Permaculture is a philosophy of utilizing nature for the mutual benefit of both humans and the ecosystem. It involves observing natural functions and interactions of plants, birds, bees, bugs, toads, snakes, soil, rain, and all the elements and factors present in a natural setting and designing or actually redesigning them to suit our needs without destroying micro-ecosystems around us and ultimately the macro ecosystem. Summarized it is Emulating Nature to suit our needs. It is the essence of agricultural sustainability and represents a utopian ambition of managing a new age Garden of Eden, Elysian fields or perhaps Xanadu. At times it can be frustrating as we endeavor to harness natural systems to work in harmony with our needs, but the long term rewards are beneficial not only to us but our planet and the critters we share it with.
Now just because we recognize the need to share our planet with all of Gods other critters, does not neccesarily mean we're gonna share our crops with the little buggers. So hence aspects of permaculture involves encouraging the presence of benefical insects, such as Lady Bugs and praying mantids while discouraging the presence of those that seek to devour our crops before we can harvest them.
From a gardeners or agrarian perspective, permaculture focuses on settled areas as opposed to unsettled or wild environments such as a forest, swamp or non cultivated swaths of land. On a macro scale the framers of the permaculture philosophy seek to "free most of the area of the globe for the rehabilitation of natural systems." In this article and site we focus primarily on permaculture and its relationship to edible gardening.
Companion Planting can be considered an element of permaculture as it involves using the interactions of plants to suppress unwanted insects and pests, For flavor enhancement, as some plants subtely change the flavor of others, fertilization, as some plants will fix nitrogen and other plants use it in excess or to replenish components that have been depleted from soil. Composting is basically recycling of nutrients, it is an aspect of permaculture in relation to gardens.
Soil Building and Preservation
Soil preservation, building and rebuilding soil. Bare barren soil in the long run works against nature, it is actually more cost effective and beneficial with plants covering unused parcels, plants that we once considered weeds. Bare soil becomes compacted and or washed away by natural forces, rain, runoff and so forth which ultimately depletes its usefulness.
The sun is good, it nurtures the Earth - try sitting out in for days on end and see how that works for your skin - too much of a good thing is not really all that good. Bare soil suffers from overexposure to the sun as well, the only soil in nature that recieves unfettered relentless sunlight is what we call a desert, so if it's a desert you seek to create - well .... have you been taking your meds ?
Most gardeners will turn the soil seasonly, it serves the function of killing off grubs and unwanted insects, unfortunately it also over exposes deeper layers of soil to the suns UV readiation which kills off soil bacteria and micro organisms. Many, or most of these living organisms are essential to plant vitality and growth. No dig gardening is a concept currently being touted. No dig does not necessarily eliminate shallow cultivation around established plants ... it also does not elimate the rare loosening of the soil to avoid compacted soil, it does however seek to minimize it.
Earthworms are awesome, no-dig designs use earthworms to do deep digging and loosen the soil, in addition to loosening soil they also add a steady supply of fertile organic material with their worm castings.
Plants with deep tap roots can be used to help aerate and break up compacted soil. Plants such as Comfrey, a leafy plant with incredibly long roots that draws up minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil. The leaves are loaded with nutrients which can be harvested and used for feeding your soil and plants. Another plant with similar properties includes dandelions, which are not really just weeds - they have multiple edible applications [dandelions]. Fengugreek also has incredibly long tap roots and will help break up and aerate soil, it is an herb used in alternative medicine, often taken as a supplement and is found in many Indian dishes.
Beyond the Basics of Permaculture
As you delve deeper into permaculture you may want to look into Plant stacking. Plants in nature grow in a “stacked” layout, trees form the canopy, folowed by bushes and shrubs. Below the bushes and shrubs are herbaceous plants followed by ground hugging plants sometimes referred to as cover plants. Emulating this basic layout permits a more efficient and benefical use of space, and greater productivity in the long run.
Other permaculture concepts include succesion planting and transitioning - sometimes referred to as the edge effect.
Aquatic ecosystems, for those lucky enough to have a nearby stream or pond [or the space to host one] are fantastic, they can be the most productive of all ecosystems. They can be used to grow edible water plants, provide support for aquatic livsetock or benefical wild animals such as amphibians [ Frogs and Toads in the Garden ] that are extremely beneficial. Ponds, regardless of how small can be incorporated into Aquaponics schemes at varying levels.
1. Permaculture Research Institute : How to Build a Permaculture Vegetable Garden