In general organic agriculture is modeled after conventional agriculture with the exception that it excludes the use of toxic substances whether it be pesticides or fertilizers – and in the case of animals artificial hormones and toxic medications like antibiotics. Other than that there are generally more similarities than differences between the basics of organic and conventional agriculture.
Permaculture on the other hand tends toward emulating the wisdom of nature inseparable from individual and community life. Permaculture designs work to create systems that close the energy loop by using and re-using what is available within the existing system rather than importing inputs from outside the system.
Permaculture aims to increase soil health from within while also increasing the biodiversity of output. For example, while an organic farm may exclusively use organic non-toxic fertilizers, these fertilizers are generally purchased rather than found or created on site. In a permaculture garden “fertilizer” will generally be found and/or created right onsite and ideally moved as little as possible. By emulating a forest everything that is needed is right there. A forest doesn’t truck in fertilizer or bees, nor does it truck out the products it creates. Instead it finds what it needs and share’s what it makes.
Here are 10 ways permaculture goes beyond organic:
Permaculture intervenes the least amount possible and aims to protect the “sanctity of the soil” by avoiding digging, tilling or any other disturbance of the soil as much as possible.
Permaculture gardens are not planted in rows but rather in biodiverse “scatterings” that emulate nature and allow for slightly cultivated “backyard wildcrafting.”
Permaculture does not employ crop rotation. Instead it embraces natures use of guilds: combinations of plants with deep roots, broad shade leaves, and climbing vines. The word permaculture actually means permanent agriculture” and guilds tend to form on their own in nature when seeds are scattered by wind and birds. In permaculture we emulate this scattering.
In permaculture, biodiversity is a fundamental principle so you won’t find beds dedicated to one kind of plant or animal. There are many organic farms that grow many different veggies, but in general they are not biodiverse in every square foot of the garden. In a forest, many different plants and animals co-exist together and permaculture imitates this for increased soil fertility as well as pest control.
Sometimes permaculture isn’t organic at all. Permaculture values using what we have on hand instead of acquiring special new materials etc. For example, we this means we might sometimes use non-organic seeds from produce we buy from the grocery store and convert them to organic seeds by running them through our permaculture gardens.
Permaculture principles and philosophy can be applied to all areas of life, not just gardening. One can imitate organic agriculture and only use organic non-toxic inputs, and plant one’s plants in clean rows (and spend a lot of time weeding!) but that is about it. The principles and philosophy of permaculture, of emulating nature, can be applied to all areas of life, relationships, and community.
Permaculture focuses on establishing perennial plants like asparagus, rhubarb, and artichoke, fruit/nut trees, edible shrubs, as well as encouraging the natural re-seeding of annual plants. A well designed permaculture garden will continue on after the “gardener” is gone.
Rather than spend time and energy weeding as organic farmers must do, the permaculturist uses cover crops, mulch and green fertilizer to avoid weeds in the first place. They do this by not giving weeds room to root in the first place and/or by accepting the reality that bare soil is an open invitation for weeds, and cultivating collaborating plants rather than try to leave any soil bare at all . . .
The principles and philosophy of permaculture insist that animals are an essential part of any permaculture system. You can, and would not think of, keeping animals out of the forest in the natural world. The same is true of the permaculture garden.
Permaculture gardens avoid the use of pesticides and fertilizers of any kind – even non-toxic organic ones. A good permaculture design will incorporate a level of biodiversity (including animals such as ducks and chickens who thrive on bugs of all sorts) that ensures no one insect will be supported by a monoculture to the point that it overtakes everything.