Would you like to create a garden, landscape, or whole site that is as adaptable as a natural ecosystem? A permaculture design approach helps you grow food in harmony with nature while making use of available resources.
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What is Permaculture? A Brief History Lesson
Permaculture is becoming an ever more popular toolbox of ideas for farmers and gardeners. But what is it exactly?
According to Bill Mollison, cofounder and father of the movement,
Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”
The design system with the official title of ‘permaculture’ got its start in the 1970s in Australia.
The original meaning was a combination of “permanent” + “agriculture”, that is to say, to design edible landscapes and food gardens so that they improve and support the local ecosystem.
Some people also identify it as a combination of “permanent” + “culture” to call out its usefulness for designing a strong culture that recognizes indigenous methods of working with land and people.
However, its original application to home gardens and farms remains its most popular use.
Would you like to become a permaculture designer or hire one? Certified permaculture designers have completed a 72-hour permaculture design course (PDC). Here’s how to choose a permaculture design course and here are three reasons to hire a certified designer.
Tired of generic permaculture design advice that you can’t apply to your specific goals? If so, check out my Permaculture Design Program and get the tools and support needed to create and implement your own permaculture design.
The Philosophy Behind Permaculture
In this article, I’ll focus mainly on the ideals and mindset that guide the design process. I’ll end by sharing some tips on how to start, as well as some resources to continue learning.
- The Prime Directive of Permaculture
- Permaculture Ethics and Principles
- How to Start with Permaculture
- 7 FAQs About Permaculture
- Permaculture Resources
The Prime Directive
The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.” ― Bill Mollison
The prime directive of permaculture is a guiding light, especially with regard to how we feed ourselves. It basically means to strive to do your best to take care of your own needs, given your life situation.
It doesn’t mean living separate from others. Rather, in means to make the best and highest use of the resources we have available to us.
Permaculture Ethics and Principles
Permaculture design uses a set of ethics and principles to connect us to the ecology and potential of a landscape.
The ethics are the foundation of permaculture design, which values natural systems. They are simply:
- Care for the earth
- Care for the people
- Reinvest the surplus (share abundance)
Ethic #1: Care for Earth
We are only as healthy as our planet. Therefore, caring for the forests, the waterways, and the diverse life forms of our magnificent planet benefits us. It means to recognize and value resources that come onto and leave your site.
For example, by slowing down stormwater, you can reduce pollution in local waterways.
On your site, seek ways to regenerate fertility and biodiversity rather than simply sustain current levels.
In the case of my own garden, I always ask,’Does this action help or hurt the ecology? How would nature solve this problem?‘.
Ethic #2: Care for People
Caring for people includes caring for ourselves and our own household. When we ‘take responsibility for our own existence’, we naturally begin producing more.
It’s this step away from consumerism that helps us avoid products and companies that exploit people.
In modern times, it’s become admirable to favor the opposite of taking responsibility for ourselves: Committing our lives solely to helping others. However, this leaves little room to care for ourselves, and little energy for reducing our own level of consumption.
This unfortunately can have a net zero effect.
When we make the best and highest use of the resources available to us, there is likely a lot we can do to both care for ourselves and others.
Sometimes it starts with creating an edible landscape that is as beautiful as it is fruitful, which can serve as a model and inspire others.
Ethic #3: Reinvest Surplus
When we care for the earth, nature responds with richness—more biodiversity, more plants, more animals, cleaner water and air, and so on.
We can reinvest useful flows—such as rainwater or compost—back into the garden to create a self-maintaining ecosystem that requires fewer inputs from off-site sources.
This is the peak of land conservation: Noticing the potential abundance rather than viewing resources as scarce.
As an example, In Los Angeles, California, the annual rainfall only adds up to about 6 inches. But this adds up to a possible 3,000 gallons per year you could collect from an average roof.
When we care for ourselves and act as responsible consumers, life is rich. We have access to an abundance of healthy, homegrown food. We are financially stronger. Ultimately, caring for our own existence (and any land we have access to) provides abundance that can be put back into the community—through sharing food, skills, or financial assistance.
- Read more about the permaculture ethics.
Want to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your front yard landscape without sacrificing curb appeal? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape.
Six Guiding Permaculture Principles
Permaculture principles guide us in designing a site so that all of the pieces work together as efficiently as possible and the resources of the land are used and valued to their full potential. Over the years, many permaculture designers and teachers have laid out a great number of principles.
The following is an abbreviated summary of a few of those principles, in no particular order, with credit to Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.
