What Is Permaculture?

What is permaculture? Permaculture is a way of thinking about ecological design. A permaculture landscape offers larger, better harvests with less work, time and resource use. Using permaculture methods a gardener can design a space that is rewarding, beautiful and productive without hours of ongoing labor or applications of toxic pesticides or chemical fertilizer.

Permaculture Garden

Permaculture garden via Craftsy member Jersey Shore

A history of permaculture

Permaculture as it’s currently practiced was started by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who took their inspiration from natural self-sustaining systems, like woodlands and wetlands. These areas naturally produce abundance, recycle their own waste into fertility, and support a huge diversity of animal and plant life.

The word permaculture was coined as a combination of “permanent” and “agriculture.” Mollison and Holmgren hoped that their techniques could make human-supporting agriculture permanently regenerative and sustainable.

Holmgren eventually codified the basic design concepts of permaculture into 12 principles.

The 12 principles of permaculture design

1. Observe and interact

By taking the time to really study our environment, yard and nature, you can figure out the best possible way to design your garden. Before we jump in and start building, shoveling or planting, we must understand how the various parts of our yard interact. This is a bit like “Right Plant, Right Place” on steroids.

Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system. —Bill Mollison

2. Catch and Store Energy

We want to make sure that we are collecting resources that are local and natural when they are abundant, and keeping them on our site. In this context, energy isn’t just electricity – it’s any resource that can be captured and then utilized over a longer period of time.

For example, ripe juicy tomatoes can be harvesting and dried or canned for winter use, rainwater can be captured in cisterns, barrels or the soil itself through the use of swales, the biomass of tree and shrub prunings can be used as mulch.

Tomato Harvest

3. Obtain a yield

Our permaculture garden must nourish us, and not just emotionally. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, backyard eggs and rich compost are the tangible rewards of good design. With more land, woody mulch, firewood, meat, fish, medicine, fiber, nuts and more are common yields from a permaculture landscape.

The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter. ― Bill Mollison

In obtaining a yield, permaculture design tends to favor the use of perennial crops, like fruit trees, nuts, berries and herbs. Once established, perennial crops provide a large harvest with very little ongoing effort.


4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

A permaculture garden is not designed and left to fend for itself. As the designer, we constantly observe how effective the system is. If there’s a part of the system that is not optimized, we continue to observe and adjust. In the garden, pest problems, crop failures or unhappy, stressed animals are signs that something isn’t working right.

Traditional agriculture was labour intensive, industrial agriculture is energy intensive, and permaculture-designed systems are information and design intensive. — David Holmgren

Instead of getting upset at disappointing results, we use the additional information from a failure to improve the design. All results are valuable because they all add to our understanding of the needs of our natual system.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services

Nature is abundant and a consummate recycler. Nothing grows in a natural environment that does not eventually die and get broken down to become nourishment for the next generation of life. In a permaculture design, we strive to use natural resources, including solar, water and animal resources, responsibly.

A permaculture garden emphasizes moving toward less inputs. Basic gardening and green design techniques like seed saving, composting, water harvesting, vermicomposting, deep mulching, switching to eco-lawn blends and using upcycled materials in the garden are all easy ways to put this technique into practice in your own garden.

Scarlet Runner Beans

6. Produce no waste

When you opt for renewable resources in your design, you automatically reduce waste. But we can take it further. A traditional garden might generate a ton of biomass “waste” every season as the gardener trims, weeds, prunes, deadheads and pulls out spent annuals. Often this waste ends up in a yard waste container, hauled off to somewhere else.

In permaculture, we strive to use all this “waste” to feed something else. Woody prunings can be chipped as mulch, incorporated into a new hugelkultur bed, used as fuel for a highly efficient rocket stove or stacked off in a corner as habitat for beneficial insects. Seedheads can be left on flowers for birds and allowed to reseed. Soft greenery can be chopped off and dropped right where it grew to sheet-compost back into the soil.

Once you start thinking in a permaculture style, much of what was “problem waste” reveals itself to really be food for another part of your system.

