What is Permaculture?
If you talk to those involved in sustainable gardening or farming, you will not typically have to wait long before you hear the term ‘permaculture’. But if you are unfamiliar with the term, you might be confused by what it means.
To understand permaculture, you first need to know that the term comes from the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ or, in a broader sense, ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’. In this context permanent is not a word used in the context of something unchanging, but rather in the context of something that remains, and endures through changes over time.
Permaculture is, fundamentally, about working out how we can obtain the things we need today without causing harm to the ecosystems around us, and without robbing from future generations.
To understand it better, it is important to spend some time on the thought and theory that underpins this movement. But beyond theory, it is also important to recognise the features and methods commonly employed when those ideas are put into practice.
In this guide, we’ve brought both of these things together to give you an overview of permaculture that helps you to understand the basics.
Permaculture Ethics and Principles
Often, permaculture is overcomplicated. But it is important to remember that everything comes back to three simple ideas.
Those simple ideas are: That we should be kind to our planet. That we should care for other people. And that we should not take more than we need, and should return surplus so that everyone gets a fair share.
In other words, permaculture boils down to planet care, people care, and fair share.
Whatever else we think about in permaculture, and no matter how we translate the ideas we espouse into action, we should always keep these core ethics in mind, and at the heart of all we do.
Both in the original conception of permaculture, and as it has evolved and been adopted globally over the years, there are also a number of further ethics and principles that are used to guide us as we implement strategies and create designs.
The five ethics of natural systems are:
- Minimise footprint
- Avoid Invasive Species
The three ethics of resource management are:
- Return – we must repay whatever we take.
- Withhold – we should withhold all support for destructive systems.
- Manage Responsibly – we should not use any resources which damage or reduce
yields of sustainable resources.
The twelve permaculture design principles are:
- Observe and interact.
- Catch and store energy.
- Obtain a yield.
- Apply self-regulation and feedback.
- Use and value renewable resources and services.
- Produce no waste.
- Design from patterns to details.
- Integrate rather than segregate.
- Use small and slow solutions.
- Use and value diversity.
- Use edges and value the marginal.
- Creatively use and respond to change.
Delving deeper into each of these ethics and principles and really making sure that you understand each one is an excellent way to become better acquainted with permaculture and to understand the design process, and its practices.
The Permaculture Design Process
In permaculture, the framework of ethics and principles provides a foundation for the design process, which allows them to be integrated and synthesized to come up with the optimal design for a site or situation.
Though following a more structured and stepped process, permaculture designers, or individuals following this approach, will be able to think through and plan any project.
While typically applied in the context of food production, in gardens and on farms, it is important to understand that permaculture design is now often also applied within a range of other social contexts. In permaculture, systems are designed – not just sites.
The permaculture design process begins with the process of observation. This is, in many ways, the most important step in the creation of any design. We need to know where we are right now in order to see where it is that we are going, and how to get there.
This process of observation involves looking at sectors and flow. We can then analyse the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of the site or situation, undertake the process of permaculture zoning, and work from there to round out our holistic designs.
Permaculture in Practice
Of course, permaculture goes far beyond the theory. From the basic ethics, principles and process of design we can move to really making a difference, in the real world.
One of the things that sets permaculture apart from so many other ethos’ is that it offers us something that can seem rare and audacious in this day and age: hope.
Permaculture as a movement shows us that there are solutions to many of the global problems we face, many of which can be tackled by the individual, and by communities, close to home. Through putting permaculture into practice, and coming up with thoughtful holistic designs for a range of settings and situations, we can see that there really is hope for a better future.
In permaculture in practice, there are certain important areas to look at. Working with nature, adopting a zero waste approach, managing water wisely, taking care of the soil, and employing joined up thinking are all key things considered by permaculture practitioners.
Working With Nature
Working with nature rather than fighting it is an important aspect of permaculture design. Care for our planet, care for nature, involves a respect for the natural world that is all to often lost, as well as a close connection and intimacy with the world of which we are a part.
