permaculture the 12 principles explained: Beginners guide

It is critical that if humans are going to survive as a race, we need to make some changes as to how we interact with the earth. The seas are full of microplastics and the precious farmland drowning chemicals, if we continue down this path, all of our chances of survival are finished. Poorly managed resources coupled with a capitalist society that places more value on money that it does the planet have led us to a breaking point. In this seemingly bleak existence, permaculture offers a ray of hope. It guides us, showing how we can co-exist with our surroundings and make a sustainable, ethical future. 

So what is permaculture?

Permaculture is defined as a hybrid of the words’ permanent + culture.’ 

Permanent means to last forever or for a very long time, being able to resist change.

Culture means the beliefs and practices of a group of people. 

The three primary assumptions make up the core of permaculture;

  • care for the earth
  •  care for people
  • only take our fair portion (return the excess to the system)

Permaculture was first proposed as a method for developing agricultural ecosystems that are sustainable and self-sufficient. Ideally, they would be systems that, once set up, needed little or no human management. The system would have the relationships in place between the plants and the environment so that generations could thrive from the symbiotic biodiversity. Permaculture often seems like a modern buzz word thrown about on Instagram and Pinterest. However, on closer inspection, it’s a concept that has a deep connection with the land and provides a solid foundation of principles for designing any project. It provides a blueprint of 12 principles for how we can live our lives beyond merely just a philosophical system. 

So What are the 12 principles of permaculture? 

David Holmgren explains excellently, the principles in his book: Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. 

1.Observe and interact. 

The land that you plan developing on needs to be studied intensely for this first principle. This takes place before any planting. It’s vital to complete this step thoroughly as its challenging to make changes later. 

You will need to study the path the sun takes, wherein your garden do you have a shadow? And where do you have full sun? Is there any part of your land that is dry or waterlogged? What about the soil drainage? Soil pH? The contours of the land, etc. 

Once you have all of this information, draw a plan of the land; from this plan, you can designate plants and animals to different areas depending on their needs. 

The biological world moves in predictable patterns. Once we understand these patterns, we can take advantage of them. For example, we were planting flowers around fruit trees to attract bees so they can cross-pollinate. Simbiotic relationships, the bees are happy because they have access to pollen, we are pleased as we can get the bounty from the fruit.

2.Catch and store energy.

In Naturally successful areas, the ecosystems have developed mechanisms to trap and store energy and nutrients in different forms. Plants capture energy in the form of sunlight, and the ground absorbs reserves of water in deep groundwater aquifers beyond the recycling mechanisms of plants or landscapes. Finally, nutrients and carbon are trapped in the soil to create a sink of reserves when needed. In balanced ecosystems, nature always has energy stores. 

Natures energy storage is what we need to replicate. If we manipulate our landscapes by observing how nature captures and stores energy, we can mimic this sustainable system. Permaculture strategies for capturing and storing energy in the landscape can be grouped under four broad headings: water, living soil, trees, and seed.

A basic permaculture strategy for catching and storing energy in the landscape could be;

Water; can be stored by building reservoirs, dams, swales, tanks, cisterns, and other structures, even by capturing and reusing rainwater in your houses. I have just created a raised bed that connects to a roof rainwater system.  

Living Soil; Living soil has a fantastic structure brimming with humus, with the ability to store water, minerals, and carbon. 

Recently we have depleted the soils. We can rebuild them by continuously adding humus and organic matter, returning all-natural waste to the land either directly or via animals. This ensures the soil stays in the same conditions as found in nature. Earth should never be bare, its always covered by some type of mulch. 

Trees; Trees were originally thought of as a problem for farming, but now studies are showing that they efficiently absorb and store water and nutrients that might other­ wise be lost by plants. Permaculture systems are now including strategically placed trees to take advantage of these benefits. 

Seeds; Vegetables and crops are at the center of sustainable culture. These crops produce an incredible amount of seed. Maintaining this seed line is crucial for growers. To keep the cycle, allow a limited variety of locally hardy crops, only letting some self-sow each year is all that is needed.

3.Obtain a yield

Because quite literally, you can’t work on an empty stomach, growing a garden full of inedibles would defeat the purpose. 

The original Permaculture vision promoted by Bill Mollison (David Holmgren’s teacher) concentrated on growing gardens full of food rather than useless ornamentals. Going even deeper into the principles, we want to obtain the maximum yield while still maintaining the gentle balance found in nature. Just because we have good results with a particular apple tree doesn’t mean we should cut down everything else and plant the whole plot out with this one tree. This concept has been seen in mass agriculture and isn’t sustainable. In permaculture, everything needs to be in balance. The good results from the apple tree could be because the bean plant next to it is providing nitrogen for the soil, or the flowers are attracting birds and bees to help pollination. 

4.Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.

Obtaining a yield is an example of a positive feedback system. If you get healthy fruit, the system works and should continue. 

There is also a negative feedback mechanism, acting as a buffer to protect the delicate ecosystems from predators, pests, and diseases. The negative feedback system regulates this by controlling the species populations. 

With a proper understanding of positive and negative feedback, we can design self-regulating systems reducing the number of corrective measures taken to manage the land. Self-maintaining systems are the pinnacle of permaculture and its something so finely balanced that it might never be achieved. 

5.Use and value renewable resources and services.

Renewable resources can be replenished via natural mechanisms without the need for any other input. e.g., pruning branches from a tree for firewood. Eventually, the tree will grow back. 

Renewable services are passive and are benefits we gain from plants, animals, and living soil and water without them being consumed. Such as shade from a tree, plants reducing CO2, or animals fertilizing the land. 

