I took my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2012. Originally, I was interested because I wanted to learn about gardening. About creating a self-managing system for growing food so that I would use as little time and energy as possible for maximum output.
But what I got was much more than that.
Permaculture opened my eyes to a new way of thinking. It’s both a mindset and a toolset for managing systems and environments where you are not in total control of every aspect. When you are faced with something complex, as opposed to complicated. (Read about the difference between complex and complicated if you are unsure about it).
Examples of complex systems are the body, running a business and, um, simply life in general. Life isn’t complicated, it’s complex. You can’t predict or calculate what’s going to happen.
What we are taught in school are tools and methods that work in complicated, calculable conditions. But we can’t use these mindsets that presupposes predictable environments when we expand our vision to more complex things.
If you read a bit about permaculture online you will find that it’s about stepping beyond merely “sustainable”, the biggest trend word of our times. Permaculture wants to make what we do regenerative – to not only restore but even regenerate natural resources while still making a living off the land.
I want to extend that thinking to other kinds of systems. What if you leave a positive footprint after you wherever you go in your career? What if you always leave something in a better state than when you came? What if your efforts have a positive impact not only on the work itself but on everything else around you?
Tools for thinking differently
After recovering from my burnout, this became top of my mind. How can we enjoy working towards our dreams and goals, without breaking everything else down in the process?
How can we work towards a long term vision, having short term gains to sustain the journey, while still strengthening the fundamental resources needed to continue to move forward (as opposed to consuming them in the process)?
In a classic case of “what got you here won’t get you there” this requires a shift in the way we think and act. And permaculture provides us with tools to do so, even though they were originally created in a different field.
This is a presentation and explanation of the permaculture principles and tools, as used in the original context of working with nature.
Before diving in, I want to make clear that this is all my own personal views and understanding of permaculture. There’s not “one true way” and definition, and you might very well come across information or a teacher who says something different than I do.
And since I live in a temperate climate with four seasons and a non-growing winter season, that’s where most of my examples will come from. It’s simply what I have experience of. But the beauty of permaculture is that the principles work in every corner of the world – they were after all first conceived in Australia that has a very unique climate. I’ve tried to bring examples from different places and different climates too, in order to illustrate the universality of the approach.
The origin of Permaculture
Let’s start by a definition from one of the creators of the term, Bill Mollison:
[Permaculture is] consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.Bill Mollison
Permaculture is a combination between the words “permanent” and “agriculture”, later on understood as also just “permanent” and “culture”. The term was officially coined in a book in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who met at the University of Tasmania a couple of years earlier.
Their work has over the years turned into a movement, with people all over the world translating these thoughts and principles into practices that work in their climates and environmental circumstances. There’s a global non-profit association that maintains an education curriculum, where you start out with a Permaculture Design Certificate and later on a Diploma.
The book and original ideas were formulated several decades ago and much of the technology shifts we’ve seen the last 10-20 years were not around then. That’s also partly why I find it so fascinating – the principles still hold true and are applicable even in seemingly wildly different areas that have emerged today. The ideas have evolved too and found crisper shape and meaning.
Something to remember is that the original ideas were formed in the wake after the oil crisis of 1973. You will find references in the earlier material based on the presupposition of an inevitable energy descent after peak oil. Today a lot of the messaging around permaculture focuses on carbon sequestration and mitigating climate change. Each era has its own favoured agenda of the day, but the underlying principles remain the same and that is what I want to focus on.
The permaculture principles and tools
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)“, which is almost fifteen years after he and Bill Mollison co-authored the first book “Permaculture One“. Here, I’m taking the principles from Holmgren’s short summary e-book “The Essence Of Permaculture“(Holmgren, 2007).
First we have three ethical principles: “Care for the earth”, “Care for the living” and “Care for the future”
Second we have 12 design principles, where the first six are of a more bottom-up approach and the second six have a more top-down perspective.
(There are other permaculture teachers who do not necessarily use the same list, or the same order. For example Toby Hemenway uses a longer list divided into “Principles for Ecological Design” and “Principles Based on Attitudes” (Hemenway, 2009).
I find using Holmgren’s principles is a good starting point in some kind of formalisation or description of the method. Just be aware that you can read something elsewhere that differs a bit from these principles and it might still be totally valid.)
The principles are:
- Observe and interact
- Catch and store energy
- Obtain a yield
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
- Use and value renewable sources
- 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
And over time, tools and practices have emerged that are not a formal prerequisite of Permaculture but closely associated with it: Zoning, Networking, Sector analysis, Elevation, Stacking, Succession and Guilds.
The core of Permaculture stems from three ethical pillars.
Ethic 1 – Earth care
Starting out is caring for the earth. In order to keep ourselves alive long term, we need to make sure the planet is doing well too.
We are dependent on nature and the natural resources, however far removed from it modern city dwellers have become. Caring for earth and all things living on it is essential.
