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Permaculture Mandala summarising the ethics and principles of permaculture design.

Permaculture is both a philosophy or lifestyle ethic as well as a design system which utilizes a systems thinking approach to create sustainable human habitats by analyzing and duplicating nature's patterns (ecology).

The word "permaculture," coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s, is a Portmanteau-style contraction of permanent agriculture as well as permanent culture.

Renowned environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki has stated: "What permaculturists are doing is the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet."[1]

Today, permaculture can be described as a "moral and ethical design system applicable to food production and land use," as well as community design. It seeks the creation of productive and sustainable ways of living by integrating ecology, landscape, organic gardening, architecture, agroforestry, green or ecological economics, and social systems. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather on the relationships created among them by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture is also about careful and contemplative observation of nature and natural systems, and of recognizing universal patterns and principles, then learning to apply these ‘ecological truisms’ to one’s own circumstances in all realms of human activity.



In the mid 1970s, two Australians, Dr. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, started to develop ideas that they hoped could be used to create stable agricultural systems. This was a result of their perception of a rapidly growing use of destructive industrial-agricultural methods. They saw that these methods were poisoning the land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of soil from previously fertile landscapes. A design approach called "permaculture" was their response and was first made public with the publication of Permaculture One in 1978.

The term permaculture initially meant "permanent agriculture" but this was quickly expanded to also stand for "permanent culture" as it was seen that social aspects were an integral part of a truly sustainable system. Mollison and Holmgren are widely considered to be the co-originators of the modern permaculture concept.

After the publication of Permaculture One, Mollison and Holmgren further refined and developed their ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and organizing this information into more detailed books. Mollison lectured in over eighty countries and his two-week Design Course was taught to many hundreds of students. By the early 1980s, the concept had moved on from being predominantly about the design of agricultural systems towards being a more fully holistic design process for creating sustainable human habitats.

By the mid 1980s, many of the students had become successful practitioners and had themselves begun teaching the techniques they had learned. In a short period of time permaculture groups, projects, associations, and institutes were established in over one hundred countries.

Permaculture has developed from its origins in Australia into an international 'movement'. English permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield, author of The Earth Care Manual and Permaculture in a Nutshell, suggests that there are now two strands of permaculture: a) Original and b) Design Permaculture. Original permaculture attempts to closely replicate nature by developing edible ecosystems which closely resemble their wild counterparts. Design permaculture takes the working connections at use in an ecosystem and uses them as its basis. The end result may not look as "natural" as a forest garden, but still has an underlying design based on ecological principles.


mature species on a keyline irrigation channel, 'Orana' Farm Temperate Victoria Australia Photo courtesy: PermacultureVisions

The term permanent agriculture was first coined by Franklin Hiram King in his classic book from 1911, Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. In this context, permanent agriculture is understood as agriculture that can be sustained indefinitely.

This definition was supported by Australian P. A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1973) who introduced an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940's, based partially on his understanding of geology. Yeomans introduced Keyline Design as a way of managing the supply and distribution of water of a site.

The work of Howard T. Odum was also an early influence, especially for Holmgren [1]. Odum's work focused on system ecology, in particular the Maximum power principle, which examines the energy of a system and how natural systems tend to maximise the energy embodied in a system. For example, the total calorific value of woodland is very high with its multitude of plants and animals. It is an efficient converter of sunlight into biomass. A wheatfield, on the other hand, has much less total energy and often requires a large energy input in terms of fertiliser.

Core values

Permaculture is a broad-based and holistic approach that has many applications to all aspects of life. At the heart of permaculture design and practice is a fundamental set of ‘core values’ or ethics which remain constant whatever a person's situation, whether they are creating systems for town planning or trade; whether the land they care for is only a windowbox or an entire forest. These 'ethics' are often summarised as;

  • Earthcare – recognising that the Earth is the source of all life (and is possibly itself a living entity- see Gaia theory) and that we recognise and respect that the Earth is our valuable home and we are a part of the Earth, not apart from it.
  • Peoplecare – supporting and helping each other to change to ways of living that are not harming ourselves or the planet, and to develop healthy societies.
  • Fairshare (or placing limits on consumption) - ensuring that the Earth's limited resources are utilized in ways that are equitable and wise.

Everyone needs to eat and drink, and it is the issue of food production where permaculture had its origins. It started with the belief that for people to feed themselves sustainably they need to move away from reliance on industrialized agriculture. Where industrial farms use fossil fuel (gasoline, diesel, natural gas..) driven technology specialising in each farm producing high yields of a single crop, permaculture stresses the value of low-inputs into the land and diversity in terms of what is grown. The model for this was an abundance of small scale market and home gardens for food production with food miles being a primary issue.

