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Permaculture is an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing natural ecosystems. It includes a set of design principles derived using whole systems thinking. It uses these principles in fields such as regenerative agriculture, rewilding, and community resilience.

Permaculture was originally a portmanteau of "permanent agriculture",[1][2] but was later adjusted to "permanent culture", to incorporate necessary social aspects as inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka's natural farming.

It has many branches including ecological design, ecological engineering, regenerative design, environmental design, and construction. Permaculture also includes integrated water resources management that develops sustainable architecture, and regenerative and self-maintained habitat and agricultural systems modelled from natural ecosystems.[3][4]

Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.[5]

The principles of permaculture were first described by David Holmgren in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002). They include Observe and Interact, Catch and Store Energy, Obtain a Yield, Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback, Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services, Produce No Waste, Design From Patterns to Details, Integrate Rather Than Segregate, Use Small and Slow Solutions, Use and Value Diversity, Use Edges and Value the Marginal, and Creatively Use and Respond to Change.


The term was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison, senior lecturer in Environmental Psychology at University of Tasmania, and graduate student David Holmgren, then at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education.[6]

In 1929, Joseph Russell Smith added an antecedent term as the subtitle for Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, which sums up his experience experimenting with fruits and nuts as human food and animal food crops.[7] Smith saw the world as an inter-related whole and suggested mixed systems of trees with other crops underneath. This book inspired individuals such as Toyohiko Kagawa who pioneered forest farming in Japan in the 1930s.[8]

In his 1964 book Water for Every Farm, Australian P. A. Yeomans advanced a definition of permanent agriculture as one that can be sustained indefinitely. Yeomans introduced both an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940s and the Keyline Design as a way of managing the supply and distribution of water in the 1950s.

Holmgren noted Stewart Brand's works as an early influence.[9] Other early influences include Ruth Stout and Esther Deans, who pioneered no-dig gardening, and Masanobu Fukuoka who, in the late 1930s in Japan, began advocating no-till orchards and gardens and natural farming.[10]

Bill Mollison, "father of permaculture"[11]

In the late 1960s, Mollison and Holmgren started developing ideas about stable agricultural systems on the southern Australian island of Tasmania. Complications of industrial methods sparked these ideas.[12] In their view, these methods were highly dependent on non-renewable resources, and were additionally poisoning land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of topsoil from previously fertile landscapes. They responded with permaculture. This term was first made public with their publication of their 1978 book Permaculture One.[12]

Students of Mollison's Permaculture Design Course (PDC) included Lawton and Hemenway. Simon J. Fjell met Mollison and became a teacher of the first Permaculture Design Course in 1976. He was a founding director of the Permaculture Institute in late 1979 , having .

By the early 1980s, the concept had broadened from agricultural systems towards sustainable human habitats. After Permaculture One, Mollison further refined and developed the ideas while designing hundreds of permaculture sites and writing more detailed books, such as Permaculture: A Designers Manual. Mollison lectured in over 80 countries and taught his two-week PDC to hundreds of students.[citation needed] Mollison encouraged graduates to become teachers and set up their own institutes and demonstration sites.[13] Critics suggest that this success weakened permaculture's social aspirations of moving away from industrial social forms. They argue that the self-help model (akin to franchising) has had the effect of creating market-focused social relationships that the originators initially opposed.[14]

The permaculture movement spread throughout Asia and Central America. In Hong Kong the Asian Institute of Sustainable Architecture (AISA) was established.[15] The Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP)[16] flourished in Guatemala. The Permaculture Institute of El Salvador is another example.[17]

Foundational ethics[edit]

The ethics on which permaculture builds are:[18][19]

  • Care of the Earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.
  • Care of people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence
  • Setting limits to population and to consumption. By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.[20]

Permaculture emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. It determines where these elements should be placed so they can provide maximum benefit to the local environment. Permaculture maximizes useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on individual elements, but rather on the relationships among them. Properly done, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems, and maximizes benefits between design elements to maximize synergy. Permaculture designs evolve over time by reflecting these relationships and elements and can evolve into complex systems that produce food and materials with minimal input.[21]

The design principles were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use. Permaculture draws from disciplines including organic farming, agroforestry, integrated farming, sustainable development, physics, meteorology, sociology, anthropology, biochemistry, engineering, and applied ecology.[22] Permaculture has been applied most commonly to the design of housing and landscaping, integrating agroforestry, natural building, and rainwater harvesting.[citation needed]


Design principles[edit]

Holmgren articulated twelve permaculture design principles in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:[23]

  • Observe and interact: Take time to engage with nature to design solutions that suit a particular situation.
  • Catch and store energy: Develop systems that collect resources at peak abundance for use in times of need.
  • Obtain a yield: Emphasize projects that generate meaningful rewards.
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems function well.
  • Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance: reduce consumption and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  • Produce no waste: Value and employ all available resources: waste nothing.
  • Design from patterns to details: Observe patterns in nature and society and use them to inform designs, later adding details.
  • Integrate rather than segregate: Proper designs allow relationships to develop between design elements, allowing them to work together to support each other.
  • Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain, make better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.
  • Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces system-level vulnerability to threats and fully exploits its environment.
  • Use edges and value the marginal: The border between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most system's valuable, diverse and productive elements.
  • Creatively use and respond to change: A positive impact on inevitable change comes from careful observation, followed by well-timed intervention.