Ethic 2 – People care
Permaculture is people centric, in that its main purpose is about designing a way for humans to live and thrive on earth in a non-destructive manner. For that, the care for people needs to always be there.
This principle is most often known as “Care for People”, or “People Care”.
According to the Wikipedia article there’s also Vegan Permaculture as a subset of the main movement, and they want to add “Care for Animals” as a fourth principle. I’d argue that caring for animals is included in the principle of caring for Earth. If you feel drawn in this direction, you could frame this principle as “Caring for the living” as an unifying concept.
Ethic 3 – Future care
When I first took my Permaculture Design Certificate, this principle was called “Fair Share” because it rhymes with “Earth Care” and “People Care”. But that is the most ambiguous statement I’ve seen in Permaculture, and something that can be used and interpreted in many different ways.
As Permaculture has evolved to incorporate how to organise humans and human culture too, that wording takes many shapes and associations. Especially politically. The thing is, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want things to be fair. It’s just that we have different notions of what “fair” actually looks like!
The idea behind formulating the principle is to only take as much as you need from earth and avoid over-exploitation. Taking your fair share in this context means to set reasonable limits regarding consumption, growth and exploitation of earth’s resources so that there’s something left for next generations too.
In 2018, Maddy Harland proposed to rename this principle to “Future Care” (Harland, 2017). This is inspired from various indigenous cultures that consider the future generations when making decisions today. I like that and will use it from now on.
Thinking about the future will by its very nature induce limits to growth when looking at finite resources. But it also has a larger encompassing view, very suitable for an ethical principle that lies underneath and interlink all the other ones.
The story of the college roof
Some years ago, the story goes, the roof of one of the colleges at Oxford University needed repair. The college administrators called in a building contractor who specialises in restoring ancient buildings and asked his opinion. He sucked his teeth, shook his head and told them they needed some pretty special oak to make a proper job of it, and he wouldn’t know where to get hold of such timber these days.
Now this college had kept much of the landed estates it was originally endowed with in the middle ages, and it still employed a forester to look after the woodland on the estate. The forester was the only person the administrators knew who had any knowledge of timber, so they called him into the office to ask if he knew where such timber might be found.
“Well”, said the forester, “When this hall was built, some hundreds of years ago, the builders knew that the roof would need repairing about now. They also knew that the timber you need for this kind of roof takes about the same time to grow. So they planted some oaks on the estate. They’re ready now.”
I love this story, even though it’s unverified and most likely an urban legend. I’ve heard reports of the exact same story referring to the roof of Notre Dame instead. But it illustrates a way of thinking that differs from what many people are used to, and has a big impact.
Whether or not the story is true in fact, the essence is still something to take inspiration from.
Principle 1 – Observe and Interact
Rule number one is to observe what is going on before doing any kind of intervention. In fact, the recommendation for any Permaculture Design of a place is to be in the space and observe it for at least a full year before even starting to make a design proposal. This is because different seasons need different things.
An area can be dry in spring but soggy in the autumn. Another might be shaded in the summer but get full sun in another season. You might live in a climate where it is mostly sunny all year round but with a rainy season during a few months.
According to Holmgren, a locally evolved model is more likely to be successful than a pre-designed system introduced from the outside. This principle is more about facilitating the generation of independent, even heretical, long-term thinking needed to design new solutions than the adoption and replication of proven solutions (Holmgren, 2007).
The whole point is to make your decisions based on observations and experiments – not only calculations and theoretical concepts.
Holmgren states that we can no longer rely on traditional markers of authority and value when assessing any prospective design solution. We must rely on our own skills in observation and sensitive interaction in order to find the best path forward (Holmgren, 2007).
Principle 2 – Catch and Store Energy
In nature, energy is constantly moving and to harness that energy we want to catch and store it somewhere for later use.
Permaculture recognises that this current is not flowing consistently. It can come at times where we need it less but not at all during times we need it more. So we want to capture abundance while it lasts in order to use it in times of scarcity.
We don’t need the electricity for artificial lights while the sun is shining. It’s when the sun doesn’t shine that we want to switch the lights on. In order to transform this flow into something humans can make use of we store it for future use, in the case with electrical energy we can store it in batteries.
A classic garden example is having a south-facing stone or brick wall. The sun will heat it up during the day and the stones will release that heat in the evening and during the night. This can both enable growing things that usually need a warmer climate than the current one, or make for a lovely place to sit in late evenings in the autumn or spring using natural heating.
Another case is catching and storing rainwater in ponds or barrels. Large scale examples are water power dams for generating electricity. Or simply the age-old practice of storing the autumn harvest over the winter. Energy takes many forms.
Holmgren notes that in financial terms, we have to invest and reinvest most of the wealth we are consuming today so that future generations have something to live off of (Holmgren, 2007). While this might be common sense in finance, we need to do the same when it comes to our biological and ecological environments.
We are currently over-harvesting the Earth’s resources, we are living off the capital. This needs to change.
