Permaculture: The Prequels

The word Permaculture was originally formed from the words Permanent Agriculture. What may surprise you is that the words Permanent Agriculture appear in the titles of at least three books, and predate ‘Permaculture’ by about sixty years. I am currently reading one of those books for the second time, and thought that it would be interesting to discuss all three in the same post.

Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture

I first read this book a few years ago and was really annoyed that Bill Mollison and David Holmgren had failed to give it credit for so many of the ideas that they promoted in the first book about Permaculture, ‘Permaculture One‘. (See Note 1 below)

Tree Crops‘, by J Russell Smith was published in 1929, almost fifty years before ‘Permaculture One‘. It contains many ideas that permaculture practitioners would recognise. The use of trees located in pasture to provide animal forage is emphasised, as well as their use on slopes, and the role of trees in preventing erosion. Specific examples like the use of Mulberries for chicken and pig forage stand out for me. In ‘Permaculture Two‘ Bill Mollison copies the use of Carob and Honey Locust in a forage system. Both trees are given their own chapter in ‘Tree Crops‘. Other ideas which resonate with permaculture practitioners include the use of trees in a two tier agroforestry or silvopasture system.

One of the things that has stuck with me has been the author’s belief that we could rapidly improve many of the trees that he lists as being useful. Smith describes a number of experiments carried out by tree lovers that produced trees with significantly improved characteristics. This is the sort of work that, if carried out by younger permaculture practitioners could bring huge benefits. I am a bit old to see research projects like these to their conclusion, but would relish the chance to contribute or collaborate with others.

I bought my own copy of ‘Tree Crops‘, but it is available as a free download from The Soil and Health Library. I would recommmend it.

Farmers of Forty Centuries; Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan

I have written about this book before, and if you search the Tag archives, you can find the posts that refer to it. The book is an amazing account of agricultural practises in China, Korea, and Japan, at the beginning of the 20th Century. This book may not seem to be as relevant to permaculture practitioners as ‘Tree Crops‘, but I believe that one of the keys to reducing the amount of land that we use to feed ourselves is the intensive use of less land. Farmers of Forty Centuries describes that intensive agriculture. The book includes more ideas that will be familiar to permaculture practitioners. The use of Nitrogen fixing crops as interplants is well documented, as well as the use of tree crops for fertility building, animal forage, and animal food. It is a ‘Main Reference’ in ‘Permaculture Two‘ and possibly the book that has influenced me most over the last two to three years. It predates ‘Permaculture One‘ by 67 years.

Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture

This book is dated 1910, and was written by Cyril George Hopkins. Hopkins was a Professor of Agronomy at the University of Illinois, as well as a Director of the Illinois Agricultural Experimental Station.

‘Soil Fertility’ is not an easy book to read. It is full of scientific data related to soils and fertility, and over 600 pages long. However this is also one of it’s strength. The key message of the author, which drowned out by the sellers of artificial fertilisers, was that soil fertility could be maintained without the use of chemical fertilisers. Much of the book comprises of reults that support that view. To save you reading it for yourself, unless you are a fellow soil geek, Hopkins believed that almost all soils had adequate levels of potash, that Nitrogen was available free from the atmosphere, and that tiny amounts of rock phosphate, along with some lime, was all that was needed.

There are some interesting observations. These include that plants obtain some phosphorous from the subsoil. We now know that mycorrhizal fungi are one of the keys to this happening, but this knowledge was not avaialble to Hopkins. Other observations include that the soil needs organic matter to fully utilise rock phosphate. Again it is the soil microbes that are fundamental to this process. Hopkins also refers to the use of nitrogen fixing plants, including references to Asian agricultural systems, like those reported by FH King. Another useful area of content is the record of crop trials, including those carried out at Rothamsted.

Whilst I would not recommend ‘Soil Fertility‘ to everybody, the message of the book is important. It shows that it is possible to mainatain soil fertility without the use of artificial fertilisers, and describes some of the ways to do so.

What is the relevance to Permaculture Today?

Some of the content of these books has already been assimilated into permaculture thinking, but there are still lessons that we can learn. The proof that fertility can be maintained without chemicals is reassuring, but the techniques for doing so still need to be developed. Old techniques such as those reported by FH King, as well as the use of material from trees, are likely to be needed. The possibility of fairly quick improvement to tree crops is an idea that desperately needs to be seized upon. Smith’s description of earlier trials may be useful as a starting point for new research. Perhaps more controversially for permaculturalists is the thought that a more intensive agriculture will be needed to meet our need for food. Surprisingly support for this comes from Bill Mollison himself. In ‘Permaculture Two‘ he lists ‘potatoes, corn, and pumpkins as the species worth main cropping, along with small scale grain growing, if grown using a Fukuoka style system.


  1. A more recent read of Permaculture One shows that Smith was credited for some of the ideas.

2 thoughts on “Permaculture: The Prequels

    1. Deano Martin Post author

      I’ve still got a few to read, including yours. I need to make the most of the long nights, as Spring is coming and things get busy.
      Take Care


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