Permaculture Design: Part I

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Photo 1. Water-filled, 550-gallon tanks constructed of fiberglass-reinforced polyester provide thermal mass.
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Photo 2. Ponds provide fertile irrigation water for vegetable crops. 
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Ground plan for mixed small farm design. (Adapted from Permaculture Two by Bill Mollison.)
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Photo 3. Ponds also supply nutrients for hydroponic crops.
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Photo 4. The Siberian pea shrub is a multifunctional element.
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Photo 5. The creeping thymes are low-maintenance, nectar-producing alternatives to lawns.
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Photo 7. Poplars assist in erosion control.
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Photo 6. Canal-like ponds can control livestock movement.
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Photo 8. Weeding geese are biological resources.
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Photo 12. A beneficial interaction between blackberries and grapes.
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Photo 9. A successional system incorporating beans, plums and walnut trees.
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Photo 10. Competition between a hedge and a shade tree.
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Photo 11. Cedar apple rust.
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Photo D. The praying mantis is a pest predator.
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Photo C. Chickens can control caterpillars of the white cabbage butterfly.
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Photo B. Brown Chinese and White Chinese weeding geese.
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Photo A. A Maremma, a livestock guard dog breed.
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Photo E. The garden toad is another pest predator.
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Photo G. Flowers adjacent to a backyard garden attract beneficial insects.
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Photo F. A spider's web can be a means of pest control.
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Photo H. Homemade yellow-orange sticky traps complete the year-round pest-control system at the New Alchemy Institute.
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Photo I. The white nodules of the root system of the autumn olive.

The primary characteristic that distinguishes permaculture systems from conventional agriculture is the emphasis on skilled design. The placement of elements in a landscape, their relationships to each other, their evolution over time, and the ability of the system as a whole to meet the realistic goals of its managers should all be taken into consideration.

The following permaculture design guidelines are derived from texts (some of which are listed in the Permaculture Design: Part II reading list) and from our understanding of ecological principles. As such, they represent a synthesis of scientific findings and common sense, combining proven practical ideas with experimental ones. These guidelines should assist your design process, influencing your management strategies and aiding in the selection of landscape components and their relative sizes and locations.

Zones and Sectors

In permaculture systems, landscape components are divided into zones and sectors to help produce an energy-efficient design. Zones separate the site according to labor needs: Frequently visited or labor intensive areas are situated close to the center of activity (which in most cases is the farmhouse), while those requiring less attention are placed farther away. For example, as shown in Fig. 1, annuals that are tended daily–such as herbs and vegetables–are located near the farmhouse … whereas low-maintenance livestock and tree crops are situated in a more remote zone. This concept makes sense in terms of minimizing labor, and it helps ensure high yields: After all, distance invites neglect, while proximity encourages management.

In general, farm development follows the concept of zonation, as well. Distant areas are utilized only after the nearby land is put to productive use. Sector planning divides the landscape into wedge-shaped areas that radiate from a particular point (again, most often the farmhouse) or points. From any one such center, we identify some or all of the following sectors: views, both attractive and repulsive … noises, some pleasant and others undesirable … winds, warm in the summer and cold in winter … sunshine, with its seasonal variations … and fire risks.

For each sector, planting and building schemes are designed to block or channel these external inputs. Undesirable noise can be masked with earthen banks or dense bands of evergreen trees … cold winter winds can be blocked with windbreaks … fast-growing trees can screen ugly views … and deciduous shrubs and trees planted to the south can provide summer shade while still allowing the warming winter sunlight to penetrate. Looking again at Fig. 1, you can see that the roadway, poultry run, and pond have been situated so that they assist in fire control in addition to fulfilling their primary functions. Blazes coming from the southern sector would have to cross the pond, the road, and the bare ground of the poultry run before reaching the house. Placing these three components in another relationship would mean the loss of this extra control function.

Relative Location

Within zones and sectors, farm components–orchards, the market garden, farm ponds, the farmhouse, the barn, the woodlot, and so forth–should be placed in relation to one another so as to conserve labor and energy. Each component is thus viewed relatively rather than in isolation.

