Permaculture Basics

Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design that develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems.

The core tenets of permaculture are:

  • Care of the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care of the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of Surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.

Permaculture design emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. It asks the question, “Where does this element go? How can it be placed for the maximum benefit of the system?” To answer this question, the central concept of permaculture is maximizing useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design therefore seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements to achieve a high level of synergy. Permaculture designs evolve over time by taking into account these relationships and elements and can become extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.

The design principles which are the conceptual foundation of permaculture were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use. Permaculture draws from several disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, integrated farming, sustainable development, and applied ecology. Permaculture has been applied most commonly to the design of housing and landscaping, integrating techniques such as agroforestry, natural building, and rainwater harvesting within the context of permaculture design principles and theory.

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Twelve design principles

Permaculturists generally regard the following as one version of Permaculture’s 12 design principles:

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.


Permaculture is a design philosophy which seeks to exploit and imitate naturally occurring patterns. Patterns occur in nature in many forms: Earth and the other planets move around the Sun in a mathematical pattern, and from studying Fractals, patterns emerge as mathematical principles from apparently random things such as the shape of plants.

Permaculture designers are encouraged to develop a sensitivity to the patterns that exist in nature, to determine their complex functions and the various interrelations. Since humans have complex intentions and a wide variety of goals, permaculture design draws upon a variety patterns, building a pattern language as defined by Christopher Alexander. These natural patterns can often be utilized—either exploited or imitated or both exploited and imitated—to satisfy specific design goals. For example, “the application of pattern on a design site involves the designer recognizing the shape and potential to fit these patterns or combinations of patterns comfortably onto the landscape”. Patterns such as spiral, branching, wave, net and honeycomb are structural patterns that are repeated throughout nature. “A lot of the structural patterns combine strength and beauty with efficiency of space through large surface area or extensive edges. Looking at the benefits of these characteristics provides us with attitudes that we can emulate in our design work.”


Layers are one of the tools used to design functional ecosystems that are both sustainable and of direct benefit to man. A mature ecosystem has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects, and animals. Because plants grow to different heights, a diverse community of life is able to grow in a relatively small space, as each layer is stacked one on top of another. There are generally seven recognized layers in a food forest, although some practitioners also include fungi as an eighth layer:

  1. The canopy: the tallest trees in the system. Large trees dominate but do not saturate the area, i.e. there exist patches barren of trees.
  2. Understory layer: trees that usually grow less than 45′
  3. Shrubs: a diverse layer that includes most berry bushes
  4. Herbaceous: may be annuals, biennials or perennials; most annuals will fit into this layer
  5. Soil surface: cover crops to retain soil and lessen erosion, along with green manures to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil, especially nitrogen
  6. Rhizosphere: root crops including potatoes and other edible tubers
  7. Vertical layer: climbers or vines, such as runner beans and lima beans (vine varieties)


A guild is any group of species where each provides a unique set of diverse functions that work in conjunction, or harmony. Guilds are groups of plants, animals, insects, etc. that work well together. Some plants may be grown for food production, some have tap roots that draw nutrients up from deep in the soil, some are nitrogen-fixing legumes, some attract beneficial insects, and others repel harmful insects. When grouped together in a mutually beneficial arrangement, these plants form a guild.

Edge effect

The edge effect in ecology is the effect of the juxtaposition or placing side by side of contrasting environments on an ecosystem. Permaculturists argue that, where vastly differing systems meet, there is an intense area of productivity and useful connections. An 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. 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 (thereby increasing the amount of edge for a given area). Edges between woodland and open areas have been claimed to be the most productive.


Zones are a way of intelligently organizing design elements in a human environment on the basis of the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. Frequently manipulated or harvested elements of the design are located close to the house in zones 1 and 2. Less frequently used or manipulated elements, and elements that benefit from isolation (such as wild species) are farther away. Zones are about positioning things appropriately. Zones are numbered from 0 to 5:

Zone 0
The house, or home center. 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 and work. Zone 0 is an informal designation, which is not specifically defined in Bill Mollison’s book.
Zone 1
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, such as salad crops, herb plants, soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, worm compost bin for kitchen waste, etc. Raised beds are often used in zone 1 in urban areas.
Zone 2
This area is used for siting perennial plants that require less frequent maintenance, such as occasional weed control or pruning, including currant bushes and orchards, pumpkins, sweet potato, etc. This would also be a good place for beehives, larger scale composting bins, and so on.
Zone 3
The area where main-crops are grown, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal (provided mulches and similar things are used), such as watering or weed control maybe once a week.
Zone 4
A semi-wild area. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as production of timber for construction or firewood.
Zone 5
A wilderness area. There is no human intervention in zone 5 apart from the observation of natural ecosystems and cycles.

People and permaculture

Permaculture uses observation of nature to create regenerative systems, and the place where this has been most visible has been on the landscape. Hence a lot of the attention to date has been with the Earthcare ethic. There has been a growing awareness though that firstly, there is the need to pay more attention to the peoplecare ethic, as it is often the dynamics of people that can interfere with projects, and secondly that the principles of permaculture can be used as effectively to create vibrant, healthy and productive people and communities as they have been in landscapes. In 2012 the first book was written to explore how we can use the principles and design in our own lives, our relationships, and in larger systems such as healthcare and education.” For example, the first principle of ‘observe and interact’ can be useful as parents, we can spend time observing our children to discover what works well and what factors can contribute to difficult situations. We can then interact with these observations to try and forestall any challenging situations. Transition initiatives utilise permaculture design to bring communities together to develop resilience against the growing challenges of climate change, peak oil, and economic instability.

