What is permaculture?

The word ‘permaculture’ was coined in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a hybrid from ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. ‘Permanence’ here refers to sustainability, to the cyclic nature of agriculture rather than the dependence on finite resources.

They soon realized though that this permanence was not achievable when dealing with it in isolation. It can only arise from integrating agriculture into an interconnected system of all related elements: energy, forestry, economy, hydrology, waste management, animal husbandry, sustainable architecture etc. and, last but not least, community development.

A permacultural system develops from focussing on the relationships between its elements rather than only on their yield. By taking the cyclic nature of natural systems into consideration, permaculture is a no-waste system. It provides a blueprint for the development of sustainable human settlements on every level.

The 12 principles of permaculture

David Holmgren, the co-founder of permaculture, describes 12 principles which should guide every permacultural project:

Observe and Interact 
By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Catch and Store Energy 
By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

Obtain a yield 
Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the working you are doing.

Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback 
We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. Negative feedback is often slow to emerge.

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

Produce No Waste
By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

Design From Patterns to Details 
By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

Integrate Rather Than Segregate
By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things, and they work together to support each other.

Use Small and Slow Solutions 
Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.

Use and Value Diversity 
Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

Use Edges and Value the Marginal 
The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

Creatively Use and Respond to Change
We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time.

What is permaculture?

In 2016, I came to Costa Rica in search of a land destroyed by the methods of human activity. The goal was to restore it and turn it into as many habitats for animals as possible while producing enough food for ourselves to become largely self-sufficient. I found this land in the South-West of the country, an unproductive swamp, toxic from decades of industrial rice cultivation, and when rice would not grow anymore, it was compacted by cattle herds. Local experts were convinced that the restoration of the soil would take a minimum of seven years if not more. Among other challenges, phosphorus levels were concerningly low and erosion was rampant. However, for me a perfect starting point.

The land I bought: an unproductive swamp, toxic from decades of industrial rice cultivation

We dedicated the first year exclusively to observation and analysis. We observed the sun, the wind, rainfall, micro climates throughout the year, we analysed the soil and water on many different spots, and drew maps with geodesic lines. In the dry season, when the groundwater was low, we walked the swamp and put bamboo sticks wherever we would sink in half a meter or more, to let nature guide us where to dig the wildlife ponds.

We then went on to develop a comprehensive plan, keeping in mind that nature’s strategy is working in cycles and consists of a network of many interconnected elements simultaneously. In permaculture we have a rule of thumb that every element must have at least two functions and every function must have at least one backup, a good start in creating a system whose interrelated elements ultimately become a system which, as a whole, is more than it’s parts.

We started with digging a series of wildlife ponds. The excavated earth we piled up inbetween those ponds resulting in areas that became just high and dry enough for a variety of swamp-trees to flourish, contributing to the reforestation of the biological corridor AMISTOSA. In addition, these ponds now provide habitats for a large variety of animals that had not been able to live here before, such as the boat-billed heron, green ibis and many other birds, turtles, a variety of fish and many others.

The next step was the restoration of the soil for which we applied several interconnected strategies: microorganisms, the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia), nitrogen-fixing ‘pioneers’ and weeds.

The microorganisms are the ‘cooks’ for the plants. They transform organic material into plant-available foods. Thus, the more microorganisms a soil contains, the richer it is. First, we breed them through hot compost, which is a method where the heat it produces kills most pathogens and all weed seeds. We then multiply them with compost tea and finally protect them with biochar.

Apart from microorganisms, we planted thousands of Mexican sunflowers, a fast-growing bush that not only fixes nitrogen from the air but also draws phosphorus from rocks in the depth of the soil. Regularly pruned and left on the soil as mulch, it protects the soil and, disintegrating slowly, it replenishes the soil with much needed nutrients and minerals. In addition, we intersperse the reforestation with a large variety and number of short-lived nitrogen-fixing ‘pioneers’, that prepare the soil for the slower growing and more delicate trees.

And finally, we do not uproot so called ‘weeds’. Weeds grow where other plants can’t and draw exactly those nutrients into their stems and leaves that the other plants can’t access. By regularly ‘chopping and dropping’ them they restore the soil and eventually prepare it for any future plant we want to grow. Once the canopy closes the ‘weeds’ have done their job and are shaded out.

