Permaculture 101 with Larry Santoyo

Interview by Jill Cloutier
What is Permaculture?

Larry-Santoyo2Larry Santoyo (LS) – Coined in the early 1970s by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Permaculture is a contraction of the words “permanent” and “culture.” Permaculture is a highly developed art, science, and philosophy- all in one. Permaculture Design is a Community Planning and Land Use Planning system that mimics nature. It offers a natural, practical and inherently economical way to model the way we build and operate our homes and communities.

Many people think Permaculture is an organic gardening method.

LS- Contrary to popular belief, Permaculture Design is not about gardening. It is however, based on the observation of nature and therefore very easily adapted to gardens, but Permaculture goes way beyond organic gardening. Permaculture designers learn to observe and research naturally occurring plant and animal assemblies, where total resource efficiency is accomplished by managing waste for productivity. This type of information can be directly translated for use in among other things, regenerative farming practices. Perennial fruit trees, shrubs, and vines, together with livestock and commercial crops are selected to mimic natural assemblies; where each plant and animal benefits the other providing a permanent and maintenance free resource system.

What are the best uses for Permaculture? Can its principles be applied to all sectors; building, transport, energy, livelihood?

LS- Creating community development plans is probably Permaculture Design’s best application. Eco-Urbanism, getting cities and suburbia more sustainable is my biggest interest and I believe is how we will succeed in preserving wilderness and reduce the wasting of our natural resources. People and business need to be made aware of alternatives and taught to adopt a more “conserver” society approach to living and doing business.

The permaculture designer treats the built environment and the natural environment as a whole. Houses are designed not only for optimum solar advantage, but are carefully sited away from sensitive areas. Prime agricultural land and wild lands are preserves.

For economic development, Nature’s model of resource efficiency is used again. In this process an inventory is meticulously prepared, examining a community’s basic needs and cross referenced with its renewable resources. Needs that are not met by local resources are considered job opportunities for the community. Only those resources surplus to local needs are made available as sustainable commodities for sale and trade, thus creating a sustainable ecology based on real need and renewable resources. Mixed use zoning mimics natural systems and is highly recommended for community land use plans. Designing residential and commercial zones into clusters, allows large areas of open and wild space to remain intact. This creates an “access by proximity design” allowing people to live, shop, work, and recreate in the same area. Transportation and traffic problems are greatly reduced. Suburban and urban consumers can also help conserve natural resources and link directly with nearby farms and other rural enterprise.

Reading the landscape and observation seem to play a large role in PC Design.

LS- We teach workshops on “Reading the Patterns of the Landscape” where students and designers learn new observation skills. When you learn to read the landscape you learn that every plant, every animal, every place, and every earth element has intrinsic characteristics and dynamic qualities. As you learn to read the landscape, you see these characteristics and qualities have very specific functions. You learn to recognize that each of these functions contribute to the sustainability, the health and vigor of the total landscape.
We learn that in the geometry of nature predictable patterns do emerge, patterns, orders of streams, branching of trees, the scales of fish, even the cracks in the mud and the blowing wind are filled with lessons. All to teach us the highest and most efficient use of energy and the best use of resources.
Within the flow of earth’s elements lies the critical energies that shape the landscape. We learn to read the landscape and to work within the dynamic principals of any landscape. Earth’s elements; fire, water, earth, air become our teachers, our managers, and our architects!

That’s beautiful. Nature as architect and teacher… Are you in the mood to talk about thistles?

LS- When you learn to read the landscape you come to realize that even the cursed thistle is a powerful and integral part of the total ecosystem, with an important message for those who take the time to read it.

Let’s look at the intrinsic characteristics of the thistle. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a thistle? Most of us would think of thistles as very sharp, prickly, and spiny leaves and any gardener who’s ever tried to pull out thistles would remind us that it, indeed, has long, deep tap roots. This definitely has a message for us, a function. But, in order to tell you the story of the thistle, let me back up a little, to a time before the thistles emerge. Let’s think of a lush grassland, think of the grass itself and its intrinsic characteristics. When you look closely, you discover that grass is meant actually designed to be grazed. That is it grows from the its base, not from its tips. It grows from ground level. Its lush growth is stimulated by being eaten. In the balance of nature, the energy converted to create grass is then designed to be stored and converted into grazing animals. But what happens when the grass is over grazed? What happens when its roots are crushed, when the soil is compacted hard by the constant trampling of heavy animals? And what happens when the balance of nutrients is depleted so much that it no longer renews the health and vigor of the soil? What happens is that nature responds. When you learn to read the landscape, you will see that nature responds to heal itself with thistles! The thistles are designed to repel grazing animals. It’s nature’s way of saying enough! Enough grazing, it’s time now to heal. So, it sends up its thistles with its spiny leaves, no longer inviting the animals to feed on the lush green grass. Now it repels these grazers form tramping and compacting and with its long tap roots, thistles mine the soil to bring up and replace the now needed nutrients. The long tap roots penetrate deep to break up and loosen the hard soil compacted by too many animals. The thistle is telling us to stay away until the soil is rebuilt, until the earth is healed. It sets the stage for the disturbance to end, health to return and the next level of succession to begin.

When you learn to recognize intrinsic characteristics of places, plants, and animals in the landscape, you can then learn how to use them, wisely and appropriately. You will learn how to have the greatest effect using the least amount of energy. You can learn to be more creative, to see beyond the ordinary, to save money and resources.

Give us some examples of Permaculture Design or of PC solving a problem.