Simple and fundamental, respecting and working with nature underpins much of what happens in permaculture settings. In a garden, we obviously work to shape or manipulate the world around us to some degree to achieve our goals – of aesthetic appeal and, in permaculture, to grow food and other resources and obtain a yield.
But in permaculture, we recognise that we are not the only ones who shape our environment. Everything gardens.
Working with nature means growing organically, of course, and always recognising that we are not working alone.
Whenever we garden or farm, we are working with an army of helpers – wildlife including the microbial life hidden below the soil, and often invisible to the naked eye. Recognising this, we can indeed work with all other life around us, rather than simply imposing our will on the system.
Permaculture and a Closed Loop, Zero Waste Approach
Another key element in permaculture in practice is taking a zero waste approach, and aiming for circular systems that can perpetuate themselves over time without the necessity of any external inputs.
A zero waste approach is not just about what we throw away. It is about considering everything that we purchase or consume throughout the entirety of its life cycle and taking steps to avoid waste of every kind.
When we talk about waste, many people’s minds will spring immediately to plastic waste. In a permaculture setting, we will of course, keeping the ethics of planet and people care in mind, minimise or eliminate the use of environmentally harmful materials. This includes eliminating the use of single-use plastics, and reducing all plastic use to a minimum.
But we can also look at waste in terms of wasted energy, water, land or other resources. Even wasted time is something we seek to eliminate through careful design and when putting permaculture into practice.
The Permaculture Approach to Water Management
How we manage water is one important area to look at when we consider putting permaculture into practice. Fresh water is one of the most important natural resources on our planet. An integrated permaculture approach needs to consider the world’s water cycle, and think about how fresh water is used and conserved.
Numerous practices and ideas in permaculture centre around effective and efficient water management, whether we are talking about permaculture earthworks such as swales, for example, rain gardens, sustainable irrigation methods, or water-based growing systems… to name just a few examples.
The Importance of Soil Health & Maintaining Fertility
Another of the most important areas to look at the soil. Permaculture practitioners recognise that everything in a garden or on a farm comes back to the soil. We depend upon the soil for all that we eat, and so much more, and yet sadly, all too often, we treat that soil like dirt.
Soil health is vital for our continued existence on this planet, and its degradation on productive farmlands is an existential threat.
Permaculture practices often centre around protecting, conserving and improving the soil, increasing the beneficial soil biota within in, and ensuring that soil sequesters as much carbon as possible. By understanding the soil, permaculture practitioners place soil health front and centre, and work to preserve it and maintain its fertility in natural, organic ways over time.
Holistic Thinking in Permaculture
Holistic thinking is one of the things that sets permaculture designers apart from other garden or landscape designers. In permaculture, we look at the big picture before honing in on the details. We understand each element or feature, including ourselves, as part of the whole. We integrate rather than segregating and bring ideas and practicalities together in innovative and interesting ways.
What is more, in permaculture, we look far beyond the boundaries of a particular site or situation – seeing it in a broader context. In permaculture, we really are in the process of solving the world’s problems. Many of the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.
Permaculture Planting Practices
To understand permaculture in practice more clearly, it can be useful to take a look at some of the most common ideas and practices adopted in permaculture growing systems.
One of the principles in permaculture is that we should obtain a yield. Often, this is related to food and so food production lies at the heart of many permaculture schemes.
It is important to understand that permaculture does not espouse a single method for growing, not a single type of planting scheme. In permaculture, there are instead a number of disparate techniques that are commonly used as solutions in different settings.
In order to explore some of the different permaculture planting schemes often used in sustainable food production, we can look at both annual crop cultivation, and perennial planting schemes. Also notable are ideas in the sphere of permaculture that involve restoration and rewilding – important concepts that often go hand-in-hand with food production in permaculture schemes.
Annual Crop Cultivation
First of all, let’s take a quick look at some of the basic permaculture ideas and practices that underpin production of annual crops – either on a farm or in a garden.
Permaculture Ideas for New Growing Areas
To begin with, we can take a quick look at where precisely annual crops are grown. Permaculture provides us with a range of ideas when it comes to creating our new growing areas.
