Permaculture, Not about Gardening

March 01 ,2014 BY Nova Nelson

Photo credit: Mr Teoh, my classmate from the Murujan, PDC 2014.

I attended a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in January 2014. The PDC was organised by Murujan.com and conducted by an experienced and dynamic Permaculture Design consultant and trainer, Mr. Rhamis Kent. When I told people I was going for a PDC, eight out of ten times the response was – What is Permaculture? the other two times I'd get a stereotypical jibe along the lines of…So is this going to be a hippie convention?

I've got nothing against hippies… but there were no hippies here…

Permaculture is not about gardening.

Many seasoned practitioners struggle with laying out a simple definition for Permaculture. This was something we talked about at length during the course. Permaculture is complex. The body of knowledge is vast and practitioners diverse across the globe. It is highly relevant in a world experiencing energy descent and increasing climate change. Coined in the early 1970s by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Permaculture is derived from the words "permanent" and "culture." The body of work intertwines ethics, science, agroforestry, economics, design, art and philosophy.

I've taken some time to distill what it means to me. As an apprentice Permaculture designer living in a dense tropical city, I view Permaculture as:

A foundation of ethics and holistic design principles that offer us thinking tools to help plan, design and create natural and practical systems that will enable us to capture and use energy more responsibly, build sustainable habitats, suburbs and cities, produce healthy and safe food, create positive ecology, educate future generations and develop resilient communities and local economies.

In short, Permaculture if applied with thoughtful observation and action can help us undo some of the socio ecological damage we've created on this planet.


The list below is by no means a summary of Permaculture. Rather it is my curated list of Permaculture ideas that got me thinking about the different ways we could create change. The course was 14 days long and there is so much more I could add to this list. But at this point, I hope these handful of points will trigger enough intrigue so you will set out on your own Permaculture journey, however big or small.

1. Permaculture a set of ethics, creative design process and a thinking tool.

Bill Mollison's (father of Permaculture) , Permaculture, A Designers' Manual is 545 pages long and is a great go to reference for Permaculture practitioners. For anyone new to the topic you can search online for numerous other guides and references. I've found David Holmgren's (co-creator of Permaculture) Permaculture Design Principles website a great place to start. It encapsulates and articulates the ethics, creative designing principles, process and thinking tools in a simple way. I find myself going back to this website for several amazing illustrations including the one below of the Permaculture Design Principles and to learn more about the creative design process.

2. Permaculture It starts with you. We have to start taking personal responsibility for earth care.

Wherever you are, whatever your background, whether you live on a farm or a dense city, from a low, middle or high socio-economic standing, young or old. You can use Permaculture.

The key is to start. In urban areas we could start as individuals. Here are some accessible ways in which we can start earth care in urban areas – by composting, growing your own food, retrofitting your home to capture rain water and solar energy, creating community gardens, growing more trees, creating socio and environmentally responsible enterprises, starting a homestead or bringing food production closer to cities.

The point is individual efforts can create incremental change if it is guided by thoughtful observation, design and action. We learnt about the Dervaes Family Homestead, watch this video, I guarantee you will start thinking of the possibilities close to you. Something which started as a hobby garden led to something bigger triggered by the need to conserve water and the desire for safer food source.

3. Permaculture Integrating and working in harmony with nature is a radical act of change.

During the PDC we learnt a great deal about nature's technology and bio-mimicry. We looked at different ways we could work with nature to re-engineer, retrofit and design habitats and food systems. We also studied ways to use nature's technology to harness incoming energies, protect ourselves from climatic extremes, regenerate harsh environments and create sustainable economic models. We watched a powerful TED video – Willie Smits "How to Restore a Rainforest". I think he is a hero. Watch this great example of how Willie Smits used modern and nature's technology to undo the damage and destruction on a piece of land in Kalimantan.



4. Permaculture Start small, make the connections and create spaces that matter.

Throughout the 14 days PDC Rhamis constantly challenged us to start small and to always create connections and collaborations that will make sustainable design, living, ecosystems, communities and economic models a practical reality for many instead of an alternative path for "fringe" communities.

Do not do it alone, stop preaching to the converted and be prepared to work with different groups of people. This resonated with me. I found this to be true and experienced the power of collaboration on numerous occasions while designing and consulting for a community project for E&O Berhad in Penang, Malaysia.

Again, taking a lesson from nature, often times, the healthiest and strongest natural systems flourish not out of competition but out of functional diversity. Works the same for well organised and inclusive community projects that bringing together different groups of people. That is why I love Pam Warhurst's initiative Incredible Edible, her TED video has made me believe that small actions are powerful and can lead to so much change.



5. Permaculture Bring food production closer to where you live.

While I love nature and am constantly looking to connect with it, the reality is I'm an urbanite. And the truth is I do enjoy life in the city. Urban spaces as we know it are not self dependent. We are breathing oxygen created miles away in green lungs (if there are sufficient ones close to us) or jungles, water is taped from far away provinces, our food takes days to reach us and we are huge consumers of energy and resources. The sooner we arrive at the realisation that urbanites must make earth care part of their every day life, the sooner we can start making incremental change. Permaculture has given me the tools to explore ways to help individuals and communities living in urban spaces weave ecologically positive and edible spaces into their urban fabric.

Two ways urbanites can start. Start composting and start creating ways to bring food sources closer to where we live. Whether through community food gardens, supporting urban farm initiatives or simply growing your own food. I love this example of how we can bring food production closer to where we live.


Nova Nelson

Nova Nelson started Cultivate Central in 2013 after transitioning from a career in Corporate Communications, content creation and community engagement. As a Permaculture Designer she believes a city filled with vibrant, ecological and compact urban gardens will create socially and environmentally connected communities. As a mother she is passionate about exploring Permaculture with children and their communities. She serves clients and communities in Malaysia, where she was born and Singapore where she currently resides.

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