Permaculture Doesn't Work, Says Plant Biologist

2000 year old food forest 2 photo
Video screen capture. EcoFilms Australia

EcoFilms Australia/Video screen capture

From a 2000-year-old food forest in the desert to a 20-year-old forest garden in the mountains, permaculture enthusiasts often hold up forest gardens as an example of truly sustainable agriculture. But Ken Thompson, a plant biologist and author, is not convinced. Over at the Telegraph newspaper, he lays into the whole concept of permaculture as naive and ineffective:

The trouble is that the average modern gardener has little use for basketry materials, fodder, game or sap products. Nor are some of the other, more useful products exactly abundant. The only nut mentioned is chestnut, which is a non-starter where I live. Hazel isn’t mentioned, but it wouldn’t matter if it were, since where I live hazelnuts are just another way of feeding the squirrels. The only edible leaves mentioned are campanula and lime (Tilia). In blind tests, both would come a distant second to lettuce or spinach. In fact, when you get down to it, forest gardening is all about fruit – 24 of the 34 woody plants listed are fruit bushes or trees. So maybe growing your own toilet paper should be a priority as well.

Thompson's analogy with wild forests—that they don't produce enough food to sustain us—is unfair. As the response from many permaculturists in the comments argue, the whole point of permaculture is not to create replicas of natural forests, but rather to learn the strategies evident in nature to create productive systems geared to producing food. Editing nature is what farmers and gardeners do, says Thompson, but it is also what permaculturists do—just with a slightly different editorial eye.
I should say that the critique does have some truth to it too. I've never been particularly convinced by permaculturists who argue that we could feed the world with forest gardens—I for one have eaten plenty of tree leaves that were correctly described as edible, but would have been stretched to call them palatable.

Yet from efforts to combine square foot gardening with permaculture, through no-dig gardening and no-till farming, to perennial fodder crops, community nut tree plantings and dry farming, most permaculturists advocate a future food system that is as diverse as the natural landscapes we seek inspiration from.

The point is not to recreate nature (why the heck would we need to do that?), but to learn from her and to grow things better. You can call it permaculture, or common sense gardening and farming, but either way it is about much more than growing hazel for your baskets.