So What IS Permaculture?

’PERMACULTURE’ is a word that was originally coined in the 1970s, describing an ecologically-based design system pioneered in response to what many were coming to recognise as global challenges to the survival of all of us. Originally derived from the words ‘PERMAnent agriCULTURE’, permaculture has gone beyond it’s roots in looking at strategies to create sustainable food growing method, becoming a worldwide movement encompassing all aspects of how we as human beings can live harmoniously in relation to our Earth and it’s finite resources - A PERMAnent CULTURE. Permaculture now probably has as many definitions as there are practitioners, but one that is particularly useful might be- “CREATING SUSTAINABLE HUMAN HABITATS BY FOLLOWING NATURE’S PATTERNS”.

Permaculture is a broad based, holistic and solutions-oriented approach that has many applications to all aspects of life. It stresses patterns of co-operation rather than competition in order to achieve goals that are both ecologically sound and economically viable. The principles of permaculture can be applied to gardening, agriculture, building, ‘green’ economics, transport, waste treatment, health care, creating a livelihood, community development or personal lifestyle. At the heart of this sustainable and regenerative design practice however is a fundamental set of ‘core values’ or ethics (Earthcare, Peoplecare and Fairshares) and principles which remain constant whatever our situation, whether we are creating systems for town planning or trade, whether the land we care for is a windowbox or a 2000 hectare forest. As well as providing the tools to create greater sustainability within our lifestyles, home environments, gardens and on our land, permaculture is just as importantly about finding ways of mending community and rebuilding our fragmented society.

Permaculture isn’t about having to get your head around untold facts, figures, Latin names and complicated techniques, rather it is about recognising universal patterns and principles from the study of both the natural world and what has worked for non-industrialised sustainable societies, often for many millennia, and learning to apply these ‘ecological truisms’ to our own gardens and life situations. We can identify the underlying forms that recur throughout the natural world and learn to understand and utilise them in designed ecologies. As energy insecurity, climate change and the precarious nature of our current financial and political systems become increasingly difficult to ignore, we can apply these to a variety of circumstances and situations in order to help us transition towards what is likely to be a low energy, low carbon future.


Putting massive effort into attempting to ‘tame nature’, such as by damming valleys and flood plains or creating and maintaining bare soil by plough, is not only energy consuming, unsustainable and destructive, it is also unnecessary when we can meet the needs of people and the environment by working in harmony with, or even directly utilise, natural systems. Instead of using massive chemical inputs to control pests, why not encourage predators such as ladybirds and hover-flies to do our work for us? Or why not construct homes that utilise passive solar energy and wind power rather than building nuclear power stations?


In contrast to our prevailing ‘fast food and quick fix’ culture, permaculture is about practising protracted and thoughtful observation instead of looking for instant solutions that in the long run often cause even more damage in a situation. Rather than rushing to address what are often superficial symptoms, the first question a permaculture designer will ask is, “What is really going on here?” Are persistent aphid attacks on your runner beans due to a lack of the correct pesticides being applied, or is this a manifestation of more fundamental imbalances within the wider ecology of your garden? Are high levels of crime in your locality best tackled by installing more CCTV cameras in the street, or by addressing deeper social malaises such as inequality, poverty and social alienation? Good observation is about seeing holistically, looking at all the functions and characteristics of the plants, animals and humans in an environment and how they interact with each other, often over extended periods of time. Learn to develop and practice the skills of observation by taking time to sit back, ground yourself and watch, listen, smell, taste, feel and contemplate.


