Introduction to Permaculture (2023)


The word permaculture is mentioned with increasing frequency in speeches, books and magazine articles on sustainability and food security. What is permaculture? Is it a movement? A philosophy? Is it simply a set of design tools? In this article, I answer these questions by looking at permaculture from different angles. First, I briefly describe the history of permaculture, its underlying ethics, key principles and current practices. Then I discuss common criticisms of permaculture and explain the underlying perspectives that shape its use to meet the community’s needs for food, water and shelter (i.e., the lens through which a permaculture operator sees development). Finally, I share how permaculture has influenced my own life and work, as a Christian and as an agent of agricultural development.

Definitions of the terms

The word permaculture, coined by its co-founder Bill Mollison, is made up of the words «permanent» and «agriculture». The concept of permaculture is difficult to explain in a few words, because the term is used to describe (usually at the same time) both a world view and a philosophical vision of life on earth and a set of principles and practices designed.

Bill Mollison emphasized the philosophical aspect in his definition: «Permaculture is a philosophy of working with nature rather than against it; of prolonged and thoughtful observation rather than prolonged and thoughtless work; and of seeing plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any field as a monotonous system» (Mollison 1988).

Rafter Ferguson, a renowned permaculture practitioner and researcher, has a simple and elegant way of framing the multiple facets of permaculture: «Permaculture is about meeting human needs while improving ecosystem health» (Ferguson 2012). To guard against reductionism, Rafter adds a caveat to his concise definition, saying: «I support concise definitions in the right context as long as they are used to communicate a principle rather than to mask fundamental complexity» (Ferguson 2013b).

Here is my own definition of permaculture: Permaculture is a coherent set of ethics, principles and practices that guide ecosystem stewardship to ensure resilience and abundance for all its inhabitants.

Permulators and permaculture designers

The permaculture movement is very free and not centralized. A person wishing to be called a Permaculture Farmer or Designer is expected to take a Certified Permaculture Course (CDP) led by a teacher or group of teachers with sufficient training and experience to teach the course. Courses are offered by universities, in small farms that have been designed around the principles of permaculture and even in the backyards of urban/periurban permulators. Each course includes 72 hours of instruction on the main topics in Permaculture: Bill Mollison’s Designer’s Manual (1988). Courses can be structured in several ways: intensive courses take place over nine consecutive days, weekend courses take place over several consecutive weekends and online courses are generally nine weeks long.

Many people practice permaculture without calling themselves permaculture designers and without taking a permaculture design course. For example, ECHO’s farm in Fort Myers, Florida, is an excellent example of applied permaculture practice, even if it was not specifically designed according to permaculture principles. Many ECHO articles and Technical Notes have detailed the application of permaculture principles without using the «permaculture» label.

Key Authors and Reference Document

Bill Mollison (born 1928) is considered the father of permaculture. In 1978, Mollison collaborated with David Holmgren to write a seminal book called Permaculture One. Mollison also wrote Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, published in 1988. This 400-page book establishes the fundamental philosophies, principles and practices of permaculture. Mollison founded the Permaculture Institute in Tasmania and created a training system to train others under the auspices of permaculture.

David Holmgren (born 1955) is a co-author of permaculture with Mollison. Holmgren is an Australian permaculture designer, ecologist and writer. His 2002 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, provides what many consider to be a more accessible guide to the principles of permaculture. Holmgren has refined these principles through more than 25 years of practice.

Two other authors whose ideas are prominent in permaculture concepts are P.A. Yeomans (1904-1984) and Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008).

P.A. Yeomans was an Australian inventor known for the Keyline system, used to develop land and increase fertility. Yeomans’ Keyline’s concepts are now part of the curriculum of many sustainable agricultural pathways in colleges and universities around the world. Yeomans has written four books: The Keyline Plan; The Challenge of Landscape; Water for Every Farm; and The City Forest.

Masanobu Fukuoka was a Japanese philosopher and farmer. He promoted no-till cultivation, cereal cultivation methods without herbicides and created a particular method of agriculture, commonly called «Natural agriculture» or «Non-doing agriculture». Fukuoka is the author of several Japanese books, scientific articles and other publications, including The One-Straw Revolution.