In permaculture schemes, the size of new growing areas is of course important. We look at practicalities when determining the size of beds, making sure that we can easily reach all areas without standing on and trampling the growing areas themselves.
In permaculture, we also aim to maximize edge – the most productive part of an ecosystem.
When it comes to shape and form, permaculture often (though not always) embraces natural and organic forms – learning from and honouring the patterns that we find in the natural world around us. New growing areas are often carefully integrated into the rest of the garden design – with thought to water/ irrigation, overall layout, etc..
Some ideas that are common in permaculture schemes include:
- Mandala gardens
- Keyhole gardens
- Herb spirals
- Lasagna gardens
- Straw bale gardens
- Vertical gardens
- Wicking beds
- Waffle gardens
It is also important to remember that you can incorporate permaculture ideas in your garden even if you only have a little space and can only grow in containers.
Think about your containers and the materials of which they are made, consider reclaimed or upcycled options wherever possible, and carefully considering water – where it comes from and how it is used. These are the things that will help you make sure that your small-space gardening adheres to permaculture ethics and principles.
There are also options that permaculture practitioners use that involve growing plants in water rather than soil. In permaculture, aquaponics growing systems are often embraced as closed loop solutions that maximize yields and minimize water and land use.
No Dig / No Till
Whether you are growing in the ground or in soil-like media, permaculture focuses greatly, as mentioned above, on protecting and enhancing the soil. Central to this is the idea that we should disturb the precious soil ecosystem as little as possible, which means layering organic materials on the surface of the soil rather than digging or tilling them in.
Lasagna gardens (and sheet mulching techniques), hugelkultur, and straw bale gardening are all examples of no-dig gardening and are common approaches when creating annual growing areas in a permaculture garden.
Understanding the reasons behind a no dig/ no till approach and recognizing the importance of caring for the soil are key to permaculture gardening.
Polycultures & Companion Planting
Another crucial thing to remember when planning an annual crop garden is that biodiversity is key. Permaculture reminds us frequently that we should not put all of our eggs in one basket, and should aim to build a garden with as many beneficial interactions between plants and animals as possible.
Crucial ideas in all planting schemes in permaculture are polycultures and companion planting. We avoid creating mono-crop plantations where plants are grown in isolation and instead work hard to combine plants so that they function together in more natural ways.
Creating polycultures and companion planting are essential for successful organic gardening, help maintain fertility, boost yields, combat pest problems and more.
In annual food production, permaculture practitioners also remember that certain plants are best not grown in the same location year after year.
Learning which plant families we should rotate through different growing areas can help us prevent pest and disease problems, protect the soil and maintain fertility in our growing areas.
Permaculture annual production typically involves careful thought to combine companion planting and crop rotation to work out the best layout for a garden and plan for that garden over time.
When working out a sowing, planting and growing calendar for any annual production area, be it a simple home garden or a fully fledged market garden or farm, part of protecting the soil in a permaculture scheme involves keeping a living root in the soil over as much of the year as possible and avoiding leaving the soil bare.
Remember, in permaculture we also aim to obtain a yield, and try to maximise that yield over space and time in a range of different ways.
Successional sowing of crops allows us to make sure growing areas remain filled, and to maximise yields over the growing season.
Cover Crops & Green Manures
Chopping and dropping, and using cover crops and green manures are also key concepts in permaculture gardening. This is one of the means through which we keep the soil covered, and also ensure ongoing fertility by returning nutrients in plant material to the soil.
Cover crops are used to fill gaps in crop rotations and the gardening calendar – they are often put in place in cooler temperate climates over the winter months, for example.
Green manures are a type of cover crop used primarily as a material chopped and dropped, or left to die down as mulch to enrich the soil.
These are some of the key concepts and ideas and practices that characterise annual production areas in permaculture systems.
Perennial Planting in Permaculture
It is important to understand, however, that in permaculture, the focus is not typically on annual production alone but on perennial planting.