An earthy illustration of this concept (from times gone by) concerns the outhouse, the woodpile, and the kitchen door. Assuming at least one daily visit to the outhouse by each member, families could virtually guarantee a regular supply of fuel stacked by the stove if the woodpile was placed conveniently between the outhouse and the kitchen door.

Or, consider the relationship between placement and elevation. The higher on a slope a pond is situated, for instance, the more potential it has to provide useful work. If the pond that irrigates your raspberries is below the garden, energy must be furnished to move that water uphill … whereas if the pond is located up the slope from the berry bushes to begin with, a simple gravity-fed system is all that’s required. Similarly, rainwater collection from the roof of a barn that’s situated upland from the farmhouse might provide a simple, inexpensive supply of household water.

Taking advantage of slope isn’t a new concept, of course: Barns have traditionally been built into hillsides so that hay can easily be loaded in the loft from the high ground and manure conveniently disposed of out the low side. In other words, imported materials should enter a site at a high elevation and exports should leave downslope.

A bit of thoughtful planning as to the relative locations for homestead elements can not only conserve labor and energy, but also avoid actual catastrophe. On a farm in England, I once saw three goats tethered on pasture that was adjacent to a large vegetable garden. Because no fences separated the goats from the garden, disaster was only a broken rope away. A good design would have placed the goats at least two fences away from the vegetables.

Multiple Functions for Single Elements

Another consideration in permaculture systems is the capability of landscape elements to perform multiple functions. It’s a simple statement of economics: Place the components so that they are encouraged to provide as many services as possible. For example, in the Cape Cod Ark–a solar greenhouse-type structure at the New Alchemy Institute–water-filled 550-gallon tanks constructed of fiberglass-reinforced polyester provide thermal mass (see Photo 1). This is a common technique. However, we also use these ponds to produce fish, to provide warm, fertile irrigation water for vegetable crops (Photo 2), and to supply nutrients for hydroponic crops (Photo 3). Although our aquaculture/hydroponics system is still experimental, we have been able to produce up to 60 pounds of European cucumbers per plant from this setup.

The common hedge is another classic multifunctional element. Many species meet the basic requirements of providing wind protection, livestock control, and screening for privacy … but the Siberian pea shrub (Photo 4) can do much more. It fixes nitrogen, provides nectar for honeybees, produces seeds that contain as much as 27% protein and are an excellent poultry feed, and it’s an effective hedge.

Hedges, green manure crops, flowers, shade trees, and ground covers can all provide nectar and pollen for honeybees as well as serve their primary functions. Basswoods, for instance, are the equal of the oaks as shade trees but are far superior as a source of nectar and pollen. Another example is buckwheat, an excellent green manure crop for poor soils and a plant that’s actively worked by honeybees. And in lightly traveled areas, the creeping thymes (Photo 5) are low maintenance, nectar-producing alternatives to lawns.

Farm ponds, too, can serve many functions. They can be used for irrigation, fish farming, aquatic crops, or watering livestock. In winter, the reflection from a pond will increase the light levels in a greenhouse located north of the water … and (as mentioned before) a pond can play an integral role in a fire-protection scheme. Canal-like ponds can even act as barriers to livestock movement, limiting the range of sheep and chickens, for instance, while allowing ducks and geese to roam freely (Photo 6).

Multiple Elements for Single Functions 

As well as encouraging landscape elements to perform multiple functions, good design ensures that basic needs–such as water collection, fire protection, and food supply–are met in several ways. It’s an agricultural insurance policy, if you like. If a gardener or farmer is dependent on a single crop for livestock feed, income, or whatever, and that crop fails, the whole enterprise is endangered … whereas on a multifaceted homestead, that loss could be made up by another means.