Due to the recent increasing popularity of permaculture, many books have been written to help explain basic concepts or to further explain a particular system and/or practices. An extensive list of permaculture websites and books can be found at the end of the article.

Permaculture as a movement

Permaculture practitioners and teachers think deeply about natural systems and in particular about human interaction with them. Because technology has increased human capacity to make rapid and large-scale changes in entire ecosystems, permaculture practitioners often find themselves on the front lines of a debate that pits extractive greed against the long-term health of the planet. In this way, permaculture is joining a larger movement of those who wish to conserve natural systems and mitigate/restore the damage caused by decades of unbridled exploitation. The voice of permaculture in this movement is valuable because it offers positive and exploitable alternatives to the status quo.

Permaculture as a process of designing a human community and natural ecosystems

By observing permaculture using a grid, we can see that the design process evolves through several levels. It begins with ethics, then moves on to principles, then to strategy design and finally to technique or application.

I. The Ethics

Permaculture, whether considered a philosophy, a movement or a design process, is based on three ethical pillars: 1) caring for the land; 2) caring for people; and 3) setting limits on consumption and reproduction and redistributing surpluses (Holmgren 2002). Most people can agree with the first two ethical instructions, but the concepts of population control and redistribution are controversial. For this reason, several permaculture authors and teachers have simplified/modified the third ethical principle into «equitable sharing» or «caring for the future».

II. Principles – Bill Mollison

In Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, Mollison (1988) summarizes the fundamental principles of permaculture design into five statements[in bold, with the author’s elaboration]:

Work with nature rather than against it. This may seem obvious, but we humans tend to try to «do as we please» with regard to the farming systems we develop. This often creates unnecessary failure, exorbitant use of natural resources and potentially contributes to the widespread spread of ecological damage. Large-scale monoculture is a classic example of work against nature.

The problem is the solution. If we are willing to look at a problem from different angles, we will discover that the «problem» is actually a resource for another part of the ecosystem. A good example of this is stated in Mollison’s well-known statement, «you don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck inefficiency».

Make the slightest change for the best possible effect. Thoughtful interventions at a point of momentum in an ecosystem produces the greatest return in relation to time and resources invested. An example of this principle is T.A.T.T.P. (Agricultural Technique for Sloping Lands) for hill cultivation. By planting trees along a contour (contour lines), erosion is reduced, terraces are formed and soil fertility is maintained – and perhaps even increased.

The performance of a system is theoretically unlimited. This principle can also be expressed by saying that it is only our knowledge and imagination that limits the sustainable production potential of an ecosystem. A permaculture designer strives to create layers of symbiotic relationships in an ecosystem. This concept is well visible in agroforestry systems, where several types of species work together to protect and serve each other, increasing both the potential total yield and (often) the individual yield of each component. The stacking function, another concept that illustrates this principle, refers to choosing plants and animals in a design that perform more than one function and give more than one product. Chicken farming is a good example of this idea; chickens provide food, feathers, manure, tillage, weeding, insect control, etc.

Gardens of all species (or modifies its environment). Each part of an ecosystem directly influences some other parts of the system and has an overall influence on the whole system. In complex systems, changes bring unexpected consequences. Careful observation over a long period of time reduces negative surprises.

III. Principles – David Holmgren

In his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Permaculture: Voices and Principles Beyond Sustainability, 2002), Holmgren increases the number of permaculture principles to twelve[in bold, with the author’s elaboration]. Its approach provides a more nuanced and systematic way to begin making decisions about the stewardship of complex and changing ecosystems.

  1. Observe and Interact. Spend a lot of time observing an ecosystem before you start building or gardening. By doing so, it will allow us to build or garden as efficiently and sustainably as possible.
  2. Capturing and Storing Energy. Energies of all types circulate within and outside all ecosystems. Make the most of these resources and minimize or eliminate losses. Energy resources include: sunlight; water; seeds; inherent heat (such as in stones and water); wind; and organic matter (in soil and compost).
  3. To obtain a Return. When we produce plants for food, fuel, textiles or cosmetics, we want to get a harvest. Good stewardship is in the abundance and blessing that we can share.
  4. Apply Self-regulation and Respond to Open Feedback Circles. Negative feedback can indicate unsustainable methods and probably means that we have to do things a little differently. Excessive positive feedback can hurt other systems. Our objective is balance. For people used to considering agriculture and/or development projects as a series of problems to be solved, reading the negative feedback signals may seem quite simple. The assessment of excessive positive feedback may be more difficult to observe and discern. For example, for decades, monoculture on a very large scale symbolized the best practice of modern agricultural productivity. The environmental and human impacts of these systems were easy to miss and remain easy to rationalize given their enormous capacity to provide raw materials for cheap calories and corporate profits. It is difficult in the dominant system to say «no thanks» to short-term gains (excess positive feedback), even though we recognize that there will be a cost to people and the planet.
  5. Use and Enhance Renewable Resources and Services. Preserve non-renewable resources and always seek to restore resources. Expand our thinking about what could be a resource.
  6. Do not produce any waste. Ideally, everything that is needed is manufactured on site, and all by-products become inputs to another part of the design.
  7. Designing from Overall Structures to Get to the Details. First of all, classify the overall image; after that, everything else will be in place. The elements of an overall image include factors such as climate, terrain and aspects of the sun. Taking these elements into account at the outset is essential to all subsequent decisions, and they ultimately determine the design model. A permaculture designer uses strategies such as sectors and areas (see description below) to help determine the overall model. He/she then moves on to specific plants and techniques.
  8. Integrate rather than separate. Every element in a system has strengths and weaknesses. In permaculture, we can use this to our advantage by combining elements with complementary needs, so that they help each other to grow steadily. For example, in a keyhole garden, composting is directly integrated into the middle of the garden. Placing this keyhole garden near the kitchen also integrates the system by locating the fresh vegetable production area and the container for fillings and waste near where they are used, thus reducing labour.
  9. Use Solutions on Small Scales and with Patience. Small and slow changes build resilience and diversity, making our system adaptable and reducing the effect of unintended consequences.
  10. Use and Value Diversity. Diversity is the foundation of resilience.
  11. Use Interfaces and Enhance Borders. The borders or edges between the different ecological zones and microclimates are places of great diversity and potential. Species that can grow on both sides of the edge have an advantage in these areas and can increase the productivity of the entire system.
  12. Use and Respond to Change with Creativity. Things will always change; this is a guarantee. React to change by constantly innovating and don’t give up.

IV. Designing Strategies

Linking ethics and permaculture principles on a specific site requires a design framework. Designers use a wide variety of methods to organize their thoughts and articulate their ideas. Some common tools are as follows:

The Yeoman Keyline permanence scale (Fig. 2) takes into consideration the time and energy required to make a change to a specific site or ecosystem. At the top of the scale, at the end of the axes of effort and time, is «climate»; this aspect would require more time and energy to change. At the bottom of the scale is «the earth».

The sectors (Fig. 3) are used to identify the different factors that interact with a site. The sectors will include phenomena such as the trajectory of the sun as it passes through the site; the direction of seasonal or predominant winds; and the structure of human and animal traffic. Noise; and visual impacts.

Zones identify the human interaction necessary to maintain specific areas of a site. In general, there are 6 zones, numbered from 0 to 5, Zone 0 is the house or workshop where people live or work. Zone 1 is the area of high human traffic on the site; in a residential setting, zone 1 would be the gateway between the entrance and the entrance door. It would also include the patio or a kitchen/grass garden nearby. Zone 2 would likely include things like annual vegetable planks and poultry, zone 3 would include pastures and fruit trees, zone 4 would have firewood, and zone 5 would remain wild to allow continuous observation and nature learning.

Introduction to Permaculture (2)

Yeoman’s Keyline Permanent Scale takes into consideration the time and energy required to make a change to a site or ecosystem. Adapted from Owen Hablutzel’s Graphic Permanence scale.

Introduction to Permaculture (3)

Sectoral analysis to identify the different elements that interact with a site.

V. Practices and Techniques

The integration of several species (plant guilds). Permaculture developers are seeking to collect several stories (canopy levels) of plants into «plant guilds» to increase and diversify system performance and increase resilience. Agroforestry and forest gardening are typical examples of plant guilds. An example of a tropical plant guild would be a tree structure of the dominant floor like a mango tree combined with the shade of Barbados cherries and under them, comfrey and chives garlic.

Agroforestry (multi-storey, perennial plant foods, combustion and fibre system). The above example of a plant guild is also a good example of a part of the agroforestry system. Agroforestry systems are designed to maximize the human useable yield of a multi-storey forest, while conserving the diversity and increasing the fertility of the forest itself.

Slow down and retain water. Water is an essential resource in any agricultural system. A good permaculture design keeps an ideal moisture level in the system with minimal energy inputs. This involves channelling excess water outside, retaining water in the dry season and helping water to penetrate the surface to reach the root zone of the plants.

Composting. Composting ensures that fertility and nutrients remain indoors and are recycled in an ecosystem. From simple compost piles to vermiculture systems and latrine composting, all sources of fertility are valuable and must be managed to improve our capacities.

Natural construction. If possible, use locally available and renewable materials to meet housing needs. This will help to encourage local economies and preserve non-renewable resources. Safe and comfortable homes do not need to look like western suburbs, and imported materials and models often lead to less comfort and safety. A good example of this is the metal sheet roof replacing palm thatch. The metal roof is often less resistant to hurricane winds; it also transmits the heat of the tropical sun, making the house unbearably hot during the day.

Common criticisms of Permaculture

A common (and sometimes specific) criticism of permaculture is that proponents make estimates about yield potential or resilience factors with little reliable data to support this. Because the promotion and documentation of permaculture practices is largely decentralized, no formal body exists to validate the claims of permaculture practitioners and those who tell permaculture stories. Recently, there has been a serious debate within the permaculture community on the need to be more attentive to what is claimed as a fact and on the search for partnership with people and institutions that can help to verify good practices with good science and increase the community’s capacity to conduct experiments that produce usable data and/or lead to further research.

A second, more superficial criticism of permaculture revolves around the lifestyles of the people who identify with it. Those caught in a paradigm of westernized modernity may be tempted to criticize and marginalize those with a different perspective, rather than trying to understand their point of view – especially if that different perspective challenges some of the practices that make their lives comfortable.

Permaculture in development

Many permulators have an industrial vision of the future. They see permaculture as a tool to prepare for a less mechanized, economically less globalized and de-urbanized world. As a result, they view the development process differently than would typically be the case for Western development workers. This view forms a «better future» for permulators, which influences their choices in setting work priorities and resources.

As an extreme example, a Western Traditional Development Agency working with smallholder farmers in rural areas could work to create supply and distribution chains that allow smallholders access to the global market. It could bring non-renewable and non-local resources to the region to increase the yield of a single crop or a small variety of annual crops. It could consider consolidating small farms into a larger operation to increase efficiency, thus creating a smaller and more efficient workforce with the hope that displaced people would find a better off-farm income. All these efforts would be made under the vision that the modern industrial world is our best vision of the future; that increasing the economic base by creating more consumers has no resource barriers that technology cannot overcome; and that physical work and traditional rural life are things from which people should be free.

On the other hand, a permaculture designer working in the same situation will strive to strengthen the independence of the rural community and protect it from outside influences. He/she would first seek to create an ecosystem and social system that meets basic human needs, and then resell the surplus abundance, with maximum biodiversity. Rather than creating consumers, a good permactor seeks to create more resilient and successful producers who remain on earth, knowing that their lives are precious and that their work is one of the most complex and dignified.


Permaculture is part of the growing community of eco-agriculture disciplines. It is quickly accepted as a valuable design methodology by both non-governmental and governmental institutions around the world. It is adaptable to each ecosystem and culture and offers accessible problem-solving tools rather than miracle solutions. It considers the ecosystem and social system as a whole, facilitating stewardship that provides you with a path to true sustainable development, resilience and abundance.

By: Brad Ward

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