These are not rigid rules, but rather guidelines, which help us in striving to model nature in our garden design.
Take a virtual tour of my permaculture-inspired edible landscape.
Principle #1: Observe and Interact with the Land
When we pay attention to a landscape through all seasons and all times of day to understand its personality, its essence, we learn the answer to questions that affect the design of the site.
For example, if you move to a new home in the middle of summer, you may not realize the areas that flood in the springtime.
Here are some examples of observations:
- How does the sun, wind, and water move across or through it?
- What patterns emerge over the course of the seasons?
- Which plant species naturally want to grow there?
- Do any wildlife species venture onto the land? Do they have a specific route, time of day, or specific season for their activity? What components of the landscape are they attracted to?
These are called passive observations, and they can save time and effort. In fact, it is the FIRST STEP in permaculture design. Learn how to use the power of observation with 10 easy steps (and get my free, 13-page worksheet, Making Observations).
Principle #2: Connect and Integrate the Pieces
Sometimes we feel like to we need to do All.The.Things in order to have a super productive homestead garden.
However, the productivity of your homestead isn’t necessarily dependent on how many things you do or have (i.e., rows of crops, number of fruit trees, amount of livestock, etc.).
Rather, productivity and resilience improve as the connections increase between the components you do have.
For example, if you collect food scraps in the kitchen but they never make it to your compost bin because it’s at the back of the property and inconvenient to get to, then we would say that the kitchen scraps and the compost bin are not connected.
By placing the compost bin closer, you connect these two components, food scraps turn into a rich soil amendment, and you avoid wasting a valuable resource. By connecting and integrating components, the whole system works more efficiently.
Before you can decide which components to add to your site and how to connect them together, you need to first start with something we call active observation. You can do this by collecting data about your site and plotting it on physical maps of the property. These maps give you a visual representation of all the data points that can affect design decisions on paper, before you take action on site. This minimizes mistakes.
Read more here: 6 Maps for the Permaculture Farm Design
Would you like to yield delicious harvests while partnering with nature? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden.
Principle #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 an example of a useful flow. Harvesting rainwater in the landscape reduces the need to irrigate while, at the same time, improving the health of the soil.
However, which strategies help you work with rainwater are specific to the site, and depend on the amount of rainfall, soil type, slope, and more.
A permaculture swale is one popular technique used for rainwater harvesting in certain conditions. The permaculture design process helps you match your needs and conditions with appropriate strategies and techniques.
Here’s how rainwater harvesting transformed my front yard garden.
Principle #4: Each Component Performs Multiple Functions
Natural ecosystems are rich and resilient because many plants grow and interact with one another. You can mimic this idea from nature by integrating multifunctional support plants into your vegetable gardens, fruit trees, wildlife hedgerows and food forests.
I look for support plants that provide chop-and-drop mulch, attract pollinators and beneficial insects, and more.
“As above, so below,” works here. Diversity above ground becomes diversity below ground, performing many functions that support a thriving garden ecology. Soil organisms are key to this resilience.
Here are some examples of multifunctional support plants:
- 6 Flowers to Grow in the Vegetable Garden
- 6 Reasons to Grow Borage in the Permaculture Garden
- Growing Comfrey in the Permaculture Garden
- 8 Herbs for the Permaculture Garden
Principle #5: Least Change for the Greatest Effect
“Observe nature thoroughly rather than labour thoughtlessly.” ~Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming
Identify leverage points where the least amount of work can accomplish the most change, to reduce thoughtless labor.
For instance, when I looked for ways to grow more food in my small yard, planting fruit trees in the parking strip did just that for very little work and space.
Sometimes design strategies make use of materials that are found on site for the greatest effect with the least amount of imported materials. One example is using fallen wood to stabilize a hillside and create more productive space: Here’s a Quick Way to Terrace a Hillside.
Principle #6: 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 and you’re ready to grow more things, replicate what worked in the next small expansion.
This is called “growing by chunking”.
As an example, we can look at the practice of edible landscaping. By simply replacing the conventional landscape with edible plants, you can increase productivity without ripping out the entire lawn to do it. Future garden expansions can build on the successes of these small experiments.
Read more about permaculture principles.
How to Get Started
Permaculture is a design approach that can improve the productivity and efficiency of your home-scale farm or garden, by mimicking how natural systems work.
However, like many things in life worth learning, it takes practice. 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?
- To clarify, did it increase the efficiency of the garden system?
- Encourage biodiversity?
