Introducing The Principles of Permaculture Design – Using Nature as our Teacher

Reader Contribution by Maddy Harland
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In my first blog, I introduced the ethics of permaculture. This time I want to explain the principles. We need these principles to provide a set of universally applicable guidelines that can be used in designing sustainable systems. Otherwise, permaculture becomes merely a lifestyle choice within an existing unsustainable system.?These principles can be inherent in any permaculture design, in any climate, and on any scale. They have been derived from the thoughtful observation of nature, and from earlier work by ecologists, landscape designers and environmental science.

Each principle can be thought of as a door that opens into a whole system of thinking, providing a different perspective that can be understood at varying levels of depth and application. David Holmgren, the co-originator of permaculture, redefined permaculture principles in his seminal book, Permaculture – Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.? When I started giving talks about permaculture to all sorts of different audiences, I decided to write my own explanations and apply the principle not only to designing gardens and farms but to business, society and culture.

Observe & Interact: ??This element of stillness and observation forms the key of permaculture design. In a world of ‘fast’ everything, having the capacity to observe the seasons, watch the changing microclimates on a patch of land, understand how the patterns of wind, weather and slope affect the frost pockets and plant growth, is an opportunity to begin to learn the deeper aspects of Earth Care. It also makes us more capable of making wise decisions about how we design or eco-renovate our houses and plan our gardens and farms.

Catch & Store Energy: ?Intimately connected to observation is the art of capturing energy in a design – so that we minimize the need to seek resources from the outside. In a garden this is about avoiding planting tender seedlings in frost pockets in spring or maximizing solar gain by siting a greenhouse/conservatory on the south side of a building so that we can both extend the season and heat a house with passive solar gain. We are attempting to capture water, sunlight, heat, soil, biomass and fertility whenever we can in order to become more self-resilient.?

Obtain A Yield: Food can account for as much as one third of our ecological footprint so it makes sense to grow as much as we can. A permaculture garden is therefore by default an edible landscape with good floral companions to attract beneficial insects, and a building is a potential heat store and a structure for solar panels. But the concept of ‘yields’ is not merely about renewable energy or veggies; a yield can be about social capital; people positively changing their lives, building community and reducing their carbon.?

Apply Self-regulation & Accept Feedback: When we burn fossil fuels we release CO2 into the atmosphere, trapping heat and increasing temperatures. This causes ice to melt which leads to loss of reflective surfaces, leading to more absorption of sunlight and even higher temperatures. We must accept responsibility for our actions.?

Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services: Whenever possible, permaculture seeks to use resources that can be renewed. This naturally applies to energy but also to ecological building, coppicing, soil conservation, and the planting of perennial food crops, as well as annuals with seed saving. The danger of relying on non-renewables, technological fixes and speculative money are becoming ever more evident.??

Produce No Waste: In the West, we dump valuable resources like aluminium cans because we do not have integrated recycling systems. I have a favorite saying that the landfill sites of today will be the ‘mine’ of tomorrow.

Design From Patterns To Details: When Tim and I designed our house and garden, we read up on permaculture design, forest gardening, renewable energy, eco-architecture and eco-renovation as much as we could. We spent a year observing the land before we started planting and planned how best to make our house a happy, energy efficient place to live in. We observed the seasons, the climatic variations, the weather, the soil patterns, slope and our own human activities on the site as a family. In other words, we started off looking at the bigger picture – the pattern of what sustainable living might be – with examples from other places, and then we refined our exploration into the detail appropriate for our particular site. We didn’t make a ‘shopping list’ of individual items or projects and try to mesh them together in a random .

Integrate Rather Than Segregate: We have a cultural tendency to separate veggie gardens from flower gardens and use hard edges to design our spaces. Companion gardeners will know however that the more integrated the orchard is with the wildflower meadow, or the vegetables are with flowers frequented by beneficial insects, the less pests will prevail. The same is true for people. Cultural diversity – a ‘melting pot’ – yields a robust and fertile culture, whereas a rigid monoculture of politics and religion can bring sterility, even social and political repression.

Use Small & Slow Solutions: Our society currently depends on vast inputs of fossil fuels, whilst our biosphere is over-loaded by their outputs. The more accessible and fixable our technology and chains of supply are, the more robust the system. This principle speaks of hand tools, of appropriate technology that can easily be fixed, and of relocalization. Currently we have a three day ‘just in time’ supply chain of supermarkets. If the fuel supply is interrupted, the super-market shelves will empty at an alarming rate. Better to build resilience into our systems by relocalizing our essential needs as much as possible and having technological alternatives that we can fix.

Use & Value Diversity:Biodiversity creates healthy ecosystems. Diversity in terms of crops, energy sources, and employment, make for greater sustainability. Valuing diversity amongst people makes for a more peaceful, equitable society. Conflict and wars are the biggest slayers of sustainable development.

Use Edges & Value The Marginal: Examples of ‘edge’ in nature are: where canopy meets clearing in the woodland, inviting in air and sunshine and a profusion of flowers; where sea and river meet land in the fertile interface of estuaries, full of invertebrates, fish and bird life; where the banks of streams meet the water’s edge and fertility is built with deposited mud and sand in flood time, giving life to a riot of plant life; where plains and water meet, flooding and capturing alluvial soils… Edge in nature is all about increasing diversity by the increase of inter-relationship between the elements: earth, air, fire (sun), and water. This phenomenon increases the opportunity for life in all of its marvelous fertility of forms.

In human society, edge is where we have cultural diversity. It is the place where free thinkers and so-called ‘alternative’ people thrive. where new ideas are allowed to develop and ageless wisdom is given its rightful respect. Edge is suppressed in non-democratic states and countries that demand theological allegiance to one religion.

Creatively Use & Respond To Change: In nature, there is a process of succession. Bare soil is colonized by weeds that are in turn superseded by brambles. Then pioneers follow; like silver birch, alder and gorse which stabilize the soil in temperate climes. The latter two even fix nitrogen to create an environment that can host slow growing temperate climate species like oak, beech and yew. But nature is dynamic and succession can be interrupted by browsing animals, storms that fell trees and create clearings or a changing climate that is less hospitable for certain climax giants like oak and beech. The challenge of a permaculture designer is to understand how all these factors interact with each other in a landscape or on a particular plot of land, and design accordingly.

Equally well, we need to appreciate how climate change will affect our agriculture, with higher summer temperatures, greater volumes of rain in winter and springtime, and more violent storms with higher wind speeds. What then do we plant and how do we design in resilience to our settlements? One example is to plant more shelterbelts for farmland as well as housing estates and forgo building on floodplains.?

The principle is deeper than this, however. It invites us to imagine a future world, a world without cheap oil, and a world that necessarily radically reduces its carbon load in the atmosphere. By doing this, we take the first steps towards creating it. We stand on the bedrock of permaculture ethics – Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares – and are empowered by a set of principles that can inform our planning and actions.

NEXT POST! Permaculture Meets Her Majesty the Queen: when Tim and Maddy went to Buckingham Palace.

Photo caption: This classic English bluebell wood is a great teacher. It requires no fertilizer or managment to flourish, just sunlight, rainwater and the turning of the seasons.

To find out more see a short BBC film about their home and garden.

Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture magazine – solutions for sustainable living. She has also published many leading permaculture books since 1993.

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