What Is Permaculture?

“Permaculture is becoming an increasingly popular toolbox of ideas for farmers and gardeners. “It is a system for designing agricultural landscapes that work with nature… I like to call it edible restoration, since the tools used in permaculture can help to restore land as well as yield food for humans.” —Amy Stross, The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People

I doubt, however, that you could head out to your backyard and begin practicing permaculture after learning that definition.

One of the reasons why a definition of permaculture is so elusive and varied from source to source is because the approach pulls together a wide range of disciplines such as “ecology, appropriate technology, economics, gardening, evolution, construction, energy systems, social justice, and a raft of other seemingly disconnected fields”, says the late Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.

The important thing to note is that permaculture is most often used for creating efficient and productive landscapes that sustain themselves into the future by regenerating biodiversity and lost fertility.

Our landscapes tell a story, and permaculture can help us read them.

The Prime Directive
The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.” ― Bill Mollison, Father of Permaculture

The prime directive of permaculture guides us through decision-making. As long as we are doing our best to take responsibility for the needs of our own household, then we are living permaculture.

How does Permaculture Work?
Permaculture uses a set of three ethics and seven principles to connect people to the ecology and potential of a landscape.

The 3 Permaculture Ethics
Permaculture ethics are the foundation of permaculture design. Permaculture designs will take more initial work and an understanding of – or a willingness to learn about – the complexity of natural systems. Because of this, we will only feel motivated to design with permaculture strategies if we value the ethical standards on which the permaculture approach was created.

The permaculture ethics are simply: care for Earth, care for people, and reinvesting abundance.

1: Care for Earth
We are only as healthy as our planet. Caring for the forests, the waterways, and the diverse life forms of our magnificent planet benefits us. On your land, actively seek ways to regenerate fertility and biodiversity rather than simply sustaining current levels. As a permaculture designer, always ask, ‘Does this action help or hurt the earth? Is there a more ecological and efficient way to achieve this goal?’

2: Care for People
Caring for people includes caring for ourselves and our own household. When we ‘take responsibility for our own existence’, we inevitably begin producing more and consuming less. It is this step away from consumerism that also helps us avoid products and companies that exploit people.

In modern times, it has become admirable to favor the opposite of taking responsibility for ourselves: Committing our lives to helping others, which in turn leaves little room to care for ourselves, little time to achieve any level of self-sufficiency, and little energy for reducing our own level of consumption. This unfortunately can have a net zero effect.

3: Reinvesting Abundance
When we care for the Earth, nature responds with abundance—more biodiversity, more plants, more animals, healthier water, healthier air, and so on. We can reinvest useful flows—such as rainwater or compost—back into the system to create a self-maintaining ecosystem that requires fewer inputs from off-site sources.

This is the pinnacle of land conservation: Honoring and encouraging the abundance of the land we inhabit, rather than viewing our resources as scarce with a focus on importing materials.

When we care for ourselves and act as responsible consumers, life becomes abundant. We have access to an abundant supply of healthy, homegrown food. We are financially more resilient. Ultimately, caring for our own existence provides abundance that can be reinvested into our community—through sharing food, skills, or financial assistance. This is abundance.

7 Guiding Permaculture Principles
A set of principles guides the designing of a property so that all the pieces work together as efficiently as possible and all the resources of the land are used to their full potential. Here is an abbreviated summary of those principles, with credit to Toby Hemenway.

These are not rigid rules, but rather guidelines, which guide us in our effort to model nature in our design.

1: Observe
Observe a landscape through all seasons and all times of day to understand its personality – its essence. How does the sun, wind, and water move across or through it? Observing our land for at least a year before fully developing it allows us to notice patterns over the course of the seasons. That doesn’t mean we can’t interact with our land or start a garden during that time, but taking note of observations will put us ahead in the long run.

Some observations to make:

What plant species naturally want to grow there?
What wildlife species venture onto the land? Do they have a specific route, time of day, or specific season for their activity? What elements of the landscape are they attracted to?
Studying the sun patterns is a basic observation. Where are the sunny and shady areas, and how do those change as the sun moves across the sky and through the seasons?
Observations can save us time and effort.

2: Connect
It’s not the number of elements in your system, but the number of connections to each element.

That’s a mind bender, isn’t it?

It means that the productivity of your homestead isn’t necessarily dependent on the number of food-producing elements (rows of crops, fruit trees, livestock, etc.) you have, but how interconnected they are.

Increasing the beneficial connections between components creates a stable whole. Elements with the most connections should be placed near one another for convenience.

Permaculture zones are a strategy that help us create order in the landscape according to how elements are connected to one another and how often we use or need to care for something.

3: Catch and Store Energy and Materials
Identify and catch useful flows, which can be reinvested for a higher yield or increased biodiversity.

Water is a useful flow. Catching water in the landscape reduces our need to irrigate while improving the health of the soil. Strategies are site-specific, however.

4: Each Element Performs Multiple Functions
Choose and place each element in a system to perform as many functions as possible. When elements are properly placed, the ecosystem can begin to maintain itself with less work from us.

Choosing plants that perform many different functions allows us to plant fewer plants (save money) but get more in return. For example, some plants can fertilize, mulch, attract pollinators, beneficial insects, and more.

Use multiple methods to achieve important functions. This adds redundancy to the system and protects it in case one or more elements fail.

A hedgerow can provide privacy, a windbreak, shelter for beneficial insects and wildlife, pollination, edibles and more, if it is planted with the right combination of plants.
If you want to get rid of poison ivy, for example, a multi-pronged approach will be the most effective.

6: Least Change for the Greatest Effect
Identify the leverage points in the system, where the least amount of work will accomplish the most change. Through observation, leverage points and patterns reveal themselves, which reduces thoughtless labor.

Planting fruit trees in the parking strip, for example, increased fruit production in my yard for very little work.

Sometimes design strategies make use of materials that are found on site for the greatest effect with the least amount of imported materials.

7: Use Small-Scale, intensive systems
Start at your doorstep and build the smallest system to meet your needs. Small systems can be managed with fewer resources, making them more time- and energy- efficient. When a small system is successful, replicate what works in the next small expansion. This is called “growing by chunking”.

Edible landscaping is a good example of a small-scale system. By simply replacing conventional landscaping with edibles, we can increase our productivity without ripping out the entire lawn to do it. Future small garden expansions can build on the successes of the edible landscape experiment.

Food forests take advantage of vertical space to grow edible and useful tall trees, small trees, shrubs, herbs, groundcovers, and vines all together in an intensive system with a small footprint.

Books on permaculture
Edible Forest Gardens
Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist: How to Have Your Yard and Eat It Too
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual
Permaculture Design: A Step-by-Step Guide
Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond (Vol. 2): Water-Harvesting Earthworks
Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening
The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming
The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach
The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People

Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective (Fantastic!)
The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic
Permaculture Skills
Perennial Vegetable Gardening
How to Start: Become a Permaculture Scientist

Permaculture is a complex design approach that can improve the productivity and efficiency of your home-scale farm or garden. But because it encompasses so many disciplines, it isn’t something that can be learned overnight. However, like many things in life worth learning, practice makes perfect. Or at least, practice will help you feel more confident.”