What is Permaculture? An Abridged Explanation

What is Permaculture? An Abridged Explanation

Permaculture is not only a vast subject, but each practitioner has their definition and approach to the ethics and principals that encompass the practice.

A full-blown explanation of permaculture would fill a book. In this article, we provide an abridged summary of the ethics and principals behind permaculture.

permaculture ethics and principals

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What is Permaculture?

According to Wikipedia, the definition of permaculture is:

"Permaculture is a set of design principles centered around whole systems thinking simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and resilient features observed in natural ecosystems. It uses these principles in a growing number of fields from regenerative agriculture, rewilding, and community."

Originally derived from the words permanent agriculture, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison coined the term permaculture in 1978.

Permaculture is based on a series of ethics and several primary principals that uphold those ethics in agricultural practice.

Permaculture's Origin is Older

Although Holmgren and Mollison may have coined the term permaculture, it has been practiced since the development of agriculture. 

Ancient examples of permaculture are hard to document. 

One of the best examples of permaculture before 1978 is the farm called Krameterhof.

Krameterhof is a farm in the terraced mountainsides of Austria. Sepp Holzer, who took over the farm from his parents, has been practicing permaculture, whether he knew that or not, since the early 1960s. 

Holzer wrote a  book called Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-scale, Integrative Farming, and Gardening. I read it at least once a year to remind myself of all the ways to incorporate what's available into designs.

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Links to Sepp Holzer's Book from Amazon and the Publisher

Ethics and Principals of Permaculture


Care for the Earth

The first ethic should be evident for anyone interested in agriculture. Though, modern mechanical monocultural farming may not be the best way to care for the earth regardless of the practices they use.

Care for the earth includes not only soil management, but also water and forest management, using renewable products, and recycling (or re-using) as much as we can.

Care for People

The care for people extends from family to neighbors and even to the community if you have the resources. Caring includes sharing food and other resources, labor, and also moral support.

Personally, the care for people extends to anyone whom you can share knowledge with, either in person or using the reach of the internet and social media using wireless networks.

Take a Taoist attitude by not judging people or their actions and show compassion and love to all.

Use Only a Fair Share

Using a fair share applies to all resources, from food, water, land, supplies, energy, and any other resource. Set your limits to consumption and redistribute the surplus.

You should produce a yield, but it's wasteful to overproduce. Yes, the surplus can be used to feed animal stock or produce compost.

But the land that produces the surplus could also be used to grow a wider variety (increase polyculture) of vegetables and fruit. It could also be used to grow plants that draw pollinators or beneficial insects.

Principals of Permaculture Design

Observe and Interact

observe and interact

It's essential to observe the interactions between nature and the modifications you make to your land and garden area while keeping your long term goals in mind.

When you do interact, use your observations to make small educated changes to use natural resources and human capabilities efficiently. The goal is to reduce the use of non-renewable energy and to care for the earth.

Store Energy

Store energy

Store as many forms of energy as possible. Not only the types that produce electricity. But kinetic and potential energy as well. 

Yes, retaining or converting the energy of the sun, water power, and wind power is very important.

Other sources of energy storage include:

  • Storing water runoff in ponds and raising the water table;
  • increase the fertility of the soil by increasing the  humus content and mass of soil organisms;
  • store carbon in the land, perennial vegetation, and trees;
  • besides storing water in the ground use storage tanks for garden and home water usage;
  • store more of the sun's energy by using passive solar collectors and building.

Produce a Yield

produce a yield

The ideology behind permaculture is to produce a yield that will either feed people or create an income so the grower can be self-reliant. 

Use the captured and stored energy from the previous principal to effectively maintain the system and capture more energy in the future.

Question and Modify

Question and modify

Question your results and methods to better understand how positive and negative effects work with nature. Re-design systems to be more self-regulating to reduce the work involved.

Remember, the earth and nature are always changing, evolving, or adapting to the current environment.

Always question why something is working or not working, and look at short and long term trends to modify and integrate systems to meet the predicted changes.

Use Renewable Resources

use renewable resources

Renewable resources (even services) can be gathered or used from plants, animals, soil, and water, without them being consumed, or, that are renewed and replaced by natural processes over reasonable periods.

Always try to incorporate renewable resources over non-renewable ones. Remember, a resource isn't renewable if it needs significant non-renewable inputs to recover.

Recycle & Produce No Waste

recycle produce no waste

Recycling is so crucial for the reduction of energy consumption. It also helps reduce costs.

However, it's so easy to be wasteful when there's an abundance. Find creative ways to reuse the materials you have to replace those that you commonly need to buy.