This principle reminds us to rebuild the Earth’s biological capital wherever possible. Biological capital and energy storages take forms like healthy living soil with high humus content, trees and forests, wildlife, water bodies and tanks etc. We don’t want to live off this capital, we want to invest in it in order to live off the income or interest instead.
To use a technological term: buffering the energy streams for later use.
Principle 3 – Obtain a Yield
This principle, when referring to gardening and designing farms, means of course that we want to have a harvest. But it can also be something else. Just make sure you are getting something beneficial out from the other end.
The yield from a well-designed park can be beautiful nature experiences. The yield from installing solar panels can be decreased electrical bills and increased self-sufficiency.
Obtaining a yield means getting a return on investment. And it’s not only about maximising the end result, it’s about Energy Return On Energy Investment – or EROEI. If an activity you do brings a certain return, and you would have to double the invested effort in order to get a 10% increase then that is a net loss in terms of ROI.
Similarly, if you have an activity that takes a lot of manual work and you find a way to automate it but it means you will get slightly lower returns, it can still be a positive EROEI because you get more output per invested energy.
If you are thinking about increasing the input, you want to be sure that the expected return is worth it. And you of course want to have a return in the first place so you can live off of your work.
Holmgren writes that “without immediate and truly useful yields, whatever we design and develop will tend to wither while elements that do generate immediate yield will proliferate” (Holmgren, 2007). The point is that we cannot only focus on long term gains and investments, whatever we do have to also provide for today.
Getting good returns creates positive feedback loops, so the best way to create a design with a long term goal is to also have short term gains built in. That will encourage success and inspire continuing to walk the long term path.
Principle 4 – Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback
The holy grail of permaculture is a system that manages itself. Unlike a mechanical product, a living system continues to evolve and thus needs feedback loops to manage it.
A physical or mechanical product, like a table or a motorcycle, is created or built and then it’s done. There is a finish point, after which it will not change much. It might require maintenance and upkeep afterwards, but the object itself does not ultimately change.
In contrast, a living system is never done. You can only get a snapshot of how it looks at any specific moment. It will continue to evolve and change. And if we don’t want to micro-manage every little possible change in every direction (which we don’t), then we need to give it possibilities to regulate itself based on feedback.
In the context of gardening this often means discouraging inappropriate growth and behaviour. We also want each element to be as self-reliant as possible as well as energy efficient. Use of tough, semi-wild and self-reproducing crop varieties and livestock breeds, instead of highly bred and dependent ones is a classic permaculture strategy that exemplifies this principle (Holmgren, 2007).
On a larger scale, self-reliant farmers were once recognised as the basis of a strong and independent country. The globalised economy that we have today makes for greater instability where effects cascade around the globe. This was apparent even before the COVID-19 crisis but made glaringly obvious by it. Rebuilding self-reliance on both element level and the system level increases resilience.
This principle also means accepting and taking in feedback in general. Otherwise we do not know if we are going in a desired direction. It calls us to be open, to see and accept both the reality of our actions and listen to and consider criticism from outside. We need to carefully observe the effects we have on the world around us and adjust our actions accordingly.
The principle also points out that negative feedback often is slow to emerge. Holmgren cautions us to “use negative feedback early so as to avoid harsher external negative feedback later on” (Holmgren, 2007). This ties in to Principle 1 – Observe and Interact in that we need to be observant in order to gather the feedback we need for future decisions and actions.
Principle 5 – Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
The most obvious use of this principle is avoiding reliance on fossil fuels as much as possible and favouring renewable sources of energy. But there’s more to this principle than that.
David Holmgren draws a parallel to business, in that “renewable resources in business means income and non-renewable is capital assets which we do not want to spend” (Holmgren, 2007). This was also touched upon in Principle 2 – Catch and Store Energy. (I have my own thoughts on how this principle applies in business, but that’s out of scope for this article).
Renewable services and functions are those we gain from plants, animals and living soil & water without them being consumed. For example we can let chicken or pigs prepare the ground for planting, and I know of instances where you can rent sheep to come and graze your lawn instead of getting it cut with machinery.
You have probably yourself used a solar clothes dryer: the ordinary clothesline. It’s non-consuming because the sun and the wind does not become less available by using it, and it’s cheap and requires little material to create. Plus we have the added benefit of sterilisation from UV-radiation.
Compare this to a tumble dryer in which hot air is blasted through clothes rotating in a metal drum, something that can consume around 3000 Watts of electric energy and whose wear and tear decreases the lifespan of your clothes. The only catch is that the sunlight is also bleaching, which is a benefit for bright white laundry but a drawback for deep colours. (You can still dry them in shade though, it’s mainly the wind that is responsible for the actual drying).
This principle reminds us to actively seek out and choose renewable and non-consuming alternatives when we can.
Principle 6 – Produce no Waste
This principle has a twofold meaning. The first is to make an effort to generate less rubbish in the first place.
