Permaculture Principles

The principles on which the eco-systems of the natural world works, are the ones adopted as Permaculture principles. Nature, without man’s interference is self-sufficient and resiliant. Nature also works on a ‘closed-loop’ system, in which everything is used and there is no waste; the circle of life, everything is connected. For an overview see What is Permaculture.

The eco-systems of nature evolve and adapt; and so does Permaculture.

When Permaculture was first conceived and developed in Australia, in the 1970’s, by co-workers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, they originally coined the phrase from the two words permanence and agriculture to mean ‘permanent agriculture’. It has now evolved, adapted and expanded to include all interactions between humans and nature to mean ‘permanent culture’.

Permaculture principles are now applied across a growing number of fields from regenerative agriculture, rewilding,  community, housing/building and organizational design and development. 

The original Principles from "Permaculture: A Designers' Manual" by Bill Mollison

Work with nature,
rather than against it

Make the least change for the greatest possible effect

The problem is the solution

The yield of a system is
theoretically unlimited

Everything gardens
(or modifies it’s environment)

The design principles utilised by Permaculture are a form of whole systems thinking that simulates, or directly utilises the patterns and resilient features observed in natural ecosystems. As the number of fields (or branches) of Permaculture have evolved, the principles have been re-interpreted.

One of the most amazing aspects about the 12 permaculture principles that are now the accepted ‘norm’ is that they can be adapted and applied anywhere. The primary reason this works is because the principles were adapted from nature.

David Holmgren - 12 Permaculture Principles

“Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration.” David Holmgren

If we want to work with nature then we have to know how nature works and the key to knowing this is observation. Once we have observed the natural patterns we are able to use them in our own designs (Bill Mollison’s principle of work with nature, rather than against it). Observing by itself does not create anything, to create we need to take steps and interact. 

Most of our energy on planet Earth comes from the Sun. Plants have learned a snazzy trick in using this energy; they capture the photons and turn them into complex carbohydrates to feed themselves. This is what drives all of the ecosystems on the planet. Permaculture designs also maximise this energy capture.
In the landscape: in our use of plants & trees. By creating forest gardens, woodlands, meadows and ponds. We also ensure that these systems contribute toward deepening the soils as well.
In our buildings: with the use of passive and active solar technologies.
In our lifestyle: wood piles for fuel, preserving fruit and veg, making wines & beers and seed saving for the next seasons crops.

We live in a crazy society where our only food source is a shop; on the way to this shop we pass gardens and parks filled with ornamental plants and flowers. Ridiculously, these shops are filled with foods that have been shipped half way around the world to reach us.
Permaculture design is about increasing self-reliance. Even in a high-rise flat you can have window boxes growing salad leaves; on a balcony, tomato plants or dwarf french beans. Within a whole community we could produce the majority of our food.
We use plants that are functional; food, medicines, fibres, dyes. They are also beautiful, creative and ‘theoretically unlimited’ (Bill Mollison).
When our systems are high yielding we can meet our needs with far less land.

Self-regulation is something natural systems do without “thinking.” They change and evolve to match the reality around them, and we can model our behavior on that natural feedback loop.
A feedback loop is a biological occurrence wherein the output of a system either improves the system (positive feedback) or inhibits the system (negative feedback).
Feedback loops are important because they allow living organisms to maintain homeostasis (regulation of conditions such as temperature and water content that produces a fairly stable system). The whole earth is the largest scale example we have of a self regulating ‘organism’ which is subject to feedback controls.
Self regulation requires us to actually see the reality of what we are doing and the feedback allows us to know whether it is working for the benefit of our system.

Going back, once more, to the crazy society in which we live we will see that we are destroying many natural ecosystems, that would give us thousands more years of resources if we would only take more care of them.
Permaculture design should make the best possible use of renewable resources to create, manage and maintain high yielding systems. To ensure that we are using renewable resources properly we must understand them. How many trees can we take from a woodland before we damage it’s ecosystem? How much can we harvest from wild plants before we destroy their ability to maintain themselves?
Renewable resourses are key to helping us to become sustainable. If we use them excessively, the cease to renew and have a massive negative effect on our system. 

