San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Permaculture: Sustainability Starts at Home

“Permaculture” is a new word for our vocabulary that was invented back in the 1980s by Bill Mollison, an Australian environmental activist who advocated ecological human habitat designs. In his terms, permaculture means the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and nonmaterial needs in a sustainable way.

Gardeners, organic farmers and landscape designers began to pick up early on permaculture designs to improve the eco-friendliness in their work with nature. I fondly remember the nights I spent reading over Mollison’s classic work, “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual,” and writing about it in The Tico Times in 1982. Today, permaculture’s importance is being recognized widely, as we understand the need to redesign our habitats for sustainable development.

In March, we hosted a permaculture designer’s course on our herb farm in the Southern Zone town of San Isidro de El General. Taught by Desiree Wells, a Permaculture Institute teacher who’s been around the world studying and teaching the subject, the course covered hands-on skills for natural soil fertility and erosion prevention, tropical gardening and natural building, as well as methods for activating communities to design with permaculture in mind. I particularly enjoyed Wells’ feminine perspective and philosophy, which places equal importance on voluntary simplicity, community and the land.

Permaculture really starts right at home – redesigning and retrofitting our homes so that they are harmonious with nature and energy-efficient or even independent by using alternative energy solutions. Solar hot water heaters, ovens and food dryers are just a few examples.

The next step in permaculture design centers on what’s often been called “edible landscaping.” Urban homes can utilize recycled containers, rooftops and hydroponics systems to produce food at home.

Suburban home landscapes with highmaintenance lawns and ornamental plants can be transformed into orchards and home gardens.

Farms particularly benefit from permaculture planning. They can be redesigned to protect the soil and water resources, while improving the diversity of trees, plants and animals. The secret to permaculture relies on finding the right plants to serve many purposes.

Take the lemon tree as an example. The tree provides shade and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while producing fruit high in vitamin C for drinks and salad dressings. The juicy lemon husk can be used as a great underarm deodorant or cooked in water to provide the best natural kitchen and wood cleaning solution.

The young leaves and flowers also make a relaxing tea.

For those readers who are ready to grab the gardening tools and get to work, I’d suggest you first read “Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture,” by Rosemary Morrow (Kangaroo Press, 1993). This reasonably priced, how-to guide covers the subject in a way that everyone can understand.

Here are a few key phrases of permaculture principles:

–Work with, not against, nature.

–Care for the earth, care for people and care for the community.

–Distribute the surplus and limit consumption and population.

–Everything gardens – everything has an effect on its environment.

–Every living thing has intrinsic worth.

–Turn problems into solutions; everything is a positive resource.

–Make the greatest change with the least effort – work where it counts.

For more information on permaculture and tropical gardening, contact Ed Bernhardt at or visit


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