What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is an ethical agricultural, lifestyle and community design philosophy that mimics natural ecological systems. It was developed in Australia in the 1970s by Professor Bill Mollison and David Holmgren with the core tenants of:
Earth Care: care for the environment and all its life-forms to continue and multiply. Without a healthy environment humans cannot thrive.
People Care: care for people and providing access the resources that they need.
Fair Share: take only what you need and share the surplus both with the broader community and the environment.
Many people think of permaculture as solely a type of organic gardening as there is a major focus on designing food production systems and in its original conception permaculture was considered to mean ‘permanent agriculture’ or ‘perennial agriculture’. However in more recent decades the concept has been greatly expanded and now is widely interpreted to mean ‘permanent culture’. The same design philosophies can be applied to properties of any size from farms to apartments as well as other cultural ecologies such as businesses, communities and individual lifestyles. The same care and ethics applied to food systems also applies to how people use and interact with a much wider variety of resources and natural systems including (but not limited to) power, water, air, natural plant and animal ecologies and cultural capital.
How Organic Gardening/Farming and Permaculture Differ
It is misleading to characterise permaculture as organic gardening. Organic is a legal definition with minimum requirements needed to be met by food producers for that labelling. Organic farming avoids (most) chemical fertilisers, pesticides and livestock medicines largely to create a product that is better for human health. However, there is no requirement for organic certification to ensure that production occurs in a way that improves the natural environment.
Organic farming like traditional agriculture can deplete soil and water resources and result in reduced habitat for native animals. Mono-cropping where large areas are planted with only a single variety of plant is very common in the large scale organic farms that supply supermarket chains. This type of growing is far from the way natural systems operate, reduces the diversity and security of the food supply as well as increasing the need for ‘organic’ pesticide inputs.
Permaculture in contrast stresses the need for diversity.There are of course many organic producers particularly those at the home garden and market garden scale that may be branded as ‘organic’ and practice highly sustainable methods incorporating aspects of the permaculture philosophy. Organic gardening or farming can be quite compatible with permaculture but the terms to do mean the same thing. Whilst organic farming is simply a lack of certain chemical inputs, permaculture is a focus on regeneration whilst providing for human needs including those beyond food. Sometimes food growing in a permaculture context is referred to as ‘beyond organic’ for these reasons.
The Design Principles of Permaculture
A major contribution of co-founder David Holgrom to the permaculture philosophy was the development of 12 design principles. These are a methodology to apply the 3 ethical tenants to a permaculture lifestyle or design. I’d really encourage you to think about each of these principles and how they may apply in your own life or property design just as I have done in the examples i’ve provided below each principle.
1. Observe and Interact: Take the time to observe nature and the landscape or context of focus.
Example: I have observed that at Loganberry Forest that 3 large pine trees that cast a lot of shade on our kitchen garden area in winter and that this reduces the harvest. I therefore may be better to plant cool season annuals elsewhere in winter and to dedicate the area to summer producing perennials and summer annuals when the area will have less shade.
2. Catch and Store Energy: Capture resources when they are abundant and preserve them for leaner times.
Example: We can, freeze, ferment and dehydrate our summer produce for the winter when there is less production in our garden.
3. Obtain a Yield. It is a goal to provide for humans, the earth and community and therefore it is important that design systems produce something.
Example: We prioritize planting species that either provide food for us (fruit and veg) or support the food producing plants (eg nitrogen fixing plants that provide natural fertilizers), or support the wildlife that supports us and our plants (eg. planting flowers to attract pollinators like bees).
4. Apply Self Regulation & Accept Feedback. Continue to observe and learn from mistakes.
Example: We previously made the mistake of storing our preserved food in a laundry cupboard. After many months the humidity of the laundry caused the cans to rust and the food was wasted. We now have a dedicated larder.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services. Use the abundance found in nature and avoid non-renewables.
Example: When foraging I focus on invasive and introduced species as well as useful resources that would not be depleted by our collecting. This includes blackberries, acorns, roadside apples, elderberries and introduced trout. I would not collect daisy yam (a rare native) in the wild as it is the root that is required and therefore is a lethal harvest and may threaten the wild population. Instead i’m interested in propagating daisy yam on our own property both as a food source and to assist in the recovery of the species.
