Permaculture as an approach to planting design for landscape architects

Permaculture at Glovers Street Organic Community Garden in Sydney

Permaculture at Glovers Street Organic Community Garden in Sydney

Permaculture is an attractive idea and may become an economic necessity (as argued in the video below) when the oil supply begins to run out. Permaculture relates to the ancient agriculture of West Asia but, in its modern form, originated in Australia and was popularised by Bill Mollison. My worry is that too often it looks cheap and nasty, with coloured plastic, rusty iron, wire and junk. My hope is that landscape architects will make it more beautiful and more efficient – so that food forest gardening can become one of the standard approaches to managing vegetation in urban and rural areas. I can add to my concerns about London’s 2012 Olympic Park the fact that it is being designed for recreation, aesthetics and biodiversity only – not for urban food production.
The above image, of Permaculture at Glovers Street Organic Community Garden in Sydney, illustrates the point that if Permaculture is to win the success it deserves then it must look good as well as being good. See the video, below of a beautiful Devon farm and also these links

A 2008 paper from DEFRA examined the UK’s food supply and supplied these figures

  • pre – 1750 around 100% (in temperate produce)
  • 1750 – 1830s around 90-100% except for poor harvests
  • 1870s around 60%
  • 1914 around 40%
  • 1930s 30 – 40%
  • 1950s 40 – 50%
  • 1980s 60 – 70%
  • 2000s 60%

The amazing figure of 70% in the 1980s was caused by the fabulously generous EU agricultural subsidies. Food prices and the proportion of GDP spent on food has been in decline for half a century. It is now rising and this could be the stimulus to make the UK self-sufficient in food. This ignores the UK’s reliance on oil to produce the food but, as argued in the video, this problem could be solved by a change to forest gardening and permaculture techniques.

30 thoughts on “Permaculture as an approach to planting design for landscape architects

  1. Benz

    If I take myself, I find there is an inner and vital need to hunt (mushrooms and not meat) and to grow things (food and flowers). I think these needs are within all of us and I agree with Tom that the Olympic Park should be given back to the people, not as large expanses of open space, but as productive land to grow food and flowers for families. Yes water space to account for natural flows and flooding, but unnatural banks and mounds are all kind of pointless. The benefits of urban agriculture are enormous in terms of community well being, family dynamics, health of individuals, food security, food miles and carbon footprints, biodiversity, fun, education, stewardship…

  2. Whitney Hedges

    I think this summer I will dig up my ornamental front garden and plant food it may not feed all of us but maybe it will provoke interest.

  3. Benz

    I am just in the process of planting 3 grape vines along my front garden property boundary – get lots of sun. These have to be in pots as there is a sewer running underneath. I have installed the upright stakes within the pots with concrete, I have ordered the grapes (3 different varieties – desert types) and will soon plant the vines and install the horizontal wires. My very own vineyard! Grapes are easy if you have sun! I am also using limestone chippings in the soil as grapes like lime. A great place to buy vines: C.W Groves & Son Ltd –

    I am looking forward to a bumper crop as well as screening my neighbours cars and providing more greenery along the street!

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    How about a trellis for the grape vines? Their use in gardens has a long pedigree.

    Thank you for the Carolyn Steel TED link. She is an architect and is doing a good job of integrating consideration off ood and urbanism – but not nearly enough to consider urban agriculture. She should see the excellent work done by a landscape architect (Jac Smit, my former friend and boss). He established the Urban Agriculture Foundation.

  5. Christine

    Sustainability means economic, social and environmental…so food needs to be affordable, accessible and grown in harmony with nature (ecology, geography, metereology etc).

    A sustainable city will be supported by a sustainable food supply.

    What does this mean? Given that food is nature based, an eco-centric rather than an anthro-pocentric view needs to be the foundation of our thinking. This is the bottom up approach. The idea is to understand how the environment can best support food production: and what are the real environmental, social and economic consequences of the food ecological foodprint (land produce food) of Londoners.

    If only 60-70% of land producing food is in the UK what does this mean for the UK if land use beyond its borders changes, local populations increase their consumption, prices rise or there is supply scarcity etc? Where is this other 30-40% of food land feeding London located and what is occurring socially, economically and environmentally in these localities?

