Permaculture is a design science for creating sustainable living systems. Through careful observation of healthy natural systems, we design patterns that create abundant systems of food, energy, water, shelter and community with minimum labor and pollution. Permaculture teaches how to drought-proof where you live. Permaculture can be practiced by all people, regardless of location, economic status, or educational achievement. Practical permaculture offers a rich and abundant future.
Permaculture means “permanent agriculture” that allows for a “permanent culture.”
Permaculture teaches us how to simplify our lives and lead a more satisfying lifestyle. Permaculture teaches us how to quickly reduce reliance on fossil fuels and industrial systems that are destroying the earth’s ecosystems. Permaculture is more than a new way of gardening — it’s a sustainable way to live on planet Earth. We create permaculture wherever we live.
Bill Mollison (co-founder of permaculture in 1978 with David Holmgren) describes permaculture as the “conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems and the harmonious integration of landscape and people. The idea is to be able to look out your backdoor and see your friends and family gathering food.”
Permaculture is an integrated, self-sustaining system of perennial agriculture … which involves a large diversity of plant and animal species. It is completely self-contained agricultural ecosystem that is designed to minimize maintenance input and maximize product yield. In permaculture, little wheels or cycles of energy are set up … and the system virtually keeps itself going! Essentially, it’s a living clockwork that should never run down … at least as long as the sun shines and the earth revolves.
I like to call permaculture a “humane technology”, because it’s of human dimensions. By that, I mean that it deals in a very basic way with simple, living elements … so it’s available to every man and woman. Permaculture doesn’t involve some sort of complicated technology. Instead, it’s a bio-technology … which people can intuitively handle . After all, permaculture deals with living systems … and since man himself is a living organism, he can readily comprehend it.
A permaculturist’s skills may include building a house that uses almost no energy (my electric bill is $5 a month), or installing a greywater system and pond. We may have created an edible food forest. We may have set-up a rainwater harvesting system that collects and stores the rain that hits our roofs, or turned our fences into a food source. All this and more is part of a design concept that takes its cues from nature, while creating systems that take less work than conventional agriculture and are wildly abundant.
The good news is you are probably already practicing some permaculture principles.
1. From Bill Mollison: Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments.
2. From Drylands Permaculture, August 1987, Cathe’ Fish and Bill Steen. Reprinted by Permaculture Drylands Institute, published in The Permaculture Activist (Autumn 1989): Permaculture: the use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology, and community development. Permaculture is built upon an ethic of caring for the earth and interacting with the environment in mutually beneficial ways.
3. From Lee Barnes (former editor of Katuah Journal and Permaculture Connections), Waynesville, North Carolina:
Permaculture (PERMAnent agriCULTURE, or PERMAnent CULTURE) is a sustainable design system stressing the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth. To paraphrase the founder of permaculture, designer Bill Mollison:
~ Permaculture principles focus on thoughtful designs for small-scale intensive systems which are labor efficient and which use biological resources instead of fossil fuels. Designs stress ecological connections and closed energy and material loops. The core of permaculture is design and the working relationships and connections between all things. Each component in a system performs multiple functions, and each function is supported by many elements. Key to efficient design is observation and replication of natural ecosystems, where designers maximize diversity with polycultures, stress efficient energy planning for houses and settlement, using and accelerating natural plant succession, and increasing the highly productive “edge-zones” within the system. ~
4. From Michael Pilarski, founder of Friends of the Trees, published in International Green Front Report (1988):
Permaculture is: the design of land use systems that are sustainable and environmentally sound; the design of culturally appropriate systems which lead to social stability; a design system characterized by an integrated application of ecological principles in land use; an international movement for land use planning and design; an ethical system stressing positivism and cooperation. In the broadest sense, permaculture refers to land use systems which promote stability in society, utilize resources in a sustainable way and preserve wildlife habitat and the genetic diversity of wild and domestic plants and animals. It is a synthesis of ecology and geography, of observation and design. Permaculture involves ethics of earth care because the sustainable use of land cannot be separated from life-styles and philosophical issues.