The permaculture design innovation

The core of permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems themselves interact. A simple example of this is how the Sun interacts with a plant by providing it with energy to grow. This plant may then be pollinated by bees or eaten by deer. These may disperse seed to allow other plants to grow into a tall t ree and provide shelter to these creatures from the wind. The bees may provide food for birds and the trees provide roosting for them. The tree's leaves will fall and rot, providing food for small insects and fungus. There will be a web of intricate connections that allow a diverse population of plantlife and animals to survive by giving them food and shelter. One of the innovations of permaculture design was to appreciate the efficiency and productivity of natural ecosystems and seek to apply this the way human needs for food and shelter are met. One of the most notable proponents of this design system has been David Holmgren, who based much of his permaculture innovation on zone analysis.

O'BREDIM design methodology

Observation, Boundaries, Resources, Evaluation, Design, Implementation, Maintenance.

  • Observation allows you to first see how the site functions within itself, to gain an understanding of its initial relationships. Some people recommend a year long observation of a site before anything is planted. During this period all factors, such as lay of the land, natural flora, can be brought into the design. A year allows the site to be observed through all seasons.
  • Boundaries refer to physical ones as well as to those your neighbours might place on you, for example.
  • Resources would include the people involved, funding, as well as what you can grow or produce in the future.
  • Evaluation of the first three will then allow you to prepare for the next three. This is a careful phase of taking stock of what you have at hand to work with.
  • Design is always a creative and intensive process, and you must stretch your ability to see possible future synergetic relationships.
  • Implementation is literally the ground-breaking part of the process when you carefully dig and shape the site.
  • Maintenance is then required to keep your site at a healthy optimum, making minor adjustments as necessary. Good design will preclude the need for any major adjustments.


The use of patterns both in nature and reusable patterns from other sites is often key to permaculture design. This echos the Pattern language of Christopher Alexander used in architecture which has been an inspiration for many permaculture designers.

Permaculture zones

Main article: Zones (Permaculture)

Permaculture zones classify three-dimensional areas according to the amount of human attention needed to maintain the sustainable function of each zone.

Zone 0 — The house, or home centre. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, and generally creating a harmonious sustainable environment in which to live, work and relax.
Zone 1 — Is the zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often.
Zone 2 — The vegetable garden, larger scale compost bins and maybe beehives.
Zone 3 — Is the area where crops are grown, both for domestic and trading purposes. Would include orchards. After establishment, care and maintenance requirements are fairly minimal providing mulches, etc. are used. Watering or weed control is once a week or so.
Zone 4 — Is semi-wild. Used for timber production from coppice managed woodland and the placement of aquaculture ponds.
Zone 5 — The wilderness. There is no human intervention here apart from the observation of natural eco-systems and cycles. Here is where we learn the most important lessons of the first permaculture principle of working with nature, not against it.

(The zones do not have to be these things exactly).

Thus, things in Zone 1 will need to be visited more often than those in Zone 3, so Zone 1 will be closer to the home, continuing out to wilderness which should need minimal attention.

Links and connections

Also key to the Permacultural design model is that useful connections are made between components in the final design. The formal analogy for this is a natural mature ecosystem. So, in much the same way as there are useful connections between Sun, plants, insects and soil there will be useful connections between different plants and their relationship to the landscape and humans. Another innovation of the permaculture design is to design a landuse or other system that has multiple outputs. In terms of Holmgren's application of H.T.Odum's work, a useful connection is viewed as one that maximises power: that is, maximizes the rate of useful energy transformation. A comparison which illustrates this is between a wheat field and a forest. “It is not the number of diverse things in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components” Mollison 1988.


The seven layers of the forest garden.

In permaculture and forest gardening, seven layers are identified:

  1. The canopy
  2. Low tree layer (dwarf fruit trees)
  3. Shrubs
  4. Herbaceous
  5. Rhizosphere (root crops)
  6. Soil Surface (cover crops)
  7. Vertical Layer (climbers, vines)

The 8th layer, or Mycosphere (fungi), is often included in layering.

