By Meghan Kelly. Meghan is co-founder of the Veganic Agricultural Network of North America.

Permaculture is an approach for designing gardens, farms and human settlements to meet the needs of the earth and humans in the long term. Permaculture resources, including books and training courses, generally speak of adding animals to the system. The idea of ‘plant-based permaculture’ may even be met with skepticism by others in the permaculture community. Let’s examine the compatibility of permaculture with veganic growing. But first, a quick introduction to permaculture.

What is permaculture?

Permaculture is guided by three major ethics: care of the earth, as it provides the essential elements of life for all living organisms; care of humans, where everyone’s basic needs are met in a way that also respects the earth; and fair share for all, by equitably distributing resources while recognizing the need to limit consumption and curb population growth.

Permaculture itself is not a specific agricultural technique, but rather a mindset and approach to growing food and living cooperatively with nature, combined with guiding principles to help people put these ideas into action. Permaculture begins with observation. By careful observation of the ecosystems in our own region, we can learn about the natural tendencies of the area: the specific climate, flora, and fauna, as well as more universal aspects of ecosystems, such as a high proportion of perennial plants, complex interrelations between elements of the system, and the presence of diverse polycultures. We also observe the patch of land where we’d like to practice permaculture, to learn about the land’s temperature, sun exposure, soil types, environmental contamination, dips and grooves, and microclimates like dry zones, wet zones, hot spots and cold spots.

We then create a plan, a well thought out design for a sustainable system specific to that piece of land, inspired by the surrounding natural environment. We imitate ecosystems, choosing elements that serve several functions and are beneficially interrelated with other elements in the system. When put into practice, permaculture borrows from the existing wealth of sustainable approaches to growing food. Approaches such as no-till and forest gardening are often integrated, though there is an array of techniques that can be used depending on the individual design plan, the specific region and the space and resources available.

The ideals and guidelines of permaculture are not only useful for creating a sustainable food supply, but can also be applied to all aspects of creating a sustainable culture, such as plant-based permaculture housing, urban planning, economics, and interpersonal relationships.

Compatibility with veganic growing

A variety of habitats around the pond in a forest garden in Totnes, England. Photo: London Permaculture

Permaculture and veganic growing are fully compatible. Neither permaculture nor veganic is a specific ‘technique’: both are based on ideas and principles, and veganic permaculture involves the merging of these two sets of ethics.

Permaculture resources frequently mention the role of animals as elements of natural ecosystems, and as elements of permaculture systems. Often, permaculture resources talk about adding domesticated animals, such as chickens. In veganic permaculture, the role of animals as part of the ecosystem and as part of the permaculture system is still considered and valued, though in the form of free-living animals, not in the form of domesticated animals.

Veganic permaculture systems can be designed with free-living animals in mind, to ensure that habitats and food sources are available to animals that live naturally in the area. Adding water points, hedges, trees, berry bushes, piles of stones and logs for snakes, bat boxes, bird houses, and flowers for pollinators can encourage the presence of wild animals. The majority of animal species are beneficial to food production, and establishing a diversified range of animal species tends to lead to a greater overall balance and stability. Ensuring there are habitats and food sources for free-living animals can also be seen as an extension of the ‘fair share’ ethic of permaculture, by sharing resources with local animals.

Another aspect of all permaculture systems, veganic and non-veganic alike, is to leave certain areas of the land untouched by human activity, as this allows natural ecosystems to regenerate and continue to function, free from disturbances. Protecting key areas, such as marsh lands, forests, water sources, migration routes, and breeding grounds is essential for the continuance and prospering of other species, as well as protecting sizable areas for the animals to carry out their day to day living. In permaculture, by trying to meet human needs in a way that is in line with the needs of the earth, we can work towards rectifying some of the past damages that were done to animals and ecosystems, and provide space for regeneration.

Animals – naturally!

While permaculturalists often add animals to their designs, most domesticated animals are not native to the region, and so they are not necessarily adapted to unfamiliar climates, such as sub-tropical chickens overwintering in North America and northern Europe. Especially for those with a plant-based diet, adding domesticated animals to the system would be a poor use of time, space, and resources, and may even displace land that could be used to welcome marginalized native species. In permaculture literature, domesticated animals are often lauded for their multifunctionality beyond food production, such as cycling nutrients or balancing insect populations; though in natural ecosystems, these functions are already served by soil organisms and indigenous free-living animals. In terms of the oft-cited fertility from manure, the nutrients in the manure come directly from the plants the animals ate, and instead these plants can simply be composted or used as mulch to maintain fertility. And humans are daily producers of manure, the nutrients from which can be cycled back to the land when properly composted.

The addition of domesticated animals is often mentioned in permaculture literature and included in permaculture designs, but why is this the case? Perhaps it’s simply a reflection of the prevalence of meat-centric diets in modern society. In the Transition Towns movement, permaculture is applied on a town scale, and Totnes, England, is a pioneering town in the movement. When doing a study about future food autonomy, ‘Can Totnes Feed Itself?’, the researchers had a choice between a livestock permaculture model or a vegan permaculture model as a basis for their study. They chose a livestock permaculture model, “because it is felt to be the most socially acceptable of the two,” the researchers say. The same could perhaps be said of permaculture literature in general: domesticated animals are frequently mentioned based on the assumption that people eat meat and will continue to eat meat. An unfortunate side effect is the resulting belief that domesticated animals are integral parts of permaculture systems, accompanied by a skepticism amongst permaculturalists about the viability of livestock-free systems.

Sustaining fertility

Permaculture ecosystem: a bird’s nest in the gooseberry bush. Photo: Stephane Groleau

When taking permaculture courses, I’ve noticed uncertainty amongst students and teachers about whether permaculture systems could flourish without the addition of animals or animal fertilizers. Interestingly, in these same courses we were shown how to practice stockfree growing techniques, using plants as the sole source of fertility. After stamping down a meadow and covering it with a thick layer of straw to start a new forest garden, the teacher said, “See, we don’t need any manure, we don’t even need a compost pile. The plants in the meadow and the straw will decompose with the help of the soil organisms. Once the forest garden is established it will create its own mulch.” Permaculture aims for closed-loop fertility systems; and, beyond that, permaculture recognizes the value of self-fertilizing systems, such as forest gardens, that are able to cycle nutrients in a similar way to natural ecosystems, with the presence of perennial plants and free-living animals. The closer we align our growing techniques to the natural functioning of ecosystems, the less we need any sort of added fertility in order for the gardens to prosper.

In the end, any growing system that we choose will be shaped by our initial assumptions. If people want to eat animals, or believe that animals are necessary for human health or agriculture, they’ll design a system accordingly, and may even be skeptical of other approaches. Though when starting from the basis that we want to practice plant-based growing, we can turn our efforts to designing plant-based agricultural systems that are durable, fertile, and adapted to the surrounding environment. Permaculture resources, including books, courses and gatherings, offer a wealth of theory and techniques of great value to plant-based farmers and gardeners who are focused on long-term sustainability.

Further resources for plant-based permaculture

Permaculture: A Beginner’s Guide – book by vegan permaculturalist Graham Burnett: www.spiralseed.co.uk. [Since this article was written, Graham Burnett has written another much larger book: The Vegan Book of Permaculture. Both of Graham’s book are available from VON’s shop: www.veganorganic.net/shop]

The Living Centre – leads veganic permaculture courses in Canada: www.thelivingcentre.com

Veganic Agriculture Network – intro to veganic permaculture: www.goveganic.net/spip.php?rubrique117

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 28 (Winter 2011/12), p28.