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Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, environmental design, construction and integrated water resources management that develops sustainable architecture, regenerative and self-maintained habitat and agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems. The term permaculture (as a systematic method) was first coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. The word permaculture originally referred to "permanent agriculture"  but was expanded to stand also for "permanent culture," as it was seen that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system as inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka's natural farming philosophy.
Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.—Bill Mollison, 
In 1929, Joseph Russell Smith took up an antecedent term as the subtitle for Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, a book in which he summed up his long experience experimenting with fruits and nuts as crops for human food and animal feed. Smith saw the world as an inter-related whole and suggested mixed systems of trees and crops underneath. This book inspired many individuals intent on making agriculture more sustainable, such as Toyohiko Kagawa who pioneered forest farming in Japan in the 1930s.
The definition of permanent agriculture as that which can be sustained indefinitely was supported by Australian P. A. Yeomans in his 1973 book Water for Every Farm. Yeoman introduced an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940s; and the keyline design as a way of managing the supply and distribution of water in the 1950s.
Stewart Brand's works were an early influence noted by Holmgren. Other early influences include Ruth Stout and Esther Deans, who pioneered "no-dig gardening methods", and Masanobu Fukuoka who, in the late 1930s in Japan, began advocating no-till orchards, gardens and natural farming.
The first recorded modern application of permaculture concepts as a systematic method was possibly by Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer in the 1960s.
Permaculture design emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. It determines where these elements should be placed so they can provide maximum benefit to the local environment. The central concept of permaculture is maximizing useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design therefore seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements to achieve a high level of synergy. Permaculture designs evolve over time by taking into account these relationships and elements and can become extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.
The design principles which are the conceptual foundation of permaculture were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use. Permaculture draws from several disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, integrated farming, sustainable development, and applied ecology. Permaculture has been applied most commonly to the design of housing and landscaping, integrating techniques such as agroforestry, natural building, and rainwater harvesting within the context of permaculture design principles and theory.
Twelve Permaculture design principles articulated by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:
Layers are one of the tools used to design functional ecosystems that are both sustainable and of direct benefit to humans. A mature ecosystem has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects, and animals. Because plants grow to different heights, a diverse community of life is able to grow in a relatively small space, as each layer is stacked one on top of another. There are generally seven recognized layers in a food forest, although some practitioners also include fungi as an eighth layer.
A guild is any group of species where each provides a unique set of diverse functions that work in conjunction, or harmony. Guilds are groups of plants, animals, insects, etc. that work well together. Some plants may be grown for food production, some have tap roots that draw nutrients up from deep in the soil, some are nitrogen-fixing legumes, some attract beneficial insects, and others repel harmful insects. When grouped together in a mutually beneficial arrangement, these plants form a guild.
The edge effect in ecology is the effect of the juxtaposition or placing side by side of contrasting environments on an ecosystem. Permaculturists argue that, where vastly differing systems meet, there is an intense area of productivity and useful connections. An example of this is the coast; where the land and the sea meet there is a particularly rich area that meets a disproportionate percentage of human and animal needs. So this idea is played out in permacultural designs by using spirals in the herb garden or creating ponds that have wavy undulating shorelines rather than a simple circle or oval (thereby increasing the amount of edge for a given area).
Zones are a way of intelligently organizing design elements in a human environment on the basis of the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. Frequently manipulated or harvested elements of the design are located close to the house in zones 1 and 2. Less frequently used or manipulated elements, and elements that benefit from isolation (such as wild species) are farther away. Zones are about positioning things appropriately. Zones are numbered from 0 to 5.
Permaculture uses observation of nature to create regenerative systems, and the place where this has been most visible has been on the landscape. There has been a growing awareness though that firstly, there is the need to pay more attention to the peoplecare ethic, as it is often the dynamics of people that can interfere with projects, and secondly that the principles of permaculture can be used as effectively to create vibrant, healthy and productive people and communities as they have been in landscapes.
Agroforestry is an integrated approach of using the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock. It combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable land-use systems. In agroforestry systems, trees or shrubs are intentionally used within agricultural systems, or non-timber forest products are cultured in forest settings.
Forest gardening is a term permaculturalists use to describe systems designed to mimic natural forests. Forest gardens, like other permaculture designs, incorporate processes and relationships that the designers understand to be valuable in natural ecosystems. The terms forest garden and food forest are used interchangeably in the permaculture literature. Numerous permaculturists are proponents of forest gardens, such as Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier and Geoff Lawton. Bell started building his forest garden in 1991 and wrote the book The Permaculture Garden in 1995, Whitefield wrote the book How to Make a Forest Garden in 2002, Jacke and Toensmeier co-authored the two volume book set Edible Forest Gardening in 2005, and Lawton presented the film Establishing a Food Forest in 2008.
