Growing an edible, urban ecosystem one backyard at a time

What is permaculture?

What Everyone Ought to Know About Permaculture

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Hello friend. Welcome to My Edible Habitat. I’m so glad you’re here.

This site is all about urban permaculture for the yard, home, and daily life. But what is permaculture? If you don’t yet know what permaculture is, then you’re in for a treat. Permaculture changed my life, and I think it will change yours, too. I’m here to help guide and inspire you as you embark on your own permaculture journey.

What is Permaculture?

Two Australians, Bill Mollison, and his environmental design student, David Holmgren developed permaculture in 1978. The project was Holmgren’s thesis, which resulted in the original permaculture book, Permaculture One, now out of print.

Their idea was to integrate agriculture with ecology and landscape design. They puzzled over why agriculture systems didn’t integrate ecology, making food production a sustainable system. They endeavored to develop such a method. What they ended up with was permaculture.

Etymology of “Permaculture”

Originally, Mollison coined the word as a contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” Later, the concept of permaculture expanded in meaning beyond food production to a broader application in society). Now the word “culture” is more fitting than the word “agriculture,” to describe the scope of permaculture.

What is the Definition of Permaculture?

There are many definitions of permaculture, but not all of them get at what the originators actually meant. So skip the dictionary definitions in favor of Mollison’s own words—Permaculture is “a design system for creating sustainable human environments.”

Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human enviroments.

~Bill Mollison

The idea behind permaculture is so central to our existence on Earth, not just as humans, but as part of the many complex systems that operate to sustain us and all organisms, that it has attracted many followers. One of Mollison’s successors, Geoff Lawton, is a prominent practitioner and teacher of permaculture. If you’ve done any research on permaculture on the internet, you’ve probably encountered some of Geoff’s videos. He explains that “permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”

Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.

~Geoff Lawton

Creating Sustainable Human Environments

Mollison’s definition includes these words. Let them sink in. Sustainable. Human. Environments.

Are sustainable human environments even possible?

Our ancestors, the indigenous peoples of the world, lived sustainably for millennia. But is it possible to create modern sustainable human environments?

It absolutely is possible. It may take us a while to get there, but the development of modern sustainable human environments is possible with nature and indigenous cultures as role models, and permaculture Design Principles and Ethics to guide us.

To get started, we can design our living environments (our homes, gardens, cities, and communities) to better support our survival. Instead of landscaping for beauty alone, we can create landscapes that work for us. Permaculture doesn’t have to be all or nothing and it doesn’t have to be adopted all at once—it can’t be. It will take small and slow solutions to achieve sustainable human environments.

Beyond Agriculture

Permaculture isn’t limited to agricultural systems. The ethics it’s founded on and its guiding principles can be applied to any discipline from business to social organizations to personal lifestyle.

So, permaculture is a design tool for creating resilient and self-sufficient systems that meet all the needs of humanity (not limited to food production) without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (that’s the sustainability part).

Sustainable vs. Regenerative

Sustainability is a common component in permaculture definitions. And sustainable, or net-zero, design is popular in many areas these days, which is great. But if you think about it, sustainability should only be our bare minimum goal. Being sustainable is just breaking even—net zero.

Permaculture systems go beyond mere sustainability to regenerate the land, rebuild soils, and purify bodies of water.  They heal previously damaged environments.

So instead of “sustainable,” I like to say “regenerative,” as in the original tagline of this blog, “regenerative living by design.”  As a side note, I’ve since changed the tagline to “Growing an edible, urban ecosystem, one backyard at a time,” as I’ve focused in on edible landscaping, but the concept of regenerative practice is still a huge part of my thinking and teaching.

We can create sustainable (even regenerative) human environments, and permaculture Ethics and Design Principles will get us there.

So what are these oh-so-powerful permaculture Ethics and Principles? I’ll break them down in the next sections.

Permaculture Ethics

The three permaculture Ethics are People Care, Earth Care, and Fair Share. These Ethics come from a place of wanting to make sure we look after the people and the planet, and that resources are not hoarded by the few, but all have fair access. 

Every permaculture design should be grounded in these Ethics. If it’s not, then ask, what is the motivation behind the project, and is it really being done for the right reasons? Throughout a project’s life, it’s a good idea to reassess periodically to ensure that the project is still operating in line with the permaculture Ethics and readjust if it’s not.

People Care

People Care is pretty self-explanatory. A major objective of permaculture is to provide all of the needs of humanity. That’s people care in a nutshell. So the first Ethic of permaculture is to take care of people. Which people to take care of depends on the scale of the project.

In an urban homestead or permaculture garden, the main people cared for are the residents of the homestead, and maybe some friends and family.

In a permaculture farm, the people being cared for include anyone who consumes the farm’s produce (which is more nutritious than typical grocery store produce). Also, the owners and workers are cared for by the income from the business. Permaculture farms adhering to the Ethic of People Care, will treat workers well and pay fair wages. The same goes for any business using a permaculture-based business model.

Earth Care

Earth Care is also self-explanatory. Permaculture practices, by definition, must not harm the earth, environment, or ecosystems. Not only that, but well-designed permaculture systems will strengthen and heal the ecosystems they exist within—they’ll be regenerative.

This is part of the magic of permaculture. Rather than stripping the soils of fertility as conventional farms do, permaculture systems take a queue from nature and improve fertility the longer they exist.

Fair Share

Fair Share is a little bit less obvious than the first two Ethics, People Care and Earth Care. However, it’s just as important. The other two Ethics can’t be followed if Fair Share is ignored.