A mature ecosystem such as ancient woodland has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects and other animals. Plants grow at different heights. This allows a diverse community of life to grow in a relatively small space. Plants come into leaf and fruit at different times of year.
Layering in temperate garden.
For example, in the UK, wild garlic comes into leaf on the woodland floor in the time before the top canopy re-appears with the spring. A wood suffers very little soil erosion as there are always roots in the soil. It offers a habitat to a wide variety of animal life which the plants rely on for pollination and seed distribution. The productivity of such a forest in terms of how much new growth it produces exceeds the most productive wheat field. It is in this observation of how more productive a wood may be on far less input of fertilizers that the potential productivity of a permaculture design is modelled. The many connections in a wood contribute together to a proliferation of opportunities for amplifier feedbacks to evolve that in turn maximise energy flow through the system. Template:See

Here is a photo of a layered warm temperate garden in NSW, Australia (courtesy of PermacualtureVisions). There are several layers: the canopy layer is Inga Edulis (Ice Cream Bean, the middle stratum contains Plum and Peach, Mango, Mulberry and nurse plants such as native wattle. There are shrubs such as sage and woody herbs, ground covers such as sweet potato and vines such as passionfruit and kiwi fruit. The tubers consist of onions and taro.


Polyculture is agriculture using multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems, and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture. It includes crop rotation, multi-cropping, and inter-cropping. Alley cropping is a simplification of the layered system which typically uses just two layers, with alternate rows of trees and smaller plants.


Permaculture Guilds are groups of plants which work particularly well together. These can be those observed in nature such as the White Oak guild which centers on the White Oak tree and includes 10 other plants. Native communities can be adapted by substitution of plants more suitable for human use.

The Three Sisters of maize, squash and beans is a well known guild. The British National Vegetation Classification provides a comprehensive list of plant communities in the UK. Guilds can be thought of as an extension of companion planting.

Increase edge

See also edge effect

Permaculturists maintain that where vastly differing systems meet, there is an intense area of productivity and useful connections. The greatest example of this is the coast. Where the land and the sea meet there is a particularly rich area that meets a disproportionate percentage of human and animal needs. This is evidenced by the fact that the overwhelming majority of humankind lives within 100 km of the sea. So this idea is played out in permacultural designs by using spirals in the herb garden or creating ponds that have wavy undulating shorelines rather than a simple circle or oval. Edges between woodland and open areas have been claimed to be the most productive.[2]

Perennial plants

Perennial plants are often used in permaculture design. As they do not need to be planted every year they require less maintenance and fertilisers. They are especially important in the outer zones and in layered systems. Ken Fern of Plants For A Future has spent many years investigating suitable perennial plants. Template:See


Many permaculture designs involve animals. Chickens can be used as a method of weed control and also as a producer of eggs, meat and fertiliser. Agroforestry combines trees with grazing animals.

Some projects are critical of the use of animals (see vegan organic gardening). However not all permaculture sites farm the animals. The animals are pets and can be treated as co-habitators and co-workers of the site, eating foods normally unpalatable to people such as slugs, termites, being an integral part of the pest management by eating some pests, supplying fertiliser through their droppings and controlling some weed species.

Annual monoculture (anti-pattern)

Annual monoculture such as a wheatfield can be considered a pattern to be avoided in terms of space (height is uniform) and time (crops grow at the same rate until harvesting). During growth and especially after harvesting the system is prone to soil erosion from rain. The field requires a hefty input of fertilizers for growth and machinery for harvesting. The work is more likely to be repetitive, mechanised and rely on fossil fuels.

No pattern should be hard and fast and depending on the design considerations they can be broken. An example of this is broadscale permaculture practiced at Ragmans Lane Farm, which has a component of annual farming. Here the amount of human involvement is a key factor influencing the design.


Applying these values means using fewer non-renewable sources of energy, particularly petroleum and nuclear based forms of energy. Burning fossil fuels contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming; however, using less energy is more than just combatting global warming. Food production should be a fully renewable system; but using current agricultural systems this is not the case. Industrial agriculture requires large amounts of petroleum, both to run the equipment, and to supply pesticides and fertilizers. Permaculture is in part an attempt to create a renewable system of food production that relies upon minimal amounts of energy.

For example permaculture focuses on maximizing the use of trees (agroforestry) and perennial food crops because they make a more efficient and long term use of energy than traditional seasonal crops. A farmer does not have to exert energy every year replanting them, and this frees up that energy to be used somewhere else.

Traditional pre-industrial agriculture was labor intensive, industrial agriculture is fossil fuel intensive and permaculture is design and information intensive and petrofree. Partially permaculture is an attempt to work smarter, not harder; and when possible the energy used should come from renewable sources such as wind power, passive solar designs or biofuels.