    The top-down approach is to consider current food consumption patterns and ask are they sustainable? Simply, asking if fish is being sustainably sourced globally, and committing to eating only sustainable fish is one way of beginning to unravel the puzzle.
    [ ]

    Tackling the problem bottom up and top down is most likely to assist in achieving a sustainable food supply.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes indeed, and I see the bottom up/top down approach to food as a first cousin of my call for the ‘way of the nester’ to balance the ‘way of the hunter’ on most design projects.
    The percentage of household income spent on food ranges from 7.4% in the US to 10% in the UK to 50% in poor countries. My guess is that if the UK %age was doubled then the UK could become a net food exporter of organic food. And if this was done by re-involving a substantial percentage of the population in food production (as Benz reports, above, that he plans to grow grapes in his front garden) then we could all be fitter and healthier.
    The urban design of Chinese cities should also be done with local urban food production as one of the design objectives.

  7. Tian Yuan

    Christine: you are amazingly good at finding interesting material on the web – please can you tell me how you do it. Thank you!:-)

  8. Christine

    Another important plank in understanding food supply to London is the EU CAP policy. [ ] There is are a number of reforms being mooted for 2013. [ ]

    It is fair to say that the policy needs a major rethink environmentally, founded as it is on ‘The Treaty of Rome’ and concerns with postwar food shortages.

    Yuan, I have no idea how I find interesting material on the web. Perhaps, it is because I find the conversation interesting.

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    I have been critical of the EU CAP since I was a student and for all that time reforms have been ‘mooted’, with most of the actual changes making it worse than it was before. Politicians have always treated it as a pork barrel and farmers have grown to like pork (if not the associated paperwork).
    Re web skills, I have noticed that they vary between people as much as other skills and the reasons are the same: talent and experience. I agree with Yuan that Christine is unusually good at using the web to find information and would guess that the skill rests on (1) an analytical ability to pick out the most important keywords (2) excellent knowledge of related keywords. Boolean operators are also useful when searching (ie the facilities offered by Advanced Search to require or exclude keywords)but many people do well without them.

  10. Tian Yuan

    Thank you to Christine and Tom. I also interested in discussing with others in the blog and I value it. Yes, Talent and experience is two requirements to do things well.Talent may not be changed, but I still have opportunity to enrich my experience!

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    The modern world’s greatest inventor, and the founder of the only company to remain in the Fortune 500 list for the whole of the 20th century, remarked that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Thomas A. Edison founded General Electric (GE).

  12. Tom Turner Post author

    I have enjoyed beautiful weather on the Isle of Skye – and woken in a tent next day with the wind howling and the rain lashing. Packing the sodden camping equipment into a sodden rucsack was unenjoyable.

  13. Benz

    Ditto on the Isle of Skye, but drowned my sorrows with a visit to the Talisker brewery. The tour finished with a tumbler full of the smoky stuff and I ended up sleeping away the morning. The landscape was extremely moody and shifted from Mordor to mellow in a matter of moments.

  14. Christine

    Ok. So the Isle of Skye is not a tropical holiday destination. And if you choose to go camping you can expect some challenging weather. I suppose this is why it is called ‘The Misty Isle.’

    Perhaps taking a peak at the general ‘mood’ before deciding whether to stay indoors or out of doors is a good idea. [ ]

  15. Tom Turner Post author

    AAgh, that bridge. It should never have been built and the designers should never have argued that they had produced a context-sensitive design. It’s twee.

  16. Tom Turner Post author

    The problem with the Skye bridge is more than financial (1) the designers came out with a load of rubbish about it being sympathetically designed with regard to the local context. It looks more as though it had been lifted from a bridge designers’ Pattern Book (2) many people thought it diminished the romance of Skye. I am sympathetic to this. If God had were to enroll for one of our landscape architecture courses we would advise him to make more islands for his next billion worlds. And if Scotland’s road planners enrolled, we would advise them that islands are wonderful and should remain islands. If God had wanted a land bridge to the mainland then he would have made it.