Preparing for drought offers a good example. Livestock farmers often depend on pasture for both summer grazing and winter stores of hay or silage. When a drought occurs, however, the number of livestock that can be sustained on the pasture is decreased. Simultaneously, the cost of alternative feeds is driven up while the price of livestock plummets. A prudent design plans for drought by including fodder trees as a backup food source. These plantings, in turn, should be located so that they deliver other functions as well, such as summer shade, erosion control, and windbreaks. Photo 7 illustrates how poplars (the leaves and shoots of this tree are palatable to livestock) and pasture can provide a secure sheep feed, with the trees also assisting in controlling soil loss on the sloping site.

Biological Resources 

Another characteristic of permaculture systems is that, whenever possible, production and management inputs are derived from biological resources. In my opinion, this concept is the key to sustainable agriculture.

During the design process, consider plants and animals that can provide such functions as energy conservation; insect, disease, and weed control; nutrient recycling; fertilization; and tillage. In other words, let the work of farming be performed by the non-human elements in the system. For example, weeding geese (Photo 8) can be regarded as grazers, consumers of windfall fruits (thus aiding in disease and pest control), and sources of fertilizer . . . in addition to providing eggs, goose down, and Thanksgiving dinners. There are numerous possibilities for using biological resources.

Alternative Technologies 

Solar, wind, and other alternative technologies are also considered in permaculture plans. Options for the small farm or homestead include solar water heaters, photovoltaic systems, solar greenhouses, wind machines, methane digesters, and small hydroelectric setups, to name a few. In choosing design components, always look first for structures and systems that save or generate energy, and only then consider those that consume energy.

Of course, even solar technologies use non-renewable energy during their manufacture. However, a fossil fuel can be viewed either as an inoculant or as an addiction. The embodied petroleum fuels in greenhouse glazing, for example, create a biologically powered environment that, over its useful lifetime, will repay that initial energy investment many times. Fossil energy invested in automobiles, in contrast, requires ongoing fuel investments in order to serve the desired functions. That’s addiction.

The same distinction can be applied to soil restoration. Soluble fertilizers applied once to worn-out, eroded soil will produce a green manure crop that’s high in biomass, which in turn supplies organic matter for biologically derived fertility. In this instance, the fertilizer acts as an inoculant. Conventional farming, on the other hand, is addicted to soluble fertilizers, using them as ongoing replacements for biological fertility.


A good permaculture design also takes advantage of the fact that landscapes develop over time. Orchard trees mature, weed and insect populations change, and woodlot composition shifts. In natural ecosystems, this concept is known as succession … and it describes the process by which, for example, an abandoned field becomes inhabited with successive communities of weeds, wildflowers, shrubs, pioneer trees, and mature species until it becomes a forest.

In conventional farming, succession is frozen at an early stage by practices such as tillage, grazing, fertilizing, and pest control … all of which require energy–in the form of human labor and chemical fertilizers and pesticides–for operation. By allowing agricultural succession to occur, or even by consciously directing it, energy and nutrients can be conserved, soil losses reduced, and herbivore populations stabilized.

Simple successional systems also make economic sense. For example, annuals and short-lived perennials planted between the rows of a young orchard will furnish income while the orchard species mature. Photo 9 illustrates a system incorporating beans, plums, and walnut trees. The beans and plums will eventually be shaded out by the final crop, walnuts.

In some cases, understanding the successional process provides the clue to optimal land use. Many shrub communities actually create the environment for the succeeding tree species. Trees that follow pioneer species in a successional series, for instance, are often shade tolerant and, in fact, require a shaded environment for germination. Other pioneer species are nitrogen fixers. By building up the soil nitrogen level, these plants create a more fertile soil in which succeeding species can thrive. Such communities could be interplanted with desired trees to accelerate succession.

Nutrient Recycling

Farmers are in the import-export business. Nutrients, materials, and energy are imported, often from distant sources; then farm products carry embodied nutrients, materials, and energy off-site. The goal in permaculture is to convert such nutrient flows to cycles, both within the farm ecosystem and at the local and regional levels.