This necessitates taking care of and maintaining what we have so it lasts longer. It also means a step back from the throw-away society, actively choosing long term durability and maintainability over disposable and short-lived items. To not produce waste is a literal call to produce less waste, which we can do through our choices about what we buy and how it’s packaged.
The second meaning is to take care of and handle the outputs – the “waste” – that we cannot eliminate in other ways. To close the circle and stop the industrial input/output thinking in which we largely consume stuff and then pile the leftovers in large rubbish heaps. Moving from a linear to a circular system.
In permaculture, we want to mimic nature’s behaviour in our designs. In nature, everything’s output serves as an input to something else. Worms consume organic waste and turn it to valuable plant food. Animals eat plants and excrete fertiliser to the soil. There are even insects that will feed on feathers and dead animals, turning it back into soil in order to continue the circle of life and energy. Decomposition is part of the circle of life.
The ordinary kitchen compost is a prime example of this principle in action. Another one is using leftover coffee grounds to grow oyster mushrooms, before composting it or using directly in the garden.
When we design according to this principle, too much of something can turn from burden into a resource. Bill Mollison states that “a pollutant is an output of any system component that is not being used productively by any other component of the system” (Holmgren, 2007). This means that what we call waste and pollution is often an abundance of something we consider is the wrong thing at the wrong place.
Our main activities often generate by-products. According to Holmgren, innovative and creative ways to use these upwellings of abundance is one of the characteristics of permaculture design (Holmgren, 2007).
In response to a question about plagues of snails in gardens dominated by perennials, Mollison was in the habit of replying that there was not an excess of snails but a deficiency of ducks1. What we see as an overflow of something negative can with a little help of creativity be turned into an asset – or at the very least be made useful or not harmful.
Through this lens, there’s no such things as “waste”. Everything is energy (oftentimes energy bound up in matter). The question to ask is “How can this energy come to best use?”
Principle 7 – Design From Patterns to Details
Pattern recognition is an outcome of the application of Principle 1: Observe and interact. By observing a place or a system you see the patterns already going on.
Permaculture emphasises using and reusing nature’s patterns when making a design. Waves, spirals, branching, lobes, web. Nature’s patterns tend to be both energy efficient and stable, like the hexagons of a honeycomb.
Modernity often zooms in and focuses on details and their internal complexity, losing view of the big picture in the process. In order to see the current and possible future patterns we need to zoom out and take a look from a broader horizon.
Holmgren states that “complex systems that work tend to evolve from simple ones that work, so finding the appropriate pattern for a design is more important than understanding all the details of the elements in the system” (Holmgren, 2007).
Principle 8 – Integrate Rather Than Segregate
According to Holmgren, our cultural bias toward focus on the complexity of details tends to ignore the complexity of relationships (Holmgren, 2007). We tend to opt for segregation of elements as a default design strategy for reducing relationship complexity.
He states that these solutions arise partly from the modern reductionist scientific method that separates elements to study them in isolation. Any consideration of how they work as parts of an integrated system is based on their nature in isolation (Holmgren, 2007).
What permaculture does instead is to focus on the relationship between things. The connections between elements are just as important as the elements themselves.
In order to create a self-regulating and functional design, elements need to be placed so that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements (see Principle 6: Produce no Waste).
Through correct placement of infrastructure, plants and animals it is possible to develop a higher degree of integration and self-regulation without the need for constant human input in corrective management. We want to emphasise and create relationships that are mutualistic, as opposed to predatory and competitive.
Principle 9 – Use Small and Slow Solutions
The permaculture stance is that systems should be designed to perform functions at the smallest scale that is practical and energy-efficient for that function. Designing at what would be called human scale, much inspired by E. F. Schumacher and his book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered and related movements.
This means that permaculture favours small and local solutions over big and global. In a world that relies less on fossil fuel energy, the economies of scale will decrease and shift more in favour of smaller systems. Whether a shift away from fossil fuels happens voluntarily or not, it will have an impact on the general scale of operations.
This principle is also a reminder that rapid and excessive growth brings more problems than blessings. In forestry, fast grown trees bring lower quality wood, and if the tree has grown too fast it’s completely useless for timber and only suitable for pulp (making paper).
The fast response of crops to soluble fertilisers is often short lived, in contrast to the slower manures, compost and natural rock minerals that provide a more sustained and balanced plant nutrition.
Slower growth in a more organic pace gives us the time needed to apply the principles of observing the system (Principle 1) and incorporating feedback (Principle 4). A smaller system is easier to maintain than a bigger one as well.
Principle 10 – Use and Value Diversity
In permaculture, the call for diversity is in opposition to the monoculture of modern agriculture, where a single crop, plant or livestock species, variety or breed is produced in one field or farming unit. This increases vulnerability to pests and diseases, and thus increases the use of toxic chemicals and energy to control outbreaks.
The alternative is different kinds of polycultures, in which two or more species share the same space either simultaneously or with different degrees of time overlap. This includes mixing animals and plants together, such in this successful polyculture in Indonesia which combined rice, fish, ducks and water fern. Duck faeces and water ferns provide nutrients for the rice plants, and the ducks and fish eliminate the need for herbicides and pesticides by eating weeds and insects that are common rice pests.
