compost heap and garden photo

Let's continue our exploration of permaculture design principles. From sectors in permaculture to permaculture zoning to relative location to the ideas that one element should have multiple functions, and one function should be met by multiple elements - we've already covered a vast array of tools and techniques that permaculturists use to create low input, high output sustainable gardens. The next principle on our list is probably the most familiar to most greenies - energy efficiency. But the permaculture take on energy efficiency goes a little beyond those Compact Fluorescent Bulbs you just screwed in.

Because permaculture is based on the idea of close observation and emulation of nature, energy efficiency is an absolutely central element. Every animal, plant and microbe has evolved to make the maximum use of the energy available to them - from the lean, muscular physique of a gazelle, to an oak tree's collection of solar energy - nature is a master at harvesting energy and using it wisely. So permaculture aims to work with nature to minimize the need for energy inputs - be they human labor or mechanical/fossil fuel inputs.

As is often the case in the interconnected world of permaculture, applying the principle of energy efficiency means utilizing the other principles too. Examples might include placing a water source uphill from your garden to reduce the need for pumping (see Permaculture Principles: Relative Location), or placing much visited items close to the house to avoid either a long walk or a car journey (see Permaculture Principles: Zoning). In our garden we place the compost piles right next to the garden (rather than hiding them away as is so often the case). So we avoid both the labor of carting dead plant matter across the property for composting, and then bringing it back once it is done.

As a rule, permaculturists tend to favor low energy gardening techniques too - from no-dig gardening to only weeding when really necessary, permaculture definitely does not espouse the idea of work for work's sake. (Take a look at my post on organic gardening techniques to make life easy on yourself.) But it would be wrong to characterize the average permaculturist as lazy. We prefer to think of ourselves as being judicious with our energy expenditure. In fact many permaculture projects will involve an unusually large amount of work in the initial stages - sometimes including heavy use of fossil fuels - but the end goal is always to create a system that, as much as possible, is capable of meeting its own needs with minimum external inputs.

A classic example of a project with high initial energy input would be the concept of hugelkultur raised beds, where a huge amount of semi-rotted biomass is buried in trenches (sometimes mechanically dug), that are then covered with top soil. The effort involved is considerable, but the theory goes that, once established, these beds become self-feeding for years to come - avoiding the labor (both manual and mechanical) involved in feeding, turning and cultivating them - and watering is even reduced considerably as the biomass acts as a sponge for retaining moisture.

By working with nature, rather than against it, we learn to use energy as efficiently as possible. If we do it right, we get to hang out and enjoy the results too, rather than preparing ourselves for another round of double digging...

Related Links
Permaculture Design Principles: Gardening With Nature
Permaculture Design Principles: Sectors
Permaculture Design Principles: Zoning
Permaculture Design Principles: Relative Location
Permaculture Design Principles: One Element, Multiple Functions
Permaculture Design Principles: One Function, Multiple Elements

By Sami Grover via