Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

Permaculture is an ecological design science that requires skilled training, experience, and continued education to practice effectively. However, there are three big mistakes being made by permaculture dabblers and other land management experts.

Let’s take a look at these assumptions and clarify the benefits of permaculture design.

Permaculture Design without a Designer

Permaculture design provides proven possibilities for creating abundant communities and regenerative ecosystems. And as more people learn about it, they express interest in testing permaculture strategies in their own home- or business-based ventures.

One of the benefits of permaculture is its accessibility, but this often can result in permaculture being misused and misunderstood.

Unfortunately, many land management experts and home-based dabblers are testing permaculture without oversight from trained permaculture designers. When they receive lackluster results, they conclude that permaculture isn’t a viable solution, while many times the problem was a lack of training and an inappropriate use of permaculture strategy.

Permaculture Skeptics

I admit, I was skeptical of permaculture’s virtues even throughout my training. I graduated with my permaculture design certification while giving credence to opposing arguments by my colleagues who are trained in sustainable agriculture and ecological conservation.

Like a recently-graduated college student, I had the training but little experience.

So I studied more. Practiced more. Observed more. Sought out living examples of permaculture in action. Like a scientist, I wanted to see results that proved permaculture’s worth. And through this process, I became a believer that it can truly change our future trajectory because I saw it with my own eyes.

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

Through permaculture training, we learn useful, practical skills that feed us, clothe us, and warm us into the future without compromising the earth or its inhabitants any further. But it does require us to put on our learning caps and think outside the box.

3 Permaculture Assumptions

Here are the three biggest assumptions about permaculture being made by untrained permaculturists:

  1. Permaculture can be learned from a book.
  2. Permaculture experts aren’t as knowledgeable about land management as agriculture and conservation experts.
  3. Your trained permaculture designer friend can give you free consulting.

Let’s take a look at each of these assumptions in detail.

Mistake #1: Assuming that Permaculture can be learned from a book or a Google search.

It happens to the best of us: we read a book about some kind of system, perhaps it’s a new diet, a time management strategy, an exercise program, or permaculture gardening. We try to adopt the program but have little success.

I’ve recommended some permaculture reference books that I wouldn’t practice permaculture without: Gaia’s Garden, Restoration Agriculture, and Edible Forest Gardens, to name a few. Great references, but not great educators.


Let’s say you read Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway and it sounds really convincing that permaculture is the way to create a “resilient, dynamic backyard ecosystem”. You decide to use some of the techniques in the book and see where it leads you. You tell all your friends you’re doing it. But at some point you lose steam.

The garden you didn’t till this year is full of weeds, your design seems to be random, incomplete, and more work than before, and no one is there to offer validation for your experience.

There are two things that could help you in this moment to meet your goal of successfully creating a permaculture garden: 1) a permaculture design training program to solidify what you read in the book (and meet some peers), or 2) consultation with a skilled professional who can help you navigate your specific situation.

In either case, understanding more about how nature works as a whole system would empower you to self-regulate your backyard ecosystem with confidence over time. But as it is, it’s just you and your book, and you’re not receiving any feedback or encouragement that you’re on the right track, so you become less inspired, and eventually the book joins its friends on a shelf.

You might occasionally add a plant to your garden that was recommended in the book, but this cherry-picking isn’t actually creating a permaculture garden.

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

Hillside Community Garden Food Forest (development in progress)

Permaculture is a design science that takes skill and training, and experience in the field.

This is NOT to say that one shouldn’t dabble in permaculture or experiment with permaculture solutions.

On the contrary, the biggest challenge for permaculture dabblers is figuring out how to use all of the available plant lists and solutions to create an integrated design that is appropriate to their land.

Dabblers aren’t experts, so getting the design to function properly may take a bit more trial and error to take the concepts in books and apply them appropriately without a skilled professional to guide the process.

Mistake #2: Assuming that Permaculture Experts aren’t as knowledgeable as Agriculture and Conservation Experts.

Your first clue that permaculture science could well be the system your backyard, farm, or land conservation program needs to propel itself into greatness is precisely because the permaculture community claims that it can be utilized in all of these scenarios.

What kind of wackos would make such a wild claim if they hadn’t seen its success in backyards, market farms, and land restoration projects?

Many well-meaning agricultural and conservation experts skim snippets about permaculture and assume they know exactly what it is and why it’s NOT the solution for their endeavor.

Remember, permaculture requires skilled training like any professional arena. Cherry-picking information won’t provide reliable conclusions.