By including more than one species you reduce the vulnerability to pests, increase resilience to extreme weather conditions, and can create symbiotic or mutualistic relationships.
So why hasn’t the world converted to this? Because of a perceived reduction in yield size. I say perceived, because this is where we need to look at Energy Return On Energy Investment (see Principle 3: Obtain a Yield). If you become less reliant on buying herbicides and artificial fertilisers, then the net result is a gain for both the ecosystem and financially for the farmer even though the measured volume of the crop yield might be slightly lower. (Although the Indonesian system above resulted in higher yields than both conventional and organic rice fields (Hilbertz, 2018)).
I know of a Swedish farmer who began to use the no-till method for growing grains. He admitted that yes, the yield per acre is less than what it was before. But because it requires him to pass over the field fewer times with his tractor he saves on fuel costs, as well as other savings when it comes to need for irrigation etc. So he is making a better financial profit than from conventional methods. Which makes quite a difference since the margins are usually razor thin in agriculture (you’d be amazed how unprofitable it is to produce such necessities as food).
But polyculture is not the only application of this principle. Holmgren writes that “diversity is a result of the balance and tension in nature between variety and possibility on the one hand, and productivity and power on the other” (Holmgren, 2007).
This statement acknowledges that some productivity is lost as diversity increases. But a completely uniform system is extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in external forces – whether it’s weather or market/demand changes. Extreme specialisation also brings extreme vulnerability.
Too much diversity is a bad thing. If there are too many things demanding your attention some of them won’t get enough. Patrik Whitefield reminds us that a combination of two crops that are well known and understood may in practice be more productive than a mix of five crops which is too complex to manage effectively (Whitefield, 2004).
We want to strike a balance between maximising productivity and securing stability and resilience. Optimal diversity is not maximal diversity.
The proverb accompanying this principle is “don’t put all eggs in one basket”, which summarises it nicely. Diversity is about spreading the risks.
Principle 11 – Use Edges and Value the Marginal
In nature, the most productive areas are often on the edge where two distinct ecosystems meet, like sea vs land or woodland vs meadow. This is called an ecotone in biology.
But this is true in general as well. It is where different systems meet that we see the greatest amount of exchange, diversity and creativity. (Which is kind of a truism since it’s hard to exchange anything without a meeting of different parties).
Since edges often are the most productive parts of a system, permaculture designs often use shapes that increase rather than decrease the length of the edges of an element.
One example is the pond.
The two examples pictured has the same surface area. But example B has twice the edge circumference, which means that you can plant twice as many plants around the pond. That gives double the yield from the same space.
This is in contrast to modern agricultural practices that want to reduce the amount of edges in order to rationalise and speed up work. A straight edge is easier to manage with big machines.
When I first learnt this principle, I thought that it meant to never use straight lines in the landscape and always opt for bent and meandering ones. Like some kind of strict rule that this is the hallmark of permaculture and you break something if you don’t do it.
But in labour intensive kitchen gardens, the rational straight line of garden beds can make perfect sense. It’s all about the goals and circumstances of those who take care of a space. For a space that you make a living off of, you need to factor in time efficiency in the design too.
So instead of a strict commandment, this principle is simply a reminder to consider how the borders between elements look and interact. Perhaps there is a different and creative way you can use them that was not in your initial default response.
The marginal means both “things on the edge” as well as “things that are not valued”. It’s an invitation to look outside what is mainstream, in whatever field of study you are in.
Holmgren uses the metaphor of the peripheral vision, as opposed to the focused vision of our directed attention (Holmgren, 2007). While focus is good to have, so is the ability to zoom out and take a broader view.
The human peripheral vision is responsible for alerting us to dangers coming our way. But not everything at the edge is dangerous. Becoming aware of what’s going on in the periphery is an excellent strategy for finding new and innovative things to incorporate in your design. Focusing on the centre only can make you blind to opportunities that are hovering around the outline.
Principle 12 – Creatively Use and Respond to Change
This principle comes in two flavours: the first is using changes deliberately in your design, and the second is responding to changes coming from outside or places where you do not have control.
Permaculture design often use a kind of deliberate and accelerated ecological succession. For example taking advantage of pioneer plants or fast growing nitrogen fixers to establish a forest garden, and later on as the system matures remove and replace them with the trees intended to occupy the space long term.
That is the first part of this principle – planning and designing for known changes. To generate and make use of change for positive results and take changes into account from the start, instead of creating something with the expectations that it will stay the same way forever.
This contrasts with a “standard” landscape design mindset, where you create a garden or landscape plan and then spend an inordinate amount of resources to keep it that way forever. A permaculture design incorporates and embraces change from the start.
The second part is about adapting to unplanned changes and incoming changes over which you have no control. Societal changes, technology changes, changes in the climate or fluctuations in the economy. These are all things that can be challenges or even threats, but what we can control are our thoughts about and reactions to them.
