What is Permaculture?

Chances are if you garden or farm organically you have come across someone using the word permaculture.

When you look up the word permaculture you will come across many different definitions.  

One definition that I resonate with is from my favorite author on the subject, Toby Hemenway. Here it is:

Permaculture is a design approach based in science & guided by ethics that uses nature as a model for decision making.

Permaculture’s design framework can be applied to designing anything from your yard to your business. It is most widely known for its application towards developing landscapes and farms that are beautiful, need less inputs and improve the ecological health of an area. Something our yards and farms need!

Permaculture incorporates the disciplines of ecology, horticulture, biology, agriculture, architecture, appropriate technology and more into its design approach. 

It scientifically uses nature as the model for design choices. A mantra used in permaculture is, “in meeting our needs how can we work with nature, rather than against it?”  As with science, permaculture leans heavily on observing and testing hypotheses. 

The BIG picture goal of permaculture is to meet human needs while preserving and increasing ecosystem health.  It is well known that many of our pursuits to meet our human needs of food, energy and shelter do not accomplish this.

Here in Cincinnati there is an active permaculture community which I will be covering in the next post on permaculture.

First a little history:

Permaculture was co created by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the late 70’s. Bill was a professor at the University of Tasmania teaching biogeography. This is where he met David Holmgren, his student at the time.  They worked together to develop what was to become the first book detailing the core values and principles of permaculture in 1978. The book was aptly titled Permaculture One.

Mollison was inspired to develop the concept of permaculture after spending decades in the rainforests and deserts of Australia studying ecosystems.

He observed that plants naturally group themselves in mutually beneficial communities. He used this idea to develop a different approach to agriculture, one that seeks to place the right elements together so they sustain and support each other.

Since then permaculture has been a somewhat underground social/educational movement slowly spreading across the world.  

Permacultures foundation is guided by three ethics and ten design principles.

The three ethics:

Care of Earth

Care of People

Return of Surplus

Quite simply, do the actions you are pursuing help or hurt the earth, do they help or hurt people?

Return of surplus simply means taking the output of the system you design and reinvesting it back into the earth, into people or back into the system you are observing and interacting with.

These are the ground rules of permaculture.  

With those three ethics in mind here are permacultures ten main design principles.

The following are Toby Hemenways’s explanation of the principles which I find to be one of the most easily understood interpretations.

The ten design principles:

  1. Observe

  2. Connect

  3. Catch and Store and Energy and Materials

  4. Each Element Performs Multiple Functions

  5. Each Function is Supported by Multiple Elements

  6. Make the Least Change for the Greatest Effect

  7. Use Small Scale Intensive Systems

  8. Optimize Edge

  9. Collaborate with Succession

  10. Use Biological and Renewable Resources




Use protracted and thoughtful observation rather than prolonged and thoughtless action. Observe the site and its elements in all seasons. Design for specific sites, clients, and cultures.


Permaculture Principle #2 Connect.png

Use relative location: Place elements in ways that create useful relationships and time-saving connections among all parts. The number of connections among elements creates a healthy, diverse ecosystem, not the number of elements.

Catch and store energy and materials

Permaculture Principle #3_ .Catch and Store.png

Identify, collect, and hold useful flows. Every cycle is an opportunity for yield, every gradient (in slope, charge, heat, etc.) can produce energy. Re-investing resources builds capacity to capture yet more resources. Capture resources when they’re in excess and release them from storage when needed. This recycling of resources produces more stable ecosystems.

Each element performs multiple functions

Permaculture Principle #4_Element_Functions.png

Choose and place each element in a system to perform as many functions as possible. Beneficial connections between diverse components create a stable whole. Stack elements in both space and time.

Each function is supported by multiple elements

Permaculture Principle #5_Function_Elements.png

Use multiple methods to achieve important functions and to create synergies. Redundancy protects when one or more elements fail.

Make the least change for the greatest effect

Least Change.png

Find the “leverage points” in the system and intervene there, where the least work accomplishes the most change. “Thoughtful observation rather than thoughtless labor” -- Yeomans. Through observations, patterns and leverage points reveal themselves.

Use small scale, intensive systems

Permaculture Principle #7 Small Scale.png

Start at your doorstep with the smallest systems that will do the job, and build on your successes, with variations. Grow by chunking. Small-scale systems can be managed with fewer resources. Intensive systems yield maximum productivity from a smaller space.

Optimize edge  

Permaculture Principle #8_Edge.png

The edge- the intersection of two environments is the most diverse place in a system and is where energy and materials accumulate or are translated.  Increase or decrease edge as appropriate.

Collaborate with succession

Permaculture Principle #8_Succession.png

Living systems usually advance from immaturity to maturity, and if we accept this trend and align our designs with it instead of fighting it, we save work and energy.  Mature ecosystems are more diverse and productive than young ones.

Use biological and renewable resources

Permaculture Principle #10_Renewable.png

Renewable resources (usually living beings and their products) reproduce and build up over time, store energy, assist yield and interact with other elements.  Favor these over nonrenewable resources.

Click HERE to download these principles as an easy reference pdf.

Knowing these ethics and principles we can begin to look at our own yards in a different way. A way that's much more interconnected! 

Interested in how to use permaculture principles to create a lower maintenance yard, but not quite sure how? We offer consult, design and installation services and would be happy to learn more about your project. Click HERE.

Next up. A guide to Cincinnati's bustling permaculture community!