Permaculture: A Brief Introduction

Wikis > Permaculture: A Brief Introduction

People often think that permaculture is about gardening or farming. Indeed, healthy and sustainable food production systems are very important, but that is only one part of the complex whole of sustainable communities. In fact, the term ‘permaculture’ is a contraction of the words ‘permanent agriculture’ and ‘permanent culture.’ This sheds light on the fact that permaculture is not just about agricultural systems, but indeed is concerned with meeting all of society’s needs in sustainable ways.

Permaculture is a philosophy that informs an approach to planning, designing, building, and maintaining sustainable systems, the ultimate expression of which would be sustainable communities. It focuses on efficiently satisfying true human needs (not to be confused with consumer-induced ‘wants’) and nonhuman needs, through a co-creative process with nature and other people. Permaculture draws on the knowledge of natural systems, and attempts to emulate their diversity, resilience, stability, and abundance, through the application of six basic permaculture principles.

1. Use Nature as Your Model

Natural, physical, and biological processes in individuals, populations, and communities are the model for permaculture design. Observe, intuit, and replicate natural patterns in human-constructed systems, working co-creatively with nature.

Use biological resources to perform work, save energy, and produce needed materials. For example, you can use free-range chickens or ducks to control insects, fertilize soil, and produce food.

Create diversity: maximize the ‘edges’ in a system. The transitions between two types of terrain, such as where a forest meets a field or where the sides of a pond meet the land, are highly productive biological areas, called edges. To this end, use irregularly wavy edges, vertical planting, and create different habitat types in your landscape (grasslands, forests, wetlands, ponds, etc.).

2. Emphasize Connections and Create Redundancy

Every component should perform multiple functions. Design so that each element you introduce has at least three uses. Examples include: (a) a hedge could serve as a windbreak, a visual barrier, a wildlife habitat, and a producer of human food; (b) a building used for human habitation could also have water collection off the roof and support vertical and rooftop gardens; and (c) chickens can be very helpful in producing heat and carbon dioxide in greenhouses, and they also provide human food, provide feathers, and eat insects (see diagram below).

Design so that each function (such as heat, electricity, and water) is supported by many elements. Heat can be generated through burning biomass (for example, sustainably harvested wood) and also through passively captured solar energy; electricity can be provided through solar cells and through wind and water turbines; and water can be provided from a flowing stream, pumped from a well, or harvested from roofs.

Recognize that it is the connections that matter. Set up working relationships among plants, animals, people, land, and structures so that the needs of one component are met by the yields of another component.

3. Plan for Relative Locations

Place components of the design in relation to each other, to make useful connections.

Use the principle of ‘zones.’ Permaculture divides space into zones based on human usage patterns. Place elements of your design according to how often you will use or need to visit them. For example, ‘zone 1’ would be the area immediately surrounding a dwelling, which gets the most human traffic. That is where you would want elements that you use every day to be placed, such as the location of your herb bed and composter.

Design small-scale, intensive systems.

Start with your back door, and work outward.

4. Design for ‘Wild’ Energies Coming Onto Site

Design your site to work with the patterns and effects of incoming energies, such as sun, wind, precipitation, fire, noise, and smell.

5. Design for Energy Cycling

Catch, store, use, and cycle energy at its highest point of potential energy on site. For example, place water catchment systems at the highest elevation possible; gravity will work for you and you will have the most opportunity to work with the water as it flows through the system.

6. Ethics

Care of the Earth and its people are fundamental tenets of permaculture.

Look to the distribution of surplus, with a distinction between needs and wants.

Permaculture can help to facilitate a transition to more sustainable communities by helping us to provide for our food, water, shelter, energy, and livelihood in an interconnected web of relationships. Permaculture is not only about the process of planning and designing, building and maintaining sustainable communities, permaculture is sustainable communities.

(Please see the ‘Sustainability and the Environment’ section of the Recommended Reading List for books on permaculture.)

Author Biography
Jillian Hovey is a facilitator of sustainable community planning and design and permaculture education. She is based in community in the Great Lakes bioregion, and consults and teaches across ‘Turtle Island.’ She is available to help you and your community become more sustainable in holistic ways: everything from community agreements and land trusts, to gray water systems and composting toilets, to natural building materials and renewable energy systems, and organic gardening and farming. Tel: 416-488-4425. Email:,