6. Produce No Waste. Value what you have so nothing goes to waste and make choices that do not create landfill.
Example: We have made many ‘zero waste’ swaps in our home to reduce our household waste. For example we use beeswax wraps and reusable glass containers or jars to store food rather than plastic wrap. I also make from scratch a lot of foods that would otherwise need to be bought in plastic packaging like bread, pasta, noodles and crackers.
7. Design from Patterns to Details. Take in the bigger picture and observe patterns in nature and society. Go from big picture to small.
Example: When designing the layout of our greenhouse we observed the patterns of sun and shadow that formed. This determined the orientation of the garden beds, the location of the seed raising area and the placement of the water tank. Only when these details were decided did we concern ourselves with where to source material for our raised garden beds and where we were going to plant individual plants.
8. Integrate Rather than Segregate. When you design elements to work together there is less energy required and they can support each other.
Example: We grow duckweed in a wire mesh covered bathtub in the chicken and duck run as food for our poultry. The chickens often roost on top of the bath on the wire and their droppings fertilize the duckweed helping it grow. When it comes to harvesting the duckweed for the chickens, there is no long distance transport required. I can either open up the wire and let the ducks in to eat it all (if i have some additional elsewhere to reseed for the next time) or simply remove the majority from the bath to the ground beside it where it is accessible by the poultry.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions. Going big imposes greater risk. Building from small has more sustainable outcomes.
Example: This principle really fits with our family’s philosophy of personal finance which we view as part of our journey towards self-sufficiency. Rather than go big and invest large amounts of money, energy and resources into large scale projects all at once (despite the large scale of our land) we instead do smaller projects that we can fund from our job as we go, as well as saving for the future. This also means the pace of development at our property is slower but it carries less risk of us making large bad decisions that may require rethinking or redoing. For example we have lost a few fruit trees over the last couple of years as they were either wrong for our climate/soil or planted in a bad location. If we had instead invested in a lot of trees at once before we had learnt these lessons, the losses would have been far greater. Now we can learn from our mistakes and that ultimately will lead to a better permaculture design.
10. Use and Value Diversity. Nature is diverse and this natural strategy reduces vulnerability of the system as a whole.
Example: We plant heirloom vegetables that have a much greater diversity than hybrids and allow us to save their seed. We also plant many different varieties at once of each fruit or vegetable type as chances are some may do better than others in different years. Our kitchen garden beds are also diverse with many inter-planted fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. This is a good strategy to reduce pest damage and helps attract pollinators resulting in increased abundance.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal. The interface between elements is often the most abundant, take advantage of this.
Example: There is a concrete path at the front of our home at Loganberry Forest. The garden directly in front of it receives extra water from the runoff. We use it to grow a variety of fruit trees and herbs, fibre plants and flowers without any dedicated irrigation systems and it is a highly productive area.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change.
Example: We predict the changing seasons and the different types of plants that they support. We schedule seed planting several weeks before we expect to be able to plant the seedlings outside and also take note of the weather conditions (not just relying on an app) so we can adapt our planting schedule as necessary (or protect plants from an impending frost). We also expect long term climate change to have a significant impact on commercial food quality, cost and availability within our lifetime and therefore in part undertaking our permaculture homestead is a response to to ensure our future food security.
Want to Learn More?
There are many ways you can learn about permaculture including both the theory and practical applications. If you are just starting out, then one of the best free resources out there and what got us first really interested in permaculture are the videos produced by Geoff Lawnton. What is particularly great about Geoff Lawnton’s work, is that while his main demonstrator farm is located in the semi-tropics of Northern NSW, Australia, he does a lot of aid work all over the world in a wide variety of climate zones so has knowledge and examples that will apply to you regardless where you may be living. I will list a variety of other youtube accounts and website that have fantastic resources at the end for your further exploration.
In addition to this online world, it can be highly educational and enjoyable to go on property tours and undertake workshops or masterclasses. These will give you real life practical examples of permaculture in specific locations and in depth information on specific topics that take your fancy (or simply basic introductions to permaculture) like propagating mushrooms, fruit tree grafting, identifying edible weeds, applying permaculture to market gardening, preserving food or natural building.
One great benefit of seeing and experiencing skills and examples of permaculture in real life, is the potential to form community connections among like- minded individuals. You can also experience this benefit if you have a permaculture club or guild in your home region. This will be an invaluable resource of knowledge of practicing permaculture in your local area from the plant species that grow best to sources of free organic material, food swaps and bulk food co-ops for waste free shopping. A permaculture club may also offer courses and workshops at lower prices than permaculture education businesses as they are likely to operate on a more volunteer basis.
