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What is Permaculture?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 4 10

Permaculture: Ecological Living

Simply put, permaculture is a design system. That’s it; the most fundamental definition of "permaculture." But lets go a bit more descriptive, ey? Permaculture is a design system for every aspect of humanity’s interface with the natural world – i.e. holistic. Permaculture is a holistic design system. Now let's add the ever growing and popular term sustainable: permaculture is a sustainable and holistic design system.

But simple is good: What is permaculture? Permaculture is a design system.

Permaculture Design Course at Bullock Brothers, Orcas Island

Ultra-Brief but Important History

The term permaculture was coined in the early 1980’s by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. To this day they’re seen as the founders of the permaculture “movement,” with Mollison more reputed as a spokesperson and Holmgren a practitioner.

But names are details and permaculture isn't really about details, it's about the big picture.

Regarding Bill Mollison, however, it is important to know that he put together the original and to this day most complete permaculture design book that is still revered by many as the "bible of permaculture design:" Permaculture: A Designers' Manual

Since the early 80’s, a number of permaculture farms and gardens have sprung-up, so to speak, and the numbers and momentum are only growing. But why? What’s all the fuss about? And after all, what exactly is permaculture?  

Permaculture is a design system. (Repetition is the mother of leaning.)  Permaculture is a holistic and sustainable design system. (Repetition is the mother of leaning :)

Permaculture is a design system for how we humans sustain ourselves. Or, more specifically, how we humans obtain our food, fiber, and housing (shelter) from the earth. It’s based on both a set of ethics and a set of design principles. These give the inquirer a helpful outline to further answer understand what permaculture is.

Spring Onions!

What are the 3 Ethics of Permaculture?

  1. Earth care: Taking care of our home. “Eco,” of the term ecology, in Greek means home.
  2. People care: Taking care of our neighbors. “Do unto others…”
  3. Fair share: Everyone has to eat, grow an abundance and spread the wealth.

Interestingly, when the term Sustainable was coined in 1980 at the Bruderhof Convention, they outlined a Triad of Sustainability: 1) Environmental 2) Social 3) Economic.

What are the 12 Permaculture Design Principles?

  1. Observe and interact: Nature is the ultimate model. It contains everything we need for designing truly sustainable systems.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance they will be available in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: This is the tasty and practical part.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Conservative yet wholesome living and constructive criticism.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Renewable energy and resources = Good. Common. Sense.
  6. Produce no waste: Nature knows no waste, it’s that simple. We humans invented it, meaning we once lived without it.
  7. Design from patterns to details: The details aren’t really important, remember? Focus on the big “pattern picture,” the details will take care of themselves, so to speak.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: Looking at relationships to the systems many parts reveals ways to stack functions where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: There’s a much loved phrase in the permaculture world, “Paradise was a garden, not a farm.” There’s also this thing called the “small farmers paradox,” check it out here on Wikipedia.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity = Stability.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The “edge effect” is essentially the fact that edges of a system are the most diverse, stable, and overall productive.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: The world is dynamic, us and our systems should be likewise.

The Practical?

Alright, this is all very nice, but in what practical ways does all this theory come together? How does one go about designing a permaculture system based on these twelve design principles?

Well, through gardening, of course!

Pacific Crest Farm, Vashon Island, WA

What is Permaculture Gardening?

Forgive the enthusiasm, but garden design is perhaps the largest component of permaculture. It's certainly the most known. In fact, many folks only know permaculture as a gardening (or farming, in some cases) design system. Undoubtedly, it's certainly the tastiest component of permaculture design :)

Gather a group of so called permaculturists together and ask that question "what is a permaculture garden?" and you’ll likely get a different answer from each. In fact, you’ll likely get several different answers from each. This is because permaculture is place based, as are all ecological methods of growing food. There’s no one approach that works for all. Sorry. But this is why permaculture is about the big picture and, more specifically, where the 12 design principles (above) come into play. They give permaculture practitioners an invaluable framework to use for design endeavors. And while they don't guide the permaculturist into any one prescribed "cookie-cutter" approach, they do provide a set of "guard-rails" so to speak that keep things headed in the right direction and, in the least, prevent serious mistakes. But of course there is also a very handy set of practical tools to answer many of the necessary “how-to” questions.

Sheet Mulching

One such permaculture tool is sheet mulching. It answers the practical "how-to" question of “alright, I have a yard behind my house that I want to turn into garden, where do I begin?” Begin by sheet mulching. It’s that simple. In short, it’s a way of turning grass into garden by using organic materials and requires no tilling. That’s right, no tilling. Here’s a helpful article on why and how to sheet mulch.

For answers on more of the practical “how-to” questions of permaculture garden design, we submit to the humble scope of this article and kindly suggest you procure a copy of Gaia's Garden, A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture

by Toby Hemenway. It’s far and wide the single best first read and resource on permaculture, especially for those of us in North America. By the time you’re finished reading it you should have a very well-rounded understanding of permaculture. But moreover, we think you'll be encouraged and even enthusiastic about going out and beginning to create paradise, right in your own backyard.

What is permaculture? If you're still a bit foggy hopefully you at least have a better idea and are encouraged to learn more. The potential, after all, is beyond incredible (that's why it's becoming so popular). Now might we suggest you get away from the screen for a while... and go get your hands in the dirt! Make has and good strength for the good work ahead!





Oct 11, 2012 9:16am
Very cool design system you have here. On a somewhat unrelated note, I believe that the only way we can get into space and build colonies on the Moon or on Mars is to have these colonies live off a permaculture designed greenhouse. Shipping food from the Earth to these colonies would be so incredibly expensive that the colonies would have no choice.

But when you think of it, these gardens built on the low gravity colonies would look completely amazing compared to the Earth gardens. Plants ordinarily a few feet tall will grow to new heights. Since the moon's gravity is 1/6th of Earth's, perhaps a plant on the Moon will grow six times the height it would have achieved on the Earth.

Anyway, great article! Very interesting!
Oct 13, 2012 11:00am
Glad you enjoyed the article! The potentials of permaculture really are quite remarkable. Visit a permaculture garden or farm and I think you'll understand. At least on the exterior they're akin to paradise. But this doesn't make them "super-natural" or "out of this world." If anything they're a return or arrival (depends on the perspective, I suppose) to a more natural way of living - perhaps even a more *intended context* from which we humans have somehow strayed far.
Oct 11, 2012 9:50pm
Great article. I have heard of permaculture, but did not know what it meant. Thank you for the orderly explanation and background information.
Oct 13, 2012 11:04am
Glad the overview was helpful!
Oct 13, 2012 6:18am
This comment has been deleted.
Oct 13, 2012 6:18am
Great read. I did not know what Permaculture Gardening meant.
Thanks for your detailed explanation!

Thumbs Up!
Oct 13, 2012 11:10am
Grateful for the kind words!

Yes, hopefully you now have a better understanding of permaculture... it's really quite significant and has endless potential. Do continue the learning, as the above is almost too broad.

And should you or other readers ever have the chance to visit a permaculture garden or farm, cease the opportunity! Promise you won't regret it :)
Nov 19, 2012 7:57am
Wow! I didn't know that permaculture exists since 1800... Great article! :)
Jan 9, 2013 10:28am
Since the early "80's" Scaparici... *not* the early 1800's!
And it's important to remember that this is only in word... aspects of it have perhaps always been practiced, but in the 1980's folks began putting it all together and being rather intentional about "practicing permaculture."
Feb 15, 2013 11:48am
Your article has given me a better insight into what is permaculture.I reallly love the last picture-very serene. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing.
Sep 10, 2013 10:42am
Great article, very helpful intro.
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