How Permaculture Works

This German farm may be successful, but is it sustainable? How many outside resources, such as gasoline, pesticides and fertilizer, does it require?
Gordon Gahan/National Geographic/Getty Images

Have you ever imagined what human habitation of another planet might be like? Perhaps you envision clusters of white, cylindrical modules under the harsh Martian sun, or maybe you dream of forest-filled domes floating high above the Venusian atmosphere. Whether fueled by NASA schematics or science fiction, most visi­ons of planetary exploration involve, by necessity, closed environments shut off from the surrounding world and supported mostly by imported supplies.

It makes sense to live this way on Mars, where the natural environment doesn't support human life. There, scientists would have to artificially sustain any Earth life. But why live this way in one of Earth's own temperate zones?


You probably won't notice anyone living in the hull of a spaceship in your neighborhood. But you might find subtler examples of agriculture and landscaping that de-emphasize the natural ecosystem and establishes some other order in its place. Would that finely manicured front yard look so nice without constant gardening and irrigation? Do those acres of corn grow naturally or do they depend on gas-powered machines and an input of fertilizers, soil and pesticides?

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­These farms and lawns are unsustainable, meaning that they regularly deplete themselves of resources and depend on the import of more resources to survive. Earth is home to countless, thriving ecosystems, where nutrients and energy constantly move in self-sustaining, permanent cycles. Instead of promoting unsustainable farming systems, why don't we just stick with what works?

This is where permaculture (permanent agriculture) comes into play. It centers on the theory that human habitats and food production systems don't have to artificially exist outside of natural ecological systems. This is a holistic approach, meaning that it views humans as a part of the larger ecological system and not as something standing separately.

In this article, we'll look at the origins of permaculture, its various applications and some examples of how permaculture allows for a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly way of life.



The Permaculture Movement

A woman harvests organically grown eggplants on a New York community farm, which is based around the principles of sustainability and environmentalism.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images News/Getty Images

While it's a far cry from viewing the environment as a hostile foe to be conquered, permaculture also shouldn't be confused as a return to the days of scavenging for berries. Think of an ecological system as a river. The aim of permaculture is not to swim against the current or let it sweep you powerlessly down the stream. Like a boat floating down a current, permaculture, ideally, is sustained by the system it navigates without letting it dictate every detail of its course.

Permaculturists push for integrated farming and ecological engineering which, in theory, allow farms and communities to pursue their own ends in a way that works with, not against, their environment.


Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren introduced the word "permaculture" in 1978 [source: Diver]. The duo developed the concept as a new, self-sustaining alternative to conventional agriculture, which typically involves focusing large amounts of resources on the mass production of a single crop.

The permaculture movement follows three basic ethics:

  1. Care for the Earth: This recognizes the importance of all living and non-living components of a planet, from plants and animals to minerals and air. It also entails a basic life ethic, which recognizes that every living being has value in that it fulfills some basic role in the ecosystem.
  1. Care for people: This advocates the importance of community involvement and that access to resources is a basic human right.
  1. Setting limits on population and consumption: This recognizes the importance of reinvesting surplus labor, money, information and energy into care for the planet and the human populations living on it.

While the term may be less than a century old, many of the ideas behind permaculture have been around for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations practiced such growing strategies as planting multiple crops, forest farming, crop rotation and composting long before environmentalism came into being. In this sense, permaculture isn't as much a radically new way of farming, as a melding of traditional, commonsense agricultural methods with modern ones.

Since the late 1970s, the permaculture movement has expanded out of Australia. Enthusiasts continue to push for mainstream acceptance of permaculture values throughout the world. Today, efforts range from the small-scale implication of permaculture design principles in household gardens to wide-scale, full-farm initiatives and permaculture communities. A number of permaculture programs and institutes boast their own functioning permaculture farms, as well as offer texts and classes for interested farmers.

Permaculturists pursue their ideals by following a number of key design principles. Read the next page to learn all about the different strategies that go into building a permaculture farm.


Permaculture Design Principles

The movement not only involves chemical-free organic farming, but also a number of key permaculture design principles aimed at keeping modern farming methods streamlined with nature.