The combination of all these strategies led to a failure rate (i.e., the fraction of young trees which do not make it until they can be left alone) of less than 3% on our land, whereas a failure rate of 10% to 15% are not rare in this area. After less than 4 years, soil samples were deemed by the laboratory as the ‘healthiest soil in the whole area’. The University of Costa Rica installed camera traps to monitor wildlife and at their last check in June 2021, they detected, beside many other animals, an ozelot, a puma and a jaguarundi – clear signs that our restoration efforts are working!

Transformation of the Refugio: from wasteland to wildlife sanctuary

Every living cell needs large amounts of phosphorus to flourish – from phosphate-backbones in their DNA to ATP in their energy production system and many other things. But contrary to the equally essential elements nitrogen and carbon that exist abundantly in the air, phosphorus is added to the soil just by weathering (dissolving of minerals on the Earth’s surface), which is a very slow process and thus, phosphorus is often one of the most lacking minerals in soils.

To speed up our restoration, local experts advised us to use synthetic phosphorus fertilizers in the first few years. Most of the world’s phosphorus though is obtained from phosphate mines in the Western Sahara under questionable circumstances, from an environmental and humanitarian point of view. In addition, synthetic phosphorus easily ‘leaches’ away, especially under swampy conditions, contaminating water bodies on their way. We were thus looking for a socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable alternative, and after some research we found the Mexican sunflower.

The Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia) mines phosphorus from the depth of the soil with the help of a symbiotic fungus. The fungus grows its filaments by growing a digging cell which transforms then into a body cell, grows a new digging cell which again transforms into a body cell and so forth. When the digging cell hits a phosphorus molecule on the surface of a rock (most rocks contain phosphorus) it kind of ‘explodes’ and chips out the phosphorus particle from the rock. This particle then travels to the root of the Tithonia which pays with a ‘piece of sugar’ which in turn the fungus needs to grow.

The Tithonia grows fast and can be chopped regularly. And as all parts of the Tithonia are full of phosphorus, chopping and dropping them returns phosphorus to the topsoil. In addition, keeping the soil-pH balanced through compost provides the perfect conditions for phosphorus uptake in plants and after four years, our phosphorus levels were largely back to normal.

All-natural phosphorus fertilizer: the Mexican sunflower

Despite studying natural sciences in Vienna, my professional life did not begin in the field of nature conservation, but in stage design and in fine arts. Decades later, the subtleties of aesthetics and design I learned and then practiced all these years came in handy when I started to design and construct the buildings at the Refugio.

The architecture of the Refugio plays a vital role in reintegrating us humans into the cycles of nature. The concept for the buildings was to create multifunctional spaces and to use as much as possible materials that, if not maintained, nature could take back within a short period of time.

Even though we have a strict ban on cutting trees, we made one exception for good reasons: decades ago white teak (Gmelina arborea), an invasive tree from Asia, was introduced to Costa Rica because of its usability in construction. However, it soon turned out to have desastrous consequences for the ecology of the country. The roots of white teak are ‘allelopathic’ which means they secrete substances that are toxic to native vegetation and in addition their almond-like fruits cause stomach ailments for toucans and macaws, sometimes even with fatal consequences.

About one hectare within our Refugio was an old plantation of that white teak. We cut down these trees, reforested the area with native trees and recycled the wood into our buildings, a great building material perfectly fitting into natures cycles. The considerable ‘waste wood’ we turned into biochar, which, incorporated into the soil, provides shelter for soil microorganisms and speeds up soil recovery significantly.

As our land is a swamp, we could not entirely avoid cement but minimized it to the posts of the foundation. If abandoned, trees still can grow inbetween the posts and water bodies are not interrupted.

For the roofs we used palmex, a synthetic thatch made from recycled material, versus the real palm leaves that have been over-harvested to the point that they are now threatened by extinction. Palmex, after it completes its life cycle after about 30 years can be largely recycled again.

We achieved the multifunctionality of space through a minimalistic loft-like design with a minimum of walls. The old Chinese system of Feng Shui and Wilhelm Reich’s observations about the influence of geometry (pyramids and cubes) on the human psyche were further guidelines for our design.

