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The Permaculture Principles

I like to start off my ‘Permaculture Introduction’ workshops by mentioning a few things permaculture is not:

  • Permaculture is not a cult.
  • Permaculture is not about gardening.
  • Permaculture is not the property of a bunch of white guys even though that’s who you usually see teaching it (myself included). Many cultures have grown food, built shelters and met their daily needs in a way that gives back to their environment. Permaculture searches for these methods, links them together, and applies them when and where appropriate.

Permaculture is a way of thinking. It is a set of principles taken from nature and applied to our everyday lives. Permaculture aims to design sustainable communities in line with nature’s principles. Food, being a critical part of any community, becomes an important part of permaculture. But, we can also use it to design shelters, buildings, economies, businesses, education, decision-making processes and relationships.

Permaculture is a large topic but in my next three post I will give a brief introduction to it. Part I will focus on the permaculture principles. Part II will give a history of permaculture and some of the leading figures in the movement. In Part III I will explain a few practical techniques permaculturist use that can be applied to many backyard gardens. 

Part I: The Permaculture Principles 

David Holmgren is the lesser known founder of permaculture (Bill Mollison, who you will read about in Part II, is the more talked about founder). In his book, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, he lays out 12 guiding permaculture principles. These 12 permaculture principles provide a solid introduction. 

permaculture principles

Most natural landscapes do not need artificial fertilizers, plowing or any other human interaction to thrive.

1. Observe and Interact: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Certain Japanese landscape designers spend one year observing their property before beginning their design. This is necessary to understand the land over the changing seasons. Observing is necessary because no two landscapes or communities are the same and they continually change over time. A grass lawn may work in England where there is ample rain but in the arid Western United States they are impractical and out of place. A subway system may work well in one city but another may be better served by a bus line.

2. Catch and Store Energy: “Make hay while the sun shines

A tree stores energy by locking up carbon in its wood. A lion eats more than it needs when it makes a kill and stores the extra in its fat cells. Humans can store energy by catching rainwater, pickling summer cucumbers or adding to our savings accounts. You never know when there will be a drought or recession.

permaculture principles

Preserving the season’s harvest is one way to store energy.

3. Obtain a Yield: “You can’t work on an empty stomach

The point of work is to obtain a yield. Most landscape trees are chosen for their appearance alone. But, consider all of the other yields a carefully chosen tree can produce: food, lumber, fuel, shade, air purification, wildlife habitat and fertilizer. Obtain the most yield from your work.

4. Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the seventh generation

Fossil fuels and other modern conveniences have shielded us from feedback loops. Certainly, there are consequences of burning fossil fuels but they are slow to be felt and it is often the people least responsible for them that feel them most. Compare this to a society that uses wood as its fuel source. If they cut down too much of it, they will immediately feel the effects of the loss of their surrounding forest. Environmental scientist, Amory Lovins, explains a feedback loop: “How clean a car would you buy if its exhaust pipe, instead of being aimed at pedestrians, fed directly into the passenger compartment?”

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services: “Let nature take it’s course

When possible, we should look to the natural world first for our needs. Instead of spraying chemical fertilizers we can plant nitrogen fixing legumes. Instead of poisonous pesticides we can plant crops, like dill and yarrow, that attract beneficial insects.

permaculture principles

This hot water heater is painted black and placed in a simple metal lined box with glass over it. The sun heats the water rather than gas.

6. Produce No Waste: “Waste not, want not

In nature there is no waste. An oak tree can produce 10,000 acorns in a season. Maybe one or two of those will find the right conditions to become a tree but the rest are not waste. They are food for wildlife and break down to create healthy soil for the oak to thrive in. The sharing economy has created opportunities to cut back on waste. An extra bedroom can become a traveler’s hotel room, or an extra car seat a ride for someone else. You can even turn your dining table into a restaurant where you are the head chef and others pay to come to your restaurant. It is important to think of reducing physical waste but we can also reduce environmental impacts, create community and make extra money by utilizing wasted spaces and talents.

7. Design from Patterns to Details: “Can’t see the wood for the trees

We live in a world of patterns. Bees make hexagonal cells to store their honey because this shape holds the most weight using the least amount of material. Imagine hexagonal rooms (with hexagonal furniture). The spiral is one of my favorite patterns. The head of a sunflower is a series of interlocking spirals. Snakes coil into spirals before attacking. We live in a spiral galaxy. A beautiful and practical permaculture technique is to build a vertical herb spiral.

8. Integrate Rather than Segregate: “Many hands make light work

In nature nothing does just one thing. A leaf creates energy through photosynthesis but it also serves as a rainwater collector, food for wildlife and fertilizer. Ranchers in Mexico sometimes make cactus fences. These fences keep livestock in while also providing fruit. Think of where you can place elements of your home and garden to get the most use from them.

permaculture principles

The vines growing on these trellises provide fruit but also shade in the summer. During winter, they drop their leaves and let the sunlight in.

9. Use Slow and Small Solutions: “The bigger they are the harder they fall

A forest is not created overnight. There is a process of natural succession in which each step sets the stage for the next step. In the garden we can mimic this slow process by building healthy soil, storing rain water and thinking about the proper placement of plants. Apply this way of thinking elsewhere. If you want a raise take on tasks that add value to your workplace, become indispensable, create the conditions for your raise to happen.

10. Use and Value Diversity: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

There is resilience in diversity. Investors know this and always advise you to spread your money out. Modern agriculture, on the other hand, plants fields of one single type of corn that spreads past the horizon. These monocultures are a buffet to pest leading to the use of pesticides. In a garden that has a diversity of plant and soil life there will also be a diversity of insects that keep each other in check. Also, if you loose one variety to pests or disease, the other varieties may survive. 

permaculture principles

The 3 sisters is one of the best examples of crop diversity. This Native American practice involves growing corn, squash and beans together. Each plant helps the other two.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal: “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path

The place where two ecosystems meet such as a tidal estuary or riparian zone, is where life is most abundant. Edge creates opportunities for life. A garden bed can be built with right angles and rectangular boards but, imagine using fallen logs instead. The tiny edges between the bark and where the logs meet could become home to lizards and other garden friends. In society some of the most powerful voices come from the edge. The revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, spent 27 years in prison before becoming the first black head of state of South Africa.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change: “Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be

Is mint taking over your garden? Start selling mint tea. Are locusts destroying your crops? Raise turkeys who will get fat off the locusts. There is a community garden in Los Angeles on the famous Sunset Blvd. In classic L.A. fashion, palm trees were popping up all over the garden creating a weed problem. Someone had the idea of digging them up, potting them, and selling them as “Hollywood Palm Trees” to raise money. Another way of saying this concept is, “the problem is the solution.”

Further Reading

These twelve permaculture principles help put us in the permaculture mindset. They are not rules. Instead, they are frameworks to be applied to each unique situation, time and place. An in depth philosophical look at these permaculture principles can be found in David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.


Check out Part II of this series where we look at some of the founders and leading voices in the permaculture movement.

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