Each year, I attend the annual ecological farming conference in Ohio, and in the last two years I’ve watched up-and-coming small farmers deliberately avoid the most prominent permaculture figures as if even listening to their spiel would break their backs.

[Note: There is a good following for large-scale, permaculture-in-agriculture research, there’s just also a segment opposed to even sitting in on a lecture].

Product Diversity on the Farm

Opposing experts argue that permaculture methods can’t be scaled up for market-based farming, that a permaculture-based system relies on a smaller harvest of too many crops (too much diversity).

Yet some of these farmers already market a variety of products out of necessity, and work long, hard days to make ends meet. Their product diversity is a different kind that requires not just initial hard work to set up the system, but constant, day-in-and-day-out-for-the-rest-of-their-lives kind of hard work.

Permaculture agricultural systems, on the other hand, will include a diversity of products since they are modeled after nature, but over time these perennial-based, regenerative systems should require less back-breaking work.

Water Management on the Farm

Water management is an essential component of permaculture design, as well as a farm system. Yet my agricultural expert friends have shared pictures of diversion ditches and called them “swales”. Clearly they don’t mean to divert water off their property? Because permaculturists would never do that. Swales catch and hold water so it sinks in and does the irrigating for us, rather than rushing away topsoil and minerals that can never be retrieved through a divergence ditch.

A visit to a Restoration Agriculture site with Mark Shepard would be a worthwhile educational experience to see permacultural water, crop, and livestock management on a large scale.

Conserving Land through Herbicides

Land conservation experts, who are on the other end of the spectrum as our sustainable farmers, shout from the rooftops about letting our forests be. I feel it in my soul that the earth needs its “wilds”, whether for my own sacred rejuvenation or for the survivability of many plant and animal species.

In conventional land conservation strategy, exotic species are often treated with herbicides, then replaced with native plants.

The Purpose of Invasive Species

The spray-and-replace model exposes a breach in our understanding of how forests become populated with certain plant species. The question is, why did the invasive species show up in the first place?

Over time, human activity and atmospheric changes have affected the soil environment, so that different plants now prefer to grow there. Unfortunately, the use of herbicide is only further changing the soil ecology.

In permaculture we accept that we must work with nature, not against it. Even the invasives are nature at work.

An abundant plant species – whether native or exotic – fills a particular niche in an ecosystem when the conditions are just right for it to exist. What niche does it fill? Nature chose the invasive plant because it filled the right niche and worked well in the existing soil environment.

When the conditions change, the plants that grow there also change. The invasive plants didn’t change the conditions, they responded to them. Ripping them out and replanting natives doesn’t instantly reverse the changing conditions, at least not without a deeper study of what niches the invasive plants filled and how the soil needs to change to support the native plants.

A skilled permaculturist can contribute to the reforestation process by helping to discuss soil ecology and how the different layers of plants in the forest work together to create a healthy ecosystem.

Credit the Experts

Permaculture is often seen as a hackers realm because of its lack of prominence in higher education, though Oregon State, UMass, Cornell and a growing list of other universities have established programs. Like many farmers and conservationists, permaculturists are largely self-taught through attending relevant workshops, trainings, and certifications.

I believe it’s a glimpse of what quality education will look like in the future: intense, highly academic content, taught by highly educated professionals, yet decentralized so that it comes without a $50,000 price tag. It is accessible to anyone willing to learn.

A permaculture course is a small price to pay for something that could be the missing link to your farming business or restoration project.

None of this is said for the sake of isolating permaculturists from sustainable agriculturists and ecologists. They’re all doing good work. We need wild lands and we need to eat. Rather, it is said for the sake of stating – for the record – that permaculture has something to add to the conversation.

Permaculture might just be the missing tool in the tool belt for running viable, sustainable farms and regenerating healthy forests. Or maybe not. The point is, do a training, find a consultant, and discover what permaculture has to offer.

Mistake #3: Assuming that your friends who are trained permaculture designers can give you free professional consulting on demand.

I was recently approached by a friend:

Friend: “I let the back acre of my property grow back to forest, so now I can attempt a food forest.”

Me: “Oh, you don’t need an existing forest to create a food forest. A food forest mimics a forest ecosystem with perennial, food-producing plants as the anchor species.”

Friend: “Yeah – an existing forest planted with fruit trees.”

Me: “No, a food forest mimics a forest. It’s planting like a forest, not in a forest.”