A good example of this kind of efficient design is the chicken greenhouse. By attaching the chicken coop to a greenhouse you can reduce the need to heat the greenhouse by fossil fuels, as the chicken's bodies heat the area. The chickens scratching and pecking can be put to good use to clear new land for crops. Their manure can be used to fertilise the soil. Feathers could be used in compost or as a mulch. In a conventional factory situation all these chicken outputs are seen as a waste problem. So in factories cooled by huge air conditioners, the chicken waste is extracted. All the energy is focused on egg production. Thus it is a further principle of permaculture that "pollution is energy in the wrong place".

Holmgren's 12 design principles

David Holmgren has developed 12 design principles for permaculture:

  1. observe and interact
  2. catch and store energy
  3. obtain a yield
  4. apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. use and value renewable resources and services
  6. produce no waste
  7. design from patterns to details
  8. integrate rather than segregate
  9. use small and slow solutions
  10. use and value diversity
  11. use edges and value the marginal
  12. creatively use and respond to change

Permaculture design for ecologinomic (ecology-economic) ethics

A basic principle is thus to "add value" to existing crops. A permaculture design therefore seeks to provide a wide range of solutions by including its main ethics (see above) as an integral part of the final value-added design. Crucially, it seeks to address problems that include the economic question of how to either make money from growing crops or exchange crops for labour such as in the LETS scheme. Each final design therefore should include economic considerations as well as give equal weight to maintaining ecological balance, making sure that the needs of people working on the project are met and that no one is exploited.

Community economics require a balance between the three aspects that comprise a community, justice, environment and economics aka the triple bottom line. This approach is also referred to as the Triple E (EEE)which stands for ecological-economics-ethics. A cooperative farmer's market could be an example of this structure. The farmers are the workers and owners.


One way of doing this is through designing a system that has "multiple outputs" For example, a wheat field interspersed with walnuts will reduce soil erosion, act as a windbreak and provide a walnut crop as well as a wheat crop. As there are two crops to manage the work will be more interesting. Here the system comes into conflict with conventional agriculture and economics. By interplanting trees in wheat fields there is a reduction in the wheat yield. The field is also harder to harvest using machinery, as the operator has to drive around the trees. Most farms specialise in a few crops at a time and seek to maximise surplus in order to increase profit. This surplus can only be maintained with a massive injection of fossil fuels. So, as things stand it is quite hard for a permaculture farm to compete with a "conventional " farm in order to grow basic fruit and veg.


Though the general principles seem to be sensible, early texts promote the use of non-native invasive species or environmental weeds e.g. many Acacia species. John Robin of has been one the strongest critics of permaculture who criticised it for its potential to spread environmental weeds: reflecting a divide between native plant advocates and permaculture.[3] Some critics have argued that permaculture is best suited to tropical, Mediterranean or desert conditions, but isn't suitable for a cool temperate country such as the UK.[citation needed]

Permaculture in the tropics, as expressed in Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, did not produce significant amounts of food or fruit when applied in Northern NSW and Queeensland. The closed canopy is not conducive to fruit production. The system whilst very healthy in and of itself yielded very little.[citation needed]

The perceived lack of evidential data about the performance of the system, and lack of a central body representing the system has also been a source of criticism.

Bill Mollison himself has also been critical of itinerant teachers of permaculture who would go on to teach after only a short course. At one point Mollision unsuccessfully tried to trademark the term permaculture to prevent this practice.

Perhaps the strongest criticism of permaculture is to be found in the Review of Toby Hemenway's book Gaia's Garden, which was published in the Winter 2001 edition of the Whole Earth Review.[4] In it Greg Williams critiques the view that woods were more highly productive than farmland based on the theory of ecological succession which says that net productivity declines as ecosystems mature. He also criticised the lack of scientifically respectable data and questions whether permaculture is applicable to more than a small number of dedicated people. Hemenway's response in the same magazine disputes Williams's claim on productivity as focusing on climax rather than on maturing forests, citing data from ecologist Robert Whittaker's book Communities and Ecosystems. Hemenway is also critical of Williams's characterisation of permaculture as simply forest gardening.[5]

Contemporary examples

In the years since its conception, permaculture has become a successful approach to designing sustainable systems. Its adaptability and emphasis on meeting human needs means that it can be utilized in every climatic and cultural zone. However, at the moment the large proportion of practitioners are only likely to be inspired individuals and there is a distinct lack of broadscale permaculture projects. Nevertheless, permaculture has also been used successfully as a development tool to help meet the needs of indigenous communities at risk from exploitation by free-market economics.

