Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 1

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.

“Let’s Save the World by Gardening!”

By Marlen Elders

“Permaculture”—a neologism combining “permanent” and “agriculture”—is all about sustainability with the aim of creating a self-preserving world (Koller 2009, 9ff.). A permacultural gardener aims to create a symbiotic interaction between soil, plants, animals, and microorganisms, each of which profits from the other—ideally resulting in a positive outcome for the gardener too. Clearly, the concept comes with an ideology: the ethics of diversity and care that goes beyond bare agricultural methods. This idea is alive and kicking, still evolving, still improving, as the father of permaculture, Bill Mollison, hoped it would. He referred to permaculture as a tool that needs to be tested, modified, and developed further. He encouraged the creation of permaculture networks to exchange experiences and to spread knowledge amongst practitioners (Mollison and Holmgren 1985, 13).

Jochen Koller (right) with Alexander H. at Hummelhof, Elmatried. Photo by Ursula Münster.

Networking and connecting permacultural gardeners is exactly what Jochen Koller does in the Allgäu region in Bavaria. He founded a small non-profit magazine called Nachhaltiges Allgäu (Sustainable Allgäu) that publishes articles on permaculture, community-supported agriculture (SoLaWi), transitions, local economic communities, and other topics on sustainability. Beyond that, he organizes and hosts workshops to teach and inform others about permaculture. Rather than getting a theoretical lecture at one of his workshops last year, we gained an insight into practiced permaculture by not only visiting several gardeners in Allgäu, but also assisting them in certain interventions. It was great to be active participants, which goes hand in hand with the original idea of permaculture—that it needs to be alive and used rather than simply studied.

After setting up camp, we started by building a rocket stove made out of bricks, and a composting toilet, separating urine and excreta, which could be used as fertilizer. This toilet is an ecological alternative to one that flushes, using sawdust or straw instead of water. The toilet supports permacultural practices by conserving resources and energy and by trying to recycle as much as possible. Sitting around the campfire, Jochen gave a brief introduction on the principles of permaculture and, drawing on Mollison and Dave Holmgren, we discussed some of the essentials:

[O]bserve and interact, use and value diversity, catch and store energy, integrate rather than separate, use small and slow solutions, be creative and respond to change, apply self-regulation and accept feed-back.

It is clear from the above that permaculture is not only a way of gardening, but includes a strong ethical foundation. For Jochen, a great part of that is already in the etymology of the word “culture” (latin: cultura) meaning care, adaptation, and cultivation. To him this means not only “earth care” but also “people care” and, last but not least, “fair share” (sharing the extra produce and limiting consumption and growth). Jochen emphasized that, while having a common foundation, the concept is implemented and internalized differently from person to person, something that became immediately clear when we visited three very different gardens: the Hummelhof, the Schlattner-Metzger farm, and the Haller farm.

Garden of Simonette Schlattner und Sebastian Mezger. Photo by Ursula Münster.

The garden of Simonette Schlattner and Sebastian Mezger was totally different from the Hummelhof. The young couple, who used to live in Munich, only started their permaculture project a few years ago. Situated at the top of a hill, their space was a lot smaller than the Hummelhof and only partly used for cultivation, without farm animals, and definitely less anthroposophic. Here we had a more open conversation on the permaculture principles they tried to implement in their garden:

[C]reate a diverse habitat, support diversity, use small spaces intensively, and bigger spaces extensively, copy and catch on.

 As they showed us around, we discovered edible weeds that grew everywhere, such as Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), and dandelion. They covered some of their surfaces with straw to choke the grass beneath and create fertile beds, a technique that allows planting without digging. In permaculture, you try to avoid digging because through the dislocation, soil microbes are killed on the sunny dry surface. That is why mulching is so important: it protects the soil from sun exposure and drying out, instead providing it with nutrition and thereby saving water. The intervention we worked on at Simonette and Sebastian’s place was to convert a meadow into a potato field without digging. Instead of using a plow, we measured the rows and distances with yardsticks, simply put the potatoes on the grass, and covered them with a lot of hay. Since rain, sun, microbes, worms, and other species transform hay and grass into nutritious soil, the potatoes can slowly start to sprout and grow. After a few hours of collective work—a “permaculture flash,” as this collaborative actions is known—the potato field was tilled.

The next day we visited the Haller garden. It was situated on a hillside beneath a mountain still capped with snow in Austria. Andy Haller, the gardener, is a young, friendly surfer type with tattoos on his arms and a cap on his head. He persuaded his grandmother to allocate a few hectares of land some years ago. Now a wooden fence marks the spot around a small old hut, which he was renovating when we visited. Even though the cold winter temperatures had not yet allowed the plants to sprout as much as down in the Allgäu, there was a lot for us to discover. Some features we recognized from the other gardens—like the weathered hay for mulching—while others were new: sheep wool on sticks along the fence, or the small flower pots filled with hay, which had been inverted over sticks in the ground. He was happy to explain these features as he showed us around.

Mulching. Photo: CeGall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.
The site is situated near to a forest and the wool is supposed to keep the deer away, discouraging them from nibbling at his plants. They don’t seem to like the smell of the sheep’s wool, Andy explained, and it had so far been successful during the winter. The flowerpots, however, were an attempt to attract a resident that helps to control vermin. The earwig eats plant lice and is therefore a most welcome guest in a permaculture garden. As we learned at the Hummelhof, if you want to attract helpful creatures such as bats, bees, or earwigs, you just need to create a cosy environment that they’ll want to move into. Creating small environments for species is actually a very permacultural thing to do. Piled up stones, for example, allow thermophilic plants to flourish, store, and provide warmth, and keep out the wind. Another principle is making use of the things that are already there, as nearly everything can have  multiple functions. A house wall can be used as a climbing aid for roses, leaves can be used for mulch, and organic waste for fertilizer. People become very innovative when they try to produce as little waste as possible and recycle as much as they can.

We helped Andy build a low demarcation on what will become his rockery to plant special crops and host animals like spiders and lizards, amongst others. We drove stakes into the stony ground, cut roots from plants a few meters up the hill, and braided them around the piles. Others grubbed dandelions out of the beds or followed Migizi on a tour through the garden, searching for wild herbs. At the end of the visit, Jochen mixed two smoothies: one for us and the other for the soil. The first smoothie, containing mostly harvested nettle and dandelion, apple, and banana, was his recipe for a healthy body; the second, utilizing banana peel, apple cores, and other non-edible organic waste, was a miracle cure to ensure productive soil.

When I came home, the principles of permaculture had taken root in my mind. Though it might not be the solution to feed the world, this holistic concept of gardening, once internalized, permeates all parts of your life. Encouraging diversity, conserving resources, reducing and reusing waste, creating congenial environments, observing and interacting, and creatively responding to change, are by no means only useful tools in gardening. We would do well to consider these principles in all parts of our lives, so why not start by gardening?


Mollison, Bill, and David Holmgren. 1985. Permakultur: Leben und Arbeiten im Einklang mit der Natur. Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Koller, Jochen. 2009. Permakultur – was ist das?: Eine kleine Annäherung. Diplom-Projekt. Permakultur-Akademie im Alpenraum (PIA).


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