  • Zones: This involves the division of areas on a farm based on movement and the amount of human attention required for different areas. Think of a permaculture farm as a circle with a farm in the center. Dividing a farm into zones involves arranging farm activities into a series of concentric rings moving out from the center. The higher the human traffic required for the activity, the closer that zone is to the center. © TurnerPermaculturists believe the best way to raise plants and animals is to follow nature's examples.
  • Sectors: This is another method of arranging the location of farming activities, this time based on the flow of necessary energies or resources from a given point, such as a farm house. Imagine the farm as a pizza. Each triangular slice is a sector radiating from the center. Permaculturists attempt to arrange farm activities so that each area has easy access to the center.
  • Relative location: This principle involves the thoughtful planning of both zones and sectors based on where they are in relation to each other. Permaculturists aim to position these elements in a way that maximizes energy usage and minimizes waste. An example would be planting crops downhill from a pond to allow for easy irrigation without the need for a pumping system.
  • Single elements with multiple functions: To maximize efficiency, permaculturists place farm elements in a way to encourage the performance of multiple functions. For instance, a properly positioned pond can supply irrigation and fence in livestock. The right choice in a hedge plant could provide wind protection and produce seeds to feed poultry.
  • Single functions from multiple elements: If a function is important, make sure multiple elements can supply it -- think of it as having a backup plan built into the farm. This involves backing up feed crops with edible fodder trees or using a pond to help irrigate during drought.
  • Energy efficiency: Permaculture calls for the input of as little energy as necessary from outside the farm. Energy-efficient designs, like using solar or wind power, help make this possible by wasting very little.
  • Biological resources: Whenever possible, leave farm work to more efficient, non-human elements. This involves the use of animals for tasks like weed control, pest control and fertilizer production. Using wasps to control plant parasites and manure to nourish crops is an example of this principle.
  • Plant succession: In a natural environment, plant populations develop over time, transforming from fields and weeds to include progressively larger plants. Ultimately, they develop into a forest. Permaculturists plant a variety of crops with this in mind, growing fruit and nut-bearing trees alongside short-lived food plants. In this example, the land is still bearing fruit and enriching the soil while the trees grow to maturity.
  • Nutrient recycling: This involves using the ecosystem within the farm to replenish nutrients instead of relying on imports. A good example would be composting organic matter and using manure as fertilizer.
  • Diversity: Permaculture encourages raising multiple crops and farm animals to prevent farmers from becoming dependent on one product. This way, fluctuating market prices or breed-specific illnesses are less likely to have catastrophic results.

On the next page, we'll examine some of the ways in which permaculturists have carried out their ideals.



Permaculture in Action

A Yanomami Indian weeds a forest garden in the Amazon, illustrating how permaculture practices existed long before the term itself.
Victor Englebert/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Farmers eager to try permaculture don't just set out with a list of principles and hope to make the best of it. Permaculture texts and classes encourage a slow adoption of permaculture practices following careful observation and study of what would work best for a specific piece of land. Some permaculture farms eventually reach levels of full-time sustainability, while others focus on particular areas of their farms. Results vary as farmers continue to explore methods that follow the principles of permaculture design.

While full-scale permaculture farms are mostly found among activists and educators of the movement, many of their methods have gained widespread usage. It's now easy to see examples of permaculture in action. Planting a forest garden, for example, is a permaculture activity available to anyone with lawn space. A forest garden is simply a food garden created to imitate a natural forest. This cuts out gardening chores like tillage and crop rotation. To start a forest garden, choose a selection of food plants and soil-enriching plants that work well with each other in a forest system. This consists of four layers:


  1. Trees make up the largest part of a forest garden and soak up the full light of day through a wide canopy of leafy branches.
  1. Shrubs such as blackberry and raspberry bushes thrive in the tree canopy's shade.
  1. Vines grow in the shade but also climb up trees to benefit from full sunlight.
  1. Ground plants such as strawberries and lettuce grow in the shade on the forest floor and cover remaining available ground.

As highly developed urban areas continue to grow and depend increasingly on food imports, permaculturists and architects have begun to explore the application of urban permaculture. This involves applying the principles of permaculture design to urban settings. The aim is to make cities greener with higher degrees of sustainability. Examples include buildings that support outside plant life, backyard and balcony gardens, and energy-saving green initiatives such as the installation of gray water reclamation systems.

The permaculture movement has its critics. Some dispute the possible crop yields forest gardening can offer and criticize some studies' alleged lack of comparative figures between permaculture and contemporary agriculture.

Also, the use of exotic plants in permaculture has provided a great deal of controversy. Many permaculturists, including co-founder Bill Mollison, have pushed for the import and use of exotic plants to create effective systems. The problem, critics argue, is that many of these plants could become major weed pests and potentially push out native plant species.

Critics charge that the introduction of exotic plant species could inflict considerable damage on natural ecosystems. In answer to this, many permaculturists stress the use of native plants whenever possible. Still others, including Mollison, insist that modern agriculture has damaged Earth to such a point that providing for a sustainable future is more important than preserving current ecosystems.

Want to learn more about how to apply the permaculture principles to your own yard? Explore the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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  • Beck, Travis and Martin F. Quigley. "Forest Gardening in Ohio." Ohio State University Extension. (June 10, 2008)
  • Diver, Steve. "Introduction to Permaculture: Concepts and Resources." National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. May 1996. (May 30, 2008)
  • Fisher, Mark. "Not seeing the woods from the trees." Self-Willed Land. January 2002. (June 10, 2008)
  • Holmgren, David. "Weeds or Wild Nature?" Permaculture International Journal. Dec-Feb 1997. (June 10, 2008)
  • Quinney, John. "Designing Sustainable Small Farms and Homesteads." Mother Earth News. (May 30, 2008)
  • Robinson, Joe. "Guerrilla gardener movement takes root in L.A. area." The Baltimore Sun. May 29, 2008.,0,5092460.story
  • Tapner, Catherine. "Holistic permaculture looks at whole system." The Peterborough Examiner. May 28, 2008. (May 30, 2008)
  • Ussery, Harvey. "Plant an Edible Forest Garden." Mother Earth News. Aug. 1, 2007. (June 10, 2008)