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12 Principles of Permaculture Practices

This is a close look at a permaculture farm with farmers planting seedlings and a dog resting.

Permaculture is not simply just a way to have your own vegetable and herb source, it goes deeper than that revealing the 12 principles that guide it.

More and more, the masses are becoming curious about topics like homesteading, Earthships, food preservation, and permaculture. The earth cries with joy any time another person googles “what are sustainability practices?”

When it comes to permaculture, the literature can be rather dense. Permaculture encompasses so much more than just sustainable food production practices, which is as far as many people go in their reading. That’s why we decided to prepare a (semi) condensed composition of what permaculture means.

Permaculture can be applied to all areas of living life — from cultivating food to engaging with your community, from getting involved with natural building components, to learning tai chi. The idea behind permanent culture is a way of life that sustains a healthy lifestyle now and also enables the same for generations to come.

Who Started Permaculture Practice?

We have two people named David Holmgren and Bill Mollison to thank for the ideologies of permaculture. Back in the 1970s, this terminology was used to describe what permaculture (or, permanent culture) really is:

“An integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to mankind.” 

A man working on the backyard vegetable garden.

Through the years, this terminology has evolved into something more concise and encompassing:

“Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber, and energy for provision of local needs.”

All of the information spoken about in this article has been sourced from The Essence of Permaculture written by David Holmgren, which can be found in the PDF version on the official Permaculture Practices website.

What is Permaculture?

The idea behind permaculture is a system that can thrive and sustain many future generations. Permaculture doesn’t only have to do with food practices, although that is an extremely important element. Permaculture also applies these principles to community, body, and mind.

Permaculture principles are derived from perceiving the world through a systems thinking lens; basically drawing information from many different facets and perceptions. The idea is to approach a project by looking at the way parts interact with one another and how they can support each other, rather than focusing on one specific element.

These practices have the intention of bringing together a diverse set of skills and ideas and reinvigorating traditional ways of living. The goal is to be able to sustainably support ourselves without depleting resources for future generations or causing detriment to the earth.

An aerial view of a large field with permaculture and polyculture.

3 Simple Ethics of Permaculture

  1. Care for the Planet – living harmoniously with nature and returning the resources that the earth provides for us
  2. Care for People – living harmoniously with our community and finding ways to collaborate and support one another in order to thrive
  3. Fair Share – de-prioritizing greed and surplus, and prioritizing equal opportunity and resources for all. This includes complete avoidance of depleting natural resources

Why is Permaculture Important?

This question can be properly answered by making fundamental assumptions about how society operates at this moment in time. By observing how we have behaved, the results derived from these actions, and the consequences we will continue to face, it is clear that an alteration of interacting with community and nature must evolve in order to continue thriving.

This is a close look at a cluster of parsley and onion growing together.

  • Although humans have reasoned in their minds that they are above and therefore not part of nature, this is false thinking. All of the natural worlds abide by the same laws of energy, and therefore we mustn’t hold the concept that we are exempt from the harmony that the rest of nature exists in.
  • The ability to harness energy is responsible for the enormous surge in the human population over the past 100 years. This has increased technological advances and other features of modern society at a blinding rate. Fossil fuels are an unsustainable source of energy, and it cannot continue to support the growing numbers of humans and ideas.
  • The technological advancement of human beings is unfathomably impressive. However, many of these endeavors are directly correlated to the environmental climate crisis. This crisis will not only irreparably damage society and everything we have created, but it will also be detrimental to the health of the earth, and ultimately all of the generations to come.

How can Permaculture be Applied?

Permaculture can be applied in 3 main fields: the biological field, the building field, and the behavioral field. All of these application’s incongruence can result in a cyclical system of sustainability and prosperity.

The following information has been sourced from The Permaculture Flower from The Essence of PermacultureIt is providing the domains that are in need of transforming in order to create a sustainable permanent culture.

Applicable in the Biological Field Through:

Land & Nature Stewardship:

  • symbiotic gardening practices
  • forest gardening
  • seed-saving
  • organic agriculture
  • biodynamics
  • natural farming
  • water harvesting
  • agroforestry
  • nature-based forestry
  • integrated aqua-culture
  • wild harvesting and hunting
  • gleaning

Applicable in the Built Field Through:

Building:

  • passive solar design
  • natural construction materials
  • water harvesting and reuse
  • biotechture 
  • disaster resistant construction
  • owner building
  • pattern language

Tools & Technology:

  • Reuse and creative recycling
  • hand tools
  • bicycles and electric bikes
  • wood stoves
  • fuels from organic waste
  • wood gasification
  • bio-char from forest wastes
  • co-generation
  • micro-hydro and wind power
  • energy storage
  • transition engineering

Applicable in the Behavioral Field Through:

