Introduction to Permaculture

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Permaculture (constituted from "permanent agriculture") is a concept of integrated thinking and planning which can be applied not only to agriculture and gardening, but basically all areas of our life, and our societies.

The following "red thread story" is meant to help you to acquaint yourself (or others) to the ideas and principles of permaculture (illustrated by the Permaculture prezi which you can find here for viewing:

Feel free to take a copy for translations or additions.

Permaculture is a dance with nature in which nature is taking the lead..

We are used to taking control over nature, taking ourselves as “the pride of creation” – but why? Isn’t nature in itself thriving to be fertile, growing and productive, even without our control and regulation?

Imagine a tree in a forest: it is growing without any humans seeding, ploughing, fertilizing and weeding - and still it is producing so much… Take a minute to think about the products and qualities which come to your mind (possibly note or scribble them down on a tree illustration).

Other than the immediate "products" like fruits, sirup, leaves, tea, medicine, mushrooms, wood for construction, as fuel, for paper... did you consider also  shade, oxygen, shelter, compost etc.?


I heard this quote in one permaculture course and it gave me quite give some food for thought: "Mother Nature does not care whether the hunter kills the beast, or the beast kills the hunter - both make good compost." In natural systems, there are no winners or losers, only shifting balances and cooperation!

And these characteristics help to make them resilient, which means they are capable to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly.

Wouldn't it be great to have more resilient agricultural systems? Less prone to disasters like droughts, pests etc.? By learning from natural ecosystems, permaculture wants to achieve exactly this.

Permaculture principles

The ideals of "Earth Care - People Care - Fair Share" are at the heart of the permaculture philosophy. Nothing less than that…

Different permaculture activists have tried to desribe them better with various principles... Here is a set by David Holmgren (2002):

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.
  13. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Get the full picture

Take a second to have a look at your notes of the tree "products" again and consider why a tree system is so productive. Try to identify the interrelations, such as fungi as nutrient transporters, birds/animals as seed transporters etc.

Permaculture is about understanding and imitating the interrelations of natural ecosystems instead of monitoring and manipulating single parts of it (such as soil fertility, pests etc.)

This makes up for the distinction with other agricultural practices:

  • while conventional agriculture is fossil-intensive (fuels for vehicles and machines; fertilizers and pesticides),
  • whilst organic agriculture is labour-intensive (manual weeding, pest control, processing),
  • permaculture is planning-intensive (sectoring, zoning, layering, mixed cultivation, designing resilient systems)!

And good planning implies thorough observation….

Analyse this!

How can we best be part and support such systems in order to make them resilient and still fulfill our needs? Crucial element of permaculture is a needs assessment! This means identifying the conditions and needs of nature as well as our own.

Here are some of the common methodologies for observation, mapping and planning:


Draw a plan of the space which you want to design and map the prevailing conditions  - in case of a garden: irradiation and shading, resources (which can also be challenges!) like water, plants, animals, buildings slope of the terrain, quality of soil.

While you do it, consider the factor of time (variations throughout the day, the seasons, the years...)


Consider which elements you want and need to have closest to you, and which are less important? From Zone0 (which is You) to Zone1 (the things you need several times a day in your close vicinity) and further on (the herbs, the vegetables, the compost, the sitting place, the tools, etc. etc. possibly to the forest which you only need to visit once a year for cutting wood). 

Try and hen indicate those zones in a map.

Again, consider the factor of time (variations throughout the day, the seasons, the years...)

Data overlay

Combine and cross-reference your investigations best through an overlay of those maps you have created before. See how you can make your needs fit with the conditions of the site, e.g. if you want to pick fresh herbs for all your meals, thus want to have them close to your kitchen - where is a spot with suitable conditions for herbs? Be creative! The best place could be also along the path from the street to the house and you may place a little basket by the door to pick them when coming home...

Think in qualities, not in products!

We are being brainwashed by marketing about what we should do (i.e. consume!). Consider advertisements like this:  “Tired and exhausted at work? Our coffee is what you need!! Get it now at a special offer!”

- Oh really?!? Is this what we need? Isn’t it rather the quality of feeling awake and attentive which we are looking for?

Take a second to think which other means could help us to feel better in this respect.

The method of the four-leaf clover may help you in this:

  • draw a first leaf and note the product which you thought of first (e.g. coffee),
  • then draw a second leaf and write down all qualities this product has (quench thirst, re-activate, opportunity for a chat)
  • use a third leaf to note other products which may equally serve the qualities/ needs you have just mentioned (taking a nap, going for a walk, having a tea, taking fresh air by the window, doing physical exercise etc.)
  • and the fourth leaf of your clover to add the further qualities of the latter (tea for the taste/water balance, physical exercise for bodyshape, walk for watching birds, etc.)

Isn't there a wealth of multiple options we have for covering our needs?!

Permaculture is trying to combine these options in a profitable way, creating systems where every element fulfills several functions, and every need is fulfilled by several elements - resilient systems!

Take a second to consider the following:

  • Compare monoculture to flower meadows in the variety of needs which they can fulfill
  • Compare a water hose to a natural pond in the variety of functions they possibly provide

With permaculture methods, it is even possible to grow food in the desert...

Permaculture in practice

Some examples of where to find permacultural systems “in real life":

  • Mulching
  • Mixed cultivation
  • Forest gardens / agroforestry
  • Chicken tractors
  • Vertical gardens
  • Urban agriculture
  • Organic architecture
  • Regional currencies
  • Transition Towns
  • etc. etc.

This as a starter... There is much more to be learnt from permaculture teachers, from literature and the internet -  and from nature, of course! Enjoy the dance!