I do a fair bit of gardening in public or semi-public spaces — sidewalk strips, parking lots, yards of large buildings, rooftops — and over the last couple of years I’ve had a lot of conversations with people passing by about gardening, fruit trees, sustainability, and lots more. One topic that has come up infrequently but consistently with those with a serious interest in gardening is permaculture. Sometimes it’s just a discussion about permaculture, sometimes it’s about the person having done or planning to do a permaculture design course (PDC), sometimes it’s about various techniques that are associated with permaculture (e.g., herb spirals, swales, perennial polyculture, etc.).
But more than all that, I’ve been asked a question a few times that I’m never able to answer: “Do you do permaculture?” I usually go quiet for a moment, think about it, and eventually give a few caveats but answer “No, I don’t do permaculture.” There are a few reasons I answer that way — I’ve never taken a PDC, I don’t specifically try to do permaculture but pick and choose from whatever I find promising, etc. — but none of these are related to my main reason: I don’t know what is and isn’t permaculture. (Sometimes I think this is because I don’t have a lot of years of active gardening under my belt, but sometimes I think it’s deeper, and it’s the latter notion I want to explore.)
I look at what I do in some garden settings, where true sustainability isn’t possible (i.e., a garden that would continue growing for many years without human intervention — rooftops especially), and I wonder how that could ever be called permaculture. But then I see discussion of permaculture roof gardens and the like and get confused. I imagine that if one were to analyze many of these types of unconventional gardens according to the principles of permaculture, they wouldn’t hold up well. When I read about gardens / farms in which people try to get high yields using permaculture-associated techniques, and then see rebuttals that those projects weren’t really permaculture, I’m left to wonder whether the No True Scotsman fallacy applies to permaculture. That is, any project or site that is unsuccessful or undesirable from the perspective of the reviewer can be deemed to not be “true permaculture”. This excellent post gets at a number of concerns and confusions I’ve had, and points out the claim made by some permaculturists that failed or failing projects aren’t permaculture — again, the No True Scotsman fallacy.
I should step back and say that I’ve learned a lot from reading some permaculture gardening books (especially Gaia’s Garden), but that these days I find I’m learning the most by reading and participating in rare fruit growing forums/groups, and have had the most success from simple trial and error. Despite all this, I hope that there is a next wave to come — in the form of new ideas, techniques, principles, or something else entirely — that advances everyone’s thinking about sustainable horticulture beyond the plateau we’ve reached today, whether it’s permaculture or not.