Suburban permaculture garden in Sheffield, UK with different layers of vegetation

Layers are a tool used to design sustainable ecosystems that directly benefit humans. A mature ecosystem has many relationships between its constituent parts such as trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects, and animals. Because plants grow to different heights, a diverse community of organisms can occupy a relatively small space, each at a different layer. Forests offer seven basic layers, although there can be many more, such as fungi.[24]

  • The canopy: the tallest trees. Large trees dominate, but typically do not saturate the area, i.e., some patches are devoid of trees.
  • Understory layer: trees that flourish under the canopy.
  • Shrub layer: woody perennials of limited height. Includes most berry bushes.
  • Herbaceous layer: Plants that die back to the ground every winter, if cold enough. No woody stems. Many beneficial plants such as culinary and medicinal herbs are in this layer. Annuals, biennials and perennials.
  • Soil surface/groundcover: Overlaps with the herbaceous layer and the groundcover layer; however plants in this layer grow much closer to the ground, densely fill bare patches, and typically can tolerate some foot traffic. Cover crops retain soil and lessen erosion, along with green manures that add nutrients and organic matter, especially nitrogen.
  • Rhizosphere: Root layers within the soil. The major components of this layer are the soil and the organisms that live within it such as plant roots and zomes (including root crops such as potatoes and other edible tubers), fungi, insects, nematodes, worms, etc.
  • Vertical layer: climbers or vines, such as runner beans and lima beans (vine varieties).[24][25]


A guild is a group of species. Within a guild each species provides a unique set of diverse services that work in harmony. Guilds take many forms, including guilds of interchangeable plants, but the most common type is a mutual support guild. Mutual support guilds include compatible animals, insects, plants, etc. Plants may be grown for food production, drawing nutrients from deep in the soil through tap roots, fixing nitrogen (legumes), attracting beneficial insects, and repelling pests.[26][27][28]

Edge effect[edit]

The edge effect in ecology is the effect of juxtaposing contrasting environments in an ecosystem. Permaculturists argue that where differing systems meet can become highly productive and offer useful connections. An example of this is a coast. Where land and sea meet is a rich area that meets a disproportionate percentage of human and animal needs. This idea is reflected in permacultural designs by using spirals in herb gardens, or creating ponds that have wavy undulating shorelines rather than a simple circle or oval (thereby increasing the amount of edge for a given area).[29]


Permaculture zones 0–5

Zones intelligently organize design elements in a human environment based on the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. Frequently manipulated or harvested elements of the design are located close to the house in zones 1 and 2. Manipulated elements located further away are used less frequently. Zones are numbered from 0 to 5 based on positioning.[30]

Zone 0
The house, or home center. Here permaculture principles aim to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, to create a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live and work. Zone 0 is an informal designation, which is not specifically defined in Mollison's book.
Zone 1
The zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often, such as salad crops, herb plants, soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, worm compost bin for kitchen waste, etc. Raised beds are often used in Zone 1 in urban areas.
Zone 2
This area is used for siting perennial plants that require less frequent maintenance, such as occasional weed control or pruning, including currant bushes and orchards, pumpkins, sweet potato, etc. Also a good place for beehives, larger scale composting bins, etc.
Zone 3
The area where main-crops are grown, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal (provided mulches and similar things are used), such as watering or weed control maybe once a week.
Zone 4
A semi-wild area, mainly used for forage and collecting wild plants as well as production of timber for construction or firewood.
Zone 5
A wilderness area. Humans do not intervene in zone 5 apart from observing natural ecosystems and cycles. This zone hosts a natural reserve of bacteria, moulds and insects that can aid the zones above it.[31]


Permaculture uses observation of nature to identify regenerative systems. This has been most visible on the landscape. A growing awareness finds that firstly, the peoplecare ethic needs attention, interpersonal dynamics can often interfere with projects, and secondly that the principles of permaculture can be used to effectively create vibrant, healthy and productive people and communities.

Domesticated animals[edit]

Domesticated animals are often incorporated into site design.[32]Animals are a critical component of any sustainable ecosystem. Research indicates that without animals' contribution, ecological integrity is diminished or lost.[33] Activities that contribute to the system include: foraging to cycle nutrients, clearing fallen fruit, weed maintenance, spreading seeds, and pest maintenance. Nutrients are cycled by animals, transformed from their less digestible form (such as grass or twigs) into more nutrient-dense manure.[33]

Multiple animals can contribute, including cows, goats, chickens, geese, turkey, rabbits, and worms. An example is chickens who can be used to scratch over the soil, thus breaking down the topsoil and using fecal matter as manure. Factors such as timing and habits are critical. For example, animals require much more daily attention than plants.[34]

Vegan permaculture[edit]

Vegan permaculture (also known as veganic permaculture, veganiculture, or vegaculture) avoids the use of domesticated animals.[35] It is essentially the same as permaculture except for the addition of a fourth core value; "Animal Care."[36] Zalan Glen, a raw vegan, proposes that vegaculture emerge from permaculture in the same way veganism split from vegetarianism in the 1940s.[36] Vegan permaculture recognizes the importance of free-living animals, rather than domesticated animals, to create a balanced ecosystem.[35] Soil fertility is maintained by the use of green manures