Agriculture vs. Horticulture and Permaculture

When I write about food cultivation that I think will be useful and necessary in our collective future, you’re gonna notice that I don’t talk about “agriculture”, but rather use the terms horticulture and permaculture. I tend towards being particular in my choice of words, and since these terms have some distinct difference in what they convey I think it’s important to keep these differences clear. In our society as a whole, we tend to understand agriculture as all plant cultivation or even all food production, rather than a specific set of techniques and technologies.

Agriculture is literally the cultivation of fields. When we see huge plowed fields of corn, wheat, or soybeans, or even things like squash and peppers, that’s agricultural cultivation. Agriculture requires routinely causing a manufactured catastrophe in the form of plowing up the soil in order to grow mostly annual cereals and legumes. This regular plowing and growing of single crops has degraded soil for thousands of years and turned once great forests into deserts.

Horticulture, by contrast, is cultivation in gardens. In the broadest sense this includes a huge variety of methods and a huge variety of the cultivated fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other useful plants we as a species cultivate. Just about all of them. Most peoples’ gardens still lean heavily or entirely on annual fruits and vegetables, but not as a rule. While horticulture can certainly be done in ways that aren’t good for soil, it’s also easy to do it in such a way as to better soil health as well as produce far more per unit of space. I hope to display in the coming months and years that it can also be done with far less work for the amount you get.

This, in case you couldn’t tell, is a garden.

Permaculture is usually viewed as either forest gardening (which is something often used in permaculture design) or as some hippy dippy woowoo thing cuz of some hippies in the 70s and 80s. What permaculture actually is is a design science focused on integrating natural systems in order to design human habitats sustainably. Thus, you’ll often see people using forest gardens as well as things like green architecture and sustainable wood lot management, and even some relatively normal annual vegetable gardens.

As we design our strategies for new ways to order our lives in line with justice and liberation, doing so in the context of habitat loss and climate chaos, horticulture and livestock management methods in line with the principles of permaculture design are going to be necessary to feed, house, and cloth as many of us as possible while building soil and supporting the biodiversity that agriculture has damaged.


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