If this is the education route you wish to take then be careful not to fall into the mindset that permaculture is a prescriptive list of methods. The whole of idea of permaculture as a design philosophy is to develop unique solutions for individual situations through observation and creative thinking. There are also likely to be more than one way of doing things that will work. This is where having a broader and more in-depth understanding of the theory underlying permaculture is really helpful.
If you are someone that learns well in a more academic environment then you could definitely learn all of this by reading and absorbing the information in the key permaculture books that are the foundation of the philosophy. In particular Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Designer’s Manual (PDM). Other good resources are listed at the bottom of this page.
The Permaculture Design Certificate
Another option to understand the theoretical basis of permaculture is to undertake a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) or Diploma of Permaculture. A PDC is the standard originally developed by Mollison as a minimum requirement to operate as a permaculture designer (ie someone that creates designs for other people). It is based on teachings of the PDM. The vast majority of people though that undertake a PDC (and some people take multiple from different teachers) are individuals with no plans to be a designer for others but want to learn more, are passionate about sustainability and are interested in applying the philosophy of design at their own home. Typically a PDC will covering the major theoretical topics presented in the PDM illustrated with practice examples of their application. Another critical part of the PDC qualification is the development by the student, of a permaculture design to an individual property. It is the feedback that you’d receive in this process where undertaking a PDC really differs from self-directed study of the PDM along with exposure to practical examples of the theory and community connections.
PDCs vary greatly. Some are intensive blocks of study undertaken while at residence at a demonstration/working permaculture site. People may choose these if they are particular interested in a particular location and/or want to treat the experience like a learning holiday. It might be tempted to go to some exotic location overseas to do a PDC, however it might be worth considering how relevant the location may be to your home climate as while they may talk about examples in a range of climate types (or not), the practical in-person examples are not going to be as relevant although the theory will be universal. Other PDCs are offered over a much longer time period over a series of weekends or evenings which will generally best suit local residents.
The other model of learning available which we have personally experienced, is an online PDC. Dan and I did our PDC in 2015 online through the Permaculture Research Institute with Geoff Lawnton. This course taught the material through many hours of video recorded lectures, online forums to ask and answer questions (included from Geoff Lawnton as well as his tutors) and a practical assignment which was assessed of a permaculture design of a real life site (of your choosing). This type of PDC really suited us as at the time we were living in an extremely remote location in desert, central Australia. We would not have been able to attend an in-person course due to the travel distance and work responsibilities and additionally knew that the location and climate we were living in at the time was not going to be where we would be in the future. Thus choosing a more international course that did not focus on a specific climate or region for examples suited us greatly as did the flexible learning style where we could watch the lectures and work on our assignment whenever suited us around our regular jobs and life. One thing now that I’ve really grateful for is that in addition to online streaming, the video lectures and notes were provided to us in a box set of DVDs so now we can revisit them whenever we feel the need to brush up on what we learnt.
There are definitely pros and cons for each style of PDC. Many people are adamantly against learning the material online – however I’ve noticed that they are often those either teaching in person courses themselves (so may feel threatened by the more mass scale of the online format) or at least have never experienced an online PDC for themselves. All I can provide is my perspective of taking the course that I did that I provide in the separate post here.
Additionally there are people that are really against the concept of the PDCs entirely and in particular the fact that it almost always costs money. The reality is if you want to learn anything in a teacher-student format it takes significant time and resources to put together that experience which wouldn’t be sustainable to offer for free. In my opinion the only shady part of selling permaculture courses is where the teacher is not qualified in what they are teaching and have no experience in permaculture beyond teaching. So do your research into any course you are thinking of taking and if you don’t want to pay to learn this type of content then don’t. Read books in particular the PDM, try to visit as many examples of permaculture designed properties you can (although this will likely cost money too) and ultimately try to apply the permaculture ethics and design principles in a practical way at your own home and life.
The reality is you can endlessly take permaculture courses and read inspiring books on the subject, you can even draw permaculture designs on paper/computer programs. But until you try to practically implement permaculture on the ground in real life and see the results – fail, redesign and try again and again and sometimes succeed, you haven’t really done permaculture or integrated the theory into real life.