Domesticated animals

Domesticated animals are often incorporated into site design. Vegan permaculture avoids the use of domesticated animals altogether.

Common practices


Agroforestry is an integrated approach of using the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock. It combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable land-use systems. In agroforestry systems, trees or shrubs are intentionally used within agricultural systems, or non-timber forest products are cultured in forest settings.

Forest gardening is a form of agroforestry that is particularly popular with permaculturists. Numerous permaculturists are proponents of forest gardens, or food forests, such as Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier and Geoff Lawton. Bell started building his forest garden in 1991 and wrote the book The Permaculture Garden in 1995, Whitefield wrote the book How to Make a Forest Garden in 2002, Jacke and Toensmeier co-authored the two volume book set Edible Forest Gardening in 2005, and Lawton presented the film Establishing a Food Forest in 2008.


Hügelkultur is the practice of burying large volumes of wood to increase soil water retention. The porous structure of wood acts as a sponge when decomposing underground. During the rainy season, masses of buried wood can absorb enough water to sustain crops through the dry season. This technique has been used by permaculturalists Sepp Holzer, Toby Hemenway, and Masanobu Fukuoka.

Natural building

A natural building involves a range of building systems and materials that place major emphasis on sustainability. Ways of achieving sustainability through natural building focus on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful or renewable resources, as well as those that, while recycled or salvaged, produce healthy living environments and maintain indoor air quality. Natural building tends to rely on human labor, more than technology.

The basis of natural building is the need to lessen the environmental impact of buildings and other supporting systems, without sacrificing comfort, health or aesthetics. To be more sustainable, natural building uses primarily abundantly available, renewable, reused or recycled materials. In addition to relying on natural building materials, the emphasis on the architectural design is heightened. The orientation of a building, the utilization of local climate and site conditions, the emphasis on natural ventilation through design, fundamentally lessen operational costs and positively impact the environment. Building compactly and minimizing the ecological footprint is common, as are on-site handling of energy acquisition, on-site water capture, alternate sewage treatment and water reuse.

Rainwater harvesting

Rainwater harvesting is the accumulating and storing of rainwater for reuse before it reaches the aquifer. It has been used to provide drinking water, water for livestock, water for irrigation, as well as other typical uses. Rainwater collected from the roofs of houses and local institutions can make an important contribution to the availability of drinking water. It can supplement the subsoil water level and increase urban greenery. Water collected from the ground, sometimes from areas which are especially prepared for this purpose, is called stormwater harvesting.

Greywater is wastewater generated from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing, which can be recycled on-site for uses such as landscape irrigation and constructed wetlands. This wastewater contains no feces or urine. Greywater differs from water from the toilets which is designated sewage or blackwater, to indicate it contains human waste, but it is suitable as a source of water for toilets.

Sheet mulching

In agriculture and gardening, mulch is a protective cover placed over the soil. Any material or combination can be used as mulch, stones, leaves, cardboard, wood chips, gravel, etc., though in permaculture mulches of organic material are the most common because they perform more functions. These include: absorbing rainfall, reducing evaporation, providing nutrients, increasing organic matter in the soil, feeding and creating habitat for soil organisms, suppressing weed growth and seed germination, moderating diurnal temperature swings, protecting against frost, and reducing erosion. Sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural processes occurring within forests, sheet mulching mimics the leaf cover that is found on forest floors. When deployed properly and in combination with other Permacultural principles, it can generate healthy, productive and low maintenance ecosystems.

Sheet mulch serves as a “nutrient bank,” storing the nutrients contained in organic matter and slowly making these nutrients available to plants as the organic matter slowly and naturally breaks down. It also improves the soil by attracting and feeding earthworms, slaters and many other soil micro-organisms, as well as adding humus. Earthworms “till” the soil, and their worm castings are among the best fertilizers and soil conditioners. Sheet mulching can be used to reduce or eliminate undesirable plants by starving them of light, and can be more advantageous than using herbicide or other methods of control.

Managed intensive rotational grazing

Grazing has long been blamed for much of the destruction we see in the environment. However, it has been shown that when grazing is modeled after nature, the opposite effect can be seen.[27][28] Also known as cell grazing, managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) is a system of grazing in which ruminant and non-ruminant herds and/or flocks are regularly and systematically moved to fresh pasture, range, or forest with the intent to maximize the quality and quantity of forage growth. This disturbance is then followed by a period of rest which allows new growth. MIRG can be used with cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, geese, turkeys, ducks and other animals depending on the natural ecological community that is being mimicked. Sepp Holzer and Joel Salatin have shown how the disturbance caused by the animals can be the spark needed to start ecological succession or prepare ground for planting. Allan Savory’s holistic management technique has been likened to “a permaculture approach to rangeland management”. One variation on MIRG that is gaining rapid popularity is called eco-grazing. Often used to either control invasives or re-establish native species, in eco-grazing the primary purpose of the animals is to benefit the environment and the animals can be, but are not necessarily, used for meat, milk or fiber.

Keyline design

Keyline design is a technique for maximizing beneficial use of water resources of a piece of land developed in Australia by farmer and engineer P. A. Yeomans. The Keyline refers to a specific topographic feature linked to water flow which is used in designing the drainage system of the site.


The term permaculture (as a systematic method) was first coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. The word permaculture originally referred to “permanent agriculture”  but was expanded to stand also for “permanent culture,” as it was seen that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system as inspired by Fukuoka natural farming philosophy.

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”-Bill Mollison


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