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What Is Permaculture? A Complete Definition And Discussion Of This Planting Theory

Written by Carol J Alexander

Published on April 17, 2023


What Is Permaculture? A Complete Definition And Discussion Of This Planting Theory

A complete definition and discussion of permaculture, including its theory, ethics, principles, and where and how to apply it to your property.

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If you garden or hang around gardening types, you’ve probably heard the word permaculture thrown around a conversation. But what is it? 

Permaculture is an ecological design system that follows three ethics and 12 principles to work with nature to provide food and shelter sustainably. If that interests you, you should know the principles of permaculture can be applied anywhere,” according to Michael Cooley, MSc and owner of Narrow Passage Permaculture and Agroforestry in Woodstock, Virginia, “whether you have a balcony, an apartment building, or a 2,000-hectare farm,” he says.

In this introduction to permaculture, we’ll answer what it is, explain its theory, and show how it can work for you.

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Definition of permaculture

In the 1970s, Australians Bill Mollison, an environmental psychologist from the University of Tasmania, and David Holmgren, an environmental design student, coined the phrase permaculture. After a chance meeting where Holmgren met Mollison during a lecture, both joined together to research the earth’s ecosystems in-depth.

Their passion was to find practical ways humans could apply nature’s sustainability methods to their lifestyles rather than work against nature like commercial farming practices. Over three years, they developed a practical framework that helps people grow food, build homes, and create communities with minimal environmental impact.

At first, the men intended the word permaculture to be a contraction of permanent agriculture. However, as they grew their framework to include non-agricultural systems, they realized it could also be a contraction of permanent culture.

The permaculture framework includes practices like harvesting rainwater, sheet mulching, and no-till gardening to lessen work, preserve resources, and eliminate waste. It also includes sustainable building practices for homes and commercial properties, using wind and solar to subsidize electric power plants and harvesting methane from landfills to power hospitals. In permaculture, the end product is used as fuel for creating a new product – much like we compost vegetable scraps to build soil. Everything is cyclical in permaculture practices.

To help explain this further, let's look at the three ethics and 12 principles of permaculture as they are practiced today.

The three permaculture ethics

The three ethics of permaculture ensure that the earth and its inhabitants are taken care of while everyone’s needs are met, including the earth’s. The three ethics are:

  • Earth Care - Caring for the earth includes using renewable resources over non-renewable ones, ensuring our actions nurture our natural environments and communities rather than do harm, and allowing it to operate in the way it was designed.
  • People Care - Once established, the permaculture framework provides for the needs of the people while requiring less work because its nature-sustaining. 
  • Fair Share - Fair share ensures that while people work harmoniously with the earth to meet its needs and their own, they also ensure that all surplus goes to those in need or is returned to the earth in a nurturing way. Initially, this ethic was written as the “return of surplus to the first two ethics,” according to Cooley.

The twelve principles of permaculture

The 12 principles of permaculture spell out the practical ways permaculturists implement the three ethics.

  • Observe and interact – Before breaking ground, whether planting a vegetable garden or planting a tree, take time to observe the area. Watch how the sun moves overhead from one season to the next. Learn how much rain is typical for the zone. Observe the wind patterns.
  • Catch and store energy – Natural resources come in seasons. Store unused energy for later use. Catching rainwater to use during a dry spell is one example.
  • Obtain a yield – It’s important to be rewarded for your work. 
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – Keep yourself accountable for your actions and seek counsel from others where needed. 
  • Use and value renewable resources and services – Use rainwater over well water and wind and solar power over fossil fuels.
  • Produce no waste – Throw nothing into the landfill. Compost food scraps, reuse grey water, and use tree trimmings for Hügelkultur (a gardening method that buries sticks, branches, and woody material to aid in water retention).
  • Design from patterns to details – Observe designs and patterns in nature for inspiration in your work. Examples are a honeycomb, snail shells, or snowflakes.
  • Integrate rather than segregate – Everything supports something or works with it in permaculture. An example is the three-sister planting of corn, beans, and squash. When planted together, the squash acts as a groundcover, deterring weeds, and the corn grows to support the climbing bean vine. 
  • Use small and slow solutions – You can’t rush nature. Making gradual changes and letting it take its course will ensure a more sustainable outcome.
  • Use and value diversity – A diverse habitat is less susceptible to pests and disease. Companion planting, using bee hives and bat houses, and multi-level plants in the same zone make your plantings less vulnerable.
  • Use edges and value the marginal – The place where two areas meet is essential for exchanging value, much like the brackish pool where fresh and saltwater meet. Or where the edge of a field meets the forest. “Oftentimes, these areas are neglected or left completely abandoned,” says Cooley. So, permaculturists urge followers to use these areas to their advantage.
  • Creatively use and respond to change – Constantly observe and watch for changes in your ecosystems and respond kindly, at the right time, to ensure a positive outcome.