Friend: “Oh. How do I do that?” [With a look that says I should give her a free training in permaculture design science, and do it in the duration of an elevator speech.]

Simply planting a bunch of fruit trees among an existing forest sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? While mimicking a forest, with all of its layers and interconnections — tall trees, small trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, and ground covers – sounds a bit more overwhelming?

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

We want to learn how to do things as fast as we can google “how to design a food forest”.

I’m not a google search! My expertise holds value, and should be respected like any person who provides a service…the landscaper, the farmer, the yoga teacher, the utility companies that provide electricity and running water.

Another friend just showed up one day – unannounced in the middle of a work day – with a carload of trees. “I just purchased a boatload of fruit trees. Tell me how to ‘do permaculture’ “, she stated.

Helping friends is a tricky situation. I like to help people with permaculture gardening because it’s what makes me happy and I want it to make them happy, too.

But I prefer empowering people to be their own experts.

That’s why I run the community garden with free permaculture training twice a week, and that’s one reason why I created this blog.

Permaculture consulting/design is an expertise, and it needs to be treated as such.

Would you expect your electrician friend to spend a day at your house consulting on a project – without offering him anything in return? How about your plumber friend? Be prepared to offer an energy exchange for consulting. A beer is not a fair exchange for a day of expert consulting from any professional. Just FYI.

The bottom line: Become a dabbler of permaculture. Read books. Attend classes. Hire your expert friend as a consultant (and pay them!). Discover what permaculture can offer you.

In the end, we should all work together, hear each other’s needs and respect each other’s exptertise, no matter if we’re permaculturists, friends, neighbors, backyard gardeners, farmers, or ecologists. Together, we are a force to be reckoned with, but only together.

No one ever said expanding your horizons was easy, but it’s rarely a waste of time.

Read more about permaculture and why deep study of this approach will help you design a better homestead.

Have you made any of these mistakes? What are your thoughts?

Do You Make These 3 Permaculture Mistakes?

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  1. penny says

    Thank you so much for this post! I really appreciate your consideration of the scientists, farmers, home gardeners, conservationists, preservationists, the dabblers and the “hippies.” I, too, have encountered many of these misconceptions when talking to others about permaculture- especially in the academic community and in my work with farmers. Thanks for sharing, and I’ll likely borrow some of these explanations for encounters in the future!

    • says

      Penny, your feedback is really valuable. Would love to hear more about your experience when you’re back in my neck of the woods :)

  2. says

    Hey Amy,

    Good post. I have been dabbling in Permaculture for about 3-4 years now. At first it was just internet research, then I bought some books like Gaia’s Garden and started understanding more and more. I finally took a PDC in Cincinnati where I learned more, got some hands on and met a lot of great local people. I agree that if you just “dabble” you will never fully understand what Permaculture is all about. I will say that my dabbling led to more research and finally to taking a PDC. I am also signed up for my second PDC that will start late summer online.

    Over the years I have been developing my property. At first I just wanted a garden and some fruit trees and bushes. So I built a large raised bed garden and planted a ton of fruit trees. Then I heard about Permaculture. While my garden placement was good, I realize now I could have done things better for me and my local environment. I have been slowly replacing my raised beds with a more natural raised mound garden in a Mandala / keyhole style. Instead of bringing in straw and mulch for my walk ways I use local limestone walkways with strawberry cover crops to keep the weeds down while providing shade and moisture retention and of course fruit! Everywhere I planted a fruit tree was pretty much wrong, when I stopped and really observed my property. I have been moving them around to better locations and have established the beginnings of a food forest in my front yard.

    Even with my training I feel I have a lot of experimenting to do. My homestead is constantly evolving towards a more sustainable interconnected landscape. I do have some friends that I have offered my help for free, to get some experience designing their properties. They understand that I am relatively new at all of this but they do see the merits of Permaculture and are willing to make mistakes with me.

    I hate explaining what Permaculture is to people that have never heard of it. My plan is to design and implement my property and a few others that I can point to and say, well here is one application of Permaculture, and take the conversation from there.

    I am interested in visiting your community garden. How do I get more information?



  3. says

    Hi Patrick,

    Thank you for your comment. We all start out as dabblers, don’t we? Your ongoing permaculture homestead property sounds delightful, and a great way to “be the change”. It seems like most people need a visual before they would feel inspired to try something similar.

    Our own homestead, even though it’s quite small, is probably only 1/3 of the way into full permaculture mode. It’s fun to see it grow more interconnected over time.

