Would you like to create a garden that is as resilient as a natural ecosystem? Learn more about permaculture design, a popular approach for growing food with ecological integrity.
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What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is becoming an increasingly popular buzzword and toolbox of ideas for farmers and gardeners, but what, exactly, is it?
The design system with the official title of ‘permaculture’ got its start in the 1970s in Australia.
Its original meaning was a contraction of the words “permanent” + “agriculture”, meaning that if we design agricultural landscapes, especially our home landscapes, in a way that improves and supports the local ecosystem, they could be life-giving 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 of working with land and people are recognized and valued.
However, permaculture’s original application to homestead gardens and agricultural landscapes remains its most popular use.
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.”
I like to describe permaculture as a design approach for growing food in harmony with nature and making use of available resources.
Put another way, our landscapes tell a story, and permaculture can help us read them.
If you’re interested in a well-designed garden, landscape, or homestead, a permaculture approach might be right for you!
A permaculture design certification (PDC) is a standardized, 72-hour course. Here’s how to choose a permaculture design course.
What’s Covered in this Article
In this article, I’ll focus mainly on the philosophy and mindset behind this design system that guide decision-making. I’ll end by making some suggestions on how to start, as well as some resources to continue learning.
- The Prime Directive
- Ethics and Principles
- How to Start
- Resources for Further Study
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 as it pertains to what and 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 that we have to live in isolation and become self-reliant, but rather, we do our part 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.
Permaculture 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. 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 capturing and slowing stormwater, you reduce pollution in local waterways.
On your site, actively seek ways to regenerate fertility and biodiversity rather than simply sustain current levels.
With every action in my garden, I always ask, ‘Does this action help or hurt the ecology? Is there a more ecological and efficient way to achieve this goal? How would nature solve this problem?’
Would you like to learn more about permaculture for improving the biodiversity of your garden, reducing maintenance, and increasing yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
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 inevitably begin producing more and consuming less. It’s this step away from consumerism that helps 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, 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.
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 be kind and helpful to others.
Sometimes it starts with creating a food-producing landscape that is as beautiful as it is productive, which can serve as a model and inspire others.
Ethic #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.
This is the pinnacle of land conservation: Honoring and encouraging the abundance of the land, rather than viewing our resources as scarce with a focus on importing materials.
Did you know that in Los Angeles, where the annual rainfall is only 6 inches, adds up to a possible 3,000 gallons of rainwater harvesting annually from an average-sized roof?
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 (and any land we have access to) provides abundance that can be reinvested into the community—through sharing food, skills, or financial assistance.
This is abundance.
- Read more about the permaculture ethics.
Six Guiding 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.
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 like:
- 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?
Observations can save time and effort. If you move to a new home in the middle of summer, you may not realize the areas that flood in the springtime, for example.
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.
Permaculture zones are a strategy that help create order in the landscape according to how components are connected to one another and how often we use or need to care for something.
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.
Read more about zones and observations here: 6 Maps for the Permaculture Farm Design
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 amount of rainfall, type of soil, slope, and more. The permaculture design process helps you choose suitable strategies to match your needs and conditions.
A swale is a popular technique used in permaculture for rainwater harvesting, although it’s not right for all circumstances. Learn more about this technique here: What is a Permaculture Swale?
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
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.
Planting fruit trees in the parking strip, for example, increased fruit production in an unused part of my yard for very little extra work.
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”.
Edible landscaping offers an example of growing by chunking. 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.
How to Start: Become a Permaculture Scientist
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? Did it increase the efficiency of the garden system? Encourage biodiversity? Make better use of an on-site resource?
If so, can it be replicated elsewhere garden? If it didn’t work, what would have worked better?
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 article How to Build a Rain Garden to Capture Runoff.
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
Aside from the many resources listed throughout this article, the following are helpful starting points for learning more about permaculture.
- A consultation with a certified permaculture designer can catapult your homestead, saving you money and shaving years off of development.
- Browse more of my permaculture articles.
- Browse my collection of permaculture resources.
- Sign up for my free, 10-day permaculture mini course.
- Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision, Theory, Design, and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture; 2 volume set by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
- 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 are you applying permaculture design to your homestead?