustainability vs. Permaculture

Doing good instead of just less bad

In the fall of 2015, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I took a semester off school to work on a farm in the southwest of France. We were given food and lodging in exchange for our hands-hoeing, digging, planting, and building "lasagna" beds for rows of vegetables. It was there on a beautiful piece of land that we learned about permaculture, a method of growing that aims to work with the pre-existing systems of the earth instead of suppressing the natural cycles.

One of the best examples of permaculture at work is the "lasagna" bed. This essay at The Spruce does a great job explaining more in depth, but basically these beds involve layering compost, newspaper, grass clippings, and finally hay on top to produce nutrient-rich soil underneath that requires less fertilizer and stomps out weeds on its own.

Doing good instead of less bad

Permaculture in practice can get a little nuanced, and it requires some serious research and planning to put it into practice on a farming level. But at its core, permaculture is really about seeing ways to work with things that would otherwise be seen as nuisances, and in that way leaving a beneficial mark on the world. I think too often we focus on how to be sustainable, living in a way that maintains the current level of resources, not leaving a any "footprint." What permaculture does is shows us ways to put ourselves into the natural ecosystem and help create. In a farming context, that creation can look like healing land by using chickens and cows in symbiosis to create more fertile soil: the cows poop, chickens go after undigested grains and bugs that are attracted to the manure (read: poop), and in turn move the manure around, fertilizing the whole area. For those of us not living an agrarian life (but maybe dreaming of it!), permaculture will look a bit different...

Applying Permaculture Principles To Everyday Life

My husband and I share the dream of one day owning land and using permaculture to grow crops and animals like pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. For now, we're enjoying our urban apartment life, but we still try to apply some things we learned about permculture to how we live in the city. Here's some ways we do that:

  • Start composting

There's a lot of things we just toss into the trash that can actually be used for creating a more fertile environment for gardens of any size. We got a small compost bucket from World Market, and just drop in food scraps like coffee grounds and banana peels whenever we have them. Composting in an apartment requires more care than if your pile/bucket/bag is in a garage or on a porch though! We have to check often that flies aren't burrowing their way through the filter. If they do start, then it's usually dump time! Check with local urban growers, or with stalls at the farmers market to see who could possibly have a use for your fresh compost.

  • Minimize waste

While you're learning how to reduce your food waste by using those scraps for good, also look for ways to cut down on the packaging, plastics, and other trash your home is throwing out often. Zero Waste Home is an amazing resource for exploring different waste-avoiding options, from using jars to buy in bulk to making your own home/beauty products!

  • Support the farmers market

If you (like me) aren't able to grow anything where you live, one of the best ways to create a positive change in the land around you is to support the people already doing it! It may feel more convenient sometimes to get produce from the supermarket that's open every day, but I know that that the farmers I look in the eye on Saturdays are doing great things to nourish the land and my family. Buying from the supermarket (even in the organic section) also takes local dollars out of circulation in your neighborhood into the hands of the middlemen who supply the store from faraway states and even other countries. That means fuel wasted on the products' long journey, less money stimulating your local economy, and usually produce that's been picked before it's even had a chance to ripen and reach its peak nutrient content.

  • Get creative about clothes

Most of us have too much stuff, especially clothes, that we don't need. But before you start throwing away your whole wardrobe, think about donation centers, churches, homeless shelters, and thrift stores that could help your older pieces get a new life instead of leaving them to decompose and emit harmful pollutants in a landfill. If you want to read more about living with less, go over to my essay, Cultivation.

Read More About Permaculture

  • Intro to Permaculture is one of the best, most comprehensive books about permaculture and a great introduction (hence the title) to the concepts and practices. Highly suggest it, especially for those who are interested in starting a garden, homestead, or farm.
  • Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective is a fairly recent documentary on the permaculture movement, which profiles many different people putting it into practice, from homesteaders to NYC rooftop gardeners to people with a small backyard garden.
  • The Resilient Farm and Homestead is the work of Ben Falk, a permaculture farmer who runs a large and completely genius homestead in Vermont. This one is more relevant for those of us who hope to have land someday and want a head-start learning about the trade, but it's really interesting even if you're a city person through and through.