Discovering Permaculture

by Liz Beavis
You might have heard of permaculture and have a vague ideas that is something to do with organic gardening and designing systems to recycle and minimise waste, and working out where to put your chicken pen in the relation to the compost heap, or something...... It wasn't until someone asked me what it was that I realised I didn't actually know enough to explain it myself, so, in a quest to inform myself, I bought a book. I didn't really know where to start so I just looked for a recent book by the founders of permaculture (Bill Mollison and David Holmgren) and I ended up with Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren.

I soon discovered that this book was far from a beginners guide! Its taken me a long time to start reading it properly, but I was lucky to have a few helpful comments on my blog by some people who know more about permaculture than I do and those comments finally put the book in perspective (even though they didn't know I was trying to read it).
I think I can now answer the question "what is permaculture?", because this book really describes how to apply permaculture to all aspects of life, explaining the philosophy rather than the practical aspects, I still can't answer the question "what practical permaculture ideas can I use to improve my farm?"! I think that will come later from a different book. Now that I realise what permaculture is all about I'm really excited about finding out more, and I think its the perfect time, now that we have a new farm and house to design.

What is permaculture?

This question is difficult to answer because permaculture means slightly different things to different people and because it is a field of science (social science as well as pure science) that is constantly evolving.

The word itself it derived from "permanent" "agriculture" and "culture".

Some descriptions of permaculture from the interwebs:

  • Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. (
  • Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and design principles which can be used to guide efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future. (
  • Permaculture is a practical concept applicable from the balcony to the farm, from the city to the wilderness. It enables people to establish productive environments providing for food, energy, shelter, material and non-material needs, as well as the social and economic infrastructures which support them. Permaculture means thinking carefully about our environment, our use of resources and how we supply our needs. It aims to create systems that will sustain not only for the present, but for future generations. definition from Permaculture International Journal ( 
  • Another good introduction article here. My definition - permaculture is about designing a way of living within our means (natural and financial) so that we are prepared if/when we can no longer rely on the supply chain to provide our needs. This means building resilient communities as well as considering how food, energy, fibre and shelter needs can be produced sustainably and locally in the long term.


Who's who in permaculture

For someone who wasn't involved in permaculture from the start, it can be difficult to figure out all the different characters and ideas that have participated since the concepts were first developed. Fortunately I found a very detailed explanation, which did help me to understand how permaculture was developed and how it has changed from the original ideas.

My understanding is that permaculture was first proposed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and first discussed publicly in 1976, as a result of the turmoil of the 60s and 70s and worries of resource and energy scarcity. The first book "Permaculture One" was published in 1978 by both originators, however since then they have worked separately, and many other teachers, practitioners and authors have joined them, both in Australia and overseas.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren

I have borrowed from a friend Bill Mollison's book "Permaculture – A Designers’ Manual" (although he has published about 17 books (that I could find on Amazon, maybe more), this seems to be the most popular), and I have read the "Introduction to Permaculture" pamphlets from Bill's original lectures.
Compared to David Holgrem's book, I find Bill's work less structured, and more prone to hyperbole, also he rarely uses references so its hard to follow where his ideas are coming from, although this does not discredit the validity of the permaculture design ideas that he discusses, and the results speak for themselves, he does have some genius ideas, he just doesn't communicate them well in my opinion.
David seems to have a more disciplined approach in regards to referencing and is more restrained, I found his book easier to read once I got into it. David references Bill throughout his book, so I assume that there's no hard feelings between them, and that David has respect for Bill's work, which gives Bill some extra credibility.

A completely un-politically correct interview with Bill Mollison, if you can put up with early life without cars in a Tasmanian village, he does have some good points.....

Two aspects to permaculture

To me, there seem to be two aspects to permaculture, the overarching ethics and principles, or philosophy of permaculture, that can apply to every aspect of life, rather than just gardening or farming, and the design ideas, such as hugelkultur, swales, food forests, chicken tractors, seed saving and rocket stoves and many more, which are relevant to specific climates and locations only.
I'm looking forward to learning more about these design ideas and how to apply them to Cheslyn Rise, being able to start a new property from scratch is a very exciting prospect! The important thing is that you can take from permaculture whatever is useful to your own life, you don't have to accept the entire philosophy, you can just pick out design ideas that you like, or you can use it as a basis for all your life decisions, it is very flexible.

Permatulture Ethics

Permaculture is based on three ethics: earth care (sustaining natural systems), people care (making the products of natural systems available to people) and fair share (governing our needs to that resources are available to all), and as far as I can find out, these ethics were expounded right from the outset.

