When people talk about sustainable lifestyle shifts, diet comes up quickly. While many will encourage moving towards vegan and plantbased choices, I think there’s more to it than that. It’s not just about eating more plants, it’s about how those plants are grown and how they reach us.

This is why you’ll always find me talking and thinking about agricultural systems. There are a lot of different terms out there, and I’ve already looked at a few such as regenerative agriculture, regenerative aquaculture, and community-supported agriculture. Today, I wanted to unpack permaculture a little.

What is permaculture?

Permaculture is both a holistic worldview and a technical approach, encompassing various ecological and social design principles to mimic what happens in natural ecosystems. It started as an idea that identified and incorporated farming and gardening techniques from multiple places around the world, adopting and combining them to create a toolkit to be applied anywhere. 

The word permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison, originally to refer to the idea of truly sustainable agriculture. It has now expanded to include the idea of ‘permanent culture’, recognising that a social dimension is integral to sustainable living systems.  Permaculture recognises that everything is connected, and studying the relationships and interdependence of living organisms in their ecosystems is key. By understanding and replicating these natural systems, working with nature rather than against it, one can sustain and enrich life without causing environmental or social harm. Whether it be growing food or creating communities; land, resources, people and the environment are all integrated, so all beings can access the resources they need.

(It’s also worth noting that permaculture is a white western term, encompassing many practices that have been undertaken by Indigenous peoples, and BIPOC communities in general, for generations, and these techniques weren’t ‘invented’ by permaculture. When looking at the specific tools we could apply in our own lives I think it’s still useful to look into permaculture, but it’s also important to know that sustainable farming has always been led by BIPOC communities).

Permaculture is mainly concentrated on already settled lands and agricultural areas, though it can be applied in both rural and urban settings. Its main goal is to assist people in becoming more self-reliant through the design of sustainable growing, which can take place on farms, home gardens, or community projects. It’s a toolkit that can be applied to systems at all scales and is constantly developed and refined by people across the world, in different climates and cultural contexts.

Permaculture ethics

Permaculture has three core tenets:

  • Care for Earth: We’re only as healthy as our planet, so caring for ecosystems and diverse life forms around the globe benefits us all. Permaculture recognises and values the resources around us, while actively working to regenerate fertility and biodiversity, and ensure all beings have what they need to flourish.
  • Care for people: We move away from overconsumption and exploitative models, instead committing to care for ourselves and others; utilising resources to become more self-sufficient while also working to support others wherever we can.
  • Fair Share: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes creating circular, closed-loop systems and only taking what we truly need.

These ethics are important because there are fundamental differences between designed and fully natural ecosystems. In a designed system the majority of species and biomass is there because its intended for the use of humans (eg. a garden where we only grow crops to eat). This isn’t how the natural world functions. Instead, humans are a small part of the ecosystem, with only a small portion of its yields used directly by us. A designed system is therefore human-centred, but in general, we need to cultivate a nature-centred mindset.

Global flourishing relies on this nature-centred approach in order to achieve true conservation. If we can find ways to become more self-sufficient, to live a little smaller and not overconsume, we can end intensive agricultural landscapes and monocultures that destroy land, biodiversity and many organisms by throwing entire ecosystems off balance. We can allow natural systems to take over and flourish once more (which is essentially the concept of rewilding).

This is the main goal of permaculture, designing an ecologically sound way of living in all areas. Permaculture is flexible, encouraging us to be resourceful and self-reliant, using the toolkit to find solutions to local and global problems, rather than becoming a dogma to be followed to the letter.

