Undertaking a permaculture course is a very rewarding experience. Not only will you gain skills and knowledge, but you may end up viewing the world in a new way. You will also interact with a group which is interested in similar things as you, and learn from practitioners with plenty of experience.
There is a wide range of permaculture courses on the market in Australia. This article outlines the main types. It also summarises what you should look for when choosing a course.
PERMACULTURE DESIGN COURSES (PDCS)
The PDC is the classic permaculture course. PDCs have been running since the early 1980s, and many participants describe the experience of a PDC as ‘life changing’.
A PDC will introduce the broad concepts of permaculture, and give you the skills to undertake a basic permaculture design. There will be an overview of topics as diverse as sustainable building, useful plants and earthworks; however, rather than providing much detail on any of these, the PDC will help you to develop your permaculture thinking and observation.
There is rarely time for practical components in a PDC, but some courses will include practical work, such as making compost. Field trips to permaculture properties – to see theory put into practice – are often a highlight of PDCs; thus it can be useful to attend a PDC in a climate similar to your own. Some PDCs are based at working permaculture properties, giving participants a further chance to immerse themselves in permaculture.
A design exercise is a requirement for PDC completion. On some PDCs students undertake a group permaculture design; on others students will undertake individual designs.
PDCs run for a minimum of seventy-two hours; however, many PDCs are longer to allow for field trips, further content, or more detail on particular topics. Formats available include: the traditional block of ten days to two weeks; a day each week for a number of months; a weekend a month for a whole year; or a combination of weekend days and evenings. There are also online options.
Intensive PDCs, particularly those with a residential component, tend to be a very intense experience, allowing you to focus exclusively on permaculture and connect with other participants. Other formats may not be as intense, but allow more time for information to sink in, and for individual reading and research between sessions. Weekdays can be useful for parents with children at school, while evenings and weekends will suit those with daytime commitments. Courses spread over weeks or months tend to attract locals, while residential courses often have interstate and international participants.
Some PDCs run closely to the original PDC format developed in the 1980s, but PDCs do change and evolve. Topics such as ‘Transition’ initiatives and climate change have been added to some PDC curricula. Some PDCs are tailored to focus on urban systems or a particular climate, but they should still cover all the general topics in the original PDC curriculum. Some PDCs are very focused on the land-based aspects of permaculture, while others might put more emphasis on technology, financial systems or community development. It is worth asking about the curricula of potential PDCs to ensure that what is offered will suit you.
ADVANCED PERMACULTURE COURSES
Advanced courses are aimed at those who have already completed a PDC, or have a good knowledge of permaculture, and are looking to extend their skills in a particular area. For example, courses in permaculture aid work, advanced design skills, earthworks and forestry systems have been offered.
Permaculture teacher training and creative facilitation courses are useful for those looking to share their permaculture experience with others. These courses cover techniques for facilitating learning and ideas and on creating lesson plans and curricula, with plenty of tips and hints from experienced trainers.
ACCREDITED PERMACULTURE TRAINING (APT)
APT qualifications fit within the national Vocational Education and Training (VET) system and can only be delivered through a Registered Training Organisation (RTO).
Like other VET courses, there are five levels of APT training:
- Certificates I and II cover basic permaculture skills, and have been delivered in schools and community gardens
- Certificate III is a ‘trade level’ certificate, providing the skills and knowledge to develop and maintain a permaculture system
- Certificate IV has a strong focus on the design and implementation of permaculture projects
- the Diploma of Permaculture covers areas such as management, strategic planning and research, as well as design skills.
There is no need to undertake a lower certificate before progressing to a higher one; you can start at any level. It is important to be clear about what you want from an APT course and to pick the appropriate qualification. While a Diploma might sound impressive, if you are more interested in the hands-on development of a food growing permaculture system, a Certificate III would be more relevant. APT qualifications have a strong emphasis on the practical side of permaculture, whether it is building a swale or facilitating a community project. As with all nationally accredited courses, you will need to be able to demonstrate your competence in all aspects of the curriculum, generally through a combination of physical demonstrations of activities, written tasks and, at the higher levels, portfolios of work. APT qualifications give you a nationally recognised certificate which can be useful in self-employment, or in finding employment in areas such as community or school projects, consultancy or local government.
Another reason why people choose APT is to organise their permaculture studies. Having regular assessment tasks helps to ensure that readings are completed and practical tasks are undertaken – it might be possible to do these things without being enrolled in a course, but too often life gets in the way!
For those with extensive experience in permaculture, and the evidence to support this, it may be possible to obtain a qualification via recognition of prior learning (RPL), rather than undertaking a complete course. An assessor will go through evidence of your past permaculture activities – for example photos, site visits and statements from colleagues or managers – and assess those against the requirements for each unit in a curriculum.
