To achieve this great production of biomass, the forest needs no inputs but Sun, rain, and
the rock from which it makes its own soil. By comparison, the wheat field is a sorry state.
It needs regular ploughing, cultivating, seeding, manuring, weeding and pest control. All
of these take energy, human or fossil fuel. If we could create an ecosystem like the forest,
but an edible one, we could do without all that oil.
That is the basic idea of permaculture: creating edible ecosystems.
How Does It Work?
What makes the forest so productive and so self-reliant is its diversity. It is not so much the
number of species that is important, but the number of useful connections between them.
We have all been brought up with phrases like 'the law of the jungle' and 'the survival of
the fittest' ringing in our ears, and to think of competition as the natural way that wild spe-
cies interact. In fact, co-operation is just as important, especially when you look at the links
between different species.
Different plants specialise in extracting different minerals from the soil and, when their
leaves fall or the whole plant dies, these minerals become available to neighbouring plants.
This does not happen directly, but through the work of fungi and bacteria which convert
dead organic material into a form which can be absorbed by roots. Meanwhile the green
plants provide the fungi and bacteria with their energy needs. Insects feed off flowers and
in return pollinate the flowering plants. Many plants, such as the aromatic herbs, give off
chemicals which are good for the health of their neighbours. The web of useful connections
grows richer and richer as you look at it.
Some of the edible ecosystems of permaculture may actually look like a forest, for ex-
ample a forest garden, in which fruit trees and bushes, herbs and vegetables are all grown
together, one on top of the other. But in others the copy is not so direct, for example attach-
ing a productive conservatory to the south side of a house. The conservatory helps to heat
the house during the day and the house keeps the conservatory warm during the night, so
tender food plants can be grown in winter. The building does not look like an ecosystem,
but the design is based on the principle of making useful connections. This is what makes
ecosystems work and it is also what makes permaculture systems work.
This can only be achieved by means of careful design. Useful connections can only be
made between things if they are put in the right place relative to each other. So permacul-
ture is first and foremost a design system. The aim is to use the power of the human brain,
applied to design, to replace human brawn or fossil fuel energy and the pollution that goes
Permaculture design is very much about 'wholes'. If someone tells you their farm or
garden is basically conventional but there is a bit of permaculture on part of it, they are mis-
taken. That is not permaculture. Permaculture is a process of looking at the whole, seeing
what the connections are between the different parts, and assessing how those connections
can be changed so that the place can work more harmoniously. This may include introdu-