  17. Benz

    Whilst I am all for context sensitive design, I do not think the logic stacks up that because there is a channel of water that we need to obey God’s purported purpose and not build anything to cross it. Should we not build bridges across rivers and gorges and link islands…? Perhaps only boats and ships are the answer, but boats and ships require docks and jetties, they pollute and affect aquatic habitats… The logic about having more islands is not quite right either. Yes we love islands and for that matter water bodies and lakes. Canada has over 3 million lakes. Does this mean we should have more in Canada.

    London yesterday was a beautiful spring day and I planted my grape vines. In the potting mixture I put in limestone chippings and mycorrhizal fungus. I am now looking forward to a hot, sunny summer.

  18. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree: the world needs bridges. But the ‘Isle of Mists and Legends’ (Skye)is something special and landscape planning should always respod the Genius of the Place. A bridge to Sheppy is essential (to let the people get away!) but IF anything is to be done to connect Skye to the mainland then the project should have been initiated by imaginative designers and not by structural engineers with pattern books in their back pockets.
    With regard to the world needing more islands, I think a train journey from Berlin to Moscow would help you come round to my point of view!

  19. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree: the world needs bridges. But the ‘Isle of Mists and Legends’ (Skye)is something special and landscape planning should always respod the Genii of the Places. A bridge to Sheppy is essential (to let the people get away!) but IF anything had to be done to connect Skye to the mainland then the project should have been initiated by imaginative designers and not by structural engineers with pattern books in their back pockets.
    With regard to the world needing more islands, I think a train journey from Berlin to Moscow would help you come round to my point of view!

  20. Benz

    There are bridge designers and then there are bridge designers. The problem is not with engineers but the client. Have a look at Santiago Calatrava’s web site – I am keen on on his Brancusi-esque sculptures much like his bridges and architecture but not on his drawings which seem ‘shmaltzy’ – but his ceramics are rather wonderful.

    I kind of agree re more islands and I want one of my own.

  21. Tom Turner Post author

    One could make a good case for Calatrava designing almost anything. BUT maybe not a bridge to Skye. It needed an ego-free design and I doubt if he is the man for this.
    What about a floating bridge which opened for a few hours morning and afternoon to let boats through? It could have been made of rough timber with a lifetime of no more than a century.

  22. Christine

    Tom you are right. Some landscape contexts should be acknowledged as natural heritage contexts requiring the same design sensitivity as important architectural cultural heritage contexts.

    So for Calatrava, it is not so much that he might not be adept at (ego-free) bridge design, so much as it might be important that the brief he receives reflect the importance of the location as natural heritage.

    Perhaps Tom, Calatrava might even incorporate your suggestions about the appropriate ephemeral, temporal and tranistional qualities of the bridge and produce some of his best work yet?

  23. Tom Turner Post author

    I am sure the designers knew that the Skye landscape was important but fear this set them to thinking about the type of bridge one might find in a gentleman’s park – and perhaps even of the bridge at Stourhead This was to make it part of a humanised landscape, which may even be what the residents of Skye wanted. But for those who paid for the bridge (ie not the residents of Skye) the island is a part of wild nature and should not be humanised.
    Maybe Calatrava could have done the job if properly briefed on this point, because he is certainly a brilliant designer, but I think his ego might have got in the way. There is an old remark about a landscape designer never succeeding so well as when you cannot tell that he has been involved – because the scene looks so ‘natural’.

  24. Christine

    How about if we changed the idea of ‘natural’ [ ] (the world’s longest canopy walkway in Malaysia) to ‘minimalist’?
    [ ] Also [ ]

    Continuing the theme is the Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens.
    [ ]

    And here is one that is definitely not minimalist – but I rather like conceptually (for ambition, context and bridging complexity) which is said to be the world’s longest bridge – The Qingdao Hiawan Bridge.
    [ ]

    While the SR520 bridge in Seattle is the worlds longest floating bridge.
    [ ]

    Or there is disappearing bridge/tunnel connecting denmark and sweden.
    [ ]

    None of which you would want to be your ‘final’ bridge design but all of which might trigger that spark of inspiration, rather than ego, in a brilliant mind like Calatrava.


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