What is Permaculture?

December 6, 2009

A Brief Introduction to Permaculture


Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is a harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. The word permaculture is a contraction of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’; its aim is to provide for a ‘permanent’ ‘culture’. Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. As a design system, permaculture contains nothing new, it simply arranges materials, resources, and methods in a creatively productive way, so that the overall system conserves energy or generates more energy than it consumes.

The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.

Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison

Australians Bill Mollison & David Holmgren, co-originated the Permaculture concept in the 1970’s. First publication was Permaculture One, later followed by Permaculture Two. These were later combined and expanded into Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. An excellent synopsis for beginners can be found in Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture. See also: Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway and Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren.

The Ethics of Permaculture

Permaculture is an ethical system, stressing positivism and cooperation.

1) “Care of the Earth” – this includes all living and non-living things, land, water, animals, air etc.
2) “Care of People” – to promote self-reliance and community responsibility.
3) “Return of Surplus” – pass on anything surplus to our needs (labor, money, information etc) for expanding the aims above.

Designing for Sustainability

With the arrival of Peak Oil, the global necessity for low-energy sustainable systems is now glaringly obvious. A system is sustainable if it produces more energy than it consumes, or provides enough in surplus to maintain and replace itself over its lifetime.

A forest garden in Hawai'i

A forest garden in Hawai'i

Sustainable systems:
· Produce more energy than they consume
· Create (or at the very least do not destroy) soils and forests
· Produce most of the population’s needs
· Recycle or produce nutrients.

Agricultural systems that satisfy these criteria of sustainability:
· Forestry
· Ponds, lakes and paddies
· Permanent pasture
· No-tillage cropping and mulched systems. (Tilling kills soil life, thus, plant health decreases.)

The most productive natural systems in order are: Mangroves and estuaries; Shallow lake and swamps; Forests; Shallow marine systems; Prairies and crops. Polycultures of mixed species and ecotones out-produce per unit area any simplistic monocultures. Mixed plant/animal systems are part of a total polyculture.

Permaculture strives to concentrate on already settled areas and agricultural lands, almost all of which need drastic re-design and re-patterning.


Permaculture design is inspired by the patterns found in nature. The world is a simple set of patterns with various, infinite imperfections and endless iterations: spirals & whorls; imploding & exploding patterns; waves; nets; dendritic; tesselations. Pattern determines how elements flow & function in beneficial relationships.

Methodology of Design

Permaculture design emphasizes the patterning of landscape, function, and species assemblies. It asks the question, “Where does each element go and how is it best placed for maximum benefit in the system?” An element is a plant, animal, or structure. Permaculture draws on ecological theory to analyze the characteristics and potential relationships between design elements.

Each element of a design is carefully analyzed in terms of its needs, outputs, and properties. For example a chicken needs water, moderated microclimate, food and other chickens; it produces meat, eggs, feathers and manure while doing a lot of scratching, weeding & tilling. Elements are assembled in relation to one another so that the products of one element feed the needs of adjacent elements. Synergy between design elements is achieved while minimizing waste and the demand for human labor or energy.

Design Approaches:
1. Mapping: “Where is everything located?”
2. Analysis of Elements: “How do these things connect?” Make lists. Try to eliminate waste/pollution.
3. Sector Planning, “Where do we put things?” Zones, Sectors, Slope, Orientation
4. Observational: Note phenomenons, Infer, Investigate, Devise strategy.
5. Experiential: Become conscious of yourself, feelings, senses, the environment.

Top four design considerations :
· Water: make it perform many functions!
· Energy: sun, wind, water, PG&E for electrical, pumping, heating, etc.
· Access: roads, driveways, paths, and tracks.
· Structures: locate these in relation to the above three

Holmgren’s Permaculture Design Principles
1) Careful observation and thoughtful interaction
2) Catch and store energy (sun, wind, water/runoff, waste/resources)
3) Obtain a yield when/wherever possible
4) Apply self-regulation and accept 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

Diversity results in stability. It is not the number of diverse elements you can pack into a system, but rather the number of useful connections you can make between these elements that is most important.

Inter-active diversity leads to stability.
Stability leads to fertility.
Fertility leads to designed sustainable productivity.
Productivity leads to a designed sustainable economy.
Economy leads to a designed sustainable and inter-active community.
Permanence in culture results through inter-activity.

Zones & Sectors

Zones are used to organize design elements based on the frequency of human use. Frequently maintained or harvested elements are located close to the house in zones one and two, less frequently used elements are placed farther away from the house. The goal is to reduce work, resource use & maintenance; boost fertility, yields & diversity; recycle resources; and maximize the number of useful connections/relationships.

ZONE 0: Your house
ZONE 1: Most visited areas – herb/kitchen gardens, patios, compost, trellis/arbors, seedlings, rainbarrels, small ponds
ZONE 2: Semi-intensely managed – barn, shop, orchards, compost, greenhouse, home food production, poultry, greywater
ZONE 3: Farm Zone – Feed storage, cash crops, large fruit/nut trees, forage, lg. ponds, swales, goats, sheep, pigs, pasture
ZONE 4: Minimal Care – Feeders, firewood, timber, pasture, swales, ponds, horses, cows, mushrooms, hunting & gathering
ZONE 5: Wild & unmanaged – No structures, native plants/trees, lakes/creeks, native animals, forage, preservation, habitat

Woven into Zones 0-4: Water catchment, holding tanks, ponds, wells, sun/wind/hydropower systems, composting, mulch, building soil fertility, plant stacking, windbreaks & shelterbelts, sacred spaces, wildlife forage & habitat.

Sectors help us place elements to best take advantage of the energy and matter flowing through the site.

Sectors can be determined by the various energies that come from outside the site: summer/winter sun paths, shade, winds, wildfire, views, water/floods, landform/geology, pollution (sounds, smells, etc), wildlife corridors, traffic, etc.

Elements can be placed in sectors so that they:

  • block or screen out an incoming energy or view
  • channel energy for productive use
  • let sector energies pass through unimpeded (e.g. wildlife corridors)

A design component is well-placed when it is located in a zone and in sectors so that it minimizes work, energy, and resource use, and optimizes productivity and diversity.

Remember: Function first, aesthetics after!


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Sierra Permaculture Design

Permaculture design and consulting services in Auburn, Grass Valley, Nevada City, and North San Juan, California. Also serving Nevada County, Placer County, Sierra County, and Yuba County, California CA.

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