Sunday, 27 December 2015

Ken Thompson's "Sceptical Gardener" and permaculture

I have just been reading one of my Christmas presents, Ken Thompson's Sceptical Gardener.  I am prepared to forgive him for writing for the Telegraph but his dismissal of permaculture is a little perfunctory.   While understanding his conservative audience, maybe a little more circumspect research would have given him a few more insights. 

He makes much of looking at several websites.  I realise that today’s students are encouraged to use the internet as a useful tool.  However, I always taught that going to the original peer reviewed published research was a much better way of exploring ideas. 

While Bill Mollison’s book “Permaculture a Designer’s Manual” is a little out of date being published in 1988, it is still a research tool of choice when considering permaculture.  The web sites are eclectic and reflect permaculture's inclusiveness.  It is not necessary to agree with most views on these sites because they are just individual interpretations of the basic principles in the Manual. 

Ken Thompson seems to equate permaculture with forest gardening and then dismiss it because it is not a valid method of producing enough food to feed the world.  Totally agree that forest gardening is not a panacea for all the world’s problems; however it is not a significant part of permaculture.  I would suggest, however, that good design of new forests would produce a lot more resources than the monocultures do at present. 

Although there is little mention of forest gardening in, “Permaculture a Designer’s Manual” it is easily integrated into the framework as are other methods and philosophies.  The experimental works of Martin Crawford and Patrick Whitefield have indicated that productive forest trees can be designed into a landscape in order to produce useful crops.  However, this is just one, and the most remote, of five areas or zones that permaculture designs make productive for human food and materials sustainability. 

Unfortunately for someone that wants to take permaculture seriously, it does seem to have been hijacked by the more extreme members of the environmental movements.  Biodynamics, lunar gardening, new wave philosophy together with American survivalists all seems to include permaculture type concepts in their literature.  However, these ideas are not permaculture and neither is forest gardening. 

So what is permaculture?  It is an overarching landscape design procedure.  It takes the fundamental factors of living systems and designs them to achieve the most productive and sustainable and abundant outcomes that a particular landscape and its topography can provide.  It seeks to control elements like water and nutrient availability through low appropriate technology.  It is pragmatic in the extreme.  It celebrates what works.  It is based on a careful consideration of landscape potential together with intense observation. 

No matter where it has been tried throughout the world – Australia, Ethiopia, China, Jordan, Morocco, United States, Britain – it seems to be an effective way of producing a very sustainable, low fossil carbon method of agriculture and horticulture. 

It is a method of mitigating the effects of environmental extremes like flooding and drought and turning what seems to be impossible growing environments to advantage.  It seems to work both at the macro and micro level.  I have adopted many of the principles of permaculture in the small landscape of my allotment and, although it is still early days, it would seem to be achieving what I want it to do.  I don't have a slug problem but I certainly have a lack of ducks problem. 

My permaculture design certificate.
Although I was very sceptical, like Ken Thompson, I decided to take the permaculture design course just to have a more in depth understanding of its principles.  The more I learnt and the more I watched the video evidence the less sceptical I became. 

Permaculture reminds landscape designers to consider climate, aspect, water, nutrients, dwellings, access, energy production, recycling, productive fauna and flora, and materials such as clay and gravel.  It melds all these elements into a synergetic system which is designed to meet the reasonable needs of people. 

So it’s a little more than planting nut trees Ken Thompson.    

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