Tree Gardens, such as Kandyan tree gardens, in South and Southeast Asia, are often hundreds of years old. Whether they derived initially from experiences of cultivation and forestry, as is the case in agroforestry, or whether they derived from an understanding of forest ecosystems, as is the case for permaculture systems, is not self-evident. Many studies of these systems, especially those that predate the term permaculture, consider these systems to be forms of agroforestry. Permaculturalists who include existing and ancient systems of polycropping with woody species as examples of food forests may obscure the distinction between permaculture and agroforestry.
Food forests and agroforestry are parallel approaches that sometimes lead to similar designs.
Hügelkultur is the practice of burying large volumes of wood to increase soil water retention. The porous structure of wood acts as a sponge when decomposing underground. During the rainy season, masses of buried wood can absorb enough water to sustain crops through the dry season. This technique has been used by permaculturalists Sepp Holzer, Toby Hemenway, Paul Wheaton and Masanobu Fukuoka.
A natural building involves a range of building systems and materials that place major emphasis on sustainability. Ways of achieving sustainability through natural building focus on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful or renewable resources, as well as those that, while recycled or salvaged, produce healthy living environments and maintain indoor air quality.
The basis of natural building is the need to lessen the environmental impact of buildings and other supporting systems, without sacrificing comfort, health or aesthetics. To be more sustainable, natural building uses primarily abundantly available, renewable, reused or recycled materials. In addition to relying on natural building materials, the emphasis on the architectural design is heightened. The orientation of a building, the utilization of local climate and site conditions, the emphasis on natural ventilation through design, fundamentally lessen operational costs and positively impact the environment. Building compactly and minimizing the ecological footprint is common, as are on-site handling of energy acquisition, on-site water capture, alternate sewage treatment and water reuse.
Rainwater harvesting is the accumulating and storing of rainwater for reuse before it reaches the aquifer. It has been used to provide drinking water, water for livestock, water for irrigation, as well as other typical uses. Rainwater collected from the roofs of houses and local institutions can make an important contribution to the availability of drinking water. It can supplement the subsoil water level and increase urban greenery. Water collected from the ground, sometimes from areas which are especially prepared for this purpose, is called stormwater harvesting.
Greywater is wastewater generated from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing, which can be recycled on-site for uses such as landscape irrigation and constructed wetlands. Greywater is largely sterile, but not potable (drinkable). Greywater differs from water from the toilets which is designated sewage or blackwater, to indicate it contains human waste. Blackwater is septic or otherwise toxic and cannot be reused.
In agriculture and gardening, mulch is a protective cover placed over the soil. Any material or combination can be used as mulch, stones, leaves, cardboard, wood chips, gravel, etc., though in permaculture mulches of organic material are the most common because they perform more functions. These include: absorbing rainfall, reducing evaporation, providing nutrients, increasing organic matter in the soil, feeding and creating habitat for soil organisms, suppressing weed growth and seed germination, moderating diurnal temperature swings, protecting against frost, and reducing erosion. Sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural processes occurring within forests. Sheet mulching mimics the leaf cover that is found on forest floors. When deployed properly and in combination with other Permacultural principles, it can generate healthy, productive and low maintenance ecosystems.
Sheet mulch serves as a "nutrient bank," storing the nutrients contained in organic matter and slowly making these nutrients available to plants as the organic matter slowly and naturally breaks down. It also improves the soil by attracting and feeding earthworms, slaters and many other soil micro-organisms, as well as adding humus. Earthworms "till" the soil, and their worm castings are among the best fertilizers and soil conditioners. Sheet mulching can be used to reduce or eliminate undesirable plants by starving them of light, and can be more advantageous than using herbicide or other methods of control.
Grazing has long been blamed for much of the destruction we see in the environment. However, it has been shown that when grazing is modeled after nature, the opposite effect can be seen. Also known as cell grazing, managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) is a system of grazing in which ruminant and non-ruminant herds and/or flocks are regularly and systematically moved to fresh pasture, range, or forest with the intent to maximize the quality and quantity of forage growth. This disturbance is then followed by a period of rest which allows new growth. MIRG can be used with cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, geese, turkeys, ducks and other animals depending on the natural ecological community that is being mimicked. Sepp Holzer and Joel Salatin have shown how the disturbance caused by the animals can be the spark needed to start ecological succession or prepare ground for planting. Allan Savory's holistic management technique has been likened to "a permaculture approach to rangeland management". One variation on MIRG that is gaining rapid popularity is called eco-grazing. Often used to either control invasives or re-establish native species, in eco-grazing the primary purpose of the animals is to benefit the environment and the animals can be, but are not necessarily, used for meat, milk or fiber.
