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Permaculture, An Introduction

Introduction to Permaculture 
Published: March 18, 2013
As the number of stories in the news that portend doom and gloom increases, it makes more and more sense to dig into some of the ways more and more people are fighting back. Permaculture has much to teach us about how to live a better life. 

Perhaps it is spring now as it is here in North America as we write this article, or fall if you are in the southern hemisphere. In either case, as you consider your garden, and what you plan to do with it, a quick review of the ideas behind Permaculture are a worthwhile exercise. The more you review these concepts, and the more you think about them, the more it becomes clearer that these simple ideas make a lot more sense than much of what we commonly hear day-to-day. Imagine retaining a focus on the earth, people and sharing as a core ethic in the company you work for or in the community you share. We do have a choice to live according to our own ethics. Given all the other news regarding climate change and economic uncertainty, a change towards something that works for both you as an individual but also you within community, and in fact the earth's environment makes more sense.

Permaculture is a branch of ecological designecological engineering, andenvironmental design which develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained horticultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems.

The core ethics of permaculture are:

  • Take care of the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth,humans cannot flourish.
  • Take care of the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Share the surplus: Healthy natural systems use outputs from each element to nourish others. We humans can do the same. By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.

Think about these core ethics. Why not apply them to your own life? Since the earth is our home, our only home, and we must share it fairly in order to maintain a livable environment, then don't these ethics make sense for all of us? As you apply them despite the "economics" you will no doubt find that the ecology of your life and your community benefits.

Ecological Design as defined by Sim Van Der Ryn encompasses:

  • Solutions Grow from Place = Local Engagement
  • Ecological Accounting Informs Design = Demand Driven
  • Design with Nature = Holistic Innovation
  • Everyone is a Designer = Community Ownership
  • Make Nature Visible = Natural Beauty

So what does ecological design really mean a look like? Take a look at this house that incorporates these principles.

Ecologically Designed House

Ecological Design Applied to the House Design Above

  • Solutions Grow from Place - local straw bale material for high insulation in this cold climate
  • Ecological Accounting - solar power used throughout for long term financial and ecological payback
  • Design with Nature - take advantage of natural features like land sloping to the south, shading structure to reduce over-heating in summer when sun is high in the sky, while capturing heat in the winter when the sun is low in the sky
  • Everyone is a Designer - "barn raising" style straw bale construction shares knowledge on how to build your own home while using materials from a neighbour
  • Make Nature Visible - green roofing replaces the soil that is removed when the house is built

Green Roof

Permaculture design emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. It asks the question, "Where does this element go? How can it be placed for the maximum benefit of the system?" To answer this question, the central concept of permaculture is maximizing useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design therefore seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements to achieve a high level ofsynergy. Permaculture designs evolve over time by taking into account these relationships and elements and can become extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.

Natural Home Documentary

The design principles which are the conceptual foundation of permaculture were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use. Permaculture draws from several disciplines including organic farmingagroforestryintegrated farmingsustainable development, and applied ecology. Permaculture has been applied most commonly to the design of housing and landscaping, integrating techniques such as agroforestrynatural building, and rainwater harvesting within the context of permaculture design principles and theory.


The 12 permaculture design principles

Permaculturists generally regard the following as its 12 design principles:

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.


Permaculture is a design philosophy which seeks to exploit and imitate naturally occurring patterns. Patterns occur in nature in many forms: Our Earth and other planets move around the Sun in a mathematical pattern, and from studyingFractals, patterns emerge from apparently random things such as the shape of plants such as trees as well as the variety of leaves and flowers.

Permaculture designers are encouraged to develop an sensitivity to the patterns that exist in nature, to determine their complex functions and the varioussystem inter-relations. These natural patterns can often be utilized - either exploited or imitated or both exploited and imitated -to satisfy the specific designgoals. For example:

"The application of pattern on a design site involves the designer recognizing the shape and potential to fit these patterns or combinations of patterns comfortably onto the landscape".Patterns such as spiral, branching, wave, net and honeycomb are structural patterns that are repeated throughout nature. "A lot of the structural patterns combine strength and beauty with efficiency of space through large surface area or extensive edges. Looking at the benefits of these characteristics provides us with attitudes that we can emulate in our design work."


