What is permaculture?

Permaculture is a holistic philosophy, which aims at creating sustainable cycles, connections and systems using the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. The underlying idea is to work with, rather than against the natural forces of ecosystems or communities, which is why permaculture is always based on an ongoing process of observation and adaptation.

A permaculture approach always begins by observing and understanding how things influence one another, irrespective whether it is about natural ecosystems (where light, air, water, plants and animals interact) or human interation (where people, structures and processes interact). Once the inter-connections are sufficiently understood, solutions for the problems that arise can be devised, based on the holistic understanding of all relevant elements and their influences.

The term permaculture was first coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978 in Australia, and was initially mainly focusing on agricultural systems. From there it has evolved into a holistic world-view, with responsibility as its core element: responsibility toward oneself, toward all other beings, and toward the planet as a whole. Permaculture views our planet and all its beings as an interconnected ecosystem that can only function if all its elements are respected and nurtured.

The application of permaculture, both on a small and on a large scale, has proved a functional and practical approach to living, which allows for a sustainable food production and a life in harmony with all beings, while at the same time providing a solution for global problems such as water shortages and the destruction of soils. All actions in a permaculture approach have the underlying principles earthcare, peoplecare, and fairshare as their triple bottom line: this emphasises the importance of sustainability with regards to interactions with the natural world and other human beings and that the creation and distribution of a surplus should result from it.

It is important to realise that permaculture is not a fixed set of methods, but rather a mind-set that encourages the development and application of practical solutions that are appropriate to a problem or desired outcome in a given location in a certain context at a given time. As Bill Mollison once famously said, “we’re not teaching people how to do things, we’re teaching people how to think about doing things”.

To allow everyone to embark on their own journey in co-creating with the planet and their local surroundings there is no set definition of permaculture. There are, however a number of Design Principles, Methods and Tools, as well as Process Models that have been developed by Bill Mollison, David Holmgren and many other permaculturists, which can be used to develop context-specific solutions.

This is the definition of permaculture we have come up with:

Permaculture is a life-philosophy that is based on a holistic understanding of the processes, structures and inter-connections of all life kingdoms. A permaculture design aims at the harmonious management of all life kingdoms into resilient food production systems and socially just environments, fostering symbioses and producing stable economic outcomes. A permaculture designer relies on natural patterns and resources, placing elements to create interconnections allowing for energy efficiency and abundance of yield.

Design principles

In his book Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, permaculture founding-father Bill Mollision laid out 10 permaculture design principles, which serve as the foundation for permaculture designs. As these principles reflect nature’s inherent intelligence they are a great tool for designers to interpret how ecosystem are established.

1 Relative Location

As good design seeks to foster connections and synergies between elements, all design components must be put in the right place, enabling the need of one element to be met by the outputs of another elements
Example: Place dynamic-accumulating and nitrogen-fixing plants in relative location to your garden beds and trees to easily feed your plants with organic matter, thus reducing your need to bring in organic matter from elsewhere.

2 Each Element Performs Many Functions

Each design component should be carefully selected to perform as many functions as possible. Make us of the relative lcoation principle to cluster elements in a way that functions are perpetuated and synergies fostered.

3 Each Important Function is Supported by Many Elements

Make sure that important basic functions are supported by a variety of elements. This includes having various sources for water and designing resilient food systems – in short fostering diversity to ensure resilience to natural and human-made changes influences.

Example: Establish a variety of water sources (such as wells, rainwater harvesting facilities, and water reservoirs including large ponds, lakes, dykes, and cisterns) to protect yourself from future water shortages.

4 Efficient Energy Planning

To maximise our time, energy, and financial resources zone and sector planning is a crucial step in the design phase: zone planning is about positioning elements based on their intensity of use and management, while sector planning refers to intelligently placing design components to transform incoming influences to your advantage or to mitigate their effects.

In zone planning we distinguish between 6 zones, zone 0 being your house while zone 5 is where rehabilitated parts of your land are allowed to return to wilderness. In sector planning we account for the influences of the sun, wind, sources of noise, source of pollution, and wildlife onto our land at different times of the year (e.g. summer and winter or dry and rainy season).

5 Using Biological Resources

This is crucial to designing sustainable and resilient ecological systems, while saving time and energy. Building up biological resources is a long-term goal of permaculture, wherefore their integration needs to be considered carefully and their proper management is essential.
Example: The chicken tractor is a great biological resource, which relies on chicken to clear and fertilise a patch of land that saves you time and energy and gives you a constant egg supply. Likewise, integrating specific plants to deter pests and attract beneficial insects and creating habitats for beneficial wildlife is absolutely essential.

6 Energy Cycling

Permaculture aims to prevent any flows of energies off your site by (re-)establishing closed energy cycles. The interaction between plants and animals produces energy, which is caught, stored, and then recycled. Incoming energies (sun, wind, water) are all integrated and harvested at their highest possible use.
Example: This includes using earthworks to redirect water flows into the land (rather than allowing it to run off) and turning the waste of one component into the source for another component.

7 Small Scale Intensive Systems

Make full use of your space through plant stacking and time stacking. Plant stacking refers to using the different heights and root systems of plants to co-plant and harvest from different layers. Time stacking refers to co-planting species that produce yield at different times.
Example: The “three sisters guild”, uniting corn, beans, and pumpkin is a very popular example of space and time stacking: The corn acts as poles for the beans, which in turn fixes nitrogen into the soil, while the pumpkin covers the ground in between.

To find out which plants go well together check out our companion planting guide

8 Accelerate Succession and Evolution

This is about directing plant, animal, and soil life towards complexity, diversity, and permanence. Rather than planting monoculture fields, gradually introduce an increasing amount of perennial plants and think in terms of ecologically vibrant food forests rather than ecologically dead fields.
Example: Instead of fighting them as intruders use invasive species to your advantage for fast-growing, ready-at-hand organic material that will help you build soil and thus the establishment of other, productive species in the long-term.

9 Diversity

The more diversity you create the higher will be the sum of your yield – this is why an ecologically functioning ecosystem is always more productive than a monoculture. The better elements are co-operating the more resilient the system and the higher the output. It is crucial that functional connectoins between elements are fostered to create synergies.
Example: Plant guilds are a great way to increase diversity and foster synergies: placing the right plants together will reduce root competition and provide nutrients and pest control.

10 Edge Effect

Edges are those places where two distinct ecosystems meet, and are known to be sieves for energy. By manipulating where ecosystems meet the yield of the overall system can be increased.
Example: Pond edges are a sieve for moisture and nutrients. Therefore designing ponds to have a wavy or uneven and slightly-sloped edge where they meet the land will provide much more of this edge-space than square or perfectly round ponds.

Bill Mollison also came up with a number of attitudinal principles, which are meant to guide one’s attitude while interacting and co-creating with natural systems:

Attitudinal Principles

1 The problem is the solution

2 The yield is theoretically unlimited

3 Always work with nature, not against

4 Least change for the greatest effect


We have adapted these principles from TreeYo Permaculture, the blog run by our friend and teacher Doug Crouch.