    I, too, will be taking more permaculture courses in the near future to continue my learning. Designing for others is quite different from improving on one’s own homestead design!

    Information about Hillside Community Garden can be found at Visit us any Wednesday or Saturday!

  4. says

    Hi Amy,

    Yeah I wish I knew what I do now, when I bought my property. Yes I agree it will be a challenge designing for other peoples property. Luckily the first property I will help design for is owned by a Permaculturalist friend of mine. It will be more of a collaboration and an extra shovel. 😉

    I am glad your events start at 6pm on Wednesdays. I should be able to drop sometime after work. Here is a link to my blog about our property.


  5. says

    Very well said. On all of it.

    I’ve only just found your blog but have a feeling I’ll be spending far too much time digging into your past posts this afternoon. As a forever-student of Permaculture, I appreciate your insights.

    Plus, we’re right up the road from you… a little southeast of Dayton. My wife was born and raised in Cinci. Specifically, her parents are still in the Norwood area.

  6. Michelle says

    I am reading this post just as I am in that stage to make mistakes. I have a lot of momentum, and I am very excited about all the information I am learning ( seems that all I am doing is reading, researching and communicating) but I am not at all interested in taking a huge course. I suppose really what i should be doing is bringing in a permaculture designer so I don’t have to take all the courses ( truthfully I already have a career! I don’t want another one!) I want to live a “permaculture lifestyle”, but without that becoming my entire life. In my situation would it be best to bring someone in, or bumble my way through it? I know that mistakes are part of life and I am really enjoying learning about this stuff, but it is truly from a book and from friends… I suppose you could call me a dabbler….

    • says

      Hi Michelle!

      I totally agree that a design course is quite a large commitment for someone who won’t be practicing permaculture professionally. In fact, though the course is quite interesting, enlightening, and inspiring, it might be unnecessary.

      I think you have a great attitude for living a permaculture lifestyle! ‘Practice makes perfect’ as they say, so I certainly encourage you to get out there and try some of the things you’re learning. That’s what makes it fun. Try everything as an experiment – even the most amazing of permaculture techniques work well in certain climates/soils but totally flop in others. Hard to know what works for you until you give it a try.

      That said, working with a professional designer to lay out your property in an efficient manner would give you a great start. For example, a designer might have some insight on where the best location is for planting fruit trees on your property, which could give any plants and trees you buy a better chance to survive, saving you money.

      There’s no right or wrong answer. Conducting your own experiments is a great way to learn, but hiring a designer (assuming there is one in your area) is a great way to have one-on-one teaching that is specific to your property.

      Good luck :)

  7. Jane Mickellborough says

    I find the term ‘dabbler’ extremely patronising.
    It appears to me that you have to study PC up to Masters level before getting out your spade and fork, and frankly I dont have the time.
    I dont disagree with any of the tenets of PC, I just wish you lot wouldn’t be so jargon-ridden and superior-sounding about us pathetic ‘dabblers’.
    Ii have seen garden run on PC lines, and they are beautiful. This is what I want to achieve. Why on earth is there no ‘do -it-like- this’ information. It can’t possibly be as hard as you lot seem to make it out to be!
    Its certainly hard to get straight, no-nonsense information

    • says

      Permaculture is best learned through practice, so “getting out your spade and fork” is an excellent idea! Like all permaculturists – professionals and dabblers – practice makes perfect. Because permaculture is a design approach, without training or education to hone your skills, you may just need more practice to figure it out, and that is totally okay. Sounds like you don’t have the time for that, though.

      You will find plenty of information on my website about permaculture strategies that I’ve experimented with, which is my attempt to share ‘do-it-like-this’ information. The thing is, no single strategy is right for all circumstances. Permaculture is a whole-systems design approach – it is more than just a collection of ‘how-to’ information.

      Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden, writes that we must use “…time-tested techniques honed to perfection by indigenous people, restoration ecologists, organic farmers, and cutting-edge landscape designers.”

      How to figure out if a swale (a water-harvesting strategy often used by permaculturists) is appropriate for a particular piece of land has a lot to do with your training. Without training, you might just have to dig that swale and see if it works, which I TOTALLY support. Training might have saved you the trouble of digging in the first place.

      You wouldn’t assume you could design a building better than a trained architect, would you? Dabbling and learning through trial and error is what permaculture is all about, AND the skills of a trained permaculture designer who has the knowledge of a professional are also worthy of respect.

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