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Permaculture: What is it?

Aug 26, 2015

By Guest Blogger Jenn Jennings, PRI certified Permaculture Designer 

“Permaculture” is the latest environmental buzzword, but what exactly is permaculture?  As you may have guessed by looking at the word, it involves permanence, culture, and agriculture, all of which are important for the health and survival of humans on this planet.  Permaculture has been described as “organic gardening on steroids,” but it’s much more than just growing vegetables; it’s a way of integrating human behavior with the environment in a way that both benefit and improve each other. 

Permaculture is a system of design that strives to incorporate all aspects of human society harmoniously with nature, while improving the environment.  While that sounds seriously hippie-ish, like something out of a Woodstock documentary, it’s not all communes and kumbaya around the campfire.  Permaculture is all about finding the most environmentally beneficial solutions to human problems.  That includes wind and solar power, biodiesel, organic gardening, water management, land remediation, government systems, green construction, and everything in between.  Anything involving the needs of human beings and the impact those needs have on the planet can fall under the permaculture umbrella.

In fact, you may be a bit of a “Permie” (the nickname for permaculture practitioners) already and not even know it; many of the things you might already do, like recycling and composting are cornerstones of permaculture practice.  There are three basic ethics, or guidelines, that define the goals of permaculture: care of the Earth, care of people, and the return of surplus (to the Earth and people). 

These three ethics all influence each other and are intimately intertwined.  The evidence of what happens when any one ethic is out of balance can be seen all over the world; drought and famine, war, and poverty are examples of how both people and the planet suffer when environmental and governmental systems are out of kilter.  Dwindling resources, like water, become the tinder for bigger issues that, eventually, affect all of us.  Permaculture tries to manage, conserve, and improve systems so natural and human resources thrive.

Still a bit confused?  Some examples might be helpful.

Care of the Earth is pretty self-explanatory, but permaculture takes it to a higher level.  It means that instead of having a big expansive lawn that requires a lot of water, fertilizer, and a gas-powered mower to maintain it, you could replace it with a drought-tolerant herbal lawn.  Or, you could plant shade trees to cool your house in the summer, and native plants that support bees and beneficial insects. Those changes would not only be beautiful, but would save you money, water, and fossil fuels – they are also part of the “people care” ethic.

The third ethic, the “return of surplus,” is basically a recycling and redistribution concept.  It means reinvesting any excess back into the people or the planet to support the growth and success of the system as a whole.  The band Formidable Vegetable Sound System (see video below) summed it up nicely in their lyrics, saying: “There is no such thing as waste, only stuff in the wrong place.”  So food waste get composted instead of going down the garbage disposal, plastics and metals get recycled instead of being dumped in the woods, and clothing and household items can be donated to the less fortunate. 

Is this permaculture stuff starting to make more sense yet?  Well, maybe the great idea of the Food Bank of South Jersey came up with will light your lightbulb...

Every year, tons of peaches were landfilled (at a high cost to peach farmers) just because the peaches were not perfect and unblemished enough for produce shelves – but the Food Bank of South Jersey saw an opportunity, not wasted fruit.  The worked together with farmers and food packers to create “Just Peachy Salsa,” a delicious, fresh salsa that used all Jersey produce while keeping the peaches out of the landfill.  The peach farmers saved money, the peaches weren’t wasted, and the salsa sales proceeds help fund the Food Bank - a perfect example of all three permaculture ethics in one sweet and tasty solution.

There’s a lot more to what permaculture is, but it’s not a religion, a philosophy, a cult, or a worldview.  Permaculture is a system of design for improving the Earth and the lives of the people that live on it.  It’s not difficult, it doesn’t require a lot of money, and it can be profitable and great fun as well – all while making the world a better, cleaner, healthier place.

About our Guest Blogger:
Jenn is a Jenn PRI certified Permaculture Designer. You may have seen her during her workshop at our 2015 Earth Day Festival. For more information about permaculture, you can contact Jenn at

The views, opinions and positions expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of The Atlantic County Utilities Authority.