What is Permaculture?

by | Sep 21, 2018 | Introduction

What is permaculture?

It is a combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture.”


Commercial agriculture isn’t permanent because it isn’t sustainable; monocropping and pesticides are sure tickets to a diseased world and species extinction. What is Permaculture’s different approach? It is about growing food that focuses on peaceful relationships within ourselves, with the plants we nurture, and with our communities. Let’s look at some of the different ways of thinking about it.

When we ask our lead teacher Jenny Pell about “What is Permaculture?”, her favorite definition is the following: “Permaculture is having the planet and living to be a hundred years old while throwing impressive dinner parties and organizing other creatures to do most of the work.” That’s the dream, right? Living a long, healthy life on a healthy planet and eating well with all of the people you love while not even exerting that much energy.
A more formal definition to respond to the question of “What is Permaculture?” would be “the conscious design and maintenance of agricultural systems that are diverse and stable.” Diversity really is key with permaculture. If one crop fails, it’s important to have many more that will supply you with the yield you need. “Perennial polyculture” follows this same line of thought, a multitude of plants that will return year after year.
“The harmonious integration of land and people” and “the philosophy of working with instead of against nature” focus more on how we interact with the earth we’re caring for. Instead of taking and taking until there’s nothing else, or polluting our waters and soil with chemicals, permaculture is about stewarding the land in a symbiotic way. Or, you could describe permaculture as “how to maximize hammock time.”

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term “permaculture” in 1974 for a sustainable agricultural method based on a network of perennial trees, shrubs, herbs, fungi, and rhizomes. They developed ethics and principles to further explore this idea.

What is Permaculture?

Ethical Values


Care for the land

Think about planting natural plants, minding use of resources, and being humble in our relationship with the earth.

Care for the People

Interconnectivity, as opposed to isolationism, is crucial to the idea of
permaculture. We are only as strong as our community.

Care for the future and share the abundance

The first step to sharing the abundance is having a surplus, and the next step is to “meet the need, not the greed.” That is, giving to your community and those who have less instead of hoarding your wealth.

What is permaculture?

core Principles

Observe and interact

Evan Ryan recommends doing nothing to your land for a whole year besides observing in order to gain an understanding of it. This way you will learn the microclimates, rain, wind and sun patterns, wildlife presence, and existing plant life.

Catch and store energy

e.g.: rainwater catchment, passive solar, dams and ponds,
fermentation, canning, compost.

Obtain a yield

All the hard work and energy you put into your farm or garden will go to
waste if there’s nothing to harvest. Having a surplus (not an official principle of permaculture but a central idea) goes along with this: with a surplus you can not only have extra food to store for the future, but you can give to friends, family, and your community as well.

Apply self-regulation

This is about finding ways to not be part of the problem and make sure that you are in balance with your environment. Most importantly, it’s about regulating your choices and keeping yourself in check.

Use and apply renewable resources and supplies

e.g.: pollination, rainwater catchment, solar energy, wind energy.

Produce no waste

e.g.: compost, humanure, returning packaging to the store, minimizing
wasteful communication.

Grow your permaculture Community

Stack functions

Always stack functions in design. Plants that provide food are often also
medicinal and some can be used for dyes, fiber, timber, or shade as well.

Multiple elements for single function

Redundancy provides a safety net in case one feature fails.

Multiple functions for single element

e.g.: living roof underneath solar panels, a windbreak that also provides lumber or soil retention

Patterns to details

Start with the big picture and then work your way down to the details.
Look at the patterns of the land and people.

Integrate rather than segregate

Bring plants and people together. Also the idea of many hands make light work and designing for the whole system.

Small and slow solutions

e.g.: erosion control plants, seed saving, building soil up, planting trees, starting with a small garden and then expanding, diving into one aspect until you become an expert.


Diversity creates stability, balance, and resilience. There is such a thing as too much diversity, as in when you cannot obtain a yield from any one crop, but polyculture is more effective and safer than monoculture.

Use edges

There is more diversity in edge space because it’s the meeting place of two systems (called the Edge Effect).

Use and respond to change

Permaculture is anything but static, and when the only constant is change we can view this as an opportunity to reinvent the space in a better way.

When in doubt, do nothing

If it’s not a yes, it’s a no.

Least change for the greatest effect

The idea of working smarter, not harder.

Give and receive feedback

By doing this we can better respond to change.

The problem is the solution

e.g.: humanure, compost, using pests like rabbit or deer for food.

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