What is Permaculture

What is Permaculture? Permaculture Basics – Part 1

What is PermacultureSo you may have heard about permaculture design somewhere, either from a news article, or a gardening or sustainability site.

You may have heard that it’s like organic gardening but better, or partnering with nature, or sustainable farming.

But what is it?

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What is permaculture?

The word comes from combining permanent and agriculture. It also comes from the idea of making a sustainable permanent culture.

Permaculture is a huge topic and has many different aspects. But for sure, it is an ethical design science.

Ethics guide decisions, using good design methods, and real hard science.

One thing you will learn as you study permaculture is that no one single definition exists.

It brings so many disciplines together like biology, system design, geology, hydrology, botany, natural construction, anthropology, forestry and animal husbandry. Because of this, there are many definitions.

For example, some permaculture definitions:

Design protocols for critical thinking, decision-making and problem solving – all based on the patterns of nature.

Larry Santoyo

Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; & of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.

Bill Mollison

Permaculture is the conscious design of “cultivated” ecosystems that have the diversity, stability, & resilience of natural ecosystems. It is a harmonious integration of people into the landscape in such a way that the land grows in richness, productivity, and aesthetic beauty.

Peter Bane

Thus, Permaculture is the study of the design of those sustainable or enduring systems that support human society, both agricultural & intellectual, traditional & scientific, architectural, financial & legal. It is the study of integrated systems, for the purpose of better design & application of such systems.

Bill Mollison

Permaculture uses

  • traditional people’s agricultural practices
  • perennial tree crops
  • smart water and soil conservation practices
  • inherent intelligence of natural systems
  • and many more sustainable methods

…to regenerate and protect people and the land.

A Short History of Permaculture

So let’s start with the history.

Ugh, nooooo, not history! It’s so borrrrring!

No just stay with me, this will be good.

Two men created permaculture in the 1970’s. Bill Mollison, a college professor at the time, and David Holmgren, his student. First, let’s talk about Bill.

He was born and grew up in Tasmania. After college he got a job with Australia’s government research organization as part of the Wildlife Survey Section. Here he saw tremendous ecological devastation from industrial logging and agriculture.

After seeing this he was strongly opposed to this kind of destruction. But he realized that he couldn’t really do much by opposing it and so he “withdrew from society” and went to live in the bush for a couple of years.

Bill resolved to not fight against the system but develop something positive that would allow humans to exist without destroying biological systems.

Together David and Bill published a book called Permaculture One about their methods in 1978, then Permaculture Two in 1979.

Roads Diverge

After this point, Mollison and Holmgren part ways and begin to develop different approaches.

Mollison started teaching permaculture globally and in Australia through his PDC, and writing more books.

This includes what’s informally know as the “Big Black Book” or “Permaculture Bible”, called Permaculture: A Designers Manual, in 1988. This book is the definitive work on permaculture.

He also wrote Introduction to Permaculture, which is a little easier to read than the Designer’s Manual.

Holmgren, however, began testing and refining the concepts on his own land. He did not begin formally teaching permaculture until 1991.

Sidebar: When I first found out about permaculture, it surprised me to learn it’s still not widely embraced or practiced even though it’s been around for more than 30 years. I had sure never heard of it while growing up. It’s finally starting to get some mainstream attention as colleges start to teach permaculture(which would have flummoxed Bill). This means they get paid to teach things they don’t really know about. Because that’s what college professors are good at! 😉

Permaculture Prime Directive and Ethics

Star Trek

No, not that Prime Directive!

Permaculture has ethics and principles that help to guide the permaculture designer in making decisions.

First, the Permaculture Prime Directive:

The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for own existence and that of our children.

Bill Mollison

This is a big one, and should speak for itself. Take responsibility for yourself because you’re alive, and for your children.

Next, Mollison put forward the idea of the 3 ethics of permaculture:

  • Care of the Earth
  • Care of People
  • Return of Surplus

These first two ethics are not difficult to understand.

Take care of people. Take care of the earth. Don’t harm people. Don’t destroy the earth.

But sometimes people apply the last ethic incorrectly.

To be sustainable, any system must return a yield to keep itself running.

So that’s what return of surplus is about.

Give back to the system that produced the surplus, to enable the first two ethics.

The third ethic is certainly not about forced socialism or an involuntary something-for-nothing.

Permaculture Principles

The co-developer, David Holmgren, developed 12 guiding principles for permaculture design. His 2002 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, covers these principles in depth.

  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.

The 12 principles expand on the original 3 ethics, which themselves expand on the prime directive.

It’s a good idea to keep all of them in mind when designing.


While most designs tend to focus on food production, you can use permaculture to help you in any area of human living. This could be in building a family home, improving your income or making your relationships better.

It can be applied nearly anywhere with natural systems. See my How To Apply Permaculture To Your Life article for more ideas.


That’s the structure of permaculture. A prime directive, three ethics, 12 principles.

A very interesting feature of permaculture is that is can change and improve. As better methods and techniques develop and are tested, this makes permaculture more robust, sustainable and productive.

It’s a huge field of study, and by practicing can one get better with permaculture design.

Geoff Lawton has compared permaculture to a wardrobe, where you can pull out different clothes (techniques and strategies) depending on your specific needs.

It’s a very flexible design science, and should be more widely used.


This post continues in Part 2.


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OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.

Thanks from TPL

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