Changes can be used as a positive force depending on your response. In extreme cases, change can even be the prerequisite for survival.
Holmgren states that the durability of a natural system paradoxically depends on a large measure on flexibility and change. That in any particular system, the small-scale, fast, short-lived changes of the elements actually contribute to higher-order system stability (Holmgren, 2007).
When we are zoomed in on a level where change happens rapidly, we can get the illusion of instability because everything is moving all the time. But when we zoom out to take a bigger picture, this movement and constant adaptation on the small scale contributes to stability and sustainability on the larger scale.
Just like in nature and science. Something can appear pretty solid and stable, but when you zoom in on a cellular or atomic levels you see a world full of constant activity and motion.
Responding to change requires us to see the changes coming. So this principle closes the circle by tying in to the principle we started with: Principle 1 – Observe and Interact. Our ability to respond appropriately to changes, both from within a system and coming from outside, is directly tied to our ability to seeing them first.
Toolbox for a permaculture design
There are many design solutions that are specific to a climate, area, region, resource availability and so on. But there are some common tools in permaculture design, that are less about theory and more about application.
The principle of zoning is that whatever needs the most human attention should be placed nearest to the centre of human activity. Organising any physical space well almost always involve placing things that you use often close at hand, while the lesser used items can be placed further away.
You don’t place the coffee cups used every day on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, and the cake plates only used on special occasions on the shelf that is closest at hand.
Take a map over your site and mark out the areas in zones from where you spend the most time to where you spend the least time. The detailed definition of each zone is slightly different between teachers, but the general principle is the same.
- Zone 0: The house itself
- Zone 1: Most intensive care. The home garden and intensively grown crops
- Zone 2: Semi-intensely cultivated. Orchards, animals housings, staple crops that take more space
- Zone 3: Low intensity. Farmland, including field-scale crops and pasture
- Zone 4: Minimal care. Rough grazing and woodland, very much reduced human influence
- Zone 5: Complete wilderness. Where the interests of wild plants and animals take top priority.
The closest zone is the one you frequent multiple times per day, while the zone that is furthest away is pure wilderness. Remember that the origin of permaculture was agricultural farms. A small space like a tiny suburban garden might never get to have a “true” zone 3 or 4.
But a common advice is to always have a spot that is a zone 5, if only a bird feeding station. Somewhere where human interests are set aside in favour of the wild plants and animals.
Design elements and other items, like plants and animals, are grouped by how often they need attention, which means they belong in a certain zone. You can then arrange them in the design according to the zone that they belong in.
The idea is obviously to place items that need a lot of care and frequent visits in the zone where you spend the most time, and the rest in a decreasing scale with the items that need the least attention physically furthest away. This will increase the efficiency of the design.
For example, don’t put the vegetable plot and kitchen herbs in the furthest garden corner away from the house. That will only turn it into a burden and make it less enjoyable.
Better to place those close to right outside your doorstep, so that you don’t have to go far on a cold and rainy day when you just want to get some fresh parsley or vegetables. If it’s too far, comfort will make you stay indoors.
When it’s near, you can easily do a little bit here and there while passing by. And since it’s an area you go past several times per day, you will have an easier time to notice and take timely action whenever something comes up.
Networking means creating a stable web of connections. Ideally, each element in a design should serve three or more functions, and each function you need should be served by at least three elements. This is related to Principle 8 – Integrate rather than segregate.
Take a function like having access to water. You can get water from a well, from gathering rain water, and having a pond that acts as storage. A pond is a design element, and apart from being a water storage you check what other functions it can serve.
It can be a source of food if you want to raise fish in it or grow edible water plants. It can be placed in a way so it reflects sunlight and increases sun exposure in a place that needs it. It can be a source of beauty and tranquillity. It can be a key player in biodiversity and become wildlife habitat.
The idea of making sure each function is served in three different ways makes it resilient, so if one element breaks down there are other elements that will serve the same purpose.
Now every function cannot have three providing sources, and every single element cannot always serve three or more functions. But identifying the critical functions you absolutely need to have, and then making sure they have three ways of getting served, is something that will make the whole design very resilient towards external forces and negative events.
Sector analysis is where you sketch out the way external forces influence your area. The term sector refers to any natural or uncontrolled influence that moves through or affects what you are working with.
For a physical site it’s most often at least the sun and water flow, and sometimes also prevailing winds if there’s a strong predictable pattern. There’ll probably be a separate map per natural force, unless they’re easy to combine.
The sun map(s) shows the direction of the sun and the shadowed areas, preferably all over the year so you get a picture of where the shade lies in both winter, spring, summer and autumn. You can have separate maps per season or a combined overlay where everything goes together.
The water map shows how water flows through the area, where it comes from and where – if any – there are outlets.
The wind map shows prevalent wind directions if applicable, and can be combined with the sun map showing different seasons.
