Nature as our teacher

Nature as our teacher

Systems in nature work together in harmony, and through permaculture we can apply the same principles to the way we farm – or grow our veggies.

Words Kahu de Beer. Illustration Lisa Lodge

These past few months we’ve been staying on a farm in Northland and getting an insight into rural life. We’ve experienced a lot of mud (and subsequently all become gumboot wearers), waited patiently for chicks and turkeys to hatch, moved animals from paddock to paddock when grass got low, drenched sheep, and even been witness to the home-kill process – don’t ask me about this one. Living here has made us far more aware of the seasons and the cycles of nature. 

Everyone on this farm, including the  animals, has a job to do. The chickens, for example, lay eggs and forage for insects, which reduces the number of pests that get into the garden, while their manure is also fertiliser for the garden. Plus, they provide free entertainment for my three girls. There is little waste in this kind of environment; everything that can be used again, is.

Although this farm is not set up specifically as a permaculture farm, many of the same principles can be seen operating here. Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is a concept that emerged in the seventies from Australian Bill Mollison. During his many years as a wildlife biologist Mollison observed how systems in nature worked in harmony with each other, creating their own energy and recycling their waste: they were sustainable. With industrial-agriculture methods dominating much of our food production, Mollison wanted to use his insights to design and create sustainable agriculture methods – ones that weren’t dependent on non-renewable resources and did not pollute our land and water. 

By making decisions with these permaculture principles in mind (see right) we begin to feel more connected to the systems that we rely on daily for our survival. It also helps us to move from a perspective that is just about us to one that is about the earth and all who inhabit it.  

Permaculture and you

If you were to set up a permaculture model from scratch, you would ideally take the time right at the beginning to analyse your land and all that occupies it, including your house, garden, people and animals. You would look, too, at aspects such as your climate, landscape and the purpose of the land – whether you are wanting to run a farm or just grow a few vegetables for your family. The next step would be to come up with a design where each of the components would work together to benefit the others. This design would seek to minimise waste, human labour and non-renewable energy input. 

If, however, this isn’t the case and you have only just discovered that permaculture is not, in fact, an eighties hairstyle but, rather, an ecological concept, fear not. There are many simple improvements you can make to your existing garden, such as planting the herbs and veggies you eat the most of close to your house where you can access them easily. You could also try companion planting or introducing animals such as chickens. One goal you could strive for is to produce less waste, or further, turn your waste into a resource. Examples of this could be starting
a compost heap, worm farm, or grey water system (check with your local council first). Permaculture practices encourage us to think in a cyclic way rather than a linear one. Nature is the great teacher on this. 

Permaculture design principles can be applied to any area, anywhere. With an understanding of how natural systems operate, and working with nature, we can start seeing the benefits of applying these principles in our own surroundings. Permaculture is about looking creatively at what you already have and using it to your advantage; turning problems into solutions. As Mollison once said, “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency!”

Permaculture is based around three principles

Earth care 

Making sure all life systems on earth can continue and grow. Our survival depends on this.

People care

Everyone having access to basic resources to keep them alive. It also promotes the working together of families and communities toward the common goal of wellbeing for all. 

Fair share

Taking only what we need and no more, ensuring there is enough for everyone both now and in the future. It includes redistributing surplus; this could be as simple as sharing an abundant crop with those in your neighbourhood.


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