Permaculture and whole-systems design |

Permaculture and whole-systems design

by Eartha Steward

The term permaculture has been coming up a lot recently, but most of us only have a vague sense of what it actually means.

Permaculture and whole-systems design are based on the idea that people are smart, but nature is smarter. How we can make our systems, from food to the layout of our towns, mirror the intelligence of natural systems?

The term was first developed in Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holgrem, but the concept is nothing new: Traditional societies have been practicing “permaculture” by living in harmony with their surroundings and their resources for millennia.

So here it is: Permaculture strives to apply the intelligence and long-term self sustained productivity of nature to human systems, creating abundance, zero waste and fundamental sustainability.

The truth is, we don’t live in a vacuum. I think we can all agree that in the world we live in, everything has an effect of some sort on something else. In permaculture, we strive to look at the whole system and how each part is affecting all other parts of that system. If you put things in the right order, you can create a closed loop, where the “waste” of one part of the system is a resource instead of a pollutant to another part of that system.

Let’s say there is a river people have always loved to swim in and boat on during the summer. Over the last few years, the river has started to be choked out by reeds and the water has become completely useless for recreation. One solution the town council comes up with is to spray the reeds with herbicide to get rid of them. This will further damage the ecological diversity in the river, making the water more mucky and filled with algae. The reeds will come back next year, needing to be sprayed again. The result is a lot of money spent, more pollution and destruction created, and the problem keeps coming back.

If you take a step back, you can see the whole system that is creating the problem with the reeds. A few years ago a commercial pig farm was built upstream. Every time it rains, the nutrients from the pig manure are running into the river. Just downstream from them, there is a flower farm that fertilizes their flower crops. Again, we have excess nutrients, soaking into the river water. The reeds are thriving on all of this excess nitrogen and have started to grow rampantly.

What if we use the manure from the pig farm as a compost fertilizer for the flower farm? The flower farms excess foliage could even be used as supplemental feed for the pigs. We save the money, resources and even the gas for transportation for both fertilizer and pig food. We don’t have pollutants entering the water allowing the ecosystem to keep itself healthy. We no longer have so much excess nitrogen going into the river, either. The direct result is that the reeds will not continue to overgrow and the people can enjoy the river for recreation once again.

By using permaculture’s alternative perspective and common sense, we look at the entire system, what your resources and wastes are, and how you can restructure them to create the least work and the maximum benefit. This whole-systems approach naturally creates a lack of pollution, harmony with our environments, localized systems, is less expensive and gets our needs well met.

On Saturday from 1-3 p.m. at the Alpine Earth Center, HC3 will be offering a workshop on the basics of permaculture and whole-systems design and how to apply them to your garden. To RSVP to the workshop, contact the High Country Conservation Center at (970) 668-5703. There is a suggested donation of $10, and special guest Britt Basel will be the instructor. For more information, visit

This column of Eartha Steward is written Britt Basel as a guest of the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Please submit questions regarding permaculture to Britt at and all other inquiries to Eartha at

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