Permaculture is now well-established across the world and there are some inspiring examples of its use:


Zimbabwe has sixty schools designed using permaculture, with a national team working within the schools' curriculum development unit. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has produced a report on using permaculture in refugee situations after successful use in camps in Southern Africa and Macedonia. The Biofarming approach applied in Ethiopia has very similar features and can be considered as permaculture. It is mainly promoted by BEA (NGO) based in Addis Ababa.



The development of permaculture co-founder David Holmgren's home plot at Melliodora, Central Victoria, has been well documented at his website and published in e-book format [2].

Designed from permaculture principles Crystal Waters is a socially and environmentally responsible, economically viable rural subdivision north of Brisbane, Australia, Crystal Waters was designed by Max Lindegger, Robert Tap, Barry Goodman and Geoff Young, and established in 1987. It received the 1996 World Habitat Award (assessed by Dr Wally N’Dow) for its "pioneering work in demonstrating new ways of low impact, sustainable living". Eighty-three freehold residential and two commercial lots occupy 20% of the 259ha (640 acre) property. The remaining 80% is the best land, and is owned in common. It can be licensed for sustainable agriculture, forestry, recreation and habitat projects.



The Indonesian Development of Education and Permaculture assisted in disaster relief in Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 Tsunami [3]. They have also developed Wastewater Gardens a small-scale sewage treatment systems similar to Reedbeds.


United Kingdom

Robert Hart's forest garden in Shropshire, England

There are a number of example permaculture projects in the UK, these include:

  • Ragmans Lane, a 60 acre farm in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire [4].
  • Tir Penrhos Isaf, near Dolgellau, develolped by Chris and Lyn Dixon since 1986 [5].
  • Plants for a Future is a vegan-organic project based at Lostwithiel in Cornwall that is researching and trialing edible and otherwise useful plant crops for sustainable cultivation. Their online database currently features over 7,000 such species that can be grown within the UK [6]. A collaborative version of the database is in development by the project. The project has a second, larger property in North Devon, for which it is looking for a new group to take over.
  • Prickly Nut Woods is a ten acre woodland near Haslemere, Surrey that is managed by Ben Law. He is using a 'whole system' permacultural approach, utilising a wide variety of woodland products and documenting a complex web of relationships. He has built a house almost entirely using products from the woodland, which was featured in Channel 4's Grand Designs TV series [7].
  • Agroforestry Research Trust, a not for profit organisation based in Dartington, Devon that runs a 2 acre forest garden and publishes the journal Agroforestry News [8]
  • Middlewood Trust, a permculture based farm in North Lancashire running courses in permaculture, crafts, forestry and sustainability [9]
  • The RISC Roof Garden, on top of a development education centre in Reading city centre and inspired by Robert Hart's permaculture forest garden in Shropshire is an excellent example of urban permaculture design. [10]. It is used by schools, educators and designers as an educational resource for sustainable development and is a member of the National Gardens Scheme. The garden is comprised of dense plantings of over 180 species of edible and medicinal plants and is fed by rainwater and composted waste from the centre.

Other projects tend to be more community oriented, particularly in urban areas. These include Naturewise, a north London based group who tend a number of forest gardens and allotments as well as running regular permaculture introductory and design courses [11], and Organiclea, a workers cooperative who are involved in developing local food growing and distribution initiatives around the Walthamstow area of east London [12].

The UK Permaculture Association publishes an extensive directory of other projects and example sites throughout the country [13].

North America

United States of America

Template:Wikify Visit the Northeastern Permaculture Wikispace for a comprehensive listing of Events, Permacultu re Groups, and Demonstration Sites in the Northeastern US and Canada. [14]

Visit the Seattle Permaculture Guild for a listing of events in the Western Washington area.

Example of urban permaculture in Los Angeles Path to Freedom.


Cuba has in the past 18 years transformed their food production using bio-dynamic farming and permaculture. Havana produces up to 50% of its food requirements from within the city limits, all of it organic and produced by people in their homes, gardens and in municipal spaces. Read more about how and why the Cubans made this happen at The Power of Community

South America


IPEC - Ecocentro at the Instituto de Permacultura e Ecovilas do Cerrado - the Institute of Permaculture and Ecovillage of the Cerrado

See also


  2. Plants for a Future - The woodland edge


External links

Learning resources
  • Tagari Publications - Publishers for the Permaculture Institute. Publishers of Mollison's books. It includes a blog with articles on the subject
  • Permaculture Magazine - solutions for sustainable living. Also publish ans sell books, tools & products related to permaculture and sustainable living.
Link resources
  • PermaTasWiki - Links - Exhaustive reference in Global Permaculture resources/weblinks in Wiki format

Template:Energy Sustainability Template:Sustainability and energy development group

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