Permaculture 101

Permaculture is a design methodology whose origin is the combination of the words permanent and agriculture or permanent and culture. It contains a set of ethics and design principles that empower a designer to create systems working with nature to promote abundance, sustainability, and cross-pollination of concepts, projects, and useful practices. Permaculture as an academic discipline was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, a professor and graduate student from Australia seeking to create solutions to the problems that conventional agriculture and industrial development create for ecosystems and land bases. Many permaculture practices are derived from indigenous farmers, healers, and builders, people who used the passed knowledge of generations of earth workers to align themselves with the patterns of nature. Permaculture ethics and principles can be applied to projects that grow food, build homes, restore ecosystems, generate energy, yield medicine, transition transportation networks and mitigate detrimental environmental impacts, to name a few.


Core to the work of permaculture design is an ethical triangle made by three concepts: care for the earth, care for people, and fair share. We (as permaculture designers) care for the earth first, understanding that it is our home and our teacher, creating the bounty we as humans depend on to survive. We care for all people everywhere, understanding that each and every unique human experience should be valued and celebrated. Finally, we understand that a fair share of resources, with limits to over-consumption, can provide for all peoples on the earth. This ethical triangle is set to create a goal of creating a system in which all peoples and life systems will continue to flourish, all peoples and life systems will be nourished and sustained cyclically with these systems, and that we will not exhaust the renewable resources our earth provides by ensuring a fair share.

Design Principles

From this triangular foundation of ethics, the permaculture designer branches out to create 12 design principles, tools that are utilized to achieve his or her ethical goals. These tools allow the designer to visualize, then observe, using nature’s teachings to create systems that mimic and enrich existing ecosystems. The principles come from the permaculture Wikipedia page, the explanations are my own.

1. Observe and interact – Know your site and how it changes over time, how it responds to seasonal changes, how people, plants, animals, and industry engage and interact with it.

2. Catch and store energy – Find sources naturally generated from your site, create systems to collect and grow these sources, distribute and utilize them on your site.

3. Obtain a yield – Create systems that sustain a yield, ideally a surplus.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – Limit the growth of elements of your site and system that do not resonate with your ethical foundation, especially when it comes to creating a fair share. Communicate with others to reach consensus on this application of limitation with feedback.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services – Identify through observation and interaction what resources and services cyclically replenish themselves, create systems to insure this renewal, ideally create a surplus returned to the site.

6. Produce no waste – Trash is an industrial invention. Everything on your site can ultimately be returned in a useful way to your site, so design toward this goal.

7. Design from patterns to details – Observe and interact with nature’s patterns, apply this to scaling up and down systems, finding patters than solve problems, using a patterned based approach to allowing a system to grow its own finer details as a site matures.

8. Integrate rather than separate – Find companion plants that help each other grow, observe systems that compliment each other, design systems that integrate these elements with a goal of promoting renewable abundance.

9. Use small and slow solutions – You are tinkering with nature and nature knows best, small and slow solutions allow you to experiment within nature’s patterns.

10. Use and value diversity – A diverse system survives cyclical change and is resilient to singular threats, as well as promoting an abundance of diverse yields.

11. Use edges and value the marginal – Edges are space where interaction occurs, patterns overlap and compliment each others abilities to produce a yield, and where diversity is abundant. Utilize these observations and renewable resources to create systems with more edges that promote diverse abundance.

12. Creatively use and respond to change – Change is constant, you must adapt constantly. Small and slow solutions that are applied in creative ways often discover patterns, renewable resources, and diverse abundant yields that can be integrated into permaculture systems.

Permaculture Integrated into Urban Farms

Let’s apply these ethics and design principles to a hypothetical urban farm project. My ethics motivate me to create a space that produces abundant renewable surpluses of produce, meat, and medicine for my community. First, we design a farm that will care for the earth by regenerating spaces that have been exhausted of resources or polluted, enriching the fertility of the soil, and ensuring that surpluses aren’t squandered. When at all possible we’re aiming to keep surpluses on site or local, adding to the potential abundance of the site. We design a farm that will care for the people that work on it, gauging what a fair share of the surplus is for those workers. As our project expands, we learn the ability to care for more people as we create a sustainable distribution network, ultimately extending our community and strengthening our relationship to the land.

We observe and interact (Principle 1) with the earth, plants, people, and buildings situated on it, watching for patterns (7) and integrated edges (8 and 11) that catch and store energy (2) and obtain yields (3) from them. We draw up a design that integrates these principles, a plan that lays out how we will move the earth and plant according to what we’ve observed and interacted with, maximizing abundance. We want to grow enough food to feed our workers while they are working, and eventually have a surplus for the surrounding community. What are we going to be capable of sustainably producing year by year as we create these systems (4)? What resources on our site and in our community are renewable (5)? How can we make our site a zero waste farm, reusing everything, and ultimately begin to reuse “trash” found in our community (6)? How can we creatively respond to change with small and slow solutions that retain and value the diversity of our site (9,10,12)?

We begin with our soil, composting on site materials (2,5,7) and clearing it of contaminants with oyster mushrooms that eat the toxins in soil, if necessary. We recognize that certain sites need an amount of imported nutrients, if we want to obtain a yield within a few years. If we choose to plan and work in a longer time frame, say decades, we can often minimize the amount of off-site materials necessary for creating rich, fertile soil (9).

With this soil we create bio swales, mounded beds of earth that follow the patterns and edges (7,11) of our site’s topography. Our goal is to slow, sink and spread rainwater, harvesting a surplus and storing it on site (3,5). We also design rainwater catchment systems to trap water for use in the gardens in the dry season.

We plant within and around the swales, utilizing fruit trees and berry bushes for windbreaks (11), companion plants for nitrogen fixation in the soil, pollinators for beneficial insects, perennial healing herbs and vegetables, and plants known as biodynamic accumulators that leech nutrients from the lower earth up to soil levels where our plants can uptake them (10). All of this work is aimed at creating a diverse, abundant, perennial, organic surplus of food and medicine that feeds our workers and spreads a fair share of the surplus to any member of our community.

As the seasons pass at our farm we begin to recognize patterns: surpluses of mulch, water, flowers, food, and herbs that affect the balance of our system. Places in the garden that simply aren’t very good for growing certain plants. We observe where footpaths and human steps in the garden affect the growth of plants, and make small changes to make the garden more ergonomically designed. We plan for the vertical growth of our trees, understanding that if we prune them with a vision we can create pockets of shade and miniature ecosystems in these cooler zones.

From here a designer can literally go hog wild: the applications of permaculture are endless, and have been applied to more politically theoretical models by David Holmgren in his more recent work. My aim is to give you a taste of what can be done so that you understand how the core ethics and design principles of permaculture are put into practice in an urban farming setting. These 3 ethics and 12 principles can also be applied to building a home, launching a business, and structuring a non-profit organization, to name a few.

I’ll get more into permaculture building as I get my feet wet in these types of projects, but I’m very much learning as I go. Much of the goal of this post was to crystallize these concepts into a finished work for reference, I hope I’ve done that for you.
Nick The Green Man

2 thoughts on “Permaculture 101

  1. I really like the 12 principles and am passing them on to a friend who is in the process of starting a business. They may not be perfectly compatible but what if we look at business in the same vein?

  2. Pingback: the perfect is the enemy of the good | truebeautyalways

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