Many people are just starting to learn about permaculture. While some say it isn’t rocket science, it is a combination of many traditional disciplines from school. I spent years in school for Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Business in addition to years in the working world of Pharmaceuticals, Engineering, Electronics and never found a discipline that put so many pieces together as I did with permaculture. I received an e-mail one day about a job that is opening up, Urban Agriculture Extension Specialist. I thought wow; this may be just up my alley. I just completed my permaculture certificate and I wanted to specialize in suburban and urban settings. No luck, they wanted a Masters degree and several semesters of agriculture classes, but why? Permaculture is so much more. In my opinion, it is way beyond anything I learned in school. Here are some examples of how the sciences are blended, and some common terms that are thrown around in permaculture circles and my own interpretation of what they mean.
Agronomy – science of soil management and crop production. This is one of the fundamentals of permaculture. Without rich soil it is hard to grow anything.
Anatomy – The study of organisms and their parts. To fully understand the relationships of plants, organisms, animals you have to understand how they work, and then how they work together.
Anthropology – The study of the origin, behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans. While it is not in much detail, learning about how previous civilizations and cultures worked the land, gives insight and we are now often repeating some of their practices.
Bacteriology – The study of bacteria, especially in relation to medicine and agriculture. Definitely here used in permaculture. Bacteria are in the soil, in aquaponics, in circles of organisms used in permaculture designs.
Biochemistry – The study of the chemical substances and processes in living organisms. How to the plants and animals interact, nitrogen fixing, and bioaccumulation.
Biology – The science of life and living organisms. Basically all of permaculture relates to biology in some way.
Botany – The study of plants. You will get to know plants on a whole new level, how they act, who they work well with, who are their enemies.
Business – While many wouldn’t associate business with permaculture, at one of its cores is minimal inputs for maximum outputs. This is a fundamental for how businesses work. But rather than money you use energy and resources. Not only energy in the form of electrical or gas, but people energy, work and labor. Resources can be from things you buy, to seeds, to materials.
Cartography – The art or technique of making maps or charts. Designing maps, layouts for properties, how to read various types of maps and layouts. Designing your own maps and layouts is a key aspect in permaculture design.
Chemistry – The science of the composition, structure, properties, and reactions of matter, especially of atomic and molecular systems. From chemistry of the soil, to chemistry of plants, chemistry of nutrients in feed, to aquaponics. Chemistry is all over.
Ecology – The study of organisms and their environment. This again is basic permaculture. Before I heard about the term permaculture, I had considered going back to school for ecology. Glad I didn’t. It is just a small portion of what I have learned.
Engineering – The application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge in order to design, build, and maintain structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. From building, dams, waterways, bridges, houses, water catchment. There are all sorts of engineering concepts at work.
Entomology – The scientific study of insects, both beneficial and harmful insects. What bugs like to eat your plants, and what bugs like to eat the bugs eating your plants? Who is a good pollinator, and who will make you cry when it is harvest time.
Forestry – The science and art of cultivating, maintaining, and developing forests. From edible food forests, to orchards, to harvesting trees for fuel or other properties, trees are a big part of permaculture.
Genetics – The study of heredity and inherited traits. Breeding your own plants, what plants will cross pollinate. How to get a species to grow in your area with your soil makeup, your temperature, be disease and drought resistant, and produce a good edible product?
Geography – The study of the earth and its features. Using the features of the land to work with your design, rather than making the land features what you want. Learning about terrain, and natural makings of the earth’s features are a key component in permaculture.
Herbology – The study and use of medicinal properties of plants. The vast majority of today’s pharmaceuticals aka drugs came from plants. There are some many beneficial medicinal plants out there, you will learn quite a bit.
Horticulture – The science, technology, and business involved in intensive plant cultivation for human use. While this is permaculture the big schools have made this into monocroping and how to grow corn, soy, and wheat and not much else, and adding lots of chemicals in the process. At its base, horticulture is permaculture.
Hydrology The study of the properties and effects of water on earth. Here again, a base fundamental of permaculture. Hydrating the soil and making the most of the water.
