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What’s the Difference Between Permaculture and Organic Farming?

Have you ever heard of permaculture? While it is entirely compatible with organic farming, there are a number of important distinctions between the two. What you may not know is that permaculture is a much wider movement with its own principles, whereas organic farming is a method that usually only applies to organic agricultural practice. Permaculture could even be considered as a kind of philosophy, as its principles can be applied across many levels – from urban planning to your backyard.

Permaculture 101

When you walk through the produce section at the supermarket, the fruits and vegetables that you see are likely to have come from crops that must be planted and re-planted every year. Most food grown in a commercial agricultural setting, whether it be organic or conventional, is grown in this way. Permaculture is different in that it does not require yearly re-planting. In addition to this, permaculture crops are usually much more diverse than the rows and rows of corn you might imagine on a conventional farm. Instead, multiple species are planted within one plot and are left to their own devices with minimal interference from humans.

Organic Agriculture

While not all organic farms operate in the same way as conventional farms, they often use similar practices in order to mass-produce a few kinds of crops. When a farm produces a lot of one crop, this is called ‘mono-cropping.’ Mono-cropping can be a wasteful way to farm, as it generally employs large irrigation systems to water plants. This might not sound so bad, but it uses a lot of water, which is a precious resource and puts a lot of strain on water systems. Unfortunately, organic farms often rely on mass irrigation systems, and in this way, organic farming can still negatively impact the natural environment. 

The Permaculture Ethos

Mono-cropping practices are essentially the opposite of permaculture. Rather than focussing on producing one kind of plant species, permaculture instead groups lots of different kinds of plants together so that they can help each other to thrive. Monocrops are like an army of plants, whereas permaculture plots are more like a local community. In the latter system, crops are organized into different categories, and the grower will cultivate plants that function well together. Permaculture practitioners are earth-conscious, and try to use more environmentally-friendly methods of farming, for example by collecting rainwater to use in the garden.

Pesticide-free, Naturally

Organic farms are absolutely superior to conventional farms in that they do not use harmful chemical pesticides on their crops. This helps to reduce toxic runoff from getting into the water supply and keeps the creatures that live in the habitat happy and healthy. However, organic farmers still use certain sprays to ensure that insects and weeds do not threaten their crops. This is how farmers protect their organic monocrops from threats posed by the natural environment. Over time, however, pests can develop resistance to organic sprays.

It’s All About Balance

While organic methods of pest control might not be so bad for us, the principles of permaculture teach us that there are ways to farm without using so much water. What’s more, is that permaculture methods don’t use any sprays to prevent pests. Rather than interfering with the natural ecosystem to produce the desired results, permaculture creates its own diverse ecosystem with plants that complement each other. For example, basil and marigolds can repel insects and other pests and will help tomatoes to grow without pesticides.

Soil Quality

It may not be obvious at first, but the soil is one of the most important parts of a farm. It is a standard part of conventional farming to use fertilizers and to turn the soil regularly. This approach is so ingrained that even the everyday gardener will use these methods in their backyard. Organic farms work in this way too, and this is why most gardens and farms have rows of vegetables and fruit, rather than being made up of numerous scattered species like in a forest. In a forest, organic matter falls naturally to the floor, creating a rich layer of organic matter that composts naturally to enrich the soil. This is why forests do not need fertilizers or regular tilling, and the same is true of permaculture systems.

Permaculture in Practice

Given that those who value organic farming are usually earth-conscious, there are often overlaps between permaculture and organic farming principles. However, organic farming is much more labor-intensive than permaculture, and it uses much more water. This is why permaculture is gaining traction as a movement across the world, and why it may be preferable to organic farming for both the home grower and the farmer. Whichever agricultural methods you decide to use, one thing’s for sure: we should always garden with the health of the earth in mind. 

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