Permaculture and Agroforestry in Hawaii
“The highest aim of religion is Atmajnanam, Self-Knowledge. But to attain this, knowledge of the external world is necessary.”
– Swami Sri Yukteswar (on left of first picture with disciple Yogananda), The Holy Science
According to Sri Yukteswar, knowledge of the external world forms an integral part of the spiritual path. Because both Permaculture and Agroforestry require significant knowledge of the surrounding environment, they go hand-in-hand with the spiritual path. Between meditation sessions, Polestar integrates Permaculture and Agroforestry into the community’s overall work flow to provide ongoing contact with nature. Most every meal here includes a mix of organic ingredients from our food forest, herb collection, and Permaculture garden, and this page provides some background on Permaculture and Agroforestry principles as they are applied here at Polestar.
Permaculture was first conceived by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in Australia in the late 1970s. One of the central ideas in Permaculture is to mimic patterns in nature to sustainably produce as much food as is feasible with as little labor as possible. Though there is a focus on food production, Permaculture “design” seeks to incorporate ecological principles observed in nature as the foundation for all planning including building materials, waste management, and water and energy consumption. Ideally, all of these activities comprise a closed, zero waste system – a “permanent culture” – that effectively and sustainably uses what most would consider to be waste products as valuable material (e.g. compost, grey water, etc.).
Three Core Tenets of Permaculture
Permaculture has three core tenets:
1. Care for the Earth – Healthy humans rely upon a healthy planet. Therefore, the first value of Permaculture is to care for the earth and to recognize that everything – humans, plants, and animals – exist as part of an interconnected web of relations.
2. Care for the People – Humans require basic provisions for survival – healthy food, water, and shelter, but also social and spiritual connections. A “permanent culture” seeks to provide all of these things for its people.
3. Return of Surplus – Any surplus is distributed back into the community system rather than being hoarded by any single individual.
Collectively, the three core tenets of Permaculture reflect many of the foundational principles outlined in Yogananda’s plan for World Brotherhood Colonies. Yogananda had envisioned these colonies as places where simple living, high-thinking, chivalry, organic farming, and harmony with nature would guide spiritual life. Polestar Gardens is one such colony and uses Permaculture as part of their overall efforts to see Yogananda’s vision through. In addition to the three core tenets, Permaculture has twelve design principles.
Twelve Permaculture Design Principles
According to David Holmgren, the following are the 12 design principles of Permaculture:
1. Observe and Interact – In order to create the best solution for Permaculture in a specific setting, one must, first and foremost, observe and interact with their local ecology. This is the paramount design principle from which all others are derived and complements the advice of Sri Yukteswar regarding the first step in the spiritual path (i.e., “knowledge of the external world is necessary”)
2. Catch and Store Energy – Alternative energy comes from a number of sources and reduces reliance on unsustainable fossil fuels. Solar power is perhaps one of the most sustainable alternative energy solutions, and here at Polestar we harvest over 90% of our energy with our solar panels and battery storage system.
3. Obtain a Yield – It is important to make sure that all of the work that goes into creating a Permaculture community results in abundant harvests. Ongoing, scheduled harvest work comprises an important element of the work routine here at Polestar, and our interns enjoy this activity as a team-building endeavor on an ongoing basis.
4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback – After practicing Permaculture for some time, the environment will speak back to let you know what is working and what is not working. Mistakes lead to better practices and ought to be seen as an opportunity for learning. It took us a while here at Polestar to get our trees in our food forest to provide an abundance of food, and after lots of trial and error they are doing quite well!
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – There are lots of things around our property that we use for projects that reduce our reliance on unsustainable materials. For example, check out our bamboo fence built from our bamboo grove.
6. Produce No Waste – What some perceive as waste, we perceive as a resource. Compost, for example, makes excellent soil here in Hawaii, while our grey water provides nutrient rich hydration for our landscape.
7. Design from Patterns to Details – The larger patterns in our specific bioregion lay the framework for our garden design. For example, we use soil-rich areas on property for growing most of our produce, while less soil-dense areas covered in volcanic rock have become excellent places for our raised beds fed with fresh composted soil. We also harvest nearly 100% all of our water due to the area’s abundant rainfall.
