Permaculture Principles Guiding Design for Sustainable Living


The role of successful design is to create self-managed systems.

Permaculture Principles provide guidance for creating such sustainable systems.

They reflect basic tenets integral to optimizing eco-efficiency and minimizing ecological footprint, so are applicable to any situation.

Use them to guide design of systems for sustainable living from scratch, improve existing systems, or generate different methods of self-sufficiency.

Permaculture Principles

  1. Work with Nature, Not Against It

Permaculture landscape design aims to consciously create agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. As such, Permaculture systems are designed to mimic natural ecosystems, and work with nature, not against it. It is a recognition that nature knows best, and understanding her ways and cooperating with them is essential.

”If we throw nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork”

Masanobu Fukuoka

Working with nature reduces the reliance of the system on inputs of energy and materials thus promoting self-sufficiency and sustainability. In contrast, conventional agriculture has virtually waged war on nature and so requires energy intensive and environmentally damaging inputs to maintain control and productivity.

As one example, consider weeds:

Weeds are conventionally controlled with herbicides: poisons that are expensive, climate unfriendly, and ecologically damaging.

Permaculture recognizes that weeds are nature’s way of improving conditions to favor the gradual succession of degraded landscapes to mature, productive forests.

They are ecological bandaids over otherwise bare soil to protect and feed soil life. Weeds add life energy in the form of biomass and nutrients. They provide ecology and wind protection, and restore structure to compacted soils.

We can use weeds to provide microclimate, nutrients and wind protection for the plants we want to establish while seeking to rebalance soil conditions so that weeds are no longer nature’s imperative for the site.

  1. The Problem is the Solution

Everything is potentially a positive resource just waiting for us as Permaculture designers to work out HOW to use it!

Trying to impose a predefined concept of “how things should be” in your system is very expensive of energy and resources. Working to optimize benefits and yields from what you have only requires a change in the way we see things.

A Permaculture perspective allows you to recognize and harness the assets all around, so that they become solutions rather than problems.

For example, a strong cold wind can be funneled to a wind power generator or directed into a house to chill food.

  1. Make the Smallest Change for Greatest Possible Effect

For example, when choosing a dam site, select the area where you get the most water for the least amount of earth moved.

  1. The Yield of a System is Theoretically Unlimited

The greatest determinant of system yield is the creativity and resourcefulness of the designer!

Even when you think you have fully optimized a Permaculture system another innovative designer might see opportunities to add more productive elements or recognize useful yields you overlooked.

For example, a shed roof can be utilized as space to grow pumpkins; flies can be trapped as food for fish; damaged fruit can provide a marketable seed resource…

  1. Everything Gardens

Every living thing interacts with and impacts its environment. In natural systems, the impacts of one species create the ideal conditions for many others.

Through careful observation such impacts can be harnessed to provide suitable habitats for supporting desirable elements in your Permaculture system.

For example, rabbits make burrows and defecation mounds, scratch for roots, keep grasslands trimmed short, and create favorable soil conditions for weeds such as thistles.

The burrows can form habitat and shelter for native animals, the lawn trimming action used as an aid to fire protection, and the soil conditions utilized to grow edible thistles such as globa artichokes.

Decisions regarding control, management or toleration of system elements therefore need to first carefully consider their “gardening” impacts and how these might be utilized to create useful system yields.

  1. Wise Resource Use

Throughout human history, failure to use resources wisely has been a consistent cause of collapse of civilizations.

To be sustainable, sane people and their societies must therefore:

  1. Use resources efficiently, thus reducing waste and hence pollution.
  2. Oppose the usage of any resource that leads to pollution or destruction of sustainable resources. Such resources include pollutants, persistent biocides and other poisons, radioactives, ocean outfall sewers and large areas of concrete and highways.
  3. Only use resources that are either increased by modest use (e.g. regular grazing of fodder shrubs maintains production of fresh, palatable fodder), unaffected by use (e.g. sunlight, wind, rocks, rainfall), or degrade if not used (e.g. ripe fruit, annual crops, grasshopper swarms and roof water runoff during rain).
  4. Non-renewable resources are reduced by use (e.g. oil, coal, mature forests, clay deposits). These should only be used if such use results in a proportionally greater, relatively permanent and sustainable improvement in ecosystem yield (e.g. construction of a dam or home).

Permaculture Yield

In Permaculture landscape design, the designer’s objective is to store, direct, conserve, and convert to useful forms any energies that exist on or pass through the site.

This is basic to self-sufficiency and sustainability and is achieved by analysis of energy ZONES and SECTORS (see images below.).
Once the needs of the system have been met for growth, reproduction and maintenance, the surplus energy usefully stored is the system yield.

The only sustainable way to capture energy flowing through a site and usefully store system yield is in the form of life. While batteries expire and leak, heat escapes or insulation breaks down, living things like forests increase their energy store in the form of reproduction and growing biomass.

So it is the sum and capacity of life forms that determine total system yield and surplus… you could say its LIFE ENERGY!

Theoretically there is no limit to yield

There is always room for another innovation to increase the number of life forms or the productivity of the existing elements in the system.

Here are a few examples of Permaculture strategies we can use on small farms to boost yields:

  • Increase water storage (ideally 12-20% of landscape) and usage in your landscape
  • Utilize strategic land forming to conserve and optimize soil and water resources
  • Recondition and fertilize your soils so they reach their productive potential
  • Establish windbreak and forage forests (ideally 20-30% of landscape)
  • Establish wildlife corridors
  • Value add through strategic processing and marketing
  • Formation of community and financial cooperatives
  • Low tillage cropping to save soil, energy, moisture and growing time
  • Crop diversification strategies such as different species, genetically selected varieties, ripening-times, growing microclimates, trading relationships and forms of yield storage and preservation
  • Overcoming cultural barriers to yield utilization such as irrational reluctance to keep poultry to make productive use of waste, slaughter excess stock for meat, or eat snails
  • Reduce competition by non-beneficial species
  • Better integrated and strategic crop timing, harvest and utilization
  • Increase the number of beneficial connections between elements (life forms, structures, etc) within the system, so that the products, behaviors and wastes of one can be utilized to create yield by others.
  • Encourage natural cycles. Life itself cycles nutrients giving opportunities more species to find niches and produce yield. Geese recycle grass as feces and feathers, which provide niches for fungi, bacteria, grass roots and foliage to flourish, re-metabolizing it back into life.

Interrupting cycles (e.g. through drought and other climatic factors, the use of biocides, or extinction of a species) diminishes yield, reduces life (order) and increases entropy (disorder)

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