What Is Permaculture?

Seriously, what is permaculture? What the heck is it?

We get asked this frequently around Whole People HQ.

If you’re tying to be truly sustainable in your living, then you’ve probably considered growing your own food in the backyard. (If you're looking for something a little larger than a kitchen garden then maybe market farming will be of interest.)

If this is the case, you may have come across the term “permaculture” and be wondering what exactly that means and how it can help you live a more eco-friendly life?

Well, we’ve got everything that you need to know right here.


What Is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a form of agriculture which is based on a holistic system that allows each element of natural ecosystems to be truly regenerative.

Permaculture principles require a certain amount of dedication and restraint to keep a permaculture system in balance.

The term was coined from the combination of “permanent” and “agriculture” (and most people still think of it as permanent agriculture to be fair) but has since been broadened to also incorporate “permanent” and “culture” – as the social aspect of permaculture is as important as the farming design and process.

Bill Mollison, the coiner of the term, has said:

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

Good Reads
what is permaculture

What Is Permaculture Good For?

There are some very specific uses for permaculture, and they offer a series of specific benefits and these include:

  • Permaculture is primarily designed to deliver an ecosystem that produces items that human beings consider to be useful, this is the main incentive to create these ecosystems, of course
  • Permaculture design can be used to rescue and restore ecosystems which are performing sub optimally or have been severely degraded. The definition of permaculture practices says that there are no ecosystems which have been so degraded that they cannot be assisted to renew with permaculture.
  • Permaculture fesign both reflects and actively encourages the knowledge and experiences gained through traditional (pre-industrial) farming methods.
  • Permaculture reflects and encourages the incorporation of knowledge from all cultures around the world. There is wisdom on drawing from as wide a sphere of understanding as possible and it prevents practitioners from having to “reinvent the wheel” in many situations.
  • Permaculture promotes “organic” practices – in the sense that it seeks to eliminate pesticides and herbicides wherever possible. This reduces the polluting impact of agricultural systems on the environment at large. A permaculture garden is all about organic gardening with natural systems such as rainwater harvesting to create sustainable agriculture.
  • Permaculture looks to create useful and productive relationships between each element of the system to give it natural resilience and strength. Renewable resources are a key part of planning for permaculture farms.
  • Permaculture incorporates aspects of the discipline of “urban planning” to improve the reach of the design system projects it can provide positive results for.
  • Permaculture application should always be unique to the site, to the client that has commissioned the work or to the individual undertaking the work and to the culture into which the project will fit. It's great to have a design sysgtem for say culinary and medicinal herbs but do they really fit? Or would it be better to plant fruit trees for food production which matches the land?

As you can see, permaculture philosophy can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

It’s not meant to be a “one size fits all” approach to agriculture but rather a bespoke solution that really makes a specific difference to the environment it is placed into.

permaculture basics

What Sort Of Technology Supports Permaculture?

As you might expect permaculture is often supported by green-tech and you might find:

You should also expect to find sustainable agricultural techniques at work. Particularly, close attention is paid to integrate perennial and annual crops to develop the “edge effect” (this is a system that increases biodiversity on the site naturally) and to enhance the overall ecosystem in a way that a mono-cultural system is never able to replicate.

They also use eco-friendly pest control and fertilizer methods. So, natural composting and biological pest control are very much at the forefront of many permaculture designs.

However, it’s vital to remember that this isn’t a “one size fits all” system and it’s quite possible for none of these techniques to be employed if they cannot be supported by the eco-system or by the people who interact with that eco-system.

Everything is site specific.


The Ethics Of Permaculture

This leads us to the last part of our guide – the ethics of permaculture which provide the guiding principles for design of permaculture systems.

Permaculture must:

  1. Care for the earth which is not limited to “living aspects” of an eco-system but also the resources found within that system.
  2. Care for people and it should encourage self-reliance as well as developing a feeling of responsibility to the planet within those people.
  3. It should seek to limit both growth and consumption. It encourages the sharing of surplus (not just products but also labor, information, etc.) with others to create other permacultures.

the ethics of permaculture

Final Thoughts

Permaculture is a simple idea which can be very complex to execute succesfully.

It’s great for the planet and for people but if you want to get it right, you’ll need to study hard and seek help from experts with specific projects.


If you're interested in starting your own permaculture farm don't miss our Guide to Sustainable Market Farming.

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