What is Permaculture?

Permaculture – short for permanent culture – encompasses all things that help form a sustainable lifestyle, by which I mean living (happily) within the means of the planet without compromising the ability of future generations to do so themselves. It is an alternative to the world’s current dominant culture of capitalism, in which self-preservation (in the material sense, not the wider environmental sense) is the main goal, and exploitation of natural resources and people is justified to achieve greater ownership and wealth.

Permaculture is guided by three simple ethics:

  • Earth care – Looking after the environment; minimising the negative impacts of our actions and maximising our positive impacts. Providing habitat for wildlife, good soil and water management, minimising waste, and many other facets.

  • People care – Taking care of social needs. Includes basic needs such as food, shelter, education and also our spiritual needs to feel connected with each other and the earth.

  • Fair share – Any surplus generated beyond what you need should be reinvested to help achieve the first two ethics. This could be money (e.g. invest profits in other projects or in renewable energy etc.) but equally the surplus could be knowledge, time or just a positive attitude. Sharing is caring!

Permaculture design

Designing a system for land, community or business that fits within these three ethics. It is an information-intensive design system that considers a huge number of factors before implementation, to minimise disruption later on. Traditional methods meet modern ideas and technology, climate data is used alongside topography and other landscape features, and ultimately there is plenty of observation – if you don’t know what you have how can you be sure you are improving it?

To begin, you consider everything that you/the community want out of the system (e.g. food, health, peace, happy employees, social harmony) and then work down to the details of how to achieve these aims. Each design element – these are aspects of design such as structures, trees, a pond, pathways, veg beds, seating, governance system etc. – should work to achieve these aims. The elements are placed within the wider design such as to maximise the beneficial relationships between themselves, minimising the energy (physical and electrical) needed for the system to flourish.

The yield of the system is limited only by the imagination of the designer” – Bill Mollison

Every design will be different, depending on the needs and wants of the designer or the client – it is case specific and not one-size-fits-all. As long as the result fits within the three ethics (though the focus of each ethic again varies person to person), anything goes. The term “permaculture” by coined by the Australian Bill Mollison, and was a method of reversing desertification and of repairing other degraded dryland landscapes. However, the application of the system Bill developed alongside his student David Holmgren is universal, and has been expanded on and developed by an ever-growing cohort of permaculture designers.

To help the designer on his way there are a set of design principles highlighted below – after all, anything is possible may be attractive to some, but how do you finish with a design that can be applied? There are various versions of the principles, which all share common themes. The ones below come from permaculture co-founder David Holmgren:

  • Observe and interact
  • Catch and store energy
  • Obtain a yield
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  • Use and value renewable resources and services
  • 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

For more information on these principles please visit the Permaculture Association website and follow the links under title “David Holmgren Principles”.


A useful exercise is splitting the design site into different usage zones, so that more commonly visited elements can be placed closer to the centre of the design, usually the house for a domestic design. This minimises energy use – both your own (not placing elements that need constant attention far from your house) and electrical (placing energy source close as possible to point of consumption). In design manuals the zones are often depicted as concentric circles radiating from the centre of the design, but the actual shape of these zones depends on the lay of the land and how you use it. Examples of elements found within the zones (from the Permaculture Assocation website).

Zone 0: Centre of activities – often the house. This is high maintenance, high use and requires considerable investment of time and energy.
Zone 1: Annual plants, herbs, compost, plant propagation, construction and maintenance, bike store and other high use activities, greenhouse. Often irrigated
Zone 2: Dense planting, poultry and small livestock, orchard, polytunnels.
Zone 3: Large water storage, main crops, sheep, cows, field shelters.
Zone 4: Forestry, wood-pasture, dams, forage.
Zone 5: Wild zone, where nature is in charge and where we go to learn and harvest only that which is abundant.

Of course, depending on the needs of the designer, zone 5 elements may be placed by zone 1, for instance wild areas visible from the house so you can watch the birds and other animals. The zones will merge on the edges – boundaries are not physical. In fact, the most productive part of any ecosystem is the edge habitats – where two distinct habitats meet. We can utilise this in design, for instance an orchard placed within a wildflower area to attract pollinators to the fruit trees, attract natural pest control and provide visual beauty. A pond nearby will help moderate temperature, provide irrigation and increase biodiversity.

Sector Analysis

Another useful exercise is sector analysis – determining the direction from which sectors (e.g. wind, sun, pollution, bad view, fire risk) will enter and influence your site. It enables you to place your own design elements in a way that maximises positive relationships with these sectors and minimises negative relationships. For example, plants needing maximum heat and sunshine will be place within the sun sector (east to west arc, smaller in winter than in summer), a pond within the fire-risk sector (fire spreads faster uphill, wind direction important) and a large hedgerow within the “bad view” sector (to block it out!). An example sector analysis map is shown below, with a few ideas about how the sector analysis may influence the design. It forms part of the design I did for a walled garden restoration mentioned above.

Sector analysis

  • Shade sector – avoid planting sun-loving plants and elements such as clay oven (will deteriorate quicker without sun-drying). Good place for some species of ferns that thrive in camper, darker areas, providing good habitat for wildlife

  • Winter sun sector – low angle of sun and less rotation means a lot of garden shaded in winter. Keep winter sun areas for elements that are less frost-hardy and want year-round sun, and plan for winter sun to hit any buildings for passive solar gain

  • Summer sun sector – useful for gathering solar energy, be it through plant photosynthesis or solar panels. In hotter countries the hot summer sun will need mitigating, so perhaps trees for shade to the west of a seating area

  • Water drainage sector – where water comes from during heavy rain and floods. Can mitigate damage and maximise use of the water with irrigation channels or ponds

  • Education sector – the place of entry for school groups and passing visitors. Design implications are view-lines, what to place that will entice them in and engage them. Equally it could mean hiding things from this view line, or putting things like toilets in this space

  • Wind direction – The tree cover surrounding means this site is actually very sheltered, but wind direction (both prevailing wind and risk of high gusts/cold winds) is important. Could mean a wind-break (such as hedgerow), or maybe even good placement for a wind turbine!

The sky is the limit

The above just briefly outlines some of the elements of the permaculture design process, but other blogs and websites go into much more detail if you are interested to learn more. The best option is to do a full permaculture design course – see the Permaculture Association website for details of courses near you.

I have attempted to summarise what permaculture means to me, but now it’s your turn. What does permaculture mean to you? Please share in the comments section!

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