Permaculture Principles

The permaculture principles appear to have evolved, from a list of 34 from Bill Mollison, to the 12 principles proposed by David Holmgren. Both lists are self-contained, but are complimentary rather than mutually exclusive. Permaculturalists can benefit from the consideration and application of the principles in both lists.
Taking notes and records of weather patterns, vegetation, water movement etc, and making small changes (interact) and watching for the results.  This is an ongoing process, though particularly important before any major work starts.  It is a great habit to get into, and we are still a bit slack with keeping records, it is surprising how quickly you forget things too!

Catch and Store Energy
Setting up long-term storage of energy, including water and soil fertility.  This is about planning ahead and making larger investments of time/effort/money to prepare for the future.

Obtain a Yield
Producing something useful in the short-term.  Thinking about how to gain some benefit immediately so that you can keep working towards the longer term plan, especially using succession.  For example growing smaller shrubs and veges in an orchard while the fruit trees are growing to maturity.

Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
Considering what we really need and what we could do differently.  This can be a gradually process of change as the possibilities for producing more and consuming less become more obvious.

Use and Value Renewable Resources
Taking advantage of all that free-energy from the sun in the form of passive solar energy and biomass.  It may take a few changes, but once you realise the benefits of free resources, you will find ways to use them!

Produce no Waste
This principle seems easy, but the challenge is NO waste, not just more recycling, this can result in some very creative thinking.

Design from Patterns to Details
Thinking about arranging your life and your property in a broader sense and then working towards the details.  I still find this principle difficult to explain.

Integrate, Rather than Segregate
Separate areas of your production can work together, for example, we harvest veges from the garden, the scraps go to the worm farm, the worm wee fertilises the garden, the worms are fed to the chickens, we eat the chicken eggs, this means we don't have to buy veges, fertiliser or eggs.  Also, our use of chicken tractors to move the chickens over the pasture means that their manure is spread out and we don't have to clean our chicken coops.

Use Small and Slow Solutions
Big and fast solutions are expensive in money and energy and can have adverse effects.  Think about using human-power and nature to slowly change things, and you are less likely to disrupt a system entirely.

Use and Value Diversity
I think this is my favourite principle!  Pete and I think about this a lot, and we try to create diversity in many areas of our life, this means planning to have many different ways to satisfy our needs as well as each different thing we do serving many purposes.  For example we produce protien on our farm in the form of beef, chicken and eggs.  And from the beef we also get tallow for soap making, hides for rugs and bones for the dogs.

Use Edges and Value the Marginal
The edges have much potential, and often the marginal is just not valued by others, but can still be useful.  Our property was on the market for 2 years before we bought it because it had too many trees, but that is something that we value.

Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Anticipating and working with change, generating change for positive results and adapting to change that we can't control. 

A far more lucid discussion from David Holmgren about a transition to a future with less energy....

Adapting to an uncertain future

In general, permaculature is all about finding ways to adapt to life without fossil fuels or "energy descent". I think we can all see the general chaos in financial systems, uncertainty over climate change, peak oil and resource availability, the problems are just as real now as they were in the 70s.
I don't believe that we can continue to "engineer" our way out of our problems, in fact I think that every technical/engineering solution that takes us further from nature has been a step in the wrong direction and simply caused more problems to be engineered around. I found myself agreeing with all the permaculture ethics and principles. Its exactly what I want to be doing, I just didn't know it had a name and a structure until now! 

Permaculture Design Courses (PDC)

You can also attend permaculture design courses, which I might look at eventually. Given the multitude of approaches to permaculture, I think I'd like to read widely first, rather that just learn about one person's idea of how permaculture should be applied.
If you know nothing about permaculture, I think the one thing that I want you to know is this: permaculture is a way of organising things so that you get more product from less work.  Surely you want to know more now!

The best part about permaculture is that its all common-sense, you just need to do a bit of reading and thinking and suddenly you find yourself using it all the time without even realising, its not difficult, it just requires a change of mind-set.  You need to stop consuming and start producing!

In that post I included some youtube vidoes and some book suggestions to get you started.  Then I went quiet oon permaculture for a while as I did some more reading myself.

Any suggestions of good books or courses? Any corrections or additions to my beginners' assessment of permaculture?

1 comment

  • Martin Rennhackkamp

    This is a really neat summary of what permaculture is all about! It touches on so many aspects and reaches so wide, it’s hard to summarise concisely – you’ve done well. I would highly recommend doing a residential PDC – I learnt so much and made connections with like-minded people for life!!

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