Ichthyology The study of fish. In ponds, streams, and aquaponics, knowing what the appropriate fish for your application are, and what ones to avoid are important.
Medicine The science of diagnosing and treating disease and damage to the body. Similar to herboilogy we can grow so much of our own medicines; we could potentially put the pharmaceutical companies out of business.
Meteorology The study of weather and atmospheric conditions. Studying the weather patterns, winter sun, summer sun, and rainy seasons, are an iatrical part of permaculture.
Microbiology The study of microorganisms and their effects on other living organisms. From under the soil, to in the compost bin the various microbes in the soil are an important part of permaculture.
Mineralogy The study of minerals, including their distribution, identification, and properties. Knowing what minerals are in your soil is important, but what is also important is how to obtain lacking minerals, where are those minerals found, what plants can harvest certain minerals, and how to use them.
Mycology The branch of botany that deals with fungi. From breaking down toxins, to making new soil fungus is among us in permaculture.
Nutrition The study of food and nourishment. What plants produce what nutrition? What does your body need, what plants and nutrients to the animals need? What nutrients do the plants need? It is all related.
Thermodynamics The study of relationships and conversions between heat and other forms of energy. From making greenhouse, to heat sinks out of rocks, to how to design you house or structure so that you are using less energy to heat or cool. Understanding thermodynamics and how it works is important.
Toxicology The study of poisons and the treatment of poisoning. Some plants are toxic, some are beneficial in small amounts but overdue it and it is death. Some species thrive in toxic environments. But like herbology, understanding how much of a good thing to use before it becomes something bad.
Zoology The study of the structure, physiology, development, and classification of animals. Lifecycles of plants, animals and insects, or when to introduce chickens into an area to break the invasive insect species life cycle is part of permaculture.
These are but a few examples. There is so much more to permaculture. Once you get hooked, it is a paradigm shift for many. You look at every problem through permaculture principals, not just a landscape.
If you are just getting into permaculture there are some terms you may hear that sound odd, but are simple to explain.
“Chop and Drop” – Chop and drop is a means to get green compost. It simply means to cut living plans and drop whey they lay or apply to another area. The plants break down, and give back their nutrients to the soil. They also hold moisture in by covering bare ground.
“Contour” – The parts of the property all at the same elevation. Think of a hill. If you were to take a giant samurai sword and cut through the entire hill all at exactly a level horizontal line, that would be a contour line. Now, keep slicing up and down every few feet. You would get a topographical map. The lines on a topographical map are all on the same elevation.
“Food forest” – This is an intentional planting of trees, bushes, plants so that once established will need very little maintenance and will continually produce food for people and animals.
“Middle story” – The middle layer of tree or shrub growth part of the forest.
“Monocrop” – Growing only one species of crops in an area. What you see conventional farming. This required large amounts of chemicals to be sustainable, which it is not, and is killing the soil.
“Nitrogen Fixer” – a plant that absorbs nitrogen from the air and through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria deposit the nitrogen into the soil at the roots.
“Over Story” – The upper part of the canopy or forest.
“Swales” – Ditch with a hill on the down side of a slope. A swale can be any number of sizes it all depends on where it will be used. From a few inches across and deep to large enough to drive a large tractor in. It is a ditch, with the dirt piled on the downhill side of the ditch. The goal is to trap water, allow it to seep into the ground as opposed to running off the property. Trees are typically planted in the piled up earth.
“Understory” – The lower part of the food forest. Ground level.
“Water flows at 90 degrees to contour” – What this basically means is water will run downhill. If you were on a contour line, and emptied a pail of water it would run 90 degrees to the line. Or another way of saying it, it would try to dun downhill. But when you are trying to map out a property, and keep the water on the property as long as you can, it is important to know which direction the water will go wherever you are standing. A common way to say this is it will run 90 degrees to the current contour line you are examining.
“Water Harvesting” – This cam mean several things. But basically you want to collect all the water you can. From rain water, to runoff, to creeks, etc. water is the backbone of your permaculture project. You must have water to feed the microbes, which feed the soil, which in turn feeds the plants. Harvesting can be in the form of rain barrels, swales, or dams and ponds.