Permaculture is a buzz word that is heard frequently in gardening and homesteading circles, but what does it mean? In this article I will define permaculture (as I see it) and share resources for learning more.
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What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is becoming an increasingly popular toolbox of ideas for farmers and gardeners. It is a design approach to agriculture that seeks to model nature in a way that is aesthetically-pleasing, productive, and ecologically-balanced. By designing ecosystems that become self-regulating and regenerating, over time they reduce our workload.
That all sounds good, doesn’t it? I doubt, however, that you could head out to your backyard and begin practicing permaculture after learning that definition!
One of the reasons why a definition of permaculture is so elusive and varied from source to source is because the approach pulls together a wide range of disciplines such as “ecology, appropriate technology, economics, gardening, evolution, construction, energy systems, social justice, and a raft of other seemingly disconnected fields”, says Toby Hemenway in Permaculture: The Design Arm of a Paradigm Shift.
The important thing to note is that permaculture is most often used for creating efficient and productive landscapes that sustain themselves into the future by regenerating biodiversity and lost fertility.
Our landscapes tell a story, and permaculture can help us read them.
If you’re interested in a well-designed homestead, or in simply adding more ecological gardening techniques to your repertoire, permaculture might be right for you!
Photo courtesy of Home Ready Home
The Prime Directive
The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.” ― Bill Mollison, Father of Permaculture
The prime directive of permaculture guides us through decision-making. As long as we are doing our best to take responsibility for the needs of our own household, then we are living permaculture.
How does Permaculture Work?
Permaculture uses a set of three ethics and seven principles to connect people to the ecology and potential of a landscape.
The 3 Permaculture Ethics
Permaculture ethics are the foundation of permaculture design. Permaculture designs will take more initial work and an understanding of – or a willingness to learn about – the complexity of natural systems. Because of this, we will only feel motivated to design with permaculture strategies if we value the ethical standards on which the permaculture approach was created.
The permaculture ethics are simply: care for Earth, care for people, and reinvesting abundance.
1: Care for Earth
We are only as healthy as our planet. Caring for the forests, the waterways, and the diverse life forms of our magnificent planet benefits us. On your land, actively seek ways to regenerate fertility and biodiversity rather than simply sustaining current levels. As a permaculture designer, always ask, ‘Does this action help or hurt the earth? Is there a more ecological and efficient way to achieve this goal?’
2: Care for People
Caring for people includes caring for ourselves and our own household. When we ‘take responsibility for our own existence’, we inevitably begin producing more and consuming less. It is this step away from consumerism that also helps us avoid products and companies that exploit people.
In modern times, it has become admirable to favor the opposite of taking responsibility for ourselves: Committing our lives to helping others, which in turn leaves little room to care for ourselves, little time to achieve any level of self-sufficiency, and little energy for reducing our own level of consumption. This unfortunately can have a net zero effect.
3: Reinvesting Abundance
When we care for the Earth, nature responds with abundance – more biodiversity, more plants, more animals, healthier water, healthier air, and so on. We can reinvest useful flows – such as rainwater or compost – back into the system to create a self-maintaining ecosystem that requires fewer inputs from off-site sources.
This is the pinnacle of land conservation: Honoring and encouraging the abundance of the land we inhabit, rather than viewing our resources as scarce with a focus on importing materials.
When we care for ourselves and act as responsible consumers, life becomes abundant. We have access to an abundant supply of healthy, homegrown food. We are financially more resilient. Ultimately, caring for our own existence provides abundance that can be reinvested into our community – food or financial assistance being just two examples. We also have skills worth sharing with others. This is abundance.
- Read more about the permaculture ethics.
Photo courtesy of Grow Forage Cook Ferment
7 Guiding Permaculture Principles
A set of principles guides the designing of a property so that all the pieces work together as efficiently as possible and all the resources of the land are used to their full potential. Here is an abbreviated summary of those principles, with credit to Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden.
These are not rigid rules, but rather guidelines, which guide us in our effort to model nature in our design.
Observe a landscape through all seasons and all times of day to understand its personality – its essence. How does the sun, wind, and water move across or through it? Observing our land for at least a year before fully developing it allows us to notice patterns over the course of the seasons. That doesn’t mean we can’t interact with our land or start a garden during that time, but taking note of observations will put us ahead in the long run.
Some observations to make:
- What plant species naturally want to grow there?
- What wildlife species venture onto the land? Do they have a specific route, time of day, or specific season for their activity? What elements of the landscape are they attracted to?
- Studying the sun patterns is a basic observation. Where are the sunny and shady areas, and how do those change as the sun moves across the sky and through the seasons?
Observations can save us time and effort.
It’s not the number of elements in your system, but the number of connections to each element.
That’s a mind bender, isn’t it?
It means that the productivity of your homestead isn’t necessarily dependent on the number of food-producing elements (rows of crops, fruit trees, livestock, etc.) you have, but how interconnected they are.
Increasing the beneficial connections between components creates a stable whole. Elements with the most connections should be placed near one another for convenience.