In a sustainable closed-loop system there is no such thing as waste. Waste is just an output that we are not using.
If you are producing an output that you cannot use, or is just dangerous, then you should be asking whether your system should be producing it in the first place. If we value and make use of everything then nothing goes to waste.
Worms are one of nature’s greatest recyclers of organic materials; consuming plant and animal waste and turning it into valuable plant food.
We can do the same with our kitchen scraps by composting them; we save space in landfill, and the need to transport them there, our compost produces better soil, more crops and more worms.

Wherever you look in the natural world you will find patterns. If you look at a spiders web for example; every spider’s web is a unique work of art, full of intricate detail, yet the general pattern of radial spokes and spiral rings is universal.
Its about looking at the ‘big picture’ first. What we are trying to achieve. This is where you start with the ethics first. The closer we get to something the more we get distracted from the sight of the big picture and get hung up on the small details.
We think about the overall pattern for a project by using a variety of design methods. Two of which; zoning and sector analysis, are very good at helping to generate an overall pattern for the site and ensure that it is designed to be energy efficient.
Both of these tools will help us to create the overall shape of the design, which is it’s backbone. We can fill in the details of the small stuff later on as we go.

‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.

What we are trying to achieve in a Permaculture system is a healthy vibrant ecosystem. One of the most important things that we can learn from ecology is that the relationships between things are as important as the things themselves; to develop these relationships things need to be in the right place.
When we get things in their right places they will support each other and the needs of one will be provided by another. This is demonstrated by three of the principles from Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay’s book
“Introduction to Permaculture”, • Each important function is supported by many elements, • Each element provides many functions and • Relative location

This concept links to one of the “Golden Rules” from Bill Mollison’s Designers Manual – start small, get it under control and then slowly expand the perimeter – or put another way, don’t take on too much too quickly, as you are likely to be overwhelmed.
This is about not rushing into things before you know whether they are going to work. Big is not always beautiful or best.
It is easier to monitor small incremental changes and see the consequences of your actions. Small scale is more likely to be adaptive to it’s surroundings and nature; excessive size is more likely to attract problems. Patience and letting nature take it’s time is a common truth.

While there might be survival of the fittest within a given species, each species depends on the services provided by other species to ensure survival. It is a type of cooperation based on mutual survival and is often what a balanced ecosystem refers to.
Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity where each species, no matter how small, all have an important role to play.

  • A larger number of plant species means a greater variety of crops, reducing vulnerability to a variety of threats
  • Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms, rather like an insurance policy; if one thing fails, the rest will survive
  • Healthy ecosystems can better withstand and recover from a variety of disasters.

Polycultures (systems with many plants), are now proven to be more productive overall and resilient to weather, pests and other factors, than monocultures (systems with one plant).

This is the ‘edge effect’, in ecology it is known as the ‘ecotone’. An ecotone is an area that acts as a transition or boundary between two ecosystems. It could be an area of marshland between a river and the riverbank, or a field and a forest or woodland.
As this area is inevitably influenced by the two bordering ecosystems, it is therefore a consequence of this that a higher density of organisms and variety of species can be found within an Ecotone. Very often it will not only contain species from both bordering systems but also species unique to it.
These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
If the most productive elements of a system are the edges, it makes sense to have bigger edges. These ideas are used in alley cropping, shelterbelts and pond design.
Marginal does not have to relate solely to ecology and growing; it can also relate to views and ideas or people at the edge of society. Permaculture has been seen as marginal for years.

The world in which we live these days is changing fast; maybe too fast for some, as many people do not respond well to change. This leads to a very uncertain world where many things seem to be happening that are not within our control; climate change, resource depletion and ecosystem destruction.
What is under our control; both as individuals and societies is how we think about and react to these things. We can however plan and design for known changes such as seasons and also how ecosystems change over time (called succession).
When we understand how succession works we can accelerate the process and create productive ecosystems faster than is usual in nature. An example of this is designing forest gardens where we put in all the layers of the forest in one go, rather than over many years.
Working with people is just as important in permaculture as working with plants (but plants are much easier!), and there are many methods for social change, organisational development and community engagement that we can use to collectively plan for changes.
We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Image of Permaculture Principles

The twelve principles of permaculture most commonly referred to were first described by David Holmgren in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002).