Layers are one of the tools used to design functional ecosystems that are both sustainable and of direct benefit to man. A mature ecosystem has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understoryground cover,soilfungi, insects, and animals. Because plants grow to different heights, a diverse community of life is able to grow in a relatively small space, as each layer is stacked one on top of another. There are generally seven recognized layers in afood forest, although some practitioners also include fungi as an eighth layer:[citation needed]

  1. The canopy: the tallest trees in the system. Large trees dominate but do not saturate the area, i.e. there exist patches barren of trees.
  2. Understory layer: trees that usually grow less than 45'
  3. Shrubs: a diverse layer that includes most berry bushes
  4. Herbaceous: may be annuals, biennials or perennials; most annuals will fit into this layer
  5. Soil surface: cover crops to retain soil and lessen erosion, along withgreen manures to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil, especially nitrogen
  6. Rhizosphereroot crops including potatoes and other edible tubers
  7. Vertical layer: climbers or vines, such as runner beans and lima beans(vine varieties)


guild is any group of species where each provides a unique set of diverse functions that work in conjunction, or harmony. Guilds are groups of plants,animalsinsects, etc. that work well together. Some plants may be grown for food production, some have tap roots that draw nutrients up from deep in the soil, some are nitrogen-fixing legumes, some attract beneficial insects, and others repel harmful insects. When grouped together in a mutually beneficial arrangement, these plants form a guild.

Edge effect

The edge effect in ecology is the effect of the juxtaposition or placing side by side of contrasting environments on an ecosystem. Permaculturists argue that, where vastly differing systems meet, there is an intense area of productivity and useful connections. An example of this is the coast; where the land and the sea meet there is a particularly rich area that meets a disproportionate percentage of human and animal needs. So this idea is played out in permacultural designs by using spirals in the herb garden or creating ponds that have wavy undulating shorelines rather than a simple circle or oval (thereby increasing the amount of edge for a given area). Edges between woodland and open areas have been claimed to be the most productive.


Zones are a way of intelligently organizing design elements in a human environment on the basis of the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. Frequently manipulated or harvested elements of the design are located close to the house in zones 1 and 2. Less frequently used or manipulated elements, and elements that benefit from isolation (such as wild species) are farther away. Zones is about positioning things appropriately. Zones are numbered from 0 to 5:

Zone 0
The house, or home center. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, and generally creating a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live and work. Zone 0 is an informal designation, which is not specifically defined in Bill Mollison's book.
Zone 1
The zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often, such as salad crops, herb plants, soft fruit like strawberries orraspberriesgreenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, worm compost bin for kitchen waste, etc. Raised beds are often used in zone 1 in urban areas.
Zone 2
This area is used for siting perennial plants that require less frequent maintenance, such as occasional weed control or pruning, including currant bushes and orchards, pumpkins, sweet potato, etc. This would also be a good place for beehives, larger scale composting bins, and so on.
Zone 3
The area where main-crops are grown, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal (provided mulches and similar things are used), such as watering or weed control maybe once a week.
Zone 4
A semi-wild area. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as production of timber for construction or firewood.
Zone 5
A wilderness area. There is no human intervention in zone 5 apart from the observation of natural ecosystems and cycles.

People and Permaculture

Permaculture uses observation of nature to create regenerative systems, and the place where this has been most visible has been on the landscape. Hence a lot of the attention to date has been with the Earthcare ethic. There has been a growing awareness though that firstly, there is the need to pay more attention to the peoplecare ethic, as it is often the dynamics of people that can interfere with projects, and secondly that the principles of permaculture can be used as effectively to create vibrant, healthy and productive people and communities as they have been in landscapes. In 2012 the first book was written to explore how we can use the principles and design in our own lives, our relationships, and in larger systems such as healthcare and education." For example, the first principle of 'observe and interact' can be useful as parents, we can spend time observing our children to discover what works well and what factors can contribute to difficult situations. We can then interact with these observations to try and forestall any challenging situations. Transition initiatives utilise permaculture design to bring communities together to develop resilience against the growing challenges of climate change, peak oil, and economic instability.

Sources: Wikipedia PermacultureNatural Living Newsletter, Ecological Design


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