I believe recycling is catching on with society, but some materials need to be eliminated or better processes created to recycle and reuse them, i.e., plastics.

Use Nature as a Model

use nature as a model

Though nature isn't perfect, it has many solutions to problems we encounter in agriculture and gardening. 

Even though we often exclude ourselves from nature, we are apart of it. That human nature into account. That what we see or encounter more often receives the most love. 

Permaculture design uses zones to capture this human nature. Putting resources commonly used closer to areas where they're more likely to be encountered.

When a problem arises, use nature as a model, and think of how to use natural processes to correct the issue. 

You'll find it easier to work with nature rather than fight it. Sort of the fight fire with fire solution.

Integrate Systems

integrate systems

In permaculture, each design element should perform many functions.

Also, each function should be supported by many elements. Ideally, each function should support multiple systems.

Tools or elements that do only one thing have no place in permaculture.

Stand-alone systems, though maybe necessary at the start, should be redesigned or replaced for those that integrate with other systems. 

Integrating systems should also include relationships among plants and animals. Try to find and create mutualistic and symbiotic relationships over competitive and predatory ones.

Make Slow and Small Changes

make small and slow changes

This principle is more far-reaching than it seems. Yes, it's important to make slow and small changes to any modification to better understand the result of the change.

Design systems to perform functions at the smallest scale with the least energy input as possible.

Overstocking and overfeeding will produce larger yields in the short term, but over the long haul, the systems degrade and break down, creating the need for more inputs that add to the cost.

Also, think about purchases, buy local. Support smaller vendors to grow your own local community and economy. 

Diversify and Spread Resources

diversify and spread out resources

Adding diversity may seem contradictory to keeping systems simple, but adding the complexity of diversity makes each system stronger. 

It's the whole don't put all of your eggs in one basket approach. 

From year to year, elements may thrive or fail, by adding diverse aspects, there's a higher chance that the functions or systems with work when one of the components fail.

Same goes for resources, have more than one way to accomplish a task, or get supplies. 

For a garden example, plant varieties in multiple locations, if one becomes diseased or pest-ridden, chances are the others won't. 

Create and Use Edges

create and use edges

The only straight lines in nature are faults. So why should your yard and garden use straight lines, rectangles, or squares? 

Yes, market garden beds and raised beds are much easier to manage as rectangles. But that doesn't mean the edge of your yard or landscape and garden beds need to be straight. 

Curved edges and hedges slow wind down. Straight lines make for wind tunnels. Curved borders create microclimates that will allow plants to grow better.

Besides, curves are more appealing to the eye.

Edges also include transitions from one medium to another. Air to soil, soil to water, soil to rock, shallow water to deeper water, lawn to landscape bed. 

Edges and hedges invite more diversity due to microclimates, vertical space, oxygen levels, temperature gradients, etc.

Make Creative Modifications

have creative ideas and modifications

This principle design makes deliberate use of change cooperatively by creatively adapting systems to change that is beyond our control or influence.

We also use creative modifications when we accelerate or decelerate natural succession by changing the local environment by adding plants that improve the soil, make changes that affect microclimates, or removing large shade trees form the forest.

Creative modifications can also change neighborhoods and communities by buying local, changing peoples ecological philosophies, and sharing your yield with people.

Summary of What is Permaculture

Bill Mollison has been quoted to say permaculture is:

“The aim is to create systems that are ecologically-sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term”

He also has defined it this way:

“The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

Those two quotes most likely encompass what permaculture is today.

Permaculture is a holistic rather than a reductionist view of living.

Permaculture Mantras

I also like a couple of Mollison's mantras:

“working with, rather than against, nature”


"engage in protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.”

Before Mollison and Holmgren coined the term permaculture, people still lived it.  They used whatever materials were at hand to create what they needed to survive.  Either by providing for one's family or using their resources and services to trade for what they couldn't produce themselves. 

The 12 principals listed in this article can be argued depending on one's views and goals. They are by no mean's cut and dry. 

Today there are 100's if not 1,000's of permaculture design courses, from on-line survey course to those you attend in person over multiple seasons. Each will teach in a slightly different way and include different ideologies of the principals. 

All are correct because permaculture isn't a science in the strictest sense, it's a philosophy based on physics and ecology. There may even be some spiritual aspect as well. 

However, as Sepp Holzer says in his book, it's hard to learn permaculture from reading or attending classes. You need years of observing, modifying, failing, and modifying design elements again before you truly understand the concepts of permaculture. 

The above article is an abridged introduction to permaculture. For more information (besides Sepp's must-have book) the following are great resources.

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