Embracing trees, shrubs and other perennial plants allows us to create gardens that endure over multiple years, often with far less intervention from us. Perennial systems can make it much easier for us to work with nature in our gardens. They can also be beneficial in wider senses – sequestering more carbon and potentially utilizing fewer resources.
So now, let’s take a quick look at some of the basic permaculture ideas and practices that underpin perennial food production in permaculture gardens or farms.
Perennial Vegetable Beds
First of all, many of the ideas used to grow annual or biennial vegetables etc. can also be used to grow a wide range of perennial vegetable crops. Sometimes, these may be grown alongside annuals (growing asparagus alongside tomatoes, for example).
But often, it can be beneficial to create perennial polycultures in much the same way as we create annual ones, but with plants that will remain in place over a number of years.
Permaculture practitioners will often embrace perennial brassicas, perennial alliums, and a range of other interesting and less well known perennial vegetable options.
Growing Perennial Herbs
Permaculture practitioners will not only grow perennial vegetables, but also often a broad range of perennial herbs alongside annual herb options. Herbs are not only grown for culinary and medicinal use but also for organic pest control and other things in companion planting.
Perennial herbs can be grown in dedicated beds, either more typical raised beds, or a herb spiral, for example. But of course, they are often also integrated alongside a wide range of other plants.
Perhaps the most important element in permaculture design when it comes to perennial production, however, is the integration of numerous species suited to an environment in layered planting schemes known as food forests or forest gardens.
Forest gardening is the method most associated with permaculture and one of its most important – incorporating many of the key ethics, principles and ideals of the movement.
In forest gardening, we create layered, functioning ecosystems rather than just planting plans. These ecosystems mimic a natural woodland or forest but combine plants that are edible or otherwise useful to us.
Other systems commonly used in permaculture schemes also include trees. In farming, at a range of scales, agroforestry approaches bring a more sustainable approach to forestry and food production.
For example, there are many silvo-arable system options – which combine trees with arable crop production.
There are also agroforestry systems called silvo-pasture systems, which are all about keeping livestock within tree-based environments.
Restoration & Rewilding
While many permaculture schemes focus on food production, and on obtaining other tangible yields for us, looking at the bigger picture means that those adopting a permaculture approach understand that restoration and rewilding are not only beneficial in their own right, but also essential for our continued survival on this planet.
Permaculture proponents are involved in amazing restoration and rewilding projects around the world, in a huge range of environments and at a wide variety of scales.
From home gardens, to massive landscape scale projects, permaculture’s insistence on working with nature goes hand in hand with repair of ecosystems and the protection of species with whom we share our planet home.
Making Use of Native Species
Permaculture planting schemes, whatever their primary focus, almost always include a high proportion of native plant species. While non-natives may also be carefully adopted in some instances, most permaculture schemes will include a wide range of plants native to the specific area.
Using & Speeding Up Ecological Succession
When creating forest gardens, and many other habitats within a garden or on a farm, speeding up ecological succession is something that can allow us to establish beneficial and biodiverse, healthy and resilient ecosystems more quickly.
Planting For Functional Ecosystems
The key thing that it is always important to remember when welcoming in wildlife and repairing natural systems is that we are not seeking to create areas of planting. Rather we are aiming to create functional ecosystems – collections of plants, animals and other elements that work together in complex and fascinating ways.
Permaculture Features for Garden Rewilding
Many permaculture features might be added to a garden in order to rewild the area and restore natural biodiversity and balance within the local systems. In addition to some or all of the various food production ideas mentioned above, permaculture gardens will also often include features such as:
- Areas of native habitat, such as native woodland, shrubland, prairie, meadow, bog etc…
- Water management features including rain gardens, wildlife ponds etc…
- Planting features designed to promote biodiversity such as rockeries, stump gardens etc..
- Additional features to further aid wildlife including bug hotels, bee hotels, bird feeders, nesting boxes etc…
In any permaculture scheme, there is an understanding that when we adopt the right approach and make the right choices, we can ensure that on any site, we meet our own needs while caring for people and the planet, and make sure we take only our fair share.