5. From a Bay Area Permaculture Group brochure, published in West Coast Permaculture News & Gossip and Sustainable Living Newsletter (Fall 1995): Permaculture is a practical concept which can be applied in the city, in suburbia, on the farm, and in the wilderness. Its principles empower people to establish highly productive environments providing for food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs, including economic. Carefully observing natural patterns characteristic of a particular site, the permaculture designer gradually discerns optimal methods for integrating water catchment, human shelter, and energy systems with tree crops, edible and useful perennial plants, domestic and wild animals and aquaculture.
Permaculture adopts techniques and principles from ecology, appropriate technology, sustainable agriculture, and the wisdom of indigenous peoples. The ethical basis of permaculture rests upon care of the earth-maintaining a system in which all life can thrive. This includes human access to resources and provisions, but not the accumulation of wealth, power, or land beyond their needs.
Characteristics of Permaculture†
- Permaculture is one of the most holistic, integrated systems analysis and design methodologies found in the world.
- Permaculture can be applied to create productive ecosystems from the human– use standpoint or to help degraded ecosystems recover health and wildness. Permaculture can be applied in any ecosystem, no matter how degraded.
- Permaculture values and validates traditional knowledge and experience. Permaculture incorporates sustainable agriculture practices and land management techniques and strategies from around the world. Permaculture is a bridge between traditional cultures and emergent earth-tuned cultures.
- Permaculture promotes organic agriculture which does not use pesticides to pollute the environment.
- Permaculture aims to maximize symbiotic and synergistic relationships between site components
- Permaculture design is site specific, client specific, and culture specific.
†Source: Pilarski, Michael (ed.) 1994. Restoration Forestry. Kivaki Press, Durango, CO. p. 450.
The Practical Application of Permaculture
Permaculture is not limited to plant and animal agriculture, but also includes community planning and development, use of appropriate technologies (coupled with an adjustment of life-style), and adoption of concepts and philosophies that are both earth-based and people-centered, such as bio-regionalism.
Many of the appropriate technologies advocated by permaculturists are well known. Among these are solar and wind power, composting toilets, solar greenhouses, energy efficient housing, and solar food cooking and drying.
Due to the inherent sustainability of perennial cropping systems, permaculture places a heavy emphasis on tree crops. Systems that integrate annual and perennial crops—such as alley cropping and agroforestry—take advantage of “the edge effect,” increase biological diversity, and offer other characteristics missing in monoculture systems. Thus, multicropping systems that blend woody perennials and annuals hold promise as viable techniques for large-scale farming. Ecological methods of production for any specific crop or farming system (e.g., soil building practices, biological pest control, composting) are central to permaculture as well as to sustainable agriculture in general.
Since permaculture is not a production system, per se, but rather a land use and community planning philosophy, it is not limited to a specific method of production. Furthermore, as permaculture principles may be adapted to farms or villages worldwide, it is site specific and therefore amenable to locally adapted techniques of production.
As an example, standard organic farming and gardening techniques utilizing cover crops, green manures, crop rotation, and mulches are emphasized in permacultural systems. However, there are many other options and technologies available to sustainable farmers working within a permacultural framework (e.g., chisel plows, no-till implements, spading implements, compost turners, rotational grazing). The decision as to which “system” is employed is site-specific and management dependent.
Farming systems and techniques commonly associated with permaculture include agro– forestry, swales, contour plantings, Keyline agriculture (soil and water management), hedgerows and windbreaks, and integrated farming systems such as pond-dike aquaculture, aquaponics, intercropping, hedgerows and polyculture.
Gardening and recycling methods common to permaculture include edible landscaping, keyhole gardening, companion planting, trellising, sheet mulching, chicken tractors, solar greenhouses, spiral herb gardens, swales, and vermicomposting.
Water collection, management, and re-use systems like Keyline, greywater, rain catchment, constructed wetlands, aquaponics (the integra-tion of hydroponics with recirculating aquaculture), and solar aquatic ponds (also known as Living Machines) play an important role in permaculture designs.
“The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children,” Bill Mollison, 1990.
“You can fix all the world’s problems, in a garden. You can solve them all in a garden. You can solve all your pollution problems, and all your supply line needs in a garden. And most people today actually don’t know that, and that makes most people very insecure.” Geoff Lawton