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What is permaculture?

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

And how is it different than regenerative and sustainable agriculture?

A few years ago, almost everything about agriculture was categorized as either conventional or organic. Today, all kinds of terms have come into the mainstream conversation under the banner of organic, from permaculture to regenerative agriculture to agroforestry. While many of these terms have overlapping meanings, they are all guided by a similar principle of being in tune with nature. Here, we’ll break down some of the basics.

Chicken scratching in the dirt with apples
Chickens can be a useful animal for your permaculture garden because they eat bugs, their scratching can aerate the soil, and their excrement fertilizes the soil. Image credit Olivier Mary via Unsplash.

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a design science focused on ecology. The term was originally coined by Bill Mollison. His books (some of which are in our Top 100 grower resources) are a guiding influence for many permaculture practitioners.

A simple way to think of permaculture is like an ecological toolbox that has many different uses and applications depending on the site or scale of what you’re designing. Many of these other concepts, such as agroforestry, are tools in the permaculture toolbox. For example, if you were designing a multi-acre property using permaculture principles, it might include a food forest and a meadow in addition to plots of produce grown using regenerative practices such as composting.

The key with permaculture is that it’s a complete ecosystem. On a small scale, it would be difficult to achieve a full permaculture model even when using permaculture principles.

Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture

In 1996, William McDonough was awarded the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, and was asked how he felt after receiving the honor. McDonough replied, “If I told you my marriage was sustainable, would my marriage sound all that good to you?”

Well, that’s because sustainability isn’t all that ambitious. It simply means we are getting by with no benefit or harm, like being a “C” student in high school. Sustainability is the midpoint between destructive and regenerative. The fact that we aren’t sustainable is a warning that what we have won’t last if we don’t make changes. Sustainable agriculture is food growing that is putting back as much as it takes out, thus maintaining an equilibrium with nature.

Regenerative agriculture produces its own inputs so it doesn't need outside sources to be productive. If done correctly, yields will increase over time due to the production of organic matter on site. This is done by focusing on the fertility of the soil and building systems that reinforce it.

Food Forests and Agroforestry

Food forests are becoming more and more popular. Atlanta is home to the largest urban food forest in America after the completion of the Brown’s Mill Food Forest in 2019. Food forests are like regular forests, only edible fruits, nuts, bushes and ground cover are prioritized in a way that mimics what a natural forest would look like.

Agroforestry is the principle of mimicking natural forests with food production that also includes animal agriculture. The shade, fruit and nuts provide shelter and food for grazing animals to use and consume.

Where does Roots Down fit into all this?

Roots Down uses elements from all of the above to create Productive Urban Landscapes. We prioritize three elements in all of our designs: Food, Earth, and People. We are guided by these principles to ensure that people and the planet get the most out of everything we do. Depending on the project we are working on, we have many tools from our permaculture toolbox we can use to create Productive Urban Landscapes by using whole systems thinking.


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