A good farm design provides for the recycling of livestock manure in composting systems, fish ponds, gardens, and orchards … retrieves leached nutrients with green manure crops … and traps and stores rainwater. At the local scale, organic refuse (such as leaves and vegetable wastes) is reclaimed from the landfills. And on the regional level, properly treated human wastes are applied to farmland as compost or sludge.


Finally, permaculture systems favor diversity over monoculture. However, because interactions among plants are both beneficial and competitive, diversity in and of itself is not as important as the right kind of diversity. Plant relationships take many forms, including competition for light, nutrients, water, and pollinators … relative attractiveness as food sources for insects … and chemical interactions. Photo 10 shows the competition between a hedge and a shade tree for nutrients, water, and light (the tree seems to be winning this one). As another example, in the eastern United States planting apples in the vicinity of red cedar will almost inevitably result in apples afflicted with cedar apple rust (Photo 11). Thus, less diversity–in this case, no cedars within half a mile of the orchard species–sometimes results in higher productivity.

In other words, the number of elements in the landscape is not as important as the number and quality of the linkages among them. Good design maximizes the number of beneficial interactions among plants, structures, and people while minimizing or eliminating those interactions that are harmful. Such a setup is shown in Photo 12: Grapes and blackberries are grown in close proximity in a northern California vineyard, a wise combination because the blackberries attract a parasite of a major grape pest.

Diversity can also be considered from an economic standpoint. With farmers’ incomes dependent on the vagaries of the marketplace, having several salable products instead of one tends to avoid large (and possibly disastrous) fluctuations in financial returns. As prices vary, some farm commodities can be held or sold to maximize profit. Of course, once your lettuce is in the ground, it must be marketed as it matures. But livestock and pasture crops permit flexibility in selling strategy. My father’s 1,300-acre farm in New Zealand, for instance, provides varying amounts of lamb, mutton, wool, beef, barley, red and white clover seed, and ryegrass seed for sale in any one year. Depending on the relative prices, cattle can be held a year before they’re slaughtered, a potential seed crop can be used for hay, or sheep can be heavily or lightly called.

Now that we’ve covered the basic guide lines–zones and sectors, relative location, multiple functions for single elements, multiple elements for single functions, biological resources, alternative technologies, succession, nutrient recycling, and diversity–let’s move on to implementing these principles.

To learn about the design process, see Permaculture Design: Part II. For an introduction to permaculture, see Permaculture Design for Small Farms and Homesteads.

Biological Resources

Biological resources–like any other resource–provide an available means of support. By deriving production and management inputs for the small farm from biological sources whenever possible, the grower will need less human labor and his or her dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides can be all but eliminated. This concept may well be the key to creating a sustainable agricultural system. The potential for using biological inputs is enormous, and the ideas in the following paragraphs merely scratch the surface. Keep in mind, though, that many of the systems described below are still experimental and should be regarded as such.

Livestock Guard Dogs: For thousands of years, livestock raisers in Europe and Asia have employed various breeds of dogs to deter predators … and some of these canines are now being introduced to the United States. Protection dogs offer an attractive option to shooting or trapping predators, non-selective poisoning, or costly physical barriers. The animal pictured in Photo A is a Maremma, a friendly breed that’s considered well suited to small farm operations.

Weeding Geese: Geese are selective grazers, avoiding broad leaved plants and favoring grasses. In orchards, the waddling weeders will graze understory grasses, keep mulches free of weeds, consume windfall fruits (which are often a source of pest problems), and furnish manure. Geese have also been used for grass control in gardens and nurseries. You can have them weed strawberries (until the fruit is ripe!), raspberries, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and mint, among other crops. The Brown Chinese and White Chinese geese in Photo B are harvesting their dinner from between the bean rows. These “biological herbicides” have the advantages of self propulsion, edibility, and manure production that their synthetic counterparts lack.

