What is Permaculture – A Primer in Pictures and Patterns – PART 1

Is it a community of doomer hippies? An incomprehensible internet meme for do-gooders who hate lawns and love fermenting things? A clever rebranding scheme for the organic farming movement thought up by wayward corporate marketing gurus? A cult for Gaia-worshipping environmentalists? A secret society for foraging herbalist hedgewitches?


After 6 years, 100 posts, over 100,000 page views, and hundreds of followers, I’ve never written a post answering that question! 
Because there are already so many good treatments of the topic on the nets. Why re-re-reinvent the wheel when the internet’s rolling along just merily without me. Instead, this is an invitation to explore those fine resources, a visual exploration of the common “patterns” that have come to most define Permaculture.  
And besides, why author yet another definition when Permaculture creators Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, along with their early-adopter colleagues (especially Rosemarry Morrow) defined Permaculture very eloquently, simply, narrowly and precisely from the start:
Permaculture is a system for designing human habitats (including landscapes, homesteads, homes, towns, cities, organizations and ultimately societies) which starts with ethics and principles, and uses “patterns” derived from natural systems, sustainable societies, and research-based practices. And the guiding GOAL of Permaculture is right in its name: to create “permanent” (sustainable, regenerative) “cultures.” 
But a great deal of ambiguity and confusion remains. There are many reasons for this. The first is founder Bill Mollison’s own penchant for marketing and provocation. While always maintaing a formal definition of Permaculture, he quite often used short, catchy descriptions tailored to the interests of the audience, like:

Permaculture is REVOLUTION disguised as GARDENING.


Permaculture is working with nature, instead of against it. 

But the ambiguity is also somewhat deserved, as Permaculture has probably become a variety of things beyond its original intent. The word has indeed become a trendy marketing term for all things sustainable, hippie, foodie, and new-age. Many projects and products proudly wear the term “Permaculture” whether they have anything to do with Permaculture design, or its key patterns, or not. This is especially true of farms, although Mollison himself said “the last thing any of us should be doing is any kind of farming!” The relationship between farming and Pemraculture is… complicated. 
And Permaculture has also become a community or movement of people interested in all things sustainable, hippie, foodie and new-agey. This often includes conventional farming, natural building, an almost spiritual devotion to “hugelkultures” and rocket stoves, intentional communities, animal husbandry (whether humane or not) and over-alls. 
And of course, Permaculture has become a “world-view” if not an outright religion with a clergy, cosmology, commandments, and unquestionable dogmas. Perhaps this was inevitable, since Permaculture can be a mind-blowing perspective shift for many people – one that often inspires the  the “cult” in Permaculture (a pun that goes back to Mollison himself.)

As you might have guessed, I’m sometimes ambivalent (if not outright concerned) about these other forms of “Permaculture.” Yet, I remain convinced that Permalture Design’s primary insight is one of paradigm-shifting importance: that we can use nature-inspired DESIGN to solve our problems, both personal and societal, and create more beautiful, just and sustainable lives and societies. 
And because a picture is worth a thousand bon-mots, we’ll be visually exploring the patterns that most define Permaculture. 

Permaculture is DESIGN

Whether a landscape, homestead, garden, farm, business, organization, community, or building, a Permaculture site grows along a planned, on-paper design. It doesn’t have to be a fancy computer-generated pro design. These are some of the early design sketches for Lillie House. 

Permaculture follows ETHICS and PRINCIPLES

The ethics and principles have undergone a series of revisions and drafts, yet remain consistent at their core. One version of the ethics is “Earth care, people care, fair share.” There are a veriety of write-ups of the two sets of principles, the Mollison principles, and the Holmgren principles. The Holmgren principles include things like “obtain a yield,” “use slow, small solutions,” and “Observe and interact.” This image is from Permacultureprinciples.com  which is the best place to explore and learn about these principles. The site Permacultureprinciples.org has an interpretation of the Mollison principles. 

The Permaculture design system uses a process, which begins with observation.

