What is Permaculture?

What is permaculture…?

What is the difference between permaculture and organic gardening…?
These are questions frequently asked but not always adequately answered – and the answers can vary wildly depending upon who you ask.


 Permaculture is primarily about design –

– it’s about designing sustainable environments with the focus being on how we provide our needs in a way that works with nature’s processes and ecology. Based on the words Permanent (as in sustainable) and Culture (including agri-culture), Permaculture addresses all aspects of human culture, not only food production but how we build, how we organise ourselves and how we utilise all our resources including the human resource.

While organic gardening is certainly an important part of permaculture in practice, you couldn’t call an organic garden a “permaculture” unless it’s been permaculture designed, in which case it will be much more than just a productive organic garden. In addition to growing food, it will have habitats for wildlife, birds and pest predators; it will consider the elements, wind, sun and fire in creating microclimates for plants, animals and for the home; it will address the cycles of water, nutrients and energy from inside the home, throughout the garden and beyond; it will regard the home and garden as an integral part of the wider neighbourhood, water catchment and bioregion.

It helps to understand the difference between design, strategy and technique.

Techniques are the “how-to-do” something, like various composting systems, how to set up an irrigation or watering system, different methods of mulching and planting, building a chicken tractor and so on.

Permaculture home garden in Havana, Cuba
Permaculture home garden in Havana, Cuba

Strategy is about “how and when”, the timing and sequence of jobs and events. Like my food forest, the strategy was inspired by the ecological process of natural forest succession. In the first year I planted fast-growing pigeon pea bushes and longer-term tree legumes to provide shade, frost protection, mulch and nutrients. The next year fruit trees were planted under the shade of the pigeon peas. Two years later the tree legumes were taller than the pigeon peas and the young fruit trees getting a little crowded so the pigeon peas were cut back or removed making room to plant the understory. Now the pigeon peas are entirely gone, the understory and ground covers are well established suppressing the weeds, and the fruit trees are starting to bear under the tree legume canopy. Next year I’ll be cutting out half of the tree legumes to release all that natural nitrogen they’ve been storing in the soil and to let in more light for the fruit trees as they mature.

Design is about where we place things in relationship to each other and how we integrate the connections between them. It’s where we place the food forest in relationship to the whole garden or farm, and the way we pattern the relative placement of the plants, paths, water and other elements within the food forest itself.??I have placed my chickens next to the vegetable garden so I can easily throw the weeds to them and it’s not far to move their manure into the garden. The chickens have access to a small food forest which in turn provides a wind break for the garden and if I have major weed problems in adjoining garden areas I can let the chickens in to do the work as a ‘chook tractor’.

So first comes the design, planning out “what goes where”; then we need to devise our strategies, “what happens when”; and then you select the appropriate technique for the situation.

Permaculture involves all three approaches. It is multi-dimensional – thinking and operating on all or many levels.??Before we get started though, we need to be very clear about what it is we’re trying to do or achieve. Permaculture makes us think carefully about our motives and aims and to weigh up the implications of the various ways we can realise them. Permaculture is a philosophy as well as a design system and a practical way of living.

Earthcare Ethics

At the heart of Permaculture lie three key ethics which form the bottom line for all our activities and systems. Stated simply they are

1. Care of the Earth – of all living & non-living systems, ecological regeneration and sustainability, biodiversity

2. Care of People – social justice and equity, self-reliance, co-operation, social responsibility and cultural diversity

3. Fair Share – distributing resources and surplus in an equitable way, community support and ethical economic systems, and recognising limits to growth and consumption. The concept of living within our ecological footprint is central to this ethic.

So permaculture is about earthcare, working in partnership with nature, learning the lessons of ecology and applying them to how we live. It is concerned with the well-being of all environments, from the city to the farm to the wilderness, and the interconnections between local, regional and global factors, past- present- future. Many excellent models exist for us to draw information and inspiration, in past and present traditional cultures, in natural systems, in experiments of the alternative movement, in the findings of mainstream biological sciences and disciplines.

Bill Mollison, co-founder of permaculture, once said “Permaculture wanders in the valleys between the mountains of the disciplines, where nobody else is at home.” In other words permaculture looks in particular at the relationships and interconnections between things (including the disciplines).  The architect is concerned with the house, the landscape designer with the garden, the electrician with the energy system, the plumber with the water and waste treatment, permaculture connects these all together as an interactive whole system.

The challenge to a permaculture designer is to see how these things interact and work with each other and to design them in such a way that they all work together as a whole functioning system. We need to ask how we can use all the resources in the system in the most efficient and effective way, maximise self-reliance, minimise waste and unnecessary work and reduce or eliminate any negative impacts, not only within the system itself but in relationship to the neighbourhood and wider environment and community.

The ultimate teacher is nature itself. In nature everything is connected and an ecosystem produces no waste. As one species takes care of it’s needs it is inadvertently providing the needs for something else and contributing to the system as a whole. Nature doesn’t miss an opportunity, if there’s a niche something will occupy it. In our mono-cultural, mono-functional society we find endless under-utilised niches and opportunities, and we find too many open ended systems that generate waste rather than resources for something or someone else.

Pollution is simply a resource that isn’t being productively used in the system and work is what we do to meet unsatisfied needs. Permaculture aims to reduce both pollution and work – take a closer look at how Doing Nothing-or as little as possible.

© Robyn Francis 2000
adapted from an article published in Greenhouse Living Magazine, 2000

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