The sentiment behind Fair Share is to share the excess with others and limit overconsumption. Because as regenerative and bountiful as permaculture systems can be, there is a limit. If everyone is to have their fair share then no one can overindulge or hoard the available resources. 

Permaculture Design Principles

The Permaculture Design Principles are a set of tools for thinking about how we design our surroundings. The exact Principles vary by author and in number, but they all have the same basic ideas. 

I’ll lay out the twelve Principles as developed by David Holmgren, which he explains in more detail in his book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

Each Principle comes with a proverb that helps to explain the Principle and highlights the handed-down wisdom at its core. I’ll list Holmgren’s twelve Principles along with the proverb he assigned to each and then give a short explanation of the principle in my own words.

The 12 Permaculture Design Principles

1. Observe and Interact

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”

These days everyone seems to be in a rush. We jump into things with the modern-day expectations of instant gratification and wanting things done yesterday. But when we slow down to observe our surroundings we can interact with our environments appropriately to better serve our needs.

2. Catch and Store Energy

“Make hay while the sun shines.”

Free energy is all around us, but it’s not always available when it’s needed. If we design systems to capture energy when it is available, we will have those resources in times of scarcity. Capture and storage systems include things such as high-tech solar panels and battery banks, thermal mass walls, and growing plants.

3. Obtain a Yield

“You can’t work on an empty stomach.”

Sustainably providing all the needs of humanity is a tall order. So our permaculture systems must produce a benefit from all the work we put in. The yields may be tangible, like food, or intangible, like enjoyment and improved mental health.

4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback

“The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation.”

To stay on track and keep our systems functioning optimally, we need to understand what’s working and what’s not, then make appropriate adjustments. 

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

“Let nature take its course.”

Nature provides many resources, some finite such as fossil fuels, and others renewable and abundant, such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy. Shifting our energy consumption to renewables reduces overconsumption and use of non-renewables, and increases our resiliency as we enter energy descent.

6. Produce No Waste

“Waste not, want not” or “A stitch in time saves nine.”

A zero-waste society, or even a zero-waste household, seems near impossible these days, but this shouldn’t stop us from moving toward zero-waste. Perfection is not the goal; progress is. Moving toward a zero-waste life means valuing the resources we have, using them wisely, and being mindful about the things we buy and bring into our lives. 

7. Design From Patterns to Details

“Can’t see the forest for the trees.”

We can use patterns in nature (or society) as starting points for our designs. This big-picture view provides context for design and helps us understand what details are important to develop. For example, a food forest is based on the pattern of forests in nature. The “forest” pattern forms the backbone of the food forest system, which the permaculture designer can then design in detail.

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate

“Many hands make light work.”

By bringing together different elements in the right way, relationships form between elements, creating self-supporting systems. Look at a diverse ecosystem, where every plant, animal, and microorganism has a role to play in supporting the system. In turn, each is supported by the system. In contrast, think of a monoculture field of corn and all of the inputs a farmer must coordinate in order for the crop to succeed.

With the Industrial Revolution, we separated our lives from the systems that support us, particularly food production. Our survival became dependent on things completely outside of our control. Reintegrating these systems into our backyards and communities can help us regain some of that control.

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

“Slow and steady wins the race” or “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Often, the simplest solution is the best solution. Simple tools and machines are easier to fix than high-tech ones, and smaller systems are easier to maintain than large complex ones. Also, when we want to make changes in our lives, it is most effective to take small and gradual steps, building one habit at a time.

10. Use and Value Diversity

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Diversity strengthens systems by reducing vulnerabilities. This is true in ecosystems with biodiversity — the more varieties of plants present to fill the necessary roles in an ecosystem, the more resilient it will be to threats. This is also true in societies with cultural diversity – with more perspectives and areas of knowledge, societies will better overcome obstacles.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

“Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.”

Edges are the interfaces between different landscapes, and where we find the greatest diversity. A pond’s edge, a river delta, and the edge of a forest all have an abundance of activity. The most exciting things happen at the edges. Cultural progress is accelerated at the fringes of society. The greatest innovations come out of pushing the boundaries of what is known. 

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

“Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.”

Change is inevitable, whether it is a cyclical change of seasons or a gradual change of circumstances over time. By careful observation, we can anticipate change and develop our designs appropriately.

Old Ways of Thinking Revived (For a Better Future)

These concepts aren’t new, but forgotten bits of knowledge and common sense that allowed people to live in harmony with the natural order of things on planet Earth for so long. With practice, we can regain some of that knowledge and build back sustainable systems to support ourselves and our communities.

Permaculture is becoming increasingly important as we move into the future, with the pressing concerns of the pandemic, climate disaster, and potential economic collapse. I’m not trying to paint a doomsday picture, but it is important to look at the future with open eyes. Remember the twelfth Principle, “Use and Respond to Change.” Our world is changing and the way we’ve been doing things isn’t going to keep working. We can’t realistically jump in and change how we do everything all at once but we can find Slow and Small Solutions that incrementally make our lifestyles more sustainable (and likely more fulfilling).

Hopefully now if someone on the street asks you, “what is permaculture?” you’ll be able to answer them and spread the awareness!

For more reading on permaculture, from the source, I recommend reading Holmgren’s Essence of Permaculture. It’s well worth the read.

If you’re excited to get into permaculture then I’d like to give you a virtual high-five. There are so many ways individuals can bring permaculture into their lives, so find what speaks to you and works with your life, and jump in.


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