8. Integrate Rather than Segregate – Many plants grow well together in a symbiotic relationship. We therefore combine plants that “get along” with one another. For example, growing beans and squash together, the squash benefits from the nitrogen fixed into the soil while the beans grow upward away from the ground unhindered.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions – It is important to work slowly and step by step when establishing a “permanent culture.” Hasty decisions can lead to disastrous results, while steady implementation of each step in the plan lead to sustainable and long lasting solutions. Here at Polestar it took almost ten years for us to establish the food forest and garden space, and we are now reaping abundant food sources from both.
10. Use and Value Diversity – Diversity creates resilience and safeguards ecological systems, while monoculture creates the potential for major food loss and reliance upon pesticides and other toxic chemicals. It is therefore important to plant a variety of plants that work together symbiotically to provide nourishment and protection from pests and disease, which we do here in our garden.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal – The borders between the different zones (see below) in Permaculture create huge opportunities. Along our food garden line, for example, we propagate lilikoi, a delicious vine-growing fruit, which grows around and keeps weed-trees and other nutrient sucking plants in abeyance. Nevertheless, these “weed-trees” provide an important barrier of protection from the wind and a natural fence line to keep wild pigs out of our garden.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change – Things are changing in our local environment all the time. Rain seasonality, for example, requires us to harvest and use water wisely in the summer months and compels us to make good use of our grey water for irrigating the landscape.
These twelve principles are continually used and have ensured the ongoing production of healthy, local, and organic food for the whole community. Again following Permaculture principles, we employ them in zones 1-5 as follows:
Zones are used in Permaculture to demarcate specific areas of activity. Zone 0 is the house, while Zones 1-5 are used for increasingly less intensive purposes. What follows is a broad outline of the way that we use our space here at Polestar according to Permaculture principles.
Zone 0, as mentioned before, is our house. In the house we seek to use energy wisely and efficiently via our solar power system and energy saving light bulbs. We also wash dishes by hand in buckets and use the grey water for landscape irrigation purposes.
Zone 1 is right outside our house and hosts our kitchen’s raised bed herb garden. Here, our cooks harvest a variety of herbs and spices for most every meal. We also store our compost bins nearby and fill them with any food scraps after each meal before eventually bringing them to zone 2.
Zone 2 is comprised of our food forest that includes a variety of low-maintenance fruit trees as well as our berry shrubs. We also have our chicken coop and composting station here, and what the chickens do not eat becomes soil that is used throughout the property.
Zone 3 hosts our food garden where we grow the bulk of our vegetables used for community meals. This zone also has our bee hives that provide a substantialamount of honey throughout the year.
Zone 4 marks the boundary between our property and the jungle around us. Here in Hawaii, elephant grass and weed trees grow in abundance and provide the raw material for making mulch. We also planted bamboo that is used for projects around the property.
Zone 5 is comprised of the jungle/wilderness around us. This area is not used by the community, but is left alone and enjoyed for recreational purposes such as walking and hiking. Zone 5 is a good place for us to “recharge” the batteries, so to speak.
Agroforestry at Polestar Gardens
In addition to Permaculture, Polestar also implements some of the core tenets of Agroforestry. According to the World Agroforestry Center, Agroforestry is “land use systems and practices in which woody perennials are deliberately integrated with crops and/or animals on the same land management unit.” The overall idea is to intentionally integrate one’s tree propagation and management with one’s other agricultural and animal husbandry practices.
Agroforestry is similar to Permaculture, and includes the implementation of four main criteria:
1. Intentional – our systems are designed and implemented to maximize food production sustainably and efficiently.
2. Intensive – we closely manage our projects to ensure optimal harvests. Doing so actually reduces labor time as we closely observe our projects and thereby avoid any unnecessary emergencies before they get out of hand.
3. Integrated – we combine our work with the food forest and our work in the garden as one integral whole. We share resources between these two interlinked areas.
4. Interactive – our chicken coop separates our garden from our food forest, though the chickens fertilize both. Waste from both the garden and the food forest are used in the production of mulch and compost that is then used for both areas. Our bees pollinate our trees and produce honey as a result.
Permaculture and Agroforestry form a core component of our agricultural land use here at Polestar Gardens. If you are interested in learning more about Permaculture and Agroforestry, visit us at Polestar Gardens and be sure to stop by for our Permaculture and Agroforestry program workshops. Special thanks to our resident Permaculture and Agroforestry expert Denise Foust and horticulturalist and landscape designer Valentina Bianchi for their input for this page.