The design principles can be seen as ‘Thinking Tools’, that when used together, as a whole, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behaviour in a world of less energy and resources

We can never have too many ‘thinking tools’ at our disposal, and whilst the David Holmgren principles are the most commonly referred to there are also the equally important;

Principles from “Introduction to Permaculture” by Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay

These are also principles that directly utilise the patterns of natural ecosystems. Using both sets of principles together gets us somewhere close to producing designs that truly do mimic the natural world.
The ethics of Permaculture are the foundations which guide the use of the design principles, ensuring that they are used in appropriate ways.
These principles are universal, although the methods used to express them will vary greatly according to the place and situation.
They are also applicable to personal, economic, social and political reorganisation.

Principles from "Introduction to Permaculture" by Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay

An edge between two ecosystems is an advantage as resources are available from both systems. This creates more biodiversity and therefore more productivity.
“Successful and permanent settlements have always been able to draw from the resources of at least two environments.” Mollison and Slay. An edge, used as a boundary net, can also be used to ‘collect drift’ caused by other elements.

Identify what areas require the most attention, which wild elements occur where and how they can be utilised .
Zones – those nearest require frequent attention, those furthest away need minimal attention.
Sectors – identify which wild elements occur where i.e. wind, fire, rain, sun light & plan accordingly.
Slope – what problems can gravity cause? what systems can it assist?

“Every resource is either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending the use made of it.” Mollison and Slay.
Instead of viewing elements as a negative problem consider how they can be used for positive gain; for example, areas with high wind which is disruptive to growing can be used to harvest energy with wind turbines.

All elements have a purpose and the permaculture design process uses multiple elements to support the main element and its function.

Ensure, where possible, that elements can peform multiple functions. For example a hedgerow can perform many functions; a windbreak, a habitat for lichens, mammals, insects and birds, food for human and animal forage, a boundary marker or a stockproof barrier.

By using what is already growing in the environment, understanding the dominant elements of an area and choosing crops that will thrive around these elements, it is possible to maximise the use of land.
Wild areas or ‘unimproved land’ are areas where the natural process of the environment have developed with the correct species.
“Raising organic levels artificially by using mulch, green manure crops, compost and other fertilisers to change the soil environment. This enables us to plant more quickly.” Mollison and Slay.

Energy Cycles are a fundamental principle in permaculture which seeks to keep the energy flow and resources within the system. This results in Permaculture food production reducing the need for marketing, sales and disribution costs.
A good example of this is kitchen waste; instead of allowing it to be thrown out to genereal waste it can be composted.
“Good design uses incoming natural energies with those generated on-site to ensure a complete energy cycle.” Mollison and Slay.

Diversity enhances resilience and can ‘future proof’ a system. Weather conditions and climate change can eliminate a single crop, creating diversity enables stability where the loss of ALL crops is unlikely.
Guilds – where a main element (such as a plant or animal) is surrounded by other elements that complement it allows them to work together and share the resources needed. This can simply mean that the surrounding elements do not harm each other or can mean that they actively support each other. “Hence the concept of guilds which rely on composition and placement of species which benefit (or at least do not adversely affect) each other.” Mollison and Slay.

“Information is the most portable and flexible investment we can make in our lives; it represents the knowledge, experience, ideas and experimentation of thousands of people before us.” Mollison and Slay.
Used with the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful (imagination) this information can produce the solution to any problem.
The way to be effective using permaculture is to educate and practice the theory behind it.

Relative location refers to the ‘optimum’ location for an element, which in Permaculture  means how an element relates to its surrounding elements to ensure all factors are used efficiently.
We ask specific questions about how an element benefits its surroundings and how its surroundings benefit it.
“It’s not water, or a chicken, or the tree. It’s how the water, the chicken and the tree are connected.” Mollison and Slay.

Small scale systems can be managed with less resources to a high quality whilst also ensuring that the energy is being used efficiently. “At this moment, it seems clear that planning for highly intensive, biologically-based food production at the doorstep is the only way out of future crisis.” Mollison and Slay
Recognising what can share the same area is also an effective way to use the land.
Plant stacking enables you to grown different crops in the same area, “Taller and short species, climbing plants, and herbs, placed according to their heights, shade tolerance and water requirements.” Mollison and Slay

Permaculture promotes the use of biological resources as a replacement for fossil-fuel based systems. Biological resources are a long term investment, enabling sustainability for the land. In any ecosystem it is the animals that perform the function of returning nutrients to the land.
“Animal Tractor – chickens and pigs are well-known for scratching and digging up the ground in search of worms, insects and roots.” Mollison and Slay. They also fertilise the land at the same time.

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