Permaculture Orchard

7. Design from patterns to details

In permaculture, one of the primary inspirations is a mature deciduous forest, so it’s important not to lose the forest for the trees! Think in broad strokes before you tackle the minutia. What kind of yield are you trying to achieve? How much time and effort do you really want to spend? How does natural rainfall pool and flow through your property? What crops need a lot of attention and which need little? What wildlife, from deer and bear to songbirds and raccoons, also call your garden home?

By thinking big picture first, you can make sure your efforts are focused on the things that will give the best results.

8. Integrate rather than segregate

In typical landscape design, the functions of an outdoor space are broken into little parts. The vegetable garden is something separate and behind the house out of sight and a series of undifferentiated hedge shrubs border a monocrop of green lawn. Such separation guarantees that the various elements of the design will never work together.

Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony, opposition to them brings disaster and chaos. – Bill Mollison

In contrast, permaculture design tries to maximize the interaction of various elements so that each component can serve as many functions as possible. For example, in my landscape, a small pond serves as a playground for my backyard ducks.

The ducks provide meat and eggs, and their manure, concentrated in the pond, is used to fertigate fruit trees planted just downhill of the pond. These fruit trees in turn provide my family with organic, seasonal fruit. Everything is tied into everything else, and by focusing on integrating relationships, my few backyard ducks provide garden fertility, pest control, eggs, meat and even fruit.


9. Use small and slow solutions

Permaculture is, in many ways, the opposite of modern industrial monocrop megafarms. Permaculture practitioners tend to believe that smaller scale solutions are more adaptive and versatile, and are therefore more likely to provide a sustainable yield over the long-term.

“You can fix all the world’s problems, in a garden. You can solve them all in a garden. You can solve all your pollution problems, and all your supply line needs in a garden. And most people today actually don’t know that, and that makes most people very insecure.” – Geoff Lawton

Slow design allows people to incrementally modify their own garden as they’re time, money and energy allows. A permaculture garden isn’t built in a day, and that’s actually a good thing! Long and consistent observation allows permaculturalists to make changes to a design that will be useful to the entire system for the long run.

10. Use and value diversity

A diverse system is a more resilient system. When one species of plant or animal dominates a landscape, that landscape and the people who depend upon it are vulnerable. If we depend on a monocrop environment, such as the corn and soy fields common throughout the U.S. midwest, it only takes one uncontrolled blight or insecticide resilient pest to totally destroy a yield. Historical examples of this include the Great Irish Potato Famine and the early 1900s die-off of most American Chestnut trees.

The average yard is both an ecological and agricultural desert. The prime offender is short-mown grass, which offers no habitat and nothing for people except a place to sit, yet sucks down far more water and chemicals than a comparable amount of farmland. — Toby Hemenway

Permaculture favors a landscape of many diverse, productive plants and animals. Several specific techniques in permaculture, including guilds, forest gardening, polyculture and the increase of edge in a landscape are designed to increase diversity throughout a system.

When I began to plant my own garden with an eye toward diversity, I noticed that a new and more diverse population of beneficial insects and birds started to call my yard home. This naturally controls most pests in the garden.

11. Use edges and value the marginal

In nature, the zone where two habitats meet has more diversity and productivity than either of the two habitats themselves. Permaculture practitioners call the transition from one ecosystems to together “edge.” Biologists call it the ecotone.

In designing our garden, we can also maximize diversity and productivity by incorporating more “edge” into our design. This can be as simple as making borders of garden beds or ponds undulating instead of straight. Permaculture techniques like herb spirals and keyhole beds maximize plantable space and microclimates in a minimal footprint through increasing edge.

12. Creatively use and respond to change

Any living environment, from a natural bog to our own backyard to the planet itself, is going to change over time. In permaculture, we accept that change is normal, if occasionally unpredictable. It’s how we respond to that change that’s important. So, instead of trying to keep our gardens in a state of impossible stasis, we embrace both the gradual change in any maturing landscape, and keep our eyes open for sudden changes that might present opportunities to improve the system.

“We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.” – David Holmgren

A permaculture environment that is very well designed should mature into a productive, balanced, self-sustaining landscape. That doesn’t mean that a permaculture garden is hands off, however. We continue our observation and if necessary make small, slow changes as we see opportunities.

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