Permaculture zones are a strategy that help us create order in the landscape according to how elements are connected to one another and how often we use or need to care for something.
Here are some articles about creating zones based on observing the landscape:
- Permaculture 101: Zones
- Permaculture Zones on 1/8 of an Acre
- Urban Permaculture Zone 4: Harvesting The Urban Landscape
3: Catch and Store Energy and Materials
Identify and catch useful flows, which can be reinvested for a higher yield or increased biodiversity.
Water is a useful flow. Catching water in the landscape reduces our need to irrigate while improving the health of the soil. Strategies are site-specific, however.
Here are some ways permaculturists are catching water:
- What is a Farm Swale?
- Front Yard Rainwater Catchment
- What is a Residential Swale and Why You Need One
- How to Construct a Swale
- Swales are Just Swell for the Homestead
- Homestead Waterworks: Farm Ponds & Swales
4: Each Element Performs Multiple Functions
Choose and place each element in a system to perform as many functions as possible. When elements are properly placed, the ecosystem can begin to maintain itself with less work from us.
Choosing plants that perform many different functions allows us to plant fewer plants (save money) but get more in return. For example, some plants can fertilize, mulch, attract pollinators, beneficial insects, and more. Here are some examples of choosing plants that perform multiple functions:
- 4 Berry-Producing Shrubs that Fertilize, Too!
- The Cherry Tree Guild and Natural Pest Control
- Grow Chives for the Best Strawberries
- What is Comfrey and How to Grow It
- 5 Weeds you Want in your Garden
- 8 Reasons to Grow Maximilian Sunflower
- Does Your Food Forest Need Spring Ephemerals?
- 15 Trees for a Wildlife-Friendly, Edible Landscape
- 12 Native Plants for Food and Medicine
- 10 Shrubs for a Wildlife-Friendly, Edible Landscape
- 8 Herbs for the Permaculture Garden
- Planning a Permaculture Garden
5: Each Function is Supported by Multiple Elements
Use multiple methods to achieve important functions. This adds redundancy to the system and protects it in case one or more elements fail.
A hedgerow can provide privacy, a windbreak, shelter for beneficial insects and wildlife, pollination, edibles and more, if it is planted with the right combination of plants. Here are 10 reasons to plant a hedgerow and how to plant a hedgerow.
If you want to get rid of poison ivy, for example, a multi-pronged approach will be the most effective.
6: Least Change for the Greatest Effect
Identify the leverage points in the system, where the least amount of work will accomplish the most change. Through observation, leverage points and patterns reveal themselves, which reduces thoughtless labor.
Planting fruit trees in the parking strip, for example, increased fruit production in my yard for very little work.
Lasagna gardening is an excellent way to start a new garden without disturbing the soil.
Sometimes design strategies make use of materials that are found on site for the greatest effect with the least amount of imported materials. Here are some strategies for using trees and fallen wood on the homestead:
- Here’s a Quick Way to Terrace a Hillside
- Hugelkultur: Hugel what???
- How to Create a Homestead on Wooded Land
- A Permaculture Approach to Building
7: Use Small-Scale, intensive systems
Start at your doorstep and build the smallest system to meet your needs. Small systems can be managed with fewer resources, making them more time- and energy- efficient. When a small system is successful, replicate what works in the next small expansion. This is called “growing by chunking”.
Edible landscaping is a good example of a small-scale system. By simply replacing conventional landscaping with edibles, we can increase our productivity without ripping out the entire lawn to do it. Future small garden expansions can build on the successes of the edible landscape experiment.
Food forests take advantage of vertical space to grow edible and useful tall trees, small trees, shrubs, herbs, groundcovers, and vines all together in an intensive system with a small footprint. Read more about Edible Forest Gardens.
Books to Check Out
If you’d like to learn more about permaculture, these are some of the best books I’ve found on the topic.
- Edible Forest Gardens
- Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist: How to Have Your Yard and Eat It Too
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
- Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual
- Permaculture Design: A Step-by-Step Guide
- Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond (Vol. 2): Water-Harvesting Earthworks
- Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening
- The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming
- The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach
- Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective (Fantastic!)
- The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic
- Permaculture Skills
- Perennial Vegetable Gardening
How to Start: Become a Permaculture Scientist
Permaculture is a complex design approach that can improve the productivity and efficiency of your home-scale farm or garden. But because it encompasses so many disciplines, it isn’t something that can be learned overnight. However, like many things in life worth learning, practice makes perfect. Or at least, practice will help you feel more confident.
Start by experimenting with small projects that use permaculture strategies. Then collect data: Did the project meet the desired goals? If so, can it be replicated elsewhere on your property? If it didn’t work, is there another strategy that would work better?
Don’t be afraid to experiment. After all, the strategies that work in my zone 6 temperate climate may not work in a dry climate at high altitude. Indeed, my mistakes helped me learn. In the end, the ability to learn and adapt strategies to a particular landscape over time is the power of permaculture design.
How are you using, or how will you use, permaculture design on your property?