Monday, 28 October 2013

Is Permaculture Something New?


While spending a fair few days ploughing through Google searching for information, especially blogs, recently trying to learn a bit more about vegetable growing, especially using this new-ish thing called Permaculture and coming across terms like Bio-Diverse Intensive Growing, Poly-Culture, No Dig, Forest Gardens, perennial vegetables, sustainability and all the other associated terms that seem to crop up, I began to get some Deja-Vu feelings.

Blog after blog, article after article, the people who seem to be interested in this subject, the people who are either wanting to take Permaculture ideas on board and those who practice it all tend to fit into the same few pigeon holes if I was to label those people. 

In general, Permaculturalists, if that is the correct term, seem to be interested in wildlife, conservation, they are frugal, enjoy a simpler life, like to grow organic food, generally not wealthy - indeed often at the poorer end of society, want to work with nature, looking to plant vegetables and other plants together rather than beds of single crops, often owning chickens or other small groups of animals and a few other generalizations I could mention. All of which sounds a bit familiar.

Cottages and Cottage Gardens

Over the years Cottages have come to mean different things. More recently a cottage is a small dwelling without land, normally in the country, or sometimes nothing more than a holiday home but in times gone by, before the Enclosure Acts, Cottages were actually defined as a dwelling with land. Often the land was between 1 and 4 acres. During Elizabethan times a cottage had to have at least 4 acres. Before that in medieval times it wasn't necessarily a small place but more of a small farm.  All in all, traditionally, Cottages and the romantic idea of the cottage garden has been somewhere to grow food and animals for food. The idea you may have about a cottage garden being mainly of flowers, often untidy, is also a more recent thing when people didn't have to grow their own food because as time has gone on more people could afford to buy it rather than work the land.

Through most of British history, middle ages onwards, up until relatively modern times, Cottage owners, Cotters, dare I use the term Cottagers, had to use their land, the Cottage Garden, to produce their food.

Cottage Gardens had to use all available space to grow food with flowers mainly there to bring in insects and pollinators so the crops could grow otherwise they will have been herbs for flavour or for medicinal purposes. Flowers would have been inter-planted with vegetables or visa-versa. Isn't this Poly-Culture? Fruit trees will have had flowers and vegetables under planted which sounds to me a bit like a forest garden. Cottage garden owners would have had to use the land sustainably, mend and make do, often with ailments which made digging difficult or impossible. They must have recycled their own kitchen waste and used the chicken and animal dung as compost and fertilizer, they must have observed nature in their own environment and put it to good use.

In so many ways the original cotters, cottagers, were the permaculturalists of their day.

I've come to the conclusion that there is nothing new about permaculture apart from sound bites and fancy new terms. It's more of a way for people to reject the modern way and return to a simpler more sustainable lifestyle.

I'm not putting it down, far from it, I've found my own perspective on it that is acceptable to me and therefore I've found another route into learning and adopting it which I find easier. I've also come to realise that everyone who adopts a permaculture way of life does it their own way.  Understanding that Permaculture is more a lifestyle rather than a new way of doing something has been a bit of a eureka moment.


  1. Hi Andy
    I was very interested to read about pre-Enclosure cottage gardens. I am no historian and it has often been on my mind in recent years about how exactly people did obtain their food. I thought it more than likely that they would have had to raise most of it themselves but did not realise that they would have had access to such large areas of land (that is compared to modern day gardens).

  2. Yes, I think many or most of us were small farmers on communal land or worked for a farmer.There was a lot of land for everyone to share. Once the inclosure and enclosure acts turned common land into privately owned land then that land will have obtained a commercial value. If you didn't have any and had to buy some then obviously you wouldnt have been able to afford much. The same thing continues today with gardens (or land you have access to) getting smaller and smaller since the price needed to pay for it goes up and up.

    I think that if you consider the size of a family (many children) and how many mouths to feed plus the chance of a failed crop in a bad year then it isn't unreasonable to think that each family would have needed a fair amount of land.

    I'm not sure how many people would have owned their own property with access to land or whether most was rented from the manor / king and or church but they certainly had access to land.