"What is Permaculture?" with Austin Permaculture Guild's Taelor Monroe

It’s planting season!

If you’re an avid gardener, you know the drill: Go to your local plant nursery, drop tons of money to buy seedlings or — if you’re feeling adventurous — try to grow them from seed.

Drop more money to buy pots, raised bed building materials, hoses, soil, fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and get ready for at least one Saturday where you’re doing backbreaking work to get out the weeds, build the beds, prepare the seeds/seedlings, and fertilize and water everything.

At the end of it all, you cross your fingers and pray all of your invested time and funds pay off with beautiful blooms, bountiful harvests, and minimal to no unwanted bugs or pests to ruin it all.

But what if there was a better way?

In the 1970s, bio-geographist Bill Mollison began to experiment with creating an agricultural system that worked with nature’s natural rhythms. Together with his student, David Holmgren, they created a new system of agriculture that is not only time- and resource-saving, but actually builds better soil, healthier ecosystems, requires less water and pest management, and produces prolifically.

They called this new system “permaculture,” a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” due to the method's ability to rebuild and regenerate itself, with minimal human modifications necessary.

To better explain permaculture and its benefits, we interviewed Taelor Monroe, co-director of the Austin Permaculture Guild (APG). Through her work with APG, Taelor spreads her passion for educating people about permaculture.

If spending less money and time on your garden — while enjoying larger, healthier harvests and blooms and building better soils — sounds intriguing, we think you’ll like what Taelor has to say about this fascinating but little-known method!

Thanks for doing this interview! First off, what’s the Austin Permaculture Guild?

The Austin Permaculture Guild is built on three concepts: “Education, Connection, and Diversity.” We offer permaculture design courses [PDCs] for people who are interested to learn how to create a permaculture system, and smaller workshops and other events throughout the year.

We also believe in fostering not only the beneficial connections between different plants, [a key part of permaculture is something called “companion planting,” where certain plants are grouped together because they offer benefits to each other] but also fostering connection between people, and getting to know our neighbors.

Finally, we also focus on diversity. Diversity is crucial not only in plant systems, but in human systems, too. We want this style of gardening and life to be open to anyone who wants to learn!

How would you define permaculture?

I would call it “a system for sustainable design.”

It’s not simply about using different elements of sustainability, like solar power, rainwater catchment, composting, etc., it’s a new language to helping you link those elements together, because they work harmoniously together, to produce no waste.

What are the main benefits of permaculture over conventional gardening?

Conventional home gardening uses a lot more natural process, and is less helpful to the ecosystem. A lot of times you have to use lots of herbicides, and do a lot more managing and dominating nature, instead of letting what’s already there, thrive. You can actually do more harm than benefit to the ecosystem.

Also, it’s a lot less work, which is great! It’s more about relationships between plants, and soil building. We focus a lot on building the soil, so plants will have healthy base.

Focusing on the soil encourages much more resilient plants, and more nutrient-dense foods. There’s also less weeds, and less water used.

OK, so what’s the difference between organic gardening and permaculture?

Organic gardening is simply “better conventional agriculture.” You’re still using fertilizers and other amendments, they’re just organic. Large-scale organic farming still uses things like plastic mulch, lots of water, and creates giant monocultures [a monoculture is defined as growing one crop in one space at a time]. Even in organic home gardens, you’re still having to use a lot of products to manage the garden, instead of observing what’s going on in your backyard, and working with what’s naturally there.

If someone were to look up permaculture, they’ll probably come across new terms like “guilds,” “berms,” “swales” and “hugelkulturs.” Can you explain what these are?

Sure!

Guild: A group of plants that are growing harmoniously together. They’re trading nutrients with each other, and bacteria and fungus in soil. Plants in guilds typically include a nitrogen fixer, and some herbs or flowers for pest management and pollinators, and maybe plants that create shade, if needed. These are usually based around a single plant or tree, in order to support that plant or tree.

[A “guild” to support tomatoes, for example, could include marigolds to deter nematodes at the tomato’s roots, basil to improve tomato taste and to attract beneficial insects, and nasturtium to deter unwanted insects and bring in beneficial ones.]

Berms/swales: These aid in garden bed and water management. Swales are generally good for urban sites, as it’s passive water catchment, and can be used to contain water and direct it. Berms are generally considered good for planting trees.

Hugelkulturs: These can be incorporated with berms and swales. Basically, you’re burying logs, branches and twigs, then covering with materials like dead leaves, green materials, compost, and other materials that plants love. As the logs and other materials break down, you’re creating extremely healthy soil and food for your plants.

As an additional bonus, hugelkulturs help regulate soil temperatures, and the logs, branches and twigs store water, and release it to the plants above as needed. This also reduces the amount of irrigation necessary!

Sounds amazing! If someone was interested in learning more about permaculture, where would you advise they start?

Well, of course, they can check out the Austin Permaculture Guild website, and sign up for the permaculture design courses or one of our workshops.

As for books, I’d recommend “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture” by Toby Hemenway, Masanobu Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming,” and though I haven’t read it yet, I’ve heard good things about “Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience,” also by Toby Hemenway.

Awesome, thank you! And does the Austin Permaculture Guild have any events coming up soon?

Yes! On April 14, we’re starting our permaculture design course, which will be held on the weekends for six weeks. Then we have our EcoFair on March 25, and we have PermaBlitz! events at least once a month, sometimes more, and we encourage people to come volunteer for those.

Thanks for the great info, Taelor!

We hope you enjoyed learning about permaculture! Stay tuned for more gardening-related content this month on our blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube!