Permaculture 101

This resource is a combination of notes referenced from Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Geoff Lawton, Sepp Holzer, and others.  Bill and David are the originators of permaculture in the early 1970s and who wrote a book 1978 titled Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlement (Amazon) that started the movement.  

What is Permaculture

Bill Mollison
Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison was a lecturer at Hobart University and considered the “father of permaculture”. One of his students was David Holmgren.  The two toiled over the issue of rapid use of the earths limited natural resources, depletion of the ozone layer, huge loss of biodiversity, and acidification of oceans with no long-term solutions in sight.

They went to work on creating their own solution.

Bill and David came up with the term permaculture by combining the vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture and our culture (way we live).  Writing the definition of permaculture as; “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre, and energy for provision of local needs.”.   Put in simpler terms it’s mimicking nature with our environments to create strong ecosystems that benefit people, plants, animals, plants, waterways, and soil in a sustainable way.  

Topics involved could include: forestry, agriculture, renewable energy, water harvesting, eco-building methods, animal systems, waste management, technology, economics, and community development.  Drawing all of them together in a way that shifts us from a vulnerable consumer to a responsible producer.

The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens.  If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter. – Bill Mollison

Permaculture Design Philosophy

Most people think of the word sustainability when thinking about permaculture.   A sustainable system produces the same amount of energy it consumes.  Allowing the system to continue to recreate.  Permaculture builds on sustainability by aiming to create a surplus that helps diversity and fertility.

If we don’t control our greed and supply our needs from our own settlements there isn’t much we can do for nature.  And if we had done this to begin with we would have never caused so much destruction and become so disconnected from nature.

Courage is what is needed today.  Courage to accept personal responsibility for our decisions.  We have the wisdom, technology, and tools to create sustainable systems.  But we lack application.  Allowing the business of our lives to dictate our choices.  Thomas Merton said it best:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

The work begins in areas that are already populated.  Those areas that are getting food from destructive modern agriculture.  Leaving areas that are not populated alone until we are forced to use them.  Nature can heal itself if we leave well enough alone.

Permaculture aims to grow food in the community to reduce food miles, consumption, and waste.  Also teaching people, building community and returning industrial farmland back to nature.

Many problems can be solved by home gardening.  Home gardens are extremely productive compared to its rural counterparts per square foot.  Gardens can also cultivate soil much faster.  Averaging up to two inches per year.

Once the home garden is in order we focus on a city wide scale.  Then, expand into reducing resource consumption in other areas like electricity (installing solar panels).

Rules to follow for permaculture design philosophy:

  • Reduce pollution and waste
  • Prevent de-forestation
  • Reduce soil erosion
  • Use the least amount of land possible for our own existence
  • Establish refuges for threatened plants and animals
  • Help replace lost minerals
  • Calculate energy audits on resources used
  • Assess any negative biosocial effects and work to eliminate

Shifting Away From Industrial Agriculture

Mono-crops like corn are the most destructive type of farming. Totally dependent on external inputs like oil.  Also contributing to pollution and destroying resources.  While yielding very little.

What we want to convert to is a tree crop that gets most of its energy requirements from the farm itself.  Minimizing what we’re bringing into the system.  While monitoring the outputs such as dollars produced, environmental biodiversity and fertility, energy, conservation and social capital (high nutrient whole foods and meaningful work).

One of the early pioneers of tree crops is J. Russell Smith.  Who in 1929 published the book: Tree Crops: A permanent agriculture (Public Domain Free PDF).


Testing applied to the plant kingdom would show that the natural engines of food production for hill lands are not wheat and other grasses, but trees. A single oak tree yields acorns (good carbohydrate food) often by the hundred weight, some- times by the ton. Some hickory and pecan trees give us nuts by the barrel; the walnut tree yields by the ten bushels. There are bean trees producing good food for cattle, which food would probably make more meat or milk per acre than our present forage crops now make.

Tree crops yield more than mono-crops.  While providing more nutrient diversity and resources for the crops such as compost from leaves.

When converting from conventional agriculture to permaculture 70% of the land should be productive forest.  This allows for proper production and stability.

Permaculture Principles

Permaculture principles are a quick checklist when designing.  To help people avoid confusion and risks and implement integrated wholistic utilitarian solutions faster and more effectively.

The only error you can make when following principles is not learning from errors.  The errors are what lead to innovation and evolution.  So don’t be afraid to make mistakes on your path of learning. Avoid dogma that is often forced by a centralized power.

There are two sets of principles.  Design, and ethics principles.

Ethics Principles

Permaculture ethics principles were created from studying older religious communities (like Taoism) and cooperative groups (indigenous tribal groups).  Learning from their success and trying to avoid their failures.

Three main ethics:

  1. Earth Care – Only use resources if necessary and do so only as needed without waste.  Always ask the questions, “Will this resource be in better shape after my stewardship?” and “What does the land or person have to give if I cooperate with it?”.  Aim to treat all living and non-living things with equal respect.  The the goal to benefit and preserve rather than degrade and deplete.   Making sure the right people are in control of land is also apart of looking after earth.  Three main resources are water, soil, and forests.
  2. People Care –  Foster a cooperative community (avoiding exploitation), personal responsibility and self-reliance.  We start with providing for ones own needs then moving outwards.  Building a “culture of place ( website)” where people want to live an contribute.
  3. Return of Surplus – Limit Consumption and Reproduction – The difficult task of setting limits is easier when we know how the world works and what is enough.  The earth is already overpopulated and every child born accelerates consumption.  Fostering and adoption can help satisfy this need.  Along with seeing future generations as heirs.  We are all family.  Surplus time, resources, and wealth from our environments should be given to other people or returned to the earth through planting a new forest, composting, animal feed, etc.

The three ethics build on one another, and are also interconnected.

Permaculture is about teaching how to implement strategies based on these ethics.  In an effort to sustain people and the earth through systems continual yields.  Learning from the past while staying focused on the present.

When we implement ethics it becomes easier to create cooperative elements with each other and also nature, helping build a permanent community.

When people are cared for, that care then naturally extends to all beings, not just people.

The new paradigm of permanence is through ethical design science.

Natural Systems Ethics:

  • Oppose continuing to destroy anymore forests/nature
  • Help restore damages natural system to its natural stable state
  • Develop plant systems for our use on the least amount of land required (this is the area Permaculture mainly focuses on)
  • Develop safe havens for animals and plants that are threatened

Design Principles

Permaculture design principles are based on systems thinking.

If your new to systems thinking the definition is “Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. – TechTarget Website“.

This video “A Systems Story” will help give you some visuals for breaking down systems thinking.

Permaculture Design Principles

  • Partner with nature
  • The solution lies in the problem – shift your perspective
  • Focus on small changes that create the largest impact – like damming a stream where you can get the most water that requires little if any earth moving
  • Yields are unlimited – The only thing that limits them is our imagination and knowledge
  • Everything “gardens” – Think of deer pruning bushes, or a hen digging.  We must observe where it belongs in the system, if we should control, manage, or tolerate its effects on the ecosystem


Both sets of ethics contribute to an all encompassing ethic of respect for all life forms.  Which should be an ethic for all people.

Permaculture in Society and Landscape

Everyone is called to be designers.  To apply the education, ethics and design principles.  In relation to social, landscape, settlement, and conceptual systems (a system that is composed of non-physical objects, i.e. ideas or concepts – Wiki).

The design systems created are not new.  It is simply re-arranging what is already in place in a different way.  And maybe adding some locally sourced resources as long as they’re not rampant or invasive.

Our job is two-sided.  We need to develop household designs that are created to supply our food and energy needs.  While also applying conservation and rehabilitation of species, and wilderness from agricultural land.

We need to bring back damaged systems, and aim to use the minimum amount of land to provide our needs and build diversity and fertility.

Themes and Concepts in Permaculture Design

Our ability to change the face of the earth increases at a faster rate than our ability to foresee the consequences of such change. – Birch

This section will begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together.  Seeing the systems more clearly and how they relate.

Life and nature is always shifting, changing, and reacting.  It is never the same.  Our designs should observe and record these current changes. Along with what we know from the past. Helping to co-create self-evloving systems while reducing work and increasing yields.

We want our work to be in managing the system rather than maintaining it.  Bordering on the edge of chaos with minimum inputs.

There is no exact rule book in permaculture.  Designs will evolve naturally as the principles are followed and feedback is given.

There is however one main “law” we should follow:  We must return what we take.  With either an equal or greater resource than we consumed.

Designs should work to use all energy a site receives before it passes the system.  You want the system to catch and store as much energy as possible.  Helping to satisfy living components basic needs of maintenance, growth, and reproduction before leaving.  A good example of this is catching and storing water running down a hill.   Otherwise you would have little water on site.  Then, need to get it from an outside source like pumping it back up the hill.

Permaculture design aims to develop long-lasting systems that lessen waste.  Functioning through just management than constant maintenance.  This is done by using nature to perform system duties like watering, tilling, pruning, and fertilizing.


Resources are energies coming into our systems like wind, sun, and rain.  Along with living components like plants and animals.   And maybe some technological units that we create as well.

We have to use these resources numbered 1-4 below wisely.  It is easier to save resources than it is to create them.  Similar to financial stewardship.   And should ban the use of number five.  If we are to have a sustainable society and apply proper resource management.  Keeping resources in balance.  Avoiding under and oversupply.

Resources Use and Results

  1. Modest use creates a surplus – Pruning causes some plants like fruit tress to increase.  Information also increase with use. Domestic animals.
  2. Not changed by use – A well managed ecosystem shouldn’t change much with use.  Diverting a stream to an hydroelectric generator and then returning to the stream is an example.
  3. Degrade or are lost with no use – An annual garden, ripe fruit, water run-off, vacant buildings, are good examples.
  4. Reduce when used – Mature forests will decrease with use
  5. Destroy or pollute when used – Areas of concrete connected to sewer systems that bring pollutants into the sea. Pesticides or other chemicals.

Centralized powers usually charge forward in the name of “growth” and “progress”.  Which means the release of biocides, highways, and sewer systems that pollute and destroy soil.  Often times the result of societies growth in the present leads to a massive problem in the future.  Like New York’s sewer systems that cost $2.4 billion dollars to maintain.  As Bill states, “Today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s disasters“.

Ethical resource management is greatly needed in our society.  We need to shift to the designing and building of systems that create renewable supplies.


Through our resource management we supply the systems needs for  maintenance, growth, and reproduction.  The surplus provided over and above is our yield.

Yields can be a number of different things.  Like health, water, social interactions, nutrition, energy, or security.

Living things which include people are needed to effectively intervene and collect resources.  To produce a yield.  Which is only limited to the connection made, strategies applied, information, and ability of the designer.  Defined in that way, has no limits as we can always improve our systems.  Reducing the amount of resources required to survive.

The key is to know what is “enough” and not push the system into over-producing or over-supplying.  Which creates chaos, kills yields, and creates excess waste.

People are often times the limiters of yields.  As we don’t embrace certain diversities due to our cultures and what is accepted or not accepted.

The goal is to broaden out the yield over time, so that lots of products are available during each season.  This is done by variety selection, planting schedules, and increasing diversity.

Storage of yields is also important. Good times should be used to prepare for lean times. Through the use of low-energy methods of preservation.

A Niche in Time : Cycles

Cycles are repeating events.  This is what we aim to create when intercepting resources that enter our system.  Cycles are time-based opportunities.

Good design accounts for cycles in time.  Just like a park is used by different groups of people during the day.  Joggers in the morning using the niche of pathways, retirees in the afternoon using the niche of benches, and families and couples in the evenings after school.

Niches are opportunities in space. A place to be, room to operate, to find shelter and food.

When we have both together it provides diversity and events.  More cycles means more diversity.

Human society can benefit from time, functions, and space in an area that’s used in a non-competitive, complex way.

Although due to the consumer society that has been developed most people don’t have any “quality time” left in their days.  Time that could be used to e examine, enjoy, and understand our

Scheduling is a niche in space and time.  A prime example is when particular species graze land at a particular time in nature.  But no species owns anything and will need to share or move to another area when competition arrives.

So you have niches in:

  • Space – like a forage site or nest
  • Time – opportunities through cycles
  • Schedules – Best way to introduce new species of cooperative mammals

Pyramids, Food Webs, Growth, and Vegetarianism

Three hundred trout are needed to support one man for a year.
The trout, in turn, must consume 90,000 frogs, that must consume 27 million
grasshoppers that live off of 1,000 tons of grass.   — G. Tyler Miller, Jr., American Chemist (1971)

A model often used to show forage or food is needed to grow another mammal is the trophic pyramid.   But it has many flaws and doesn’t take into account web-like interactions between life systems.

Whatever we eat an energy budget needs to be done.

One should get rid of fixed ideas, look carefully at their food cabinets, and work to lower food imports, energy loss, and waste.  A responsible diet isn’t easy, but the solutions can be found in home gardening.

Omnivorous diets (which will include any type of food) make the greatest use of complex natural systems.  Meaning we should eat at every level what is edible.

Local conditions and climate ultimately play the largest part in the best diet for someone.  Harsh winters may require eating animals and living on a coast leads to eating fish.

Plant-Based Diets

Some issues with plant-based diets include:

  • Animals like deer convert inedible food to edible.  If we created all plants into human edible plants it would destroy the plants and animals that rely on inedible forage.
  • Legumes and grains take a large quantity of fuel to cook.
  • Soy is a large part of a vegan diet.  Soy is owned by Monsanto, who uses large monoculture operations and destroys forests.
  • Legumes and grains make up a large part of soil erosion.
  • Most come from areas that experience famine like India producing mung beans.

That being said vegetarian diets are really efficient, when:

  • Home grown easily cooked and processed
  • All wastes including bodily wastes are brought back into the soil (Humanure Book)
  • Eat from home or locally without massive transportation costs.

You can eat plant based and still have an animal permaculture farm.  The real danger is the toxics in the supply chain and industrial farming.

Regardless of the diet, the most sustainable way to obtain food is from a home garden.

Complexity and Connections

In a permaculture system there is a complex series of connections.  We will never completely understand how they all interconnect together.

We simply put what we think are the essentials and then let the system take care of the details.  Checking yields as a gauge of system health.

Modern agriculture destroys connections and diversity in effort to control the ecosystem.  This creates the need for constant maintenance and energy inputs.

Order or Chaos

When things are working together beneficially they’re in order.  Producing energy beyond what it consumes in a balanced manner.

Disorder creates consumption that is not useful.  When we try to control something like a residential lawn we’re creating disorder.   It requires constant inputs and maintenance.  Forget about tidiness and let nature do its thing.

Lacking or overabundance creates chaos.  Strive for harmony through balance of production and consumption.

Permitted and Forced Functions

There are two functions in permaculture: Forced and Permitted (think natural).

Our goal is to correctly place a resource with the elements it needs close by.  Reducing stress.

Making sure not to over-work.  Such as expecting a cow to raise a calf, give milk, haul water, forage, etc.  There needs to be a balance of a natural workload that that uses complementary capabilities.  So that we aren’t expecting a chicken to just lay 300 eggs in one place all day.

Modern agriculture is a system of forced functions.  Which overwork and stress plants and animals into maximum production.


Permaculture DiversityDiversity is the amount of different constructs or components in systems.  The elements must work beneficially with each other to create production, remove waste, and provide stability.  Diversity alone is not enough.

Information is the best resource for creating designs that group elements together in a mutually beneficial way.

When the systems are mature.  We create some disturbance or stress in the system to develop a even richer environment.


Stability is self-regulation in an ecosystem.  Self-regulation is possible through constant responses and feedback. Elements adjusting and reacting to continue productivity.

Systems naturally evolve and it’s our job to maintain balance to maintain stability.  Looking at the feedback like climate change impacts and making adjustments as needed.

Time and Yield

In wild and designed systems there is a relationship between time and yield.

For example, in old mature systems not as much energy is required.   It is done growing and just needs to maintain itself.  However, the yield in this old system will be less, but still very high quality and efficiency.

Yield should not be measured monetarily, but by energy.   Systems that waste energy to make money will fail in the future.

There are fast and slow time cycles.  Slow cycles are usually in mature systems with events like fires, or flooding that create a slow renewal.

Fast time cycles are annual agriculture.  Which are too energy-intensive.

In permaculture we aim to balance time and yield with annual and perennial plants.  Which the perennials free up time from the gardener.  Time of the gardener is also a resource that must be managed.

Methods of Design

total permaculture designPermaculture design starts with analysis.  We include what is already there, and that which we wish to add.   Our goal is to recognize and place all components so that they’re all useful.

Building these useful connections also helps to reduce out work.  Designing items to be installed where they will be used and distance in relation to amount of times we will frequent it.

We need to look each components needs, and outputs.

Elements of Total Design

The Design

Site Components

  • Earth
  • Water
  • Landscape
  • Plants
  • Climate

Energy Components

  • Technology
  • Connections
  • Structures
  • Sources

Abstract Components

  • Data
  • Timing
  • Ethics

Social Components

  • Culture
  • People
  • Finance and Trade
  • Legal Aids

For information to become a resource we need to put it into use.  Otherwise it is only potentially useful.


Three of many approaches to observation; instrumental (soil pH test), thematic (observe a theme like water storage), and experiential  (using our senses to feel).

We need to be on-site using observation as a design tool.  Sitting at a desk will not provide all the data we need.  Data like wildlife patterns, and the effects of rain.

First we want to shut down and open up our minds.  Just observe and feel the site.  Then, we can start to develop strategy.

Looking at our data without any judgement.  Guessing the meaning of the information gathered.

Next, we start doing more research, and discover patterns, link components, and the site will start to design itself.

Deductions From Nature

We want to observe and learn from nature.   Attempt to use bio-mimicry of the natural systems all around us.  Such as how Masanobu Fukuoka (free book online) realized rice grows in road ditches.  Asking himself why we expend so much energy to cultivate rice when a natural system does it without any labor.

The basic idea came to him one day as he happened to pass an old field which had been left unused and unplowed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds. From that time on, he stopped flooding his field in order to grow rice.

He stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the autumn, sowing it directly onto the surface of the field when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of plowing the soil to get rid of weeds, he learned to control them by a more or less permanent ground cover of white clover and a mulch of rice and barley straw. Once he has seen to it that conditions have been tilted in favor of his crops, Mr. Fukuoka interferes as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in  his fields.

To put our observations from nature into action we need to look at:

  1. Structure
  2. Process
  3. Landscape
  4. Philosophy

We need to find the niches in nature and fill them with what we want.

We want to keep our options open and explore all of them.  As sequences unfold each choice will lead to more options.  Eventually we will reach our goal with enough action (nothing happens without putting the design into action) and iteration through results and experience.

Data Overlay

Various data tools can help us with our designs:

  • Google Earth
  • Google Maps
  • Lidar
  • Sketches

We will look at:

  • Water – Contour
  • Access – Ridge lines
  • Structure Positions – Will align with above

Earthworks should only be decided when you’re on site so you can avoid any surprises.

Random Assemblies

This is really about lists of component strategies and how they fit together.  Often including words like:

  • Above
  • On
  • Under
  • Next to
  • Explore
  • Containing

Example:  Compost inside a greenhouse.

This process helps us think out various connections and what would happen if we did build them.  It helps bring creative ideas to the design.

Creative Problem Solving – Reword the problem lots of ways, reverse traditional approaches, and explore all possible options.  You may end up with a highly effective and simple solution.

Flow Diagrams

Flow charts help design efficient spaces and action.  The chart will help position things where and when we will need them.

Zone 1 is most important to use flow charts.

Speaking of zones here is how they break down:

Zone 0 is our home, built to be naturally efficient, utilizing climatic effects to meet our needs.  Including solar, water, waste outputs, heat, companion animals, living roof, etc.

Zone 1 is surrounds our home and includes our kitchen garden and elements that need the most attention.

Zone 2 becomes more in tune with natural systems. It has food forests, small animals, and broad-scale crops.

Zone 3 is much less attended and is meant for grazing animals and hardy trees.

Zone 4 is a designed forest left to grow wild, with only occasional pruning or harvesting.

Zone 5 is wilderness, used for recreation and observation.

Items are placed according to their maintenance needs.  You might visit a chicken coop 460 times a year while only visiting an oak tree twice.  The chicken coop should then be placed in zone 1.

Energy sectors will also shape elements and zones.  Note sun pathways and angles, wind and rain patterns, views, noise, dust, smell, flood, frost, etc..

The Golden Rule: Develop the closest areas first. Once that is complete move out to the next zone. 

Each zone builds on one another.  What you learn from zone 1 you can bring into zone 2.

As you move further out nature takes on more of a role.  Which also can teach you and bring new ideas into zone 1.