Note: This article was originally written for the Beaver Creek Dam News.
Larry Wall, the creator of the Perl computer programming language, identifies the chief virtues of a programmer as laziness, impatience, and hubris (and I, as a programmer, have plenty of all three). I would say that laziness is also one of the chief virtues of permaculture. The term "permaculture" comes from shortening "permanent agriculture," or "permanent culture," with the aim of creating an ecosystem that will outlast the designer. (I can think of no greater state of laziness than being dead.) The ideal permaculture design is one in which the only work that needs to be done is harvesting. While the reality is that no design will completely eliminate human work, even if only to guide the progression of the ecosystem, the goal is to avoid as much work as possible. Most of the heavy lifting, once the design is established, is done by nature. For example, rather than spraying insecticides to kill crop-eating bugs, permaculture lures in beneficial organisms to control pests. Rather than heavily fertilizing and tilling soil, permaculture uses the plants themselves, along with bacteria, fungi, worms, and bugs to build soil fertility. Permaculturists also often enlist the aid of animals in order to till and fertilize the soil, to control weeds, and sometimes even to help harvest. While traditional gardening is dominated by annuals, which must be planted (and in some cases transplanted) every year, permaculture places a greater emphasis on perennial and self-sowing plants.
Although the end goal is to avoid doing work, the necessity is that a lot of work must be done in planning and developing a permaculture design. One must determine which plants are needed in order to fulfil the required functions. The soil may need a jump start (especially if the soil had previously been abused), often through a technique known as sheet mulching, which can be very labour intensive. However, the ultimate payoff is a garden that mostly cares for itself and that requires much less labour than conventional gardening (and maybe even less labour than going to the grocery store).
Another virtue of permaculture is greediness. Permaculture tries to squeeze as much productivity out of the land as it can. Conventional gardens grow individual crops in each location. Meanwhile, forest gardening, one of the keystones of permaculture, aims to have seven layers of plants, all growing together (or possibly eight layers, if you take Stamets’ advice of growing mushrooms). Forest gardening attempts to mimic the way that forests grow in nature. Forests are highly productive areas, requiring no input from humans to achieve such a high level of productivity. While most people will think about the trees when thinking about a forest, the forest would not be as productive or as healthy without the shrubs, ground cover, flowers, and vines. Permaculture also aims to reduce "wasted" space, such as paths for accessing the plants, using patterns such as keyhole beds. Keyhole beds also encourage laziness: you can sit in the middle of a keyhole bed and harvest an array of crops around you.
Not satisfied with just demanding much from the land, permaculture expects much from plants as well. Most gardeners will grow a plant for a single purpose, such as for ornamental, or edibility purposes. However, a single plant can perform multiple functions, such as providing food, attracting or sustaining beneficial organisms, providing shade during hot summer days, providing shelter from cold winds, improving soil, providing beautiful flowers, providing fragrance, or providing wood for fuel or for crafts. Permaculturists try to use plants for as many functions as they can provide.
A third virtue of permaculture is attention deficit. Modern farming's monoculture is a permaculturist's nightmare. Boooooring! For permaculture, variety is king. I think that Amanda has lost count of the number of times that I've exclaimed, "Hey, we should grow this plant too!" It is not uncommon for permaculturists to cultivate over a hundred species of plants in a single garden. Diversity improves the chances of survival. While a monoculture can be wiped out by a single type of pest or by unusual weather, a diverse ecosystem is more resilient. If one crop fails one year, other crops can take its place. A diverse ecosystem is also less likely to attract devastating quantities of pests in the first place — a monoculture looks like an all-you-can-eat buffet, while a garden with interplanted crops requires more work for the pests to travel between their favourite meals. Furthermore, pest eaters may be lying in wait, having been initially attracted by their favourite snacks. Having a diversity of plants can ensure that the pest eaters are around year-round: when one plant's flowering season is over, another plant can take over.
Similar to how hard work is required before laziness is allowed, a permaculture design must start with careful observation before the mind is allowed to wander. Permaculture design starts with observing different aspects of the site for factors such as soil composition, sun and wind patterns, wildlife, water, et cetera, at various times of the day, and throughout the year. Some permaculture experts suggest observing for a full year before doing any planting. Observation informs the design, indicating, for example, where different plants need to go in order to take advantage of sun and shade, where barriers are needed, what soil alterations are needed, or what plant functions should be sought out.
I believe, then, that the chief virtues of permaculture are: laziness, greediness, and attention deficit. Amanda suggested to rephrase them as: good time management, good stewardship of the land, and diversity, but I don't mind being called a lazy, greedy guy with a short attenti... Hey, we should grow this plant too!
If you want to learn more about permaculture, I would recommend two books as a good starting point. Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden is a very down-to-earth (pardon the pun), easy to read book with many helpful drawings, tables, and examples. It outlines all the basic permaculture principles, and explains how to create a permaculture design.
For those who want read a story rather than manual, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates’ Paradise Lot is a book about how two friends developed a thriving permaculture garden in a tenth-of-an-acre lot in the middle of the city. With humour and romance (who knew that silk worm caterpillars would make such a wonderful gift for your sweetheart), the book gives a flavour for the process of designing and establishing a permaculture garden. Although it is primarily a story of a single permaculture garden, and does not go into as much detail about different techniques as Gaia's Garden, Paradise Lot still contains a lot of helpful information.