Twelve design principles for permaculture

David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability also puts forward twelve design principles for permaculture:

  • Observe and interact: taking time to observe nature to see what works, so we can design solutions that suit our unique contexts.
  • Catch and store energy: collecting resources at peak abundance, so we can use them in times of need. Passive solar design is a good example.
  • Obtain a yield: Yields can be tangible, such as growing food to eat at home, or intangible, such as improved mental health. 
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: evaluate and understand where we succeed and fail, so that we can grow and improve.
  • Use and value renewable resources and services: make the best use of nature’s abundance (eg. water and energy) to reduce unnecessary consumption or reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Produce no waste: ensuring nothing goes to waste, whether through designing circular systems, or repurposing, reusing and composting.
  • Design from patterns to details: thoughtfully observe patterns in nature and society. They can inform the backbone of our designs, with details filled in as we go.
  • Integrate rather than segregate: diverse systems support each other, whether it be plants and soil becoming healthier through polycultures, or communities and ecosystems. Collaboration and cooperation is key.
  • Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and making changes that are easier to maintain as they’re more achievable.
  • Use and value diversity: just as ecosystems work best when filled with a greater variety of different plants and animals, so human society functions best when a variety of different people are represented.
  • Use edges and value the marginal: making use of all we have includes valuing fringe elements. What is overlooked can often be the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system. This might be simple, like using a neglected corner to grow more food or conceptual, like thinking outside the box.
  • Creatively use and respond to change: change is inevitable but we can plan for it, understanding things will alter over time.

Some permaculture features

These design principles have very practical applications, which vary depending on the spaces and conditions of each site. 

Some of the key features you may see in permaculture designs include:

  • Stacking: in a forest the lowest plants are the most shaded and protected, creating vertical layers in ecosystems. Permaculture mimics this by ‘stacking’ living layers.
  • Companion planting: growing plants together than complement each other, rather than cause issues for each other.
  • Diversity: permaculture is always planted in polycultures, not monocultures.
  • Organic methods: permaculture is usually organic, but all organic growing isn’t permaculture.
  • Healthy soil cultivation: growers work towards improving levels of soil nutrition and fertility.
  • No-dig methods: the less the soil is disturbed, the healthier it will be as organisms living within it remain unharmed, producing healthier produce as a result.
  • Making optimum use of resources: energy is harvested and reused, waste is recycled through composting. Designs such as mulching minimise extremes, planting other species such as deciduous trees provide cooling in the summer and allow warm sun in winter
  • Water conservation: instead of wasting rainfall in areas it won’t be used, swales (ditches) are dug across a slope to channel rainwater to plants needing to be watered. Terraces may be designed for steep land, while a system of canals may be used on low, swampy land.
  • Using nature’s pest control: encouraging birds, predatory insects etc. You need some pests to feed the predators, so it’s about achieving a balance without resorting to harmful chemicals.
  • Closed-loop systems: a successful closed-loop system turns waste into resources and keeps things in balance, for example using compost rather than importing fertiliser.
  • Perennial planting: annual crops require constant tillage, which is dangerous to soil. Perennials are planted just once with the use of techniques like agroforestry, which requires the cultivation of edible tree crops and associated understory plants (eg. shade-grown coffee or cacao plantations).
  • Multiple functions: in a permaculture system, every component of a landscape should fulfil more than one function. Systems are strategically designed to be integrated and self-sufficient. For example, if you need a fence to contain animals, you can also use it as a windbreak, a trellis, and a reflective surface to direct extra heat and light to nearby plants

Getting involved

Permaculture may mimic natural systems, but it still takes learning and practice. Anyone can give it a go, in whatever context they’re in, but it’s best to start by learning what permaculture strategies make the most sense for you, and experimenting with them on small projects.

By doing this you can observe how successful these strategies are. For example: did they encourage biodiversity or prevent waste? If so, can these be replicated elsewhere in your green area? And if they didn’t work, what may have worked better? It’s good to experiment and to fail!

Ultimately, where regenerative agriculture works to overhaul large agricultural systems as a whole, permaculture can be a great place to get started on your own projects. Have a garden or smaller green space? Then learning about permaculture and experimenting with applying it to your context is a great way to get started.

It’s also worth remembering that permaculture is a holistic approach beyond the technical specifics. Each designed system still, ultimately, relies on the conservation of existing habitats and biodiversity too, as these allow us all to live by keeping the planet in balance. Permaculture therefore also requires opposition to further disturbance of natural habitats and ecosystems, a commitment to rehabilitating degraded natural systems and rewilding, protecting and cultivating threatened species, and using the least amount of land when establishing designed systems for human use. We then let nature take the rest, knowing that it knows best, and that we all succeed when we work in support of natural systems rather than trying to dominate them.