Overall, permaculture design should limit the consumption of unrenewable sources and focus on renewable. By using sources such as the sun, wind, or water, we can power our homes, farm, and even regenerate fragile ecosystems. So a simple way to implement this principle would be to stop using fossil fuels and switch to generating solar energy as a way of living more sustainably. 

6.Produce no waste.

Bill Mollison defines pollutants as “output of any system component that is not being used productively by any other component of the system.” We need to look at the waste that comes out of our system and design solutions to reduce or minimize them. For example, a slug outbreak in a garden can be controlled by ducks. 

Producing zero waste is possible, and many people have managed this feat. We can start by trying to recycle everything that goes into our household rubbish bin. A lot of waste can simply be composted, old items donated, and a successful strategy can even be to focus on consuming less. In 2020 the real enemy is single-use plastics, knowing this can allow us to develop solutions, such as using flasks filled with water form my home instead of buying bottled water. 

7.Design from patterns to details.

Bill Mollison’s introduction to patterns in nature offers many applications in permaculture design and shows the potential of this principle. He searched for patterns in nature that took us beyond the current way of thinking. 

The Permaculture design strategy of building self-sufficient food forests focused on species diversity is the best design application we have seen for this principle. These systems work well, especially in subtropical and tropical areas, where they have been very productive. 

To simplify things, Bill broke down permaculture sites into design zones. His model emphasizes a central point on the plot, which is generally a dwelling or other building. This is zone 0, the homestead. The areas immediately surrounding the building are zones 1 and 2, these zones are used for the fully irrigated garden (zone 1) and fully irrigated orchards (zone 2) that includes any livestock in this zone. Zone 3 is commercial crops and larger livestock, and zone 4 is the forests and wetlands. 

Basically, 1&2 are the most labor-intensive areas, so they are located close to the homestead. It would be inefficient for them to be elsewhere on the plot as the gardener/farmer would lose too much time walking and carrying between tasks. It’s all about functionality. The further away you get from the homestead, the less work is needed in that area. e.g., a forest in zone 4 might just be left wild. Zone 1 and 2 are limited in space as its labor is intense. Zone 3 and 4 could be 1,000’s of acres. 

8. Integrate rather than segregate.

Plants produce food for the animals, which then provide the fertilizer for the plants. This is a basic example of a closed cycle of flowing material through a system. Animals eat more plants and they then produce more fertilizer, which results in more plant growth, and so on. The material flows are cyclical rather than linear. Linear flows of material are examples of non-renewable systems, e.g. consumerism. In contrast cyclical energy is renewable, its the latter that we should be aiming for. 

Planting polycultures (guilds of plants that work together) is a perfect example of integration, such as the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash). The Native Americans discovered that these plants live in a symbiotic relationship embodying the permaculture principles;

  • The corn offers the beans the support they need.
  • The beans, pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil for the benefit of all three plants. 
  • As the beans grow through the tangle of squash vines and wind their way up the cornstalks into the sunlight, they hold the plants close together.
  • The large leaves of the sprawling squash protect the threesome by creating a living mulch that shades the soil, keeping it fresh and moist and preventing weeds.
  • The prickly squash leaves also keep away raccoons and other pests, which don’t like to step on them.

9. Use small and slow solutions.

Start small and slow is advice worth listening too; so many people, when they get a piece of land, want to do everything at the same time and often feel overwhelmed. Food gardens are the best example of a small scale agricultural operation—many plants clustered into a small space with a high yield per square meter. 

Small and slow solutions optimize the use of energy, some other examples from Holmgren’s book are;

  • Stacking plants on different growing layers to make maximum use of resources. e.g., the three sisters growing method. 
  • Multi-purpose buildings and lands to allow more functions in less space. 
  • Growing backyard crops.
  • traveling by bicycle

10. Use and value diversity. 

After years of farming the same crops in the same fields, it’s now universally accepted that monoculture makes the crops vulnerable to pests and disease. Farmers were forced to use toxic pesticides to control these outbreaks creating a vicious circle of pesticide use. Once way permaculture combats this problem is by using diversity. Diverse systems are more resistant to disease and should be one of the most replicated principles of permaculture. It could be implemented simply by planting different varieties of tomatoes. Not only would the garden be resistant to pests but also would be better suited to temperature changes, frost, soil pH variations, and drought. 

Holmgren said, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” as this provides insurance against the unpredictable nature of everyday life.

11. Use edges and value the marginal.

Using the edges of a plot can give us access to more space. A lot of permaculture farmers use the edges for food trees as they offer windbreaks and provide a source of food. 

From the 15th century until the modern-day in Madeira, Portugal, they have been farming on rocky mountain faces making use of the edges and thinking outside the box. On paper, this land looks like it would be impossible to farm; it’s on steep mountain cliff faces with little or no soil. They packed the land with soil and used wood to make terraces— significantly increasing agricultural productivity on the island.  

12. Creatively use and respond to change.

Being a permaculturist or even just using the design principles means we always need to be ready for change—events such as changing seasons, changing climates, and even changing attitudes. Stability is an essential aspect of Perma­nent-culture, but when necessary, ecosystems change to adapt and survive, and so should we. 

Evolution in a permaculture context goes much further than just the potential to adapting to a new species. We must apply the concept of creativity and change to other areas of life, such as businesses, organizations, communities, and cultures. This gives a broader view of Darwinian evolution, which permaculturists believe can be applied to anything in life, not just to nature. 

These 12 principles are a fantastic starting point for any budding permaculturist and for anyone who wants to make changes in their lives. I have tried to put examples when I can to show how thought can translate into action—ultimately leading to a more ethical – and holistically sustainable – way of life.

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