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An agriculture movement that seeks to plant with the natural environment, not against it, gains popularity with backyard gardeners.

Allison May April 20th, 2011

Once on the edges of scientific debate, permaculture has gained steadily in popularity nationwide, along with local food movements and home gardening.

A design principle first applied to agriculture, permaculture seeks to create self-sustaining food production through imitating natural ecosystems.

Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term in their 1970s book, “Permaculture One.” The word, a contraction of “permanent agriculture,” was meant to invoke a new science where agricultural practices worked in tandem with natural forces and not in spite of them. Nearly 40 years later, the system has increased in relevance.

Permaculture offers an array of solutions for growing sustainable communities.

—Shauna Struby

Permaculture might be a relatively new word, but its ideas are derived from aspects of traditional farming, including recycling waste and genetic diversity in crops. Conventional farming relies on heavy machinery, chemical fertilizers and irrigation to produce crops. These techniques have the result of compacting soil structure, depleting nutrients and draining aquifers.

In fact, these practices contributed to one of the biggest ecological disasters ever recorded: the Dust Bowl.

Monocultures, or mass plantings of one species, are also contrary to permaculture. A permaculture planting will imitate a natural environment like a forest by using plants with different growth and cultural habits so they support one another, instead of competing. The Land Institute, a Kansas nonprofit organization, currently is studying ways in which natural prairies can be used as models for perennial polycultures. The hope is that these permanent and diverse plantings will sustain the soil’s fertility, rather than deplete it, while still being economically useful.

Interest in permaculture has risen among home gardeners in Oklahoma as well. Transition OKC, a program of Sustainable OKC, has organized gardening workshops with permaculture principles since 2009; a full-scale design course is due this year.

“We believe permaculture design offers an array of solutions for growing and designing resilient, healthy and sustainable communities,” said Shauna Struby, Transition OKC co-chair.

Permaculture principles often are applied to fields outside of agriculture. For example, biomimicry is a design method that uses Mother Nature as a business model. From economics to urban planning, if a system can save money through optimizing resources and reducing waste, it will be financially successful.

Bob Waldrop, an Oklahoma Food Cooperative founder, said that permaculture principles are universal.

“Yes, permaculture designs often incorporate food production, and often use perennial plants, but it is not primarily about food culture,” he said. “It is the art and science of designing sustainable human habitations and systems that care for people, care for the planet and have a care for the future.”

 
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