By Joe Hughes and Charlotte Peart
As part of our time at Life Itself, Charlotte and I were tasked to undertake research into permaculture: its general meaning, and how we could practice it at the Petit Bois Martin site in Bergerac. We went into this task with very little understanding of permaculture, but were eager to learn. We certainly have learnt a lot! Here are 5 main takeaways.
1. Permaculture doesn’t just happen in the garden
It was fascinating to learn that permaculture was not what we may have expected it to be – that is, a practical series of steps, or a how-to guide to farming or gardening. Instead, we realised that it is actually a much broader philosophy and way of approaching the natural world – living with, and not against, the natural world, and creating systems that prioritise the sustained flourishing of humans and the environment.
This means that ‘permaculture’ is incredibly broad and can take a number of different forms; we all may be practicing permaculture daily, in tiny ways we may not realise. A good example is the simple act of putting our food in the compost bin. Doing this transforms food into organic matter, a substance which can then be used in a number of new ways in the ecosystem, such as to plant trees. Another small example is how we eat; do we know where our food has come from? On the other end of the scale, though, we realised that permaculture projects can be massive – on the scale of miles or acres. Overall, it was great to get an insight into the complexity of the subject, and to be exposed to it; it has made us realise that it is possible to act in harmony with nature on a number of different scales.
2. Large-scale permaculture is like raising a child
After our research, we excitedly thought about how to apply the principles and values of permaculture to transform the land at the Petit Bois Martin (PBM) coliving hub site – and specifically the large field opposite the house and the gardens around it. What we quickly learnt was that understanding and reading the principles is one thing, but putting it into practice on a big scale is akin to a whole different can of worms (although, actually, ‘field of worms’ is probably a more accurate phrase in a permaculture context). It became clear that a comprehensive permaculture approach that would transform the land in its entirety would be a highly complex and demanding thing; it would require a great deal of designing, implementing and maintaining in the short, medium and long term, to ensure that it is done well and sustainably. An expert on the subject that we consulted likened a project of this size to looking after a child, and we began to see why!
3. A garden is a good starting point for permaculture
Nonetheless, with a degree of perseverance, more research, and a great deal of help from our expert, we realised that there is potential to enact a permaculture philosophy at PBM through small baby steps, that will lay a modest foundation for future work. There are two main steps that we can take. The first of these is through creating a permaculture garden – a space where vegetables are grown in a sustainable way, that benefits the community and also the natural world. We have identified a 10 – 15 m square patch in PBM as the ideal place for our garden. Rather than dig up the soil, we aim to put the ‘no dig gardening’, pioneered by Charles Dowding, into practice and regenerate it through feeding it with compost or wood chippings. This minimises disruption to nature, whilst also allowing a more fertile foundation for planting vegetables. This will take about a year, but will maximise the productivity of the soil in the long term. After this, we plan to sow the vegetables that are in season – we have our eye on a number of delicious vegetables to be produced in summer 2022, and then cooked up by the community as part of our collective eating practices. The prospect of home-grown rhubarb, garlic, asparagus, kale, tomatoes, potatoes – yum!
4. Seeing the wood for the trees
We also learnt that we can get started on a second area for permaculture at PBM: planting trees. Although the soil at the PBM site currently is not quite optimal for tree planting, our investigation showed us that we can get a head start on planting for the upcoming years. Our aim is to plant trees in a way that most optimises their growth – through finding an appropriate rootstock, picking a local species, and through spacing different trees out so that their growth is roomy and also fluid. We are super excited about the prospect of getting trees growing at PBM, and think it will contribute to a magical and wonderful environment. It is our hope that in the years to come the small forest will offer a place for a close and harmonious engagement with nature. We want, to paraphrase ‘The Lorax’, to: ‘Plant a seed inside the earth. Just one way to know its worth. Let’s celebrate the world’s rebirth. We say let it grow’. One small step at a time!
5. We can learn a lot from the humble squirrel
There is a reason that squirrels are always foraging. For every nut that they find and consume, around six are gathered and buried in the soil. In the short-term, this is not in the squirrels’ best interest – they have to spend many of their waking hours searching for food, since 85% of their earnings are disposed of. But in the long-term, the squirrels are pretty switched on. Their behaviour is based on the assumption that if just one of the buried nuts turns into a fruitful tree, the squirrels, and the generations that proceed them, will never experience scarcity. Squirrels are wizards of permaculture – from an understanding of their place within the natural world and the principles of nature, they harmlessly contribute to a thriving and sustainable ecosystem. How amazing would it be if all humans behaved this way? If our actions were motivated by a humble future, and not a greedy present? If squirrels, with their mammalian brain, can demonstrate foresight and humility that lends itself to a bright future, we can engage with our shared neural structures to act in similar ways. If you want to find a permaculture role model, start by going to your local park!
That’s what we learnt about permaculture from our short time researching. We are excited to learn more going forward, and to see the principles in action in the future at PBM. Watch this space!