What are the twelve principles of permaculture?

In many ways, permaculture is a creative pursuit – practitioners are always looking for better solutions to problems, and those solutions usually rely on the generative powers of nature. At the same time, permaculture is a disciplined set of practices.

The center of the image below shows the three pillars of permaculture. In all their actions, permaculture practitioners strive to care for the Earth, care for people, and fairly share resources.

While these goals are self-explanatory, the twelve principles of permaculture – represented around the outside of the image – are a little more difficult to grasp. As the Northern Hemisphere heads into the winter season, That Blog will spend twelve chilly weeks exploring these principles. Then, as spring approaches again, posts will return to practical questions about how to apply these principles.


What are the twelve principles of permaculture?

What is sense of place?

Imagine driving down the main street of a town you’ve never visited before. What would you rather see there – a McDonald’s and a Walmart, or a local diner and drugstore?

While seeing familiar chain businesses helps us feel oriented, it also leaves us with the impression that we haven’t really gone anywhere. Travelling doesn’t seem worth it when every place looks the same.

We travel because we want to experience something new – different food, different architecture, different customs. These unique attributes create a sense of place – the feeling that where we are isn’t the same as everywhere else. The sense of place we have about our own hometown comes from the feeling that where we live is special and worth being proud of.

Plants are a key contributor to a sense of place. We enjoy seeing prairies full of wildflowers in the Midwest, palm trees in Florida or California, and cacti in the desert states.

When every town is carpeted with lawns, we lose the opportunity to experience America’s diverse landscapes. We also give up unique features of our own town, replacing them with a flat, homogeneous vista.

In the past, having a well-maintained lawn showed pride in the place where one lived. Today, people with natural yards show pride in their home by gardening with plants that reflect the distinctive character of the region.

What is sense of place?

What do people in other countries have in their yards?

Largely, people in other countries don’t have yards at all.

In the United States, most communities have zoning ordinances that require houses to have large front yards. Oddly enough, the main reason for this is lawns. Frederick Law Olmsted, best known as the designer of Central Park in New York, believed that suburban homes should have large front lawns to create the impression that the homeowners all lived in a common park. Since the mid-1800s, his vision has been copied across the country.

As well as being set back from the street, American houses also tend to sit on relatively large properties. In other countries, urban lots are smaller. This allows for dense development that keeps communities walkable, instead of being dependent on cars.

Within their lots, houses in most foreign cities are set close to the street. This puts a higher percentage of the property behind the house, where homeowners can enjoy a roomy, private backyard.

For the most part, these backyards do not contain lawns. Instead, they’re likely to feature flowers or vegetable gardens, as well as offering something for wildlife. In the UK, about half of households put out food for birds, one in five offer a nesting box, and 16% have a pond in their yard.

When homeowners in other countries do have a lawn, they’re very different from lawns in the US. In Paris, the average lawn includes nine different plant species – about eight of them native to the area – and is mowed only four to six times a year.

Gardeners in other countries also forego formal hedges, when straight lines would hurt wildlife. In Stockholm, Sweden, caretakers of allotment gardens – similar to community gardens in the US – typically leave hedges untrimmed when birds are nesting in them.

While the American lawn is derived from grand estates in 1700s Europe, today most people around the world consider lawns to be a special feature for noteworthy properties, such as Parliament houses and historic buildings. Few countries see lawns as appropriate for residential yards.

What do people in other countries have in their yards?

Do plants feel pain?

Ah, the smell of a freshly-mowed lawn. For some people, it’s a favorite summer aroma. But where exactly is it coming from?

What we are really detecting, when we experience the scent of cut grass, is a chemical called auxin. Auxin is a chemical that plants release when they are damaged. In nature, this damage is usually caused by herbivores, while in modern life, it’s caused by lawnmowers.

The primary function of auxin is to initiate a healing process. Much as a blood clot seals a wound and helps it begin to heal, auxin closes off the damaged site on a plant and begins to repair it.

Auxin may also have a communicative function. It is known that plants can detect chemicals in their environments, and detecting the auxin of a neighbor may signal a plant to begin protecting itself from an approaching herbivore, by producing more of the chemicals that make plants unpleasant to eat.

Clearly this defense mechanism is ineffective against an approaching lawnmower, but it is fascinating to think that as you mow your grass, it may be calling “Hey, watch out!” to the other side of the lawn.

Plants are aware of damage that happens to them, and, like any organism, they are motivated to do what they can to avoid it. Whether they experience this damage as what we would call pain is a question we may never be able to answer.

Do plants feel pain?

What are pesticides? #2

As a previous post explained, pesticides are chemicals formulated to kill living organisms. They are usually intended to kill insects, rodents, weeds, or fungi. But, these were not their original targets.

During World War II, many scientists built their careers on inventing weapons to harm enemy combatants. The most famous of these weapons was the nuclear bomb, but many chemical weapons were also devised during this period.

After the war, as has been documented by Naomi Oreskes and other journalists, some of these scientists went on to deny the link between smoking and cancer, the existence of human-caused climate change, and other serious public health issues. Meanwhile, others wondered what to do with chemical weapons during peacetime.

Soon, they hit on an idea: reformulate chemicals intended to kill humans, and market them as products for killing household pests.

Contrary to common belief, the US government does not require pesticides to be proven safe before they can be sold to the public. In fact, many of the components of pesticides have not been tested at all for their effects on human health. Many of those that have been tested have been found to cause cancer.

It should not be surprising that chemicals developed to harm humans still harm humans when they are reformulated into a watered-down version. Still, most people do not follow safety precautions – such as wearing protective clothing and not spraying more than needed – when using pesticides.

By using pesticides carefully, or by not using them at all, we can protect our own health and that of our neighbors.

What are pesticides? #2