August, 2001


Permaculture Awareness Helps the Aina


By Marianne Scott


Just two hundred years ago, shortly after Captain Cook stumbled upon these isolated islands in the middle of the Pacific, Maui supported about the same population it does today, and the Hawaiians who lived here then didn’t have to import food, fuel or fiber. Today we import almost all that we consume. What has changed?

Many who live here believe Maui’s ‘aina, the land and all its life forms, is in danger for lack of environmental understanding and husbandry. One possible solution may be found in a simple yet powerful concept called “permaculture” whose practitioners believe can transform the ‘aina into the Garden of Eden it once was, and could be again.

In the early 1970’s, Bill Mollison, an environmental genius, recognized the principles for successful interaction between humans and nature. From this seminal understanding he developed an ecologically sound environmental system that works with nature, not against it. It was a concept that leads to a sustainable, permanent culture and he called it “permaculture.” The concept has become a worldwide success, producing natural abundance and ecological balance wherever it is introduced.

Working with nature creates a permanent culture for humans and other species. This approach allows a landscape to evolve, using less labor and other inputs and creates a more productive and aesthetically beautiful environment as time goes on. These consciously designed landscapes have restored natural beauty and permanent ecologies to very fragile environments such as those here on Maui.

Permaculture, as a practice, has been on Maui long enough for the long-term advantages to be seen when landscapes have been designed thoughtfully. A permaculture designer has extensive training in all aspects of a landscape; water and soil conditions and conservation, slope and contours on the land, useful plant and animal species, weather conditions, strategies for creating microclimates and the best placement for buildings, roads and energy systems.


Intensive Thought 

Whether it is a small suburban landscape or a large rural acreage, the designer begins with detailed observation of the present sites conditions. The permaculture principle of intensive thought, not intensive labor, begins with careful observation. View sectors, sun sectors and the possibility of disasters like flooding, fire and high winds are noted. The condition of the soil and the amount of water coming to the site is calculated.

The best time for a designer to look at the site is before any grading or building site selection is done. If a house site has already been chosen for its wide ocean view that exposes the occupants to strong winds day and night, a designer can still create some shelter for plants. There may also be a better choice of house site, with lovely glimpses of ocean between trees and a deck where you can actually enjoy sitting outside with less wind and direct sunlight.

Driveways and power lines to the house site are important considerations in the overall design. The view sector and the expense of installing power and water lines, and grading access roads for long distances are factors to consider in choosing a site. When the designer visits the site everything is noted, the plant and animal species already on the site tell about the health and fertility of the land. The designer will want to know what the land was used for before. Pesticide residues and compacted soil from cattle can be cured by the right design elements. 

Now begins the real work and it is this step that distinguishes a permaculture design from other forms of landscaping. The chief aim is to create beneficial connections.

For example, rain runoff, instead of disappearing down culverts, along with your top soil, can be diverted and collected into attractive and productive ponds. A slope, prone to soil erosion, can be planted with orchard species. Ground covers that crowd out grass and reduce mowing can produce a crop. Poultry will eat fallen fruit reducing pests and distributing mulch down hill. When the right elements connect energy is saved and production increased.

There is a permaculture story which shows the advantages of thinking instead of laboring and creating beneficial connections: A man bought an acre of land that was covered in a noxious weed, he used his remaining money to buy chayote seeds and planted them every few yards. The chayote vines climbed over the weed and smothered it. As the chayote vine matured he sold the fruits and bought fencing with the proceeds. He sold more chayote fruit and bought a pig. When he sold the pig he had an acre of fenced, weed free, ploughed and fertilized land and money for seeds.


Planning a Landscape

Part of the logic of planning a landscape is to consider where the occupants spend their time when they are home. People usually spend most of their time in the house or around it, so this zone is designated as zone one. The zones are planned from the closest to home, out to the boundaries of the property. The amount of care each element of the landscape needs is the guide to what is placed in each zone. Vegetables are the most labor-intensive part of any landscape, they do best if they have daily care and harvesting.

Many of us have experienced starting off enthusiastically, digging and planting, only to reap few rewards. When the vegetable garden is a long way from the house, it’s easy to neglect it and leave produce unused. The best place for vegetables and herbs is a spot close to the kitchen door. Vegetables need sunlight, water, and good soil. But, good soil can always be created, using permaculture techniques, even on top of compacted earth.

The next zone would typically include frequently harvested fruits like papayas and limes, poultry and small animals, fish ponds, broad scale crop plantings and anything else that needs a daily visit. Beyond this a designer would place fruit trees that are harvested infrequently and further out hardwoods would be planted, to harvest when cash is needed, large animals like horses or cows also belong in this zone.

The last zone is left to nature, sometimes this is a major part of the landscape and may be replanted with the original native species, sometimes just a strip left for the wildlife. The zones are flexible in size and shape, and a design may allow a section of the wildlife zone to come close to the house so that birds can be watched from a window. 

Other components such as water catchment and storage, fences and gates, processing or equipment sheds and leisure pursuits are placed using factors like slope and view sectors. Aesthetics are always a consideration; if the basic function of a water tank puts it in view, a sight screen may have a secondary function as a crop from a trellised vine. Creating micro-climates is another factor in the design; the right arrangement of wind breaks or drainage, for instance, lets the mango blossom set and the papayas bear fruit. 

Reducing wasted energy also is considered in permaculture design. A trellised vine that shades the windows in summer can cut the use of air conditioning substantially. The major use of electricity in Hawaii is for cooling, your trellised vine will be helping the greater environment and you can have grapes or lilikoi too. 

The site's natural features are woven with the owners’ needs and desires into a  pattern of beneficial connections, each one saving energy, saving labor and producing a sustainable, beautiful, and productive landscape. Pest management, weed control, and on-site fertilizers are designed into the system. A basic permaculture aim is to create more energy, in the form of useful produce, coming out of the landscape than the energy required to maintain the site.

A conventional landscape is usually energy intensive, considering labor, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and county water as expensive energy components, and the only product is beauty. A functioning landscape is also beautiful; “Form follows function,” as Frank Lloyd Wright used to say.


Major Benefits from Permaculture

 Permaculture has three outstanding benefits. The first is the increase in the basic value of the land. Land that has productive fruit trees, hardwood groves, rich deep soil, abundant water - even in dry years, and which conserves wildlife giving it abiding beauty will always be valuable. Examples of permaculture on land of marginal value abound, each one increasing in value as the landscape matures, reflecting another important permaculture principle; design for long term abundance, not short-term profit.

The second good reason for using permaculture design is the direct benefits to the occupant. Health experts agree that the best food is grown in your own environment; as well as the satisfaction of eating your own produce, you know that the herbs, vegetables, fruits and medicinals that you grow are fresh, nutritious and free from pesticides and herbicides. A walk to collect produce is pleasant exercise, and the satisfaction of returning with food and flowers is increased by knowing you are part of the whole, in your own garden of Eden. 

The third reason for creating a permaculture landscape is the benefit to the aina, the natural world upon which all life depends. On your land the soil will not be poisoned, the ground water will not be polluted, beneficial wildlife will thrive, all contributing to the richness of the environment and helping many species survive. Trees you plant will live for many years, giving shade, providing habitat, enriching the soil, replenishing the ground water and producing fruit for several generations. You will have given something back to this lovely land and the island of Maui will benefit by your ownership and stewardship.