- Make better use of an on-site resource?
Don’t be afraid to experiment. And fail.
Indeed, my mistakes have helped me learn! I once created a rain harvesting system that included a combination of rain barrels and a rain garden. I learned from the process, and then rebuilt it better a second time after observing how it worked.
See my process in my How to Build a Rain Garden to Capture Runoff article.
In fact, many people might build a rainwater capture system once and call it done, even if it was inefficient. However, efficiency is a primary consideration in a permaculture designed system.
Observe where resources and labor are being wasted in a system and make corrections, as state above in principle #5: The Least Change for the Greatest Effect.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~ Thomas Edison
7 FAQs about Permaculture
#1: What does permaculture mean?
Permaculture was originally a contraction of the words “permanent” + “agriculture”, meaning to design food-producing landscapes so that they improve and support the local ecosystem for generations.
Permaculture has more recently been identified as a contraction of the words “permanent” + “culture” to indicate that the design system can be applied to all aspects of designing a resilient culture, especially when indigenous methods are recognized and valued.
#2: What is an example of permaculture?
One example is designing a fruit tree guild to create a low-maintenance system that works with nature and improves biodiversity. The goal of the guild is to underplant a central element, such as a fruit tree, with plants that are highly useful, multifunctional, and that might naturally be found growing together.
#3: What are the 12 permaculture principles?
- Catch and store energy and materials.
- Each element performs multiple functions.
- Each function is supported by multiple elements.
- Make the least change for the greatest effect.
- Use small scale, intensive systems.
- Optimize edge.
- Collaborate with succession.
- Use biological and renewable resources.
- Turn problems into solutions.
- Get a yield.
Learn more about permaculture ethics and principles.
#4: What is the purpose of permaculture?
The purpose is to provide a system for growing food for humans in a way that benefits and works in harmony with the local ecosystem.
#5: How do you practice permaculture?
Observe how nature already works on a site by answering questions such as: Where does the water flow? and What are the existing insects and plants?, then build food gardens that work with the ecology and make the highest use of available natural resources.
#6: How is permaculture different from organic gardening?
Organic gardening provides the what—”…cultivating an ecosystem that sustains and nourishes plants, soil microbes and beneficial insects rather than simply making plants grow,” while permaculture provides the how—through a process of conscious design.
#7: How much land is required for permaculture?
Permaculture can be practiced on any amount of land from a balcony to a large farm.
Aside from the many resources listed throughout this article, the following are helpful starting points for learning more about permaculture.
- Start with making both passive observations (get my free worksheet!) and active observations on your site.
- Next, schedule a consultation with a certified permaculture designer which can help reduce mistakes and indecision, shave years off of development, and save money.
- Browse more of my permaculture articles as well as my collection of permaculture resources.
- Sign up for my free, 10-day permaculture mini course.
- Enroll in my Permaculture Design Program and learn to confidently design your own site with me by your side.
- Finally, check out more of my permaculture books and courses.
- Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision, Theory, Design, and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture (2 volume set)
- Permaculture Design: A Step-by-Step Guide
- Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond (Vol. 2): Water-Harvesting Earthworks
- Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective
- The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic
- Permaculture Skills (4-DVD set)
How will you start applying permaculture design to your homestead?
This is an incredibly informative article, I’m saving it for reference. Thank you so much for writing it!
Angi @ A Return To Simplicity says
I love the way you broke down defining permaculture. It is something I am so passionate about, but still have SO much to learn about. This is such an amazing resource for me and any other aspiring permaculturists! Thank you for all your work in researching and writing this.
I really love your site! Two years ago we bought a small farm (6 acres) and have been muddling our way through. We have some chickens, some goats, some children, a dog, a cat, lots of pasture space and big dreams. Ironically I found your website a couple weeks before I started a Homesteading class through the Sustainable Food and Farming program at UMASS. I had no idea it would be a permaculture design class! I am in love with the permaculture principles and this week I am working on my “final” design for my class. It is amazing how my thoughts and desires have evolved with this class and I am excited to see where this journey will take us.
What a great story! I’m so glad you are having a good experience with your permaculture class. Best of luck applying what you’ve learned to all of the amazing things you are already doing 🙂
Donald Charles Cole says
Great to read about applying this on a small scale.
Perfect for our orchard extension
Martin okoth says
I am creating my compound parmaculture compound and by reading your article I am much impressed and hopping to learn more to improve my land fertility and produce enough food without using chemical I say no to chemical farming