These are some common observation tools used in a design, as applied to our site at Lillie House, including sun angles, precipitation, microclimate patterns, elevation, heat and cold, etc. This is generally the first step in a design process, and is usually taught and required in a Permaculture Design Certificate Course.  

Permaculture uses observational tools like Zone and Sector Analysis. 

Zone analysis looks at where to place “patterns” and land uses, like gardens, ponds and sheds, by how often you’ll need to visit them and how much energy they take to work. Sector analysis looks at “energy flows” that enter and leave the property, like sun, wind, wildlife and traffic, so that we can choose how to deal with them positively. This zone diagram from Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden is a classic. 

Permaculture Designs place an emphasis on a “Zone 1” kitchen garden.

This most valuable and most productive garden is situated right outside the door, near to the home, where it can be harvested and looked after every day. It is usually an herb garden, a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard and flower garden all in one. Setting up this most important garden that will have the highest productivity and the highest impact on our health is usually the first task in a Permaculture design. Of course, not all sites include kitchens, let alone homes, so not all sites will have a kitchen garden or a zone 1.

Permaculture analyses relative location and interconnectivity

We attempt to make systems look like connected ecosystems, where the needs of each element are met by other elements in the system. The analysis of the chicken has been the standard example since Mollison. 

Permaculture stacks functions and connects elements to save work, time and resources.

Understanding the chicken, we can put it to work controlling pests, fertilizing our gardens, turning our compost and heating our greenhouse, all while providing good nutrition, natural habitat, and comfortable shelter to our chicks! This is relationship design going back to Mollison’s Permaculture Designer’s Manual. 

Permaculture designs often resemble indigenous societies, such as the “home garden” pattern found around the world. 

The term “home garden” is closely related, and sometimes a synonym for the terms “forest garden” and “food forest.” This brilliant diagram is from the study “Home Gardens in Nepal.”

Notice how similar that looks to this sketch of a Balkan Ecology Project (Balkep) site. For me, Balkep is one of the most inspiring cutting-edge, research-based Permaculture projects today! It also closely resembles our design at Lillie House. 

Permaculture heavily relies on “forage systems” 

These are “productive ecologies,” largely managed by ecosystem services and the connections between elements in the system. This is the classic visual representation of Permaculture from the Permaculture Design Manual.

Permaculture often makes heavy use of trees and forest gardens 

Unless it’s otherwise maintained by humans, if an area gets more than 30 inches of precipitation a year, it will naturally become a forest. So “forest gardens” are the natural “forage farming” systems that would be favored on such sites. Also called food forests, edible forest gardens, home gardens, gardens of complete design, forest farms and agriforest systems. These also include a wide variety of traditional systems like the Japanese Satoyama, the European Straubst, hedgerows, copses, panage lots, etc. You can learn more about some of these through our Pin-board on traditional forest garden systems. Forest gardens are not gardening IN a forest, they’re gardening LIKE a forest. You can learn more about forest gardens through our links here
Forest gardening is different from conventional orcharding in that it combines tree crops, vegetables, fuel, craftmaterials, building materials, wildlife habitat, and often social uses all together. They use many layers, instead of just one, and use “hetrogenous” textures instead of rows and even spaces. This image by our colleague and friend, brilliant designer PJ Chmiel, is a master class in one image! You can learn more about the basic defining characteristics of forest gardening from the following video 

Permaculture may sometimes use organic gardening, but it is not organic gardening. 

This article from PermacultureVisions.com is one of the best I’ve seen on the topic. In fact, this little gem is another master class in one image, showing us the patterns that really make Permaculture what it is, and something very distinct from conventional organic gardening or farming. In it, we see a designed human habitat integrating energy efficiency, tree crops, fruits, vegetables, wildlife, animals, water-harvesting systems, zones, diverse plantings with no bare soil… all classic features of Permaculture that we’ll explore in more depth in Part 2!

Which side do these pictures of our integrated annual vegetable garden beds with tree crops, wildlife habitat, deep mulches, living ground covers, integrated edible companion plants and perennial vegetables resemble? 

We’ll explore the patterns commonly applied in Permaculture gardens in part 2. 

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