Bill Mollison once said, “You havn’t got an excess of slugs, you’ve got a duck deficiency”. In other words, it is often how we look at things that make them advantageous or not. Sometimes a simple change of perspective can help us to see that what at first appears to be a difficulty or a challenge can in fact be a gift... As another example, the arrival of wild plants on our plots is inevitable; what we do have a choice about is our approach to them. Are they ‘weeds’, against which a constant yet futile war of attrition is waged, or are they a resource, valuable in at least parts of the garden even if we don’t allow them to dominate in our productive areas? Such plants increase biodiversity, act as ‘dynamic accumulators’ (that is, they mine the sub-soil with their roots to bring up minerals that may be deficient on the surface), attract beneficial wildlife and can be harvested for compost or mulch material. Many are even edible or medicinal, or have a host of other uses and properties that are now largely forgotten. There are also many situations in life that can be transformed from adversity to opportunity when viewed from a fresh angle. For example, being made redundant from a highly paid but under-stimulating or ethically compromised job could actually provide a chance for a person to think about ‘downsizing’ their lifestyle in ways they might not otherwise have considered. Maybe they could free up time for reskilling or become more self-reliant in the quantities of fresh food they are able to grow rather than commuting to the office, or could find other ways of making a living that are more in accord with their interests and passions?


Both in nature and in human communities, patterns in time and space recur on an almost infinite number of levels. Branching patterns can be observed in the form and structure of a tree’s growth, as well as in river deltas and the central nervous and circulatory systems of vertebrates. The spiral is a mathematically derived pattern that can be seen on scales ranging from sub-atomic particles to galaxies, or from continental storm fronts to the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower head. The movement of the sun through the sky in summer and winter governs day length and the patterns of plant growth and seasonal activity. We can also determine social and human patterns that are basically unchanged since prehistoric times. These include our need for rituals and festivals that mark special occasions or the cycles of the year, or the importance we almost subconsciously place on the stories and myths that transmit intergenerational knowledge and cultural values. Being able to recognise, understand and utilise the properties of pattern – in other words working with ‘pattern language’ – is a fundamental prerequisite to developing good design skills in a multitude of contexts that might range from creating location-suitable productive gardens to successfully managing a complex community development project.


Nothing should be indispensable as it’s loss or failure can then be disastrous. If, on the other hand, every system has a back up, it can continue to function. If we give all of our land over to one crop (a monoculture) and it fails, we starve, but if we grow as wide and diverse a range of edible plants as possible (a polyculture), we still get to eat if some of them don’t make it to harvest. Similarly in our day to day lives it makes sense to learn as wide a range of skills as possible- a person who has had only one well paid but specialised job throughout their working life would be far less able to cope with being made redundant than somebody who has several smaller incomes earned from a variety of sources.


Effectively the other side of the coin… If you have learned the skills to prune apple trees, mend a computer, play the guitar, cook for a crowd, entertain children, operate a printing press, fix a downpipe, draw and paint, drive a tractor, use a word processor, install a wind generator, give a massage, juggle, run a photography workshop and build a compost bin, not only are you better able to earn a living in a variety of circumstances; YOU also become more valuable in terms of what you are able to OFFER to others…


Traditionally, ‘yield’ is thought of as quantity of material output (eg, amounts of potatoes, grain, etc) calculated against resources or effort put in, but there’s no reason why we can’t widen our definition to include information, lessons learned, experience, the health benefits of exercise and being outdoors, or even just plain fun… Within a permaculture design, we will constantly be finding new niches to utilise, new beneficial guilds, learning new techniques, trying out fresh ideas, be gathering knowledge. By comprehending and copying natural systems, we can develop techniques in order to consciously multiply such opportunities…


Unlike many contemporary cultivated gardens, nature does not neatly compartmentalise her landscapes with ornamentals growing in one place, vegetables in another and fruit trees in yet a third location. In woodland several plants such as standard and half standard trees, shrubs, climbers and ground cover occupy the same area of space, each ‘stacked’ to find it’s own requirements within it’s particular ‘level’ in the system. The Forest Garden is an attempt to replicate this ‘layering’, replacing the wild plants of the woodland with fruits, herbs, vegetables and other plants that are useful to peoplekind.

Learn more about the Permaculture Design Process here

Graham Burnett is the author of ‘Permaculture A Beginners Guide’ and The Vegan Book of Permaculture and runs regular permaculture courses.


Thanks to James Taylor/London Permaculture photo archive site for the images used above.