Education & Culture:

  • homeschooling
  • Steiner/Waldorf education
  • reading landscapes
  • participators arts and music
  • social ecology
  • action research
  • transition culture
  • voluntary simplicity

Health & Spiritual Well Being:

  • home birth and breastfeeding
  • complementary and holistic medicine
  • yoga, tai chi, and other mind/body/spirit disciplines
  • spirit of place, indigenous cultural revival
  • dying with dignity

Finance & Economics:

  • ethical investment and fair trade
  • local and regional currencies
  • carpooling and rideshares
  • farmers markets and community-supported agriculture
  • WWOOFing and similar networks
  • tradable energy quotas
  • life cycle analysis and energy accounts
  • frugal hedonism

Land Tenure & Community Governance:

  • coops and body corporates
  • co-housing and ecovillages
  • native tile and traditional rights
  • open space technology and consensus decision making
  • sociocracy

And now, the 12 Principles of Permaculture

As you can see, there are a lot of areas that need tending to. Now we’re going to dive into the principles that should be applied to each of these areas. Many people have the conception that permaculture only applies to food production practices, but the same rules of respect and mindfulness can truly be applied to all aspects of existence.

Each principle is accompanied by a well-known quotation that helps reinforce it.

1. Observe and Interact

This is a large field of grass with cows grazing.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

If we observe the way in which animals interact with their environment, they act, observe, and then learn how to behave based on that interaction. This is the same method used by growing children.

The way in which people are educated in the current education system has replaced self-directed observation with mediated interactions and technological replacements. The goal of this particular permaculture principle is to use careful observation in order to create thoughtful interactions.

By effectively utilizing human capabilities and reducing our reliance on non-renewable energy, we can hopefully establish a system of land usage that can be sustainable to humans as we face the new era of energy descent.

There are endless patterns within nature that can be observed. “Reading the landscape” is the way of life of our ancestors, in an effort to understand and work with natural patterns instead of using technological advancement to rise above the elements. System designs should be created from patterns that already exist, rather than imposing ourselves on land and its resources. (Read about types of eco-friendly homes here!)

Example: Animals that are raised in free-range systems are able to use their imprinted intelligence to satisfy all of their survival needs. They are aware of predators, they feed themselves, and they freely interact with one another. We needn’t impose ourselves on this already successful manner of existing, but rather observe how it is independently successful, and try and collaborate in a way that is beneficial for both parties.

2. Catch and Store Energy

This is a close look at a solar panel farm.

“Make hay while the sun shines.”

Every life that exists today has been underpinned by the overwhelming harvesting of fossil fuels for the creation of energy. The over-harvesting of fossil fuels already impacts the planet and will continue to do so for the coming generations.

This permaculture principle is designed around utilizing the existing wealth of natural and renewable energies and bringing them to the forefront. The current conception of the wealth of fossil fuels is inappropriate considering the reality of their limits. This conception has led corporations to ignore renewable energies that require a large upfront investment but end up being the only long term solution.

We’re all familiar with what renewable energies are. The transition to solar and wind power has been a slow-moving process, but they are the only options available to us that will be able to sustain future generations.

3. Obtain a Yield

This is a look at various vegetable produce on display at a market.

“You can’t work on an empty stomach.”

Our society is organized around immediacy. There is an urgency to how we consume everything. This is the reason why the industrialized food production giant is so successful. It provides immediate and enormous yields, but it ignores the fact that for what they are able to provide to consumers, it does nothing but removes from the natural world.

These mega systems prevail over food agriculture that is slower-moving and produces smaller yields. It is completely sensical why this is. But what always comes back into question is, “is it sustainable?” and the answer, in this case, has been a consistent, resounding, no.

The aim of this permaculture principle is to develop local agricultural food systems that enable people to escape the need to consume from these giant multi-national food production systems. The goal is to maintain a productive local food production environment by prioritizing a stable, local economy rather than a massively profitable scheme that ends up resulting in environmental destruction.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

The same old thinking produces the same old result and vice versa.

“The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the seventh generation.” 

This is a rather intense quotation to reference, but it is appropriate for this scenario. If another well-known quote maybe used in accordance “no good deed goes unpunished.” These quotations should encourage the consideration that any decision made today, will directly affect everything result that comes after.

This principle is meant to encourage decision making that doesn’t enable destructive growth or behavior. Laws are put in place to ensure that unacceptable behaviors are stopped and rehabilitated. This system is essential to maintain a safe and healthy balance in society.

Permaculture in accordance with behavior is an effort to make decisions that directly enable in harmonious and self-regulating results. Taking lessons from nature once again, we’re trying to become more attuned to positive and negative feedback signs, and acting accordingly.

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

A row of wind turbines on a sunny morning.