LS- Permaculture Design sciences are now used by homeowners, architects, land use planners, landscape designers, farmers, and community service organizations world wide. Instead of the “one size fits all” approach, nature is allowed to direct the land use
plan. By skillfully using permaculture methods of site analysis and evaluation, elements such as buildings and roads and practices such as farming and forestry are established only in areas with optimum conditions, working with nature in an efficient and
economical way. To do this, permaculture designers use a simple protocol of physics and biology, as well as specific observation skills.

Designing a home site, homes that are built of earthen materials are time tested. These durable materials make elegant and affordable options for the owner/builder. We use innovative passive soar and polar designs to solve our heating and cooling needs and
to reduce energy requirements. Water catchments and recycling systems are also incorporated to support gardens of food, fuel, and forage. Properties can also have diverse food forest orchards with specialty crops for market and water features for
production and recreation. Precautions are taken for the predictable threats of fire, flood, wind, and cold air drainage. One of the primary objectives in permaculture is for designers to develop simple biological alternatives to reduce the need for the expensive
and resource consuming demands of high technology.

Comprehensive water and soil conservation planning are also integral to any Permaculture Design For water conservation and flood control, permaculture designers use roofs of buildings, parking lots, roadways, and landscapes for harvesting run-off water, converting flooding problems into helpful resources of drinking water and low cost irrigation.

Turning the problem into the solution. It’s like having to view the problem from a totally different perspective. How would you envision the world if Permaculture was practiced as the prevailing design system?

LS- If you can imagine living in a place that is blended into the natural environment…. where your home is not only naturally heated and cooled, but is elegant and affordable. Integrated into the surrounding landscape are natural water systems where food is being grown safe from harmful chemicals and waste is managed for productivity. A place where the neighbors, young and old, routinely help one another. There is no traffic, no pollution. There are more open spaces. Leisure time becomes more abundant and recreational opportunities are close at hand. Also, imagine that as a result of its design, this place saves you money, and most importantly, it saves the Earth its precious resources.

Sounds great- how do we get there? Is Permaculture a revolution? Or does it have the potential to become a revolution?

LS- Permaculture is not a revolution, but it is revolutionary! Award winning scientist David Suzuki says that, “What Permaculturists are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet…We don’t know what the details of a truly sustainable
future are going to be like, but we need options, we need people experimenting in all kinds of ways and Permaculturists are one of the critical gangs doing that.”

The beauty of the Permaculture Design movement is that, world wide, it is made up of thousands of independent, autonomous groups and organizations, with thousands of practitioners adapting Permaculture principles to their local work and enterprises. This decentralized model is very empowering.

No leader- just people doing the work. What originally drew you to Permaculture?

LS- As far back as I can remember I’ve been amazed with the wonders and power of natural phenomenon: storms, wind, even earthquakes captured my attention. I grew up in Southern California when it was, what I believe to be a jewel upon the Earth. It was so
beautiful. Bad weather was a childhood myth. Everywhere you looked there were giant forests of fruit! I also saw that we were loving nature to death, so when I got older I wanted to help my community.

When I started, Systems Approach, Gaia hypothesis, and Chaos theory were just starting to get attention. But, it wasn’t until I really studied some of the works in efficiency modeling by Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright’s approach to the
constructed environment, Systems Ecology by Odum, and then the “remarkable frame work of natural design” by Bill Mollison, that is when it started to become clear. What occurred to me was that we now had the much needed, and what Bill Mollison calls, the
missing “framework” to hang all these techniques and information on.

I went to work with the resource protection department of the state of California. I was trained in Land Use Planning and was introduced to Bill Mollison and his work. I later did the whole back to the land use thing and homesteaded in the Great northwest. I then travelled the states and overseas, learning from and teaching with Bill Mollison.

You teach Permaculture all around the world. What can one expect to happen at a PDC?

LS- People have called our courses “life-changing” and “Incredibly hopeful.” The PDC is the A to Z in sustainable community design. It’s the theory behind the action, a prerequisite to all design and construction. The course covers a new look at ecological principles with an in-depth look into natural patterns and goes on to teach us to apply those natural patterns to our home and garden and ultimately our daily lives, livelihoods, and communities.

In our courses, we discuss, in great detail, many, many techniques and technologies, but, the focus of a design course is not so much on these, but rather how Permaculture Design can provide a framework for decision-making, problem solving, and how to choose the correct technique to use in any given situation.

Past design students tell us they are able to add new qualifications to their resumes and to their firm’s abilities to offer new services to their clients. Real estate and development companies are able to better understand how to met a public’s growing concern for the environment and environmental regulations. Homeowners have enjoyed creating front and back yard paradises that enrich their family’s lives and add value to their homes. Teachers have found new ways of integrating the art and science if Permaculture into their curriculum at all grade levels. College students are better able to direct their education, plan their careers, and find their own livelihoods.

You do a lot of beautiful design work.

LS- As an ecologist and builder I have always loved the beauty of function. As an artist, I love the function of beauty. With my company, EarthFlow Design Works, I get to bring nature’s beauty to where it most belongs, into our homes and daily lives. Back in 1989, I started one of the first ecologically-based land use and planning firms in the country. My intention was to create a protocol for responsible residential development and to help corporations realize a value in social responsibility and in creating what was being called a “new corporate ecology.”

Now, almost 25 years later, we have slowly and quietly tested the theories and gained the experience of stewardship practices. Through those years of experience we are now involved with designing sustainable land use plans for land owners, communities, and corporations. Now we can actually demonstrate that we can achieve the highest quality of life without exploiting people or natural resources.

Where can people find more information about you and EarthFlow?

Earthflow Design Works

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