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Report on Permaculture Design Course in Nicaragua

Kathy Dang's report on her 2004 monthlong Permaculture design course in Nicaragua on Ometepe Island.

By Kathy Dang
This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2004 issue of the Seattle Tilth newsletter.


This past winter I had the opportunity to embark on a new adventure in gardening by participating in a 72-hour permaculture design certification course, taught by instructor Doug Bullock of Orcas Island. This course took place in Nicaragua on Ometepe Island. Before I tell you what I learned, I want to give you a little background on permaculture.

Permaculture is a holistic design based on ecological principles. It seeks to mimic the diversity and interrelationships present within a forest. The word permaculture comes from "permanent culture" and "permanent agriculture" and was coined in 1959 by Bill Mollison an Australian forester, schoolteacher, and naturalist, who was observing the productivity and efficiency of forest ecosystems and wanted to design human systems that would function as well as the forests. In the 1970's, Mollison developed a set of techniques for holistic landscape design that are modeled after nature and still include humans. Permaculture's vision is of people participating in, and benefiting from an abundant, nurturing natural world.

As a gardener who's been focused on growing annual food crops, the permaculture course in Nicaragua really opened up my world. I realized the value of looking at your backyard, home, or farm as a whole living system. The vegetable garden is an important element in that system, but there's so much more. There's water catchment, waste and water recycling, solar energy, perennial food crops and fruit trees, ecological niches and microclimates, sustainable building, and more, all of which should be considered as part of the whole system. The biggest challenge is to balance what you consume with what you produce to create as closed a system as possible.

One of the biggest lessons from the course that I came away with is that nature really is our best teacher, and it's the first place to look when beginning any design. In the design aspect of my course, the participants broke into groups and designed a section of the site where the course took place. This was a very exciting part of the course, because I was able to apply the permaculture principles I learned into a design.

The same permaculture principles I learned in Nicaragua can be applied to an urban environment here in Seattle. There are several principles that guide permaculture design, but I've chosen a few here that have a strong application in an urban setting.

Relative Location
This means placing an element in a location relative to the needs and functions of that element. We should choose appropriate locations for each and every object, according to its function. For example, an annual vegetable garden should be located closer to your house than perennials or fruit trees since annuals need much more care.

We can take this idea of relative location a bit further to discuss the idea of guilds. A guild is a harmoniously woven group of plants placed in a group, often centered around one main species, that benefits humans, creates habitat, and enhances the interrelationships between the plants. Certain species are selected that have strong associations and beneficial relationships with each other and the landscape's ecology.

The guild concept is deeply rooted in native knowledge and practice of sustainable food growing, which we seek to re-learn through permaculture. One of the first guilds was the Three Sisters, planted by indigenous people of North America thousands of years ago. This is a combination planting of corn, beans, and squash, which promotes water and nutrient conservation. As the plants mature, the corn supports the beans, the beans provide nitrogen to the soil, and the squash help keep down weeds and conserve moisture.

Energy Cycling
The goal here is to catch, store, use, and recycle as many resources as possible before letting them leave your property. Urban gardeners can put this principle into practice in their backyards by setting up a rain barrel for catching water that can later be used in the garden. You can also begin to look at everything that comes into your site as a potential resource. During my course, I learned to walk around a site and create a map of the energy that flows through the site, including wind, water, heat, moisture, sun, traffic, and noise. Mapping helps gardeners figure out how to utilize these energies in a landscape design and foster interconnections between the energies.

Multiple Functions
In permaculture, we aim for creating elements that have at least 3 functions. Functions could include things like attracting beneficial insects, choosing plants that provide mulch material, a medicinal product, supporting wildlife, nitrogen fixer or accumulator of minerals, providing beauty, shelter.

An example of this in the Tilth gardens is our multifunctional bench, which serves as a worm bin and has a trellis built onto it, which creates a place for plants to grow and shade our favorite resting place.

Diversity Equals Stability
In permaculture many connections are more important that many individuals. Just like in the forest there are many plants that each serve a purpose and are a vital part of the whole forest system. In your garden, you can build your soil using different soil building techniques, including mulching, composting, and cover crops, because the greater soil diversity you have, the greater plant diversity it will be able to uphold. By bringing diversity into our gardens, we are gardening in the image of the forest.

Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
Permaculture: A designer's Manual, Permaculture One and Two by Bill Mollison
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren
Permaculture Activist Magazine
The Bullock's Permaculture site on Orcas Island
Antioch University's Whole Systems Design Course

Permaculture Ethics

  • Care of the earth. Preserve functioning ecosystems, rehabilitate damaged ecosystems, protect and preserve wild, native habitats, because these are our greatest teachers.
  • Care of people. Create human centered ecosystems and conserve natural resources.
  • Sharing the surplus. Anything in excess is waste, so distribute and share. You can do this through seed saving, pruning and grafting, and donating excess harvest to your local food bank.
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