An Introduction to Permaculture

Permaculture is a term to describe a blueprint for sustainable food production, and sustainable living in general. It describes a philosophy and a practical system for design and implementation – one which shows us how to live ethically and sustainably on this planet by working with nature rather than fighting against it. Originally, the term comes from the words 'permanent' and 'agriculture' but is now also often also used with the word 'culture' for designs and systems with a broader scope.

Permaculture built on previous food growing systems and philosophies but the word was coined in Australia in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who developed a detailed design system that has since been hugely influential around the world.

Permaculture is useful in gardening, and in life. It can guide us in ethical, eco-friendly practices, and give us practical methods for implementing the designs we create. If you want to transition to a more sustainable and eco-conscious way of life, doing good rather than doing harm, then permaculture can provide the solutions. With permaculture ideas and techniques, you truly can be a force for positive change and do good in your garden. It has been said by a famous permaculturist that all the world's problems can be solved in a garden.

The Core Ethics of Permaculture

There are three key tenets that underpin permaculture:
- Care of our planet,
- Care of humankind,
- Fair share (and a return of surplus into the system).

In permaculture, the natural world is not something distinct to be battled against. It is by working in harmony with nature that we are best able to harness its powers and live well and ethically. In the modern world, all too often we are fighting against nature when we should be working as part of it. Permaculture helps us to redress the balance and live in a way that provides for our needs without harming our ecosystem.

Caring for others and, crucially, considering fair share and equality, is vital to transitioning into a sustainable future. Food and energy are both essential for life and it is possible for everyone in the growing global population to have plenty of both, as long as there is some thought for fair distribution of resources.

Permaculture espouses a consideration for cyclical systems. Any surplus, says permaculture, should be returned to the system. This is easy to understand when it comes to the garden, homestead or hobby farm, where composting systems return 'waste' to enrich the soil, which then remains fertile and rich enough to produce a good yield. Returning surplus to the system can also be applied in wider senses, through recycling and other waste management systems.

Ethics of Natural Systems

In addition to these three core ethics, one of the founding fathers of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, put forward a series of further ethical principles, which govern natural systems and resource management.

The five ethics of natural systems are:
- Minimise footprint
- Conserve
- Rehabilitate
- Preserve
- Avoid Invasive Species

These ethics are obviously important when it comes to thinking about garden design and gardening as well as when thinking about how we as humans affect natural environments around us.

Ethics of Resource Management

The three ethics of resource management are:
- Return – we must repay whatever we take.
- Withhold – we should withhold all support for destructive systems.
- Manage Responsibly – we should not use any resources which damage or reduce yields of sustainable resources.

These ethics tie into the ideas of the 5 'R's – Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle. They also tie into many other aspects of gardening. By growing our own food, and return nutrients to the soil through composting food waste and other practices, we repay what we take. Through the very act of growing our own food, we are withholding our support from damaging global agricultural systems. But we must grow organically, as any use of pesticides or other pollutants would be contradictory to the third ethic of resource management. These are just a few simple examples of how these ethics are considered and implemented in a permaculture garden.

Permaculture Principles

These core ethics of permaculture have been further distilled into twelve principles of design, outlined by David Holmgren, a key figure in the world of permaculture. These principles are:

1. Observe and interact.
2. Catch and store energy.
3. Obtain a yield.
4. Apply self-regulation and feedback.
5. Use and value renewable resources and services.
6. Produce no waste.
7. Design from patterns to details.
8. Integrate rather than segregate.
9. Use small and slow solutions.
10. Use and value diversity.
11. Use edges and value the marginal.
12. Creatively use and respond to change.

These principles are considered during the process of design, but also during the implementation of any permaculture system.

The Process of Permaculture Design

Permaculture designers are amateurs or specialists who aim to design beautiful, practical gardens that are ideally suited to their location and the needs of those (human and otherwise) who use them. They will keep in mind the ethics and principles mentioned above during the design process.


The design process begins with observation and the consideration of sectors. Sectors determine the energy flow on the site – in terms of sun, wind, and water. Sectors can also tell us about other natural factors of a location, such as shade, and micro-climate conditions. How sun, wind, and water behave on the site will set the larger patterns which form a starting point for the design, along with maps and topographical information.


Next, the designer will consider the human element of the design and 'zone' the garden, farm or other sites. Zoning is all about practicality and begins with the simple premise that the elements on a site that we visit most often should be closest to the center of operations. In a domestic setting, this center of operations, zone zero, as it is sometimes called, is your home.

Permaculture designers usually define up to five zones on any site, though smaller sites will usually only include one or two of these zones. Zones spread out sequentially, larger numbers used to designate areas visited less and less frequently, though the zones may not be placed strictly in order moving out from the center. Some areas closer to the home but less accessible, for example, may belong to a higher zone.

Systems Analysis

Systems analysis involves looking at all the elements in a system, the inputs, outputs and characteristics of each, before thinking about how they should all best be positioned to minimize the time and effort required to keep the whole system functioning. Convenient pathways between different elements, and how frequently these will be used, are considered.

One of the key things in a permaculture system is joined-up thinking. All the elements are considered holistically, not just in isolation. A broad view is taken, and all the interconnections are taken into account.

Permaculture in Action

Permaculture is far more than just theory. It is intensely practical and rooted in the real world. When it comes to sustainable agriculture, and other systems, permaculture has a series of practical applications that adhere to the ethics, principles, and design practices mentioned above.

Around the world, on a day to day basis, many permaculture proponents are showing what is possible when it comes to sustainability. They are playing key roles in transitioning to a more sustainable, ethical and environmentally friendly future.

Key practical permaculture practices in the field of sustainable agriculture include:
- Organic production.
- The creation of forest gardens/ agroforestry schemes.
- Polyculture growing systems/ companion planting.
- A movement towards agroecology, that takes wildlife and the wider ecosystem into account.
- 'No dig' or 'no-till' growing.
- Composting, mulching and other methods to return nutrients to the system.
- Rotational grazing and crop rotation.
- Effective and efficient water management. (Swales and berms, drip irrigation, etc..)
- Use of renewable electricity and movement away from all fossil fuels.

Once people begin to learn more about permaculture, they soon discover the amazing potential it has to reshape our world and change the ways in which we grow and live. Permaculture can green deserts. It can restore ecosystems and degraded land. It can allow humanity to live in harmony with nature and meet all of its needs now, and for generations to come.

Permaculture offers hope for a sustainable global system. It is a framework that provides answers to many questions, and solutions to many of the problems that we currently face. It can be applied not only in sustainable agriculture but also in many other areas to find a pathway to a better future.