Indoors and outdoors are fusing and, last but not least, because of the wildlife we completely abstain from electric light. Artificial light at night interrupts the circadian clock of virtually every living being, plants as well as animals, leading to a cascade of often catastrophic consequences, such as disruption of night pollination, death of uncountable insects through exhaustion and predation, ceasing of mating behavior in fireflies and much more. Light pollution is still one of the most underrated pollutions on earth. As a reward from abstaining from electric lights, we enjoy better health and are surrounded by many animals that otherwise would not be around.

Feng Shui, Wilhelm Reich, and adaptive reuse: the architecture at the Refugio

Ever since my childhood, like many other people, I have been driven by the questions of who I am and why things are as they are. To answer these questions, for me, any tool would do: natural sciences, fine arts, music, philosophy – or preferably all of them.

So I started out with studying physics, mathematics and biology. Because of my all-time favorite teachers, Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz and Rupert Riedl, I soon gravitated more and more towards biology.

My teachers, the preeminent biologists Rupert Riedl and Konrad Lorenz

But one day, a friend – a sculptor – gifted me with a rock of sandstone, a bit less than a meter in diameter, and said: ‘If you can carve an egg from that, you probably can do anything.’ I refused hammer and chisel, took an ax instead, carved an egg and smoothly polished it with glass paper. My friend looked a bit surprised and said: ‘Take your egg and come!’ He took me and my egg to his former teacher who happened to be Fritz Wotruba, the internationally renowned sculptor, head of the sculpting department in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and leading its most prestigious masterclass. Grumpy and squinting his eyes, the professor scrutinized the egg from every corner. Finally turning away he mumbled: ‘I shall expect you at the start of the semester in my class, no entrance examination necessary!’ and left. So the student of science became a student of the arts.

Wotruba was an extremely well-read and charismatic teacher who taught me what I missed in the sciences. He always said, ‘Art probably is the soul of humanity’. But when after years of study I still couldn’t draw a human body without a model, I enrolled medicine and studied anatomy in depth by dissecting every muscle, nerve and artery, daily for two years. It did the trick, and never after did I need a model.

One morning, on the way to the academy, a poster caught my eye which read: ‘We are founding a student theater and are looking for a director and a stage designer.’ That sounded interesting, so I applied and directed and designed my first theater. It was so much fun and such a success that I thought, ‘Why not just do that for the rest of my life?’ I went to Wotruba telling him about my plans, but he furiously screamed and ‘ordered’ me to finish my studies; then I may do whatever I want. Meekly I went back to the class and finished my studies in sculpting. I never worked though in that field.

Fate wanted that the completion of my studies coincided with the installment of a new general manager at the Vienna State Opera. Having been an extra at the opera since my teens, I knew every opera by heart and when I heard they were looking for an assistant for the stage I applied and won the job. Soon I advanced to stage director (‘Abendspielleiter’), working with stars like Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Franco Zeffirelli, Luciano Pavarotti and many others; a very exciting time, last but not least because I also became father of two wonderful children, first a son, and then a daughter. Life was fine. After a while, however, it dawned on me that on my workplace in the opera I had reached the ceiling. If I would want to direct an opera myself I need to go to smaller houses. So, when I received the offer to direct and design a play in the city theater of Münster, I quit and went to Germany.

One thing led to another until I found myself in New York, the city of my dreams, directing and designing plays at various theaters including the world-renown La Mama ETC, and eventually running my own stage, the One Night Stand Theater. This dream lasted eight years when it came to a screeching halt because of a failed attempt to gain residency through a ‘marriage of convenience’. I had to leave and as I couldn’t imagine any Western city other than New York, I went to Asia, which turned my life upside down.

First stop: Thailand. I didn’t like the way it had developed from when I got to know it first, some 20 years earlier. What appealed to me though was a little temple in the jungle with no electric lights which a friend had shown me. When the head monk asked me if I would like to paint the walls of his temple with Buddhist stories, I instantly agreed. Before, though, I asked him to give me time to study traditional Thai painting. Not that I had planned to paint ‘Thai style’, but I wanted to deeply understand what Thai sensibility possibly could be before making any brush stroke on these sacred walls. The monk agreed.