OTHER PERMACULTURE DIPLOMAS
Some permaculture organisations offer a Diploma of Permaculture after a period of post-PDC experience, often a minimum of two years. This is a great way to have your skills and achievements acknowledged; however, these diplomas should not be confused with the nationally accredited APT diplomas. Often the organisation issuing these diplomas requires you to have done a PDC approved by them.
INTRODUCTION TO PERMACULTURE WORKSHOPS
An introductory workshop can take anything from half a day to five days. Most assume that students will be complete beginners, so there should be an overview of permaculture principles and practices, and examples of permaculture in action. A longer course will cover a reasonable amount of what a PDC might, for instance the basics of permaculture design.
These courses are ideal for introducing permaculture, and are a good way to help you decide whether to continue to a longer course such as a PDC or APT.
Some permaculture practitioners welcome people wanting to learn practical skills on a working permaculture property. This can be a win-win situation: the intern gains valuable experience, while the property manager has an extra helper available. This relationship can be arranged in different ways: food and accommodation may be available for the intern; interns may be paid for their labour, may have to pay for the experience, or there may be no monetary payments either way; time may be set aside for theory, or all the learning might be carried out through practical activities. Be very clear on what is, and isn’t, expected of both parties before you commit – short-term trials can be very useful before making a longer commitment.
SPECIAL INTEREST WORKSHOPS
There are many short courses and workshops that can support your permaculture activities. Topics and activities may include methods of natural building, aspects of food growing or livestock keeping, weed walks or starting a community garden.
Research your presenter(s) first to see if they are sympathetic to permaculture (even if they do not call it ‘permaculture’). Although you should be able to adapt information from a workshop to a permaculture system, it is more useful to undertake workshops where the content is compatible with permaculture; for example, the presenter(s) suggest plants to feed and nurture chickens, rather than advocating reliance on formulated feed and pharmaceuticals!
Neighbourhood houses and local permaculture groups are good places to find workshops. In some states government departments or councils run useful courses, often heavily subsidised. If a course isn’t available, and you can get an interested group together, try contacting someone with the skills and ask if they could run a workshop. Neighbourhood houses or other community groups may be able to offer their facilities (and insurance) for the event.
UNIVERSITY LEVEL COURSES
There are a few courses at universities that are directly related to aspects of permaculture, such as sustainable agriculture or community development, and a couple of qualifications have included a permaculture unit. In 2016 Central Queensland University will be offering a Graduate Certificate in Permaculture, the first postgraduate course of its kind.
Postgraduate students undertaking a research qualification may be able to tailor their work directly to a permaculture topic.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Once you have decided what sort of course will best meet your needs, you can start looking at those available. Here are some things you might want to consider.
Curriculum. Make sure you are clear on what the course will cover, for example: how much time will be spent in the classroom compared with out in the field; and whether the curriculum is set from the start, or if students will have input into what is covered.
Facilitator/tutor. Find out something about who is running the course and their experience and, especially on longer courses, if the tutoring is shared. Some PDCs have one main tutor, possibly with guest speakers, while others are collaborations between permaculture educators who share the contact hours. No matter how interesting and experienced a tutor is, seventy-two hours can be a long time to listen to one person!
Costs/investment. It is better to think of the money you will pay for a course as an investment rather than a cost, as there should be multiple benefits for you into the future. What you pay for the experience will depend on the length and nature of the course, and sometimes the experience of the tutor.
Some permaculture courses are now run with government subsidies that reduce costs considerably. For instance in Victoria, some PDCs run through community organisations with support from Adult, Community and Further Education Board funding.
APT courses are often eligible for government subsidies that will vary depending on the state, the RTO and the individual student. Many courses will be subsidised for students without a higher qualification, and an Australian Government FEE-HELP loan may be available to cover the cost of a Diploma. Austudy or other benefits can help students studying a Certificate IV or Diploma full time.
Check what the course cost covers, for example lunch on a short course, or accommodation on a PDC. If a course is substantially cheaper or more expensive than similar courses, it is worth asking why – there is usually a good reason.
If you are really keen to attend a longer course such as a PDC but cannot afford the investment, you could ask the organisers if there are any concessions, scholarships or discounts available. Some organisers may be able to arrange a partial work exchange in return for course participation.
Various permaculture courses, including some APT level courses, are available online, and at least one online PDC has been running for over two decades. Online study provides flexibility to fit study around other responsibilities, although it does require organisation and self-motivation. Some online courses facilitate plenty of student– student interaction, and some focus on individual mentoring from the tutor.
Refer to our course directory on the following pages for an extensive list of courses in Australia.