Using Practical Permaculture Principles to Help Us Think Like an Ecosystem
At Hill Top Farm the functions and dynamics of healthy natural ecosystems provide the framework and inspiration for our on-farm decision-making, as well as the structure and content of our Permaculture courses.
Nature has had millions of years to fine tune the process of designing sustainable self-maintaining ecosystems. Natural ecosystems, whether they are rainforests or desert scrublands, do not produce waste or pollution. Non-renewable resources are not part of the system. Natural ecosystems do not need anyone to spread mulch, fertilisers, control pests, weed or mow. They take care of these things themselves.
When re-creating our own systems, it makes sense to utilise nature’s accumulated wisdom, particularly as our systems are still subject to the laws of nature and operate as ecosystems. Even in dramatically modified environments like cities and industrial agriculture, simplified food webs, nutrient cycles and other ecological processes occur. Plants photosynthesise, invasive species find niches, and rodents together with microbes work to decompose our waste.
Like natural ecosystems, each human-modified system we create has regularly interacting and interdependent components, forming a unified whole, interdependent with the biosphere. In acknowledging that our gardens, farms and communities function as ecosystems, we can start increasing their capacity to do so.
In our planning and day-to-day decision-making at Hill Top Farm, we try first to think like a natural ecosystem. We apply ‘upstream’ thinking, with our aim being ecological rationality. To help us achieve this aim, we use practical Permaculture principles together with other simple and universally applicable design principles we have translated from ecology. These provide us with a toolkit of thinking tools helping us mimic the functions and dynamics of natural ecosystems within our own projects.
Modeling energy and natural resource inputs and outputs at Hill Top Farm
We then think ‘downstream’ at how we can practically achieve the outcomes we desire. This is a subtle shift in thinking, but one that distinguishes Permaculture as a strategy for genuine environmental, social and economic sustainable design, rather than just an umbrella organisation encompassing a hotchpotch of different useful strategies and tools for achieving environmental sustainability — composting, herb spirals, biogas, chook tractors, swales, renewable energy, natural building and companion planting for instance. Unfortunately, as David Holmgren states in his book Permaculture – Principles and Pathways beyond sustainability, “It could be argued that Permaculture has contributed to the spread of some innovative design solutions that illustrate Permaculture principles, but that it has been less effective in spreading the systems and design thinking which underlies those solutions”. Without first looking at and understanding the ecological rationale behind what we are trying to do, these innovative sustainable design solutions, strategies and tools, may become victims of poor design.
Let’s have a look at a practical example. There is no longer controversy on the value of keeping soil covered. However, if we focus our thinking downstream, we limit our solutions to the off-the-shelf, commonly used tools of plastic sheeting, mulch or green manure crops. Like many other farms we too have had to buy bales or employ others to slash and bale our paddocks, to then spend several weeks each year tirelessly spreading mulch.
In trying to find a way out of this time consuming task, we looked to nature for inspiration. In natural ecosystems, high inputs of machinery, human, non-renewable and financial energy are not required to create mulch. Healthy natural systems are excellent at recycling resources by simply growing layers of vegetation, and depositing the plant and animal biomass on site.
Living ground covers and vegetation stacking
How could we mimic what nature does naturally? Instead of expending human and financial energy every year buying mulch, we are now growing three or more layers of vegetation in our banana plantation and orchard to contribute mulch. We are also making sure to select plant species that provide additional ecological functions, like nitrogen-fixation, soil de-compaction, together with insect and bird attracting species. In doing so we are using mostly solar and biological energy, instead of human energy, and eliminating our inputs of non-renewable energy.
If you come to Hill Top Farm you will see other examples of how we are developing and managing our farm as an ecosystem. Examples include, grazing that mimics the Serengeti Plains of Africa and poultry food forests. Our focus is converting a monoculture of tropical grasses into a bio-diverse, productive and regenerative landscape. We demonstrate successful Permaculture design, from the general overall layout and functionality of the property, down to the details in the placement of plant species. By growing plants where they are most ‘happy’ their needs are met by nature, rather than needing lots of energy and material resources from us. We achieve this by matching their ecological niches with our different microhabitats.
How we get cow peas and millet to grow in dense tropical pastures
Hill Top Farm’s intentionally built environment also exemplifies sustainable system design by mimicking all facets of natural ecosystems. Virtually all the energy to run the farm comes naturally from the sun. Whilst nutrients are recycled within the farm via closed-loop compost toilet and grey water systems.
We have exciting new Permaculture Courses at Hill Top Farm. Click here for more information.