“Let nature take its course.”

Renewable resources are those that can be replaced by natural processes over reasonable periods of time. Renewable services are what we gain from plants and animals without actually consuming or interfering with them too strongly.

An example of renewable services would be using a tree as protection from the sun or rain. The greatest possible example of this is the symbiotic relationship that humans hold with domesticated animals. Another, more simple example, would be drying clothes on a clothesline and calling it a “solar clothes dryer”.

6. Produce No Waste

Various household items used as pots for plants.

“Waste not, want not.”

We live in a consumer culture, and living through many generations that take advantage of cheaply made items using unsustainable resources has led to not only a wasteful way of living but an inefficient one.

This principle is in reference to returning to a more traditional way of frugal living and taking great care of the materials that you do have. By prioritizing being mindful of pollutants and depleting resources, suddenly it would be ridiculous to simply throw away an empty bottle.

It is always the superior option to find another use for something, rather than having it shipped away to be recycled. Recycling is a superior option to materials wasting away in a landfill, but it still requires a significant amount of energy to recycle an item.

7. Design From Patterns to Details

A bunch of yellow aspen trees in Colorado.

“Can’t see the forest for the trees.”

If you were to look at the palm of your hand with a microscope, it would be unrecognizable as a hand. We tend to focus too hard on one close up detail of a project and miss all of the surrounding elements, therefore acting in ways that don’t involve the whole reality.

The idea that initiated permaculture practices was taking lessons from forests, and using them as design models for agricultural systems. This is an excellent quotation, which can be met with another quotation, “the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts”.

This principle is focusing on emphasizing the way elements interact with one another, rather than focusing on one aspect and expecting to receive all the desired answers. In practice, this can be accomplished through zone site planning. Understanding that each portion of a property is different and specific characteristics, will result in more complex and varying planning, but overall a better operating site.

8. Integrate Rather than Segregate

A visual representation of a group of people working together.

“Many hands make light work.”

The concept of focusing on correlations rather than individual parts is a very prominent one within permaculture principles. This specific principle goes deeper into that concept. The intent is to focus on the relationships between elements, and taking lessons from those natural systems in order to improve our methods of designing communities.

Natural elements interact in such a way that they serve each other’s needs and accept the consequences of other elemental conditions. Even when relationships are predatory, this is a necessary relationship to have. If there was a predator too strong, it would deplete its entire food source, then the predator would die out. Sound familiar?

The mindset of our culture focuses on segregating elements and studying them individually, which does injustice to their true existence. If we were able to develop a more tangible degree of integration, there would be less need for human interference.

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

A man rode his bicycle to work.

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

A useful example of how small and slow solutions can be superior is with commuting with cars vs. bicycles. There is an interesting misconception about cars in cities and how they enable quicker commuting. This is actually false. Cars stall movement and destroy amenities, whereas bicycles enable a much more free method of commuting with absolutely no pollution or noise.

The small solution also comes into play with how these two methods of transportation are manufactured. Bicycles require less material, can be manufactured locally, require smaller parts, and don’t need to be transported as far as vehicles do.

Systems should be designed to function efficiently at the smallest possible scale, in a way that is energy efficient and convenient.

10. Use and Value Diversity

This is a close look at a permaculture garden.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Nature is incredibly diverse. This diversity alone is responsible for the balance within nature. Polyculture is a great application for this principle, as this type of agriculture system is more resistant to pests and disease. Monoculture is ripe for vulnerability to these kinds of ailments.

Polyculture is a way to live by the seasons, provides an opportunity to ignore market fluctuations, reduces reliance on industrialized food production, and bolsters community self-reliance.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

This is a close look at the white fences of an equestrian farm.

“Don’t think that you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path.”

Nature is self-organizing, and if we observe more closely this design we can see that this system is constantly expanding and encroaching on the margins of other ecosystems. This results in more interactions, more diversity, and more opportunities for symbiotic relationships.

A system design that sees an edge as an opportunity rather than a closed-door (much like animals exploring new territory) will be more adaptable and successful. This principle is designed around viewing the margins as an integral aspect of any system, and something that should be conserved and expanded.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

This is the Sculpture of the thinker of Rodin at Waldermarsudde in sunset light.

“Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be.”

This permaculture principle can be arranged into two thought threads: designing systems to make use of change in a deliberate and collaborative way, and adapting to large scale systems changing that is beyond our control.

We need new and radical thinkers and movers in order to enact any sort of large scale change. These types of thinkers can be encouraged through newfound methods of education and exploratory home environments.

Permaculture is fundamentally about the durability of natural living systems and human culture. Permaculture practices incorporate the inarguable truth that everything is constantly changing, and with a changing environment must come a flexible frame of mind.

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