Keyline design is a technique for maximizing beneficial use of water resources of a piece of land developed in Australia by farmer and engineer P. A. Yeomans. The Keyline refers to a specific topographic feature linked to water flow which is used in designing the drainage system of the site.
Masanobu Fukuoka, as part of early experiments on his family farm in Japan, experimented with no-pruning methods, noting that he ended up killing many fruit trees by simply letting them go, which made them become convoluted and tangled, and thus unhealthy. Then he realised this is the difference between natural-form fruit trees and the process of change of tree form that results from abandoning previously-pruned unnatural fruit trees. He concluded that the trees should be raised all their lives without pruning, so they form healthy and efficient branch patterns that follow their natural inclination. This is part of his implementation of the Tao-philosophy of Wú wéi translated in part as no-action (against nature), and he described it as no unnecessary pruning, nature farming or "do-nothing" farming, of fruit trees, distinct from non-intervention or literal no-pruning. He ultimately achieved yields comparable to or exceeding standard/intensive practices of using pruning and chemical fertilisation.
In the mid-1970s, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started developing ideas about stable agricultural systems on the southern Australian island state of Tasmania. This was a result of the danger of the rapidly growing use of industrial-agricultural methods. In their view, highly dependent on non renewable resources, these methods were additionally poisoning land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of topsoil from previously fertile landscapes. A design approach called permaculture was their response and was first made public with the publication of their book Permaculture One in 1978.
By the early 1980s, the concept had broadened from agricultural systems design towards sustainable human habitats. After Permaculture One, Mollison further refined and developed the ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and writing more detailed books, notably Permaculture: A Designers Manual. Mollison lectured in over 80 countries and taught his two-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC) to many hundreds of students.
In 1991, a four-part television documentary by ABC productions called "The Global Gardener" showed permaculture applied to a range of worldwide situations, bringing the concept to a much broader public. In 2012, the UMass Permaculture Initiative won the White House "Champions of Change" sustainability contest, which declared that "they demonstrate how permaculture can feed a growing population in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible manner".
In 1997, Holmgren explained that the primary agenda of the permaculture movement is to assist people to become more self-reliant through the design and development of productive and sustainable gardens and farms.
There has been contention over who, if anyone, controls legal rights to the word permaculture: is it trademarked or copyrighted? and if so, who holds the legal rights to the use of the word? For a long time Bill Mollison claimed to have copyrighted the word, and his books said on the copyright page, "The contents of this book and the word PERMACULTURE are copyright." These statements were largely accepted at face-value within the permaculture community. However, copyright law does not protect names, ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something; it only protects the expression or the description of an idea, not the idea itself. Eventually Mollison acknowledged that he was mistaken and that no copyright protection existed for the word permaculture.
In 2000, Mollison's US based Permaculture Institute sought a service mark (a form of trademark) for the word, permaculture, when used in educational services such as conducting classes, seminars, or workshops. The service mark would have allowed Mollison and his two Permaculture Institutes (one in the US and one in Australia) to set enforceable guidelines regarding how permaculture could be taught and who could teach it, particularly with relation to the PDC, despite the fact that he had instituted a system of certification of teachers to teach the PDC in 1993.This certification was granted to teachers like April Sampson-kelly and others in 1993. The service mark failed and was abandoned in 2001. Also in 2001 Mollison applied for trademarks in Australia for the terms "Permaculture Design Course" and "Permaculture Design". These applications were both withdrawn in 2003. In 2009 he sought a trademark for "Permaculture: A Designers' Manual" and "Introduction to Permaculture", the names of two of his books. These applications were withdrawn in 2011. There has never been a trademark for the word permaculture in Australia.
In 2011, Owen Hablutzel argued that "permaculture has yet to gain a large amount of specific mainstream scientific acceptance," and that "the sensitiveness to being perceived and accepted on scientific terms is motivated in part by a desire for Permaculture to expand and become increasingly relevant." Bec-Hellouin permaculture farm engaged in a research program in partnership with INRA and AgroParisTech to collect scientific data.
In his books Sustainable Freshwater Aquaculture and Farming in Ponds and Dams, Nick Romanowski expresses the view that the presentation of aquaculture in Bill Mollison's books is unrealistic and misleading. However Sustainable Freshwater Aquaculture has likewise received criticism as being "too basic", "for primary school children" and "negative" in its approach.
Greg Williams argues that forests cannot be more productive than farmland because the net productivity of forests decline as they mature due to ecological succession. Proponents of permaculture respond that this is true only if one compares data from between woodland forest and climax vegetation, but not when comparing farmland vegetation with woodland forest. For example, ecological succession generally results in a forest's productivity rising after its establishment only until it reaches the woodland state (67% tree cover), before declining until full maturity.
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