The benefits of permaculture

To build intrigue, let’s look at some of the benefits of permaculture.

  • Conserves water – Whether you’re catching rainwater and stormwater to use during the dry season or incorporating Hügelkultur to retain moisture in your raised beds, permaculture practices use less water. 
  • Costs less – While you may balk at the price of adding perennial plants to your place, in the long run, it’s less expensive than purchasing annuals every year. The same applies to seed saving. When you use heirloom varieties, you can save the seed to reuse rather than buy seeds every season.
  • Less pollution – Permaculture practices leave no waste and use natural means for pest and weed control.
  • Self-sufficiency – A homestead that follows permaculture theory is more self-sufficient than those that rely on others to provide for their needs.
  • Not one-size-fits-all – If what you’re already doing works for you, there’s no need to abandon it and start over. By implementing one permaculture practice at a time, where you see a need, you’re on your way to reaping the benefits of this lifestyle.

Can permaculture be applied anywhere?

No matter where you live, how much land you have, or your economic status, you can practice permaculture principles to become more sustainable and eco-friendly. Below, we offer ideas and suggestions to get you started – from small scale to large – for any home style.

Permaculture in the city

You may live in a high-rise apartment without a blade of grass to your name – and that’s okay! Here are a few ideas for practicing permaculture in the city.

  • Join a buying co-op to purchase things in bulk. Everyone saves money, and there’s less waste in packaging.
  • Grow what you can in planters on a patio or balcony. 
  • Join a community garden. Often found on vacant lots, it’s where community residents can grow their own food.
  • Compost your table scraps. Purchase a small composter to keep on your patio, or take scraps to a community garden plot.
  • Sort your trash for recycling.
  • Buy products with less or no packaging.

Permaculture in the suburbs

Living in the suburbs, you probably have a backyard patch to grow your food. But did you know you can feed a family of four fresh vegetables all season in just 64 square feet? In addition to what urban dwellers can do, here are a few ideas for your suburban homestead.

  • Keep a couple of chickens for eggs, if allowed.
  • Feed the chickens your food scraps.
  • Add a beehive to your backyard.
  • Plant fruit trees or vines.
  • Plant a home garden.
  • Use rain barrels to catch rainwater. Use it to water your lawn and garden or wash the dog.
  • Create cold frames for extending your growing season.

Permaculture in rural areas 

Depending on the size of their acreage, rural dwellers have ample opportunity to incorporate permaculture design into their homesteads. From large-scale gardens to keeping livestock, country people can up their food production. They may have a wood lot on which to practice agroforestry techniques. They have the space to include natural ecosystems, natural building techniques, and other sustainable systems. Here are a few more ideas.

  • Make use of natural swales or create new ones to supply moisture to create a wet habitat.
  • Plant cover crops in large garden areas in the winter.
  • Practice rainwater harvesting on a larger scale.
  • Build a hay bale structure for a small animal shelter or storage.
  • Plant a living fence.
  • Install an off-grid solar system.

How are permaculture, organic gardening, and regenerative agriculture different?

People often confuse the terms permaculture, organic gardening, and regenerative agriculture. While they are not the same thing, they can work together sustainably.

Permaculture isn’t just organic farming. Organic farming eschews chemicals but can still be done in an environmentally unfriendly way. An example could be a commercial mono-crop farmer who doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides but, also doesn’t include natural systems in their farming practices. They operate linearly, not a closed loop or cycle as permaculture requires.

Often used interchangeably with permaculture, regenerative agriculture is not necessarily closed-loop or cyclical and only applies to farming. At the same time, permaculture applies to other disciplines like housing and community development.

Want to know what other homeowners are doing with their backyards? See our outdoor living trends report.

Let’s grow together

Now that you better understand permaculture’s design principles, its emphasis on biodiversity, and its impact on the earth’s ecology, perhaps you’d like to get a first-hand look at permaculture in action. For inspiration, we suggest visiting a permaculture farm in your area. You may even consider taking a permaculture design course. “A search of permaculture design courses in your area will reveal options most anywhere,” says Cooley.

To get started on your place, call a professional permaculturist or landscaper who understands the design process and can advise you on creating your permaculture garden.

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Written by

Carol J Alexander Content Specialist and Subject Matter Expert

Carol J Alexander is a home remodeling industry expert for Fixr.com. For more than 15 years as a journalist and content marketer, her in-depth research, interviewing skills, and technical insight have ensured she provides the most accurate and current information on a given topic. Before joining the Fixr team, her personal clients included leaders in the building materials market like Behr Paint Company, CertainTeed, and Chicago Faucet, and national publications like This Old House and Real Homes.