Chickens: In newly planted crops, chickens can be disastrous, scratching out young transplants and disturbing carefully placed mulches. However, in orchards or in early spring and late fall gardens, the common cluckers can be used to control insect and weed pests, destroy weed seeds, and increase the nitrogen content of the soil. Chickens housed in movable cages can be rotated through a garden to help prepare beds for successional crops … and if you employ slit row covers, cloches, or hot caps in your growing ground, these devices can serve the added function of protecting crops from foraging poultry. The hen in Photo C is munching on caterpillars of the white cabbage butterfly.

Ducks: Ducks are expert at searching out and devouring insects and slugs. However, the quackers sometimes damage vegetables–especially leafy greens–so you should proceed with caution when trusting your garden to them.

Earthworms: Earthworms improve the aeration of the soil, rapidly recycle organic matter, and make nutrients readily available to plants. Yield increases of up to 100% have been recorded following wriggler additions to worm-deficient soils.

Manure Worms: The small red manure worm produces a superb humus from its castings. Worm beds offer a good method for recycling vegetable scraps, as they provide an excellent soil amendment.

Birds: Recent farming literature may lead one to believe that birds are universally destructive. However, in the 20’s and 30’s many winged species–including woodpeckers, purple martins, barn swallows, nuthatches, and chickadees–were recognized as integral to pest control programs. Today in apple orchards in Nova Scotia, downy and pileated woodpeckers are used to destroy as much as 50% of the overwintering codling moth population. The essential prerequisite for any feathered aid is a suitable habitat for the birds. Woodpeckers, for instance, need nesting sites in dead trees in adjacent forests.

Biological Pest Control: In recent years, many new non chemical pest controls have been introduced. Disease organisms are now available for controlling Japanese beetles, codling moths, corn earworms, gypsy moths, mosquitoes, and insects in the lepidoptera family. Several fungi have been tested for controlling plum curculio, Colorado potato beetles, cabbage loopers, and European corn borers. Some nematode species are effective against grasshoppers, Mexican bean beetles, tent caterpillars, and codling moths. Literally hundred of parasitic and predatory insects have been identified as well. Photos D and E picture two familiar pest predators: the praying mantis and the garden toad.

Habitat Enhancement: Biological control can be enhanced by manipulating non-crop vegetation. For example, establishing plots of umbelliferous plants–such as the wild carrot, parsley, parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace, and caraway–will attract hordes of parasitic wasps that use these flowers as food sources. Even encouraging a spider’s web can be a means of pest control (Photo F) … in this case, for the common whitefly. Flowers adjacent to a backyard garden attract beneficial insects (Photo G): In the Cape Cod Ark at the New Alchemy Institute, we’ve used scented geraniums as host plants for the whitefly and its parasite, Encarsia formosa. (We add homemade yellow-orange sticky traps in the spring–Photo H–to complete our year-round pest-control system.)

Nitrogen-Fixing Plants: In addition to the common legumes, more than 160 non leguminous nitrogen-fixing plants have been identified. These shrubs and trees can make available up to 300 pounds of soil nitrogen per acre per year. Common members of this group include the alders, Russian and autumn olives, and the sweet fern and bayberry. The white nodules of the root system of the autumn olive (Photo I) indicate the site of nitrogen fixation. Such plants can be used in a variety of ways to substitute for bag nitrogen: The herbaceous species are often included in crop rotations or as orchard under stories … while shrubs and small trees can be interplanted with fruit, nut, or forest trees.

Allelopathic Plants: Many plants produce substances that are toxic to their competitors … conducting, in essence, their own chemical warfare. Certain varieties of wheat, rye, barley, sorghum, and sudan grass, for example, can be grown between orchard rows or in gardens, and the clippings from these varieties can then be used as weed-suppressing mulches.

Mycorrhizal Plants: A relationship between plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi has been recorded in many higher plants, especially the forest species. This association is symbiotic: The fungi supply phosphorus and other nutrients to the plant in exchange for carbohydrates. Plants inoculated with selected strains of mycorrhizae typically produce high yields in low phosphorus soils. Often the fungi can be introduced to new plantings by adding soil taken from a vigorous stand of the same species.