On a trip to Cambodia, which still was afflicted by the civil war, I was introduced to the former court painter of the King of Thailand. For some reasons, the royal artist had to flee his home country and gathered a few students for Thai art in the outskirts of the ancient temple town of Angkor Wat. I told him my story and asked him if he could teach me. After letting me do a few spirals and snake lines with a tiny brush, made from hairs of mouse ears, he agreed. Taking showers from a barrel, eating scorpions and other insects, meditating, sleeping without mattress on the wooden floor, making trips to the Angkor temples at full moon with drunken soldiers guarding them, assisting the teacher while he discovered a thousand-year-old Khmer relief carved into the rocky bottom of a shallow river – a universe had opened up I never thought it would exist.

More than one year I spent with them before returning to Thailand to the forest temple with no electric lights, ready to ordain as a monk and start the paintings. It should come differently. In the meantime, a Chinese businessman had donated electricity, the night was filled now with harsh and fluorescent lights, blasting loudspeakers were greeting tourists. I fled. That plan had been crushed.

I went to Bangkok where I dived into the ‘Ramakien’, the Thai version of the vast Indian mythological epic Ramayana, which I had already studied in Cabodia. 100,000 verses of poetry about gods and demons, monkeys and the hero Rama are painted in miniatures on 400 meters of walls surrounding the Grand Palace.

Mural on the walls surrounding the Grand Palace, depicting Hanuman on his chariot, a scene from the Ramakien

These paintings, originally dating from the 1700s, were whitewashed and repainted every 50 years. ‘Don’t hang on to anything’ was the task the artists had to train. The scope of this titanic work dwarfs even Michelangelos Sistina. Over the course of the following years, my fascination grew into a book of over 3,000 pages, which got lost at once when I, clueless as I was, tried to transfer the file to my new computer. Years of work and purpose vanished. ‘Don’t hang on to anything’ I certainly had learned.

Lost and depressed, all the demons of my past began to surface. To get a grip on them, I wrote another book, this time about my parents and myself. That brought some clarity, and power to continue.

During a dinner in Bangkok, someone offered me 26 hectares of wasteland, with no documents, in the hinterland of Thailand for a ‘symbolic’ amount of money. That was a turning point. Deeply concerned by the rampant destruction of the environment, I took the land with the goal to reforest it. I learned and consulted with many experts about methods of reforestation and eventually, at the onset of the rainy season, planted thousands of seedlings on the deserted land. The trees grew well and when they started to look like a fledgling forest, disaster struck again: ‘It took us so much effort to cut down those bloody trees and now that stupid foreigner wants to bring them all back again!’ said the villagers and burned down the land with all my trees. Lesson learned: conservation doesn’t stop at planting trees.

Again, I submersed myself in studies, took courses in soil biology with Elaine Ingham, added permaculture with Jeff Lawton and, foremost, ecology and systems theory with Fritjof Capra. During this time, Thailand deteriorated environmentally and politically to an extent that made it unlivable for me. I moved to Bali (not my cup of tea), learned then how to grow and process tea and cinnamon in Sri Lanka and eventually concluded my odyssey in Costa Rica, a hotspot for biodiversity. No national military, 26% protected areas and no recreational hunting – that’s as close to paradise for me as it could get, and as of yet, I haven’t been disappointed.

My arrival in Costa Rica coincided with the opportunity to take another course in permacultural design, this time with Scott Pittmann, the pinnacle of permaculture. Pittman definitely catalyzed my decision to manifest what I had learned. I acquired 24 hectares of badly degraded land with the goal to revive the ailing soil, create a wildlife sanctuary and integrate ourselves as positive members into the ecosystem at large. We wanted to blur the line between human settlements and wilderness to the benefit of both.

Experts warned, it will take at least seven years to restore the soil and we would need chemical fertilizers at the onset. But we refused the chemicals, used special plants instead and microorganisms, and within less than four years the soil had been ressurrected!

View over the large pond at sunset

Its biome is thriving now and scores of animals are returning by the days: A family of river otters is playing in our creek, greater grisons, the rarest mammal in Costa Rica, are trying to steal our chicken,, rare boat-billed herons built their nests and started just their second colony. Curassows, a species threatened by extinction, green ibis, usually only seen on the Atlantic side, they all are breeding here. And in the camera traps of the University of Costa Rica, who monitors our wildlife, we found ocelot, puma and jaguarundi here on our land. So, something is definitely working!

We are now reaching out beyond our borders, trying to spread the seed of our approach to restoration and reintegrating human settlements into natural ecosystems for the benefit of both. If you want to learn more and follow our journey, please read our blog or explore our methods here.