Permaculture enthusiasm at Williams!

In June, Cedar Blazek ’13, Alix Wicker ’14, and Gabi Azevedo ’15 attended the Permaculture Your Campus conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They returned to Williams excited for the potential this holistic integrative system promises. Listen to the students discuss what they learned in the following video:

In August, Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program Manager Brent Wasser attended a permaculture design course at Whole Systems Design in Vermont. He offers a few concepts and definitions here:

Mushroom cultivation on red maple
Shiitake mushroom cultivation on red maple

Permaculture design:

Rafter Sass, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a concise description of permaculture as “a design system that seeks to meet human needs while increasing ecological health.” In this case, human needs must be equal to the yields of a system of sun, plants, animals, and soils; synthetic inputs are minimally relied upon in the establishment phase of a permaculture system, and ultimately eliminated from a permaculture system in the maintenance phase. As for ecological health, permaculturalists often speak of regenerative systems, or designs that restore fertility, increase biomass productivity, and respond in a symbiotic way to the zones surrounding a permaculture site. The farming operation emerges as a largely self-maintaining ecosystem.

Elderberry harvest
Elderberry harvest

Water farming:

The design goal of permaculture systems often targets the retention of water on the land. Runoff contributes to topsoil erosion and the resulting loss of nutrients. Storing water on properties in the forms of built ponds at higher elevations harnesses the energy of water. Ponds also serve as shock absorbers during heavy rain events, and help to mitigate dry periods with irrigation. When managed with fish and aquatic plants, ponds also yield nutrient-rich water that fertilizes while irrigating (fertigation). In permaculture, the goal is to slow, spread, and sink water.

Forest gardening:

Biodiversity remains a key component in all permaculture approaches. Forest gardening refers to designing and maintaining plants that complement each other in space, time, and biological function. A successful forest garden

Sea berry, a nirogen-fixing tree
Sea berry, a nirogen-fixing tree

resembles the multiple stories of a forest, with ground cover, understory, and canopy plants. One example of a forest garden would be a ground cover of comfrey and mint, an understory of Jerusalem artichokes, dill, and buffalo berry, and a canopy crop of peaches and sea berry (sea-buckthorn).


Components of a successful permaculture design each serve multiple functions. Chickens eat food scraps, scratch and fertilize the ground, eat pests, provide meat and eggs, and are fun. Comfrey, a medicinal perennial herb, accumulates nutrients in its rots and leaves, aerates the soil, and attracts insects. Woodlots might provide sap for maple syrup, and they serve as places for mushroom cultivation, fire fuel, and shelter for birds. As with these examples, each element expresses its use within an extensive network of cooperation. Tools, landforms, bodies of water, and buildings also serve multiple functions in successful permacultrure designs.

The Prime Directive:

In the late 1970s, permaculture pioneer Bill Mollison wrote that the driving purpose of permaculture (the “prime directive”) is the following: “To take responsibility for our own needs and the needs of our families.” While this statement focuses on the importance of the human element in a system, it should not be misunderstood as unconcerned with ecological resilience. Human success relies of the success of the land and its ability to support abundant and highly productive living systems. Permaculture develops such systems.

Swales, or earth mounds on contour, help to slow and sink water into the ground
Swales, or earth mounds on contour, help to slow and sink water into the ground