These maps naturally can only be created through proper observation of a space over time. But they give crucial information about the existing microclimates, as well as possible interventions for creating new microclimates.
If water flows too fast, we might want to slow it down. If we have very strong winds, we want to create a wind shield – preferably a living hedge that can serve many other functions at the same time.
If a place gets too much sun, we might want to create structures that give shade. Living structures such as a pergola with climbing vines are great, because they let in a lot of sunlight in the winter and spring when they are bare but as the summer comes the leaves render a lot of shade.
Through sector analysis we can anticipate problems and issues, and make design decisions to mitigate risks and take advantage of opportunities.
Stacking can also be called layering, and it’s about working and using all dimensions when designing a space. The textbook example is that of the forest garden, something traditional in many tropical areas and adapted to temperate climates by people like Robert Hart and Martin Crawford.
Taking inspiration from the massive productivity of the forests, the forest garden uses 7 layers:
- Low tree
- Rhizosphere / underground
- Ground cover
- Vertical layers / climbers
I’ve also seen versions that add a eighth and ninth layer for water plants and mycelium/fungi respectively.
Each layer serves as a niche, and plants that serve different niches can be stacked together in close proximity or even on top of each other.
In western agriculture, the thinking is predominately two-dimensional horizontally across a field. Stacking involves also thinking vertically. We get more yield from the same surface area by going in all three dimensions.
Another example of stacking is taking advantage of the different shapes of vegetables, for example by combining leeks and cabbages where the tall and slim leeks fit well in between the broad cabbage heads.
If stacking is staggering elements in space, then succession is staggering elements over time. It’s a practical application of Principle 12 – Creatively use and respond to change. Establishing a forest garden can be a 30 year process since the largest trees take at least that time to develop to full height. This means that the plan for creating said forest garden involves different plants during different stages, until the whole system is fully matured.
A delicate tree for example, can get planted next to a “mother tree” that shelters it during the first years. Later on, the mother tree (likely a nitrogen fixer that fertilises the soil) is cut down as it’s function is served and the sheltered tree is strong enough to stand on its own.
And while trees are young the ground gets more sun so you can grow things like annuals in between them. Those annuals will later get replaced with more shade tolerant species as the trees get bigger and block more sunlight.
This mimics the ecological succession after natural events like forest fires or a storm felled tree. There are some species that are pioneers, rushing in to get the sudden sunlight. They are replaced by other species as time goes by and new saplings take root and grow to new trees.
Designing with succession as a tool means that you have a final design in mind, but you also take the process to get there into account. Your plan can be for a result 10 years ahead, or 30 as the case with a forest garden, with steps included for how it will look at different milestones along the way.
If we would impose the final structure from the outside, chances are high that we miss something and the resulting system becomes fragile and vulnerable to outside influences. We think we are so clever as humans, but nature is ever more complex than we are capable of grasping.
By gradually steering into the final direction instead of trying to artificially create the end result in one go, you give nature and the space a chance to stabilise and adapt along the way. And you get a chance to observe and adjust along the way too, if something didn’t work as intended or unforeseen circumstances come along.
The concept of a guild in permaculture is a grouping of plants that support each other so they become a stable unit. Not only do they use the stacking principle for optimal use of space, but each plant serves a function needed for the system stability.
Think of it like a mini-ecosystem, where you create a small module of a system that is as self reliable as possible.
There are no clear templates of “this is a standard guild” that shows which plants are supposed to go together. This will naturally depend on your climate and the microclimate of the chosen spot.
These are 7 components that need to be covered by a guild (Nordin, n.d.):
- Food for us. Serving human needs doesn’t need to always be edibles. It can also be medicine, fibres, building supplies etc.
- Food for the soil. Plants need nutrients just like us
- Diggers / Miners. Deep rooted plants that will aerate the soil and help bring mineral up from the deeper layers
- Ground cover. Keeps the soil moist and hinders unwanted plants from growing (a.k.a. weeds)
- Climbers. Help to maximise production when horizontal space is scarce
- Supporters. This can be a living structure such as a tree, or non-living structures that we construct ourselves
- Protectors. This category of plants include both repelling and attracting different kinds of insects.
As usual some plants can serve more than one function, like a base layer of white clover that is both ground cover, nitrogen fixer (food for the soil) and helps attract pollinators (protector).
But in a guild, you don’t aim for the “three functions per element, three elements per function” rule of networking. That is for a larger scale. The point of the guild is to cover the different needed components with a grouping of plants, that can thus be considered like a single stable unit.
When I first came across and later got to know permaculture, it permanently shifted my perspective. It was a completely different way of thinking compared to what I was used to and I felt the widening of my horizon.
The modern western world has been centred around the practice of analysis, of picking things apart and looking at one component after another. And we are not very good at putting together the pieces that now are spread all over. We lost their connections in the process and nobody knows how to put things back again.
There’s a big fragmentation going on. People know their own little fragment very well (it’s called specialisation), but few have an overview. And when one silo decides to talk to another for a while, we call it “cross-disciplinary” and something one actively has to choose to do. Because default is to keep to your own little shard of reality.
Now this is not necessarily completely horrible and wrong in every situation. But the whole scientific method relies on a cause-and-effect way of thinking. This works very well in complicated environments, but breaks down completely when faced with something complex. (A reminder about the difference between complex and complicated systems).
Permaculture on the other hand works differently because you work on wholes. You always start with the big picture, and drill down to the level of detail necessary as you go along.
Instead of looking for the maximum yield of a single component, you are looking for the maximum yield of the whole system.
Why write this article?
Since I want to use these principles and tools in other fields and contexts, I’ve found that I wanted to refer to them many times elsewhere. But permaculture is still relatively obscure and people would have no idea what I was talking about. That’s why I decided to write this guide.
I wanted to have a more coherent explanation to point to instead of telling people to “read the book” or give them some fluffy ideological and abstract statements that don’t really say anything about what it means in practice.
Writing about permaculture is tricky because it’s hard to give examples without some readers interpreting it as a rule or advice, where it should rather be understood as a source of inspiration or suggestion. You need to always consider whether or not that particular example is applicable to your own situation.
This is because permaculture is not so much a method you apply, but more a mental framework or a general approach that can have deep and wide implications on the way we live our lives.
I hope I have been able to give you a glimpse of how the principles work, at least in the original setting of farming and growing food.
Diving into complex and systems thinking
The first shift into complex thinking is to recognise that you can never do only one thing. Everything in a complex environment has multiple causes, and every action you do will have multiple effects.
This is why observation is such a key habit, because you cannot rely on calculations in order to reach desired results. You can only try, observe the result, try something different, and observe the result of that again. Creating the right feedback loops is essential for making good future decisions.
What you are working with is incalculable. This fact can be quite unsettling if your background is from an environment that relies a lot on making precise calculations and predictions. I think there’s a personality question too here – some people thrive more in a complex and others in a complicated environment (see the article I linked to above).
David Holmgren acknowledges that the permaculture principles come “from a way of thinking that is shared with ‘systems thinking’ and ‘design thinking'” (Holmgren, 2007). He put the terms in quotes, which I guess is due to the fact these terms, in 2002, probably wasn’t well known to his audience.
But systems thinking is a vibrant field of it’s own. If I search for the term “systems thinking” on Amazon, I get 7000 results at the time of this writing. Design thinking too has evolved and become a staple in the design community, used in everything from UX design to business innovation workshops.
I have just started to dip my toes into the systems thinking pool. Coming from a permaculture approach, I’m feeling right at home.
Tools for the future
Now permaculture is not the only movement that advocates a more holistic thinking. But I find that it gives us a set of principles and a toolbox for how we actually would put this holistic thinking into practice.
It’s not a solution for everything, of course. There are still plenty of fields that use and need the approach of the complicated paradigm. Of precise calculations, analysis, measurements and predictability.
But complex thinking is needed when dealing with complex problems. The world today is moving towards more and more complexity, and fast too. We need tools to manage that, because tools belonging to the complicated problems are not handling it well.
To me, permaculture is the bridge from conceptual talk about systems theory into practical actions. How to actually use this way of thinking when designing a system – any system – to be the best it can. Strong. Resilient. Adaptive. Regenerative.
But it is more than that. It’s more than just a way to design a system for longevity (which is often what is meant when using the term “sustainable”).
By making you aware of the existing connections between things, you become aware of the interdependence of yourself and your surroundings too. An aware person cannot make short term decisions with negative long term effects. It’s just not a responsible thing to do.
When was the last time you made a decision and considered the impact for generations to come? Have you planted an oak with the intention to be harvested several hundred years from now?
Permaculture, if adopted as a life approach, will nudge you to always seek out a win-win-win situation between short term gains, longer term benefits and non-destruction of fundamental resources.
It’s basically taking systems thinking and connecting it with a purpose. I wish everyone would take account of at least the ethical principles in everything they do.
- Care for the earth
- Care for the living
- Care for the future
We would all be better off.
- Harland, M. (2017, November 17). Redefining the Third Permaculture Ethic: Future Care . Permaculture UK. https://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/redefining-third-permaculture-ethic-future-care
- Hemenway, T. (2009). Gaias Garden – A guide to home-scale permaculture – 2nd edition. Chelsea Green Publishing Co.
- Hilbertz, A. (2018, December 12). Mixed farming increases rice yield. ReNature. https://www.renature.co/articles/mixed-farming-increase-rice-yield/
- Holmgren, D. (2007). Essence of Permaculture. Holmgren Design Services.
- Nordin, S. (n.d.). Permaculture Guilds. Never Ending Food. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from http://www.neverendingfood.org/b-what-is-permaculture/permaculture-guilds/
- Whitefield, P. (2004). The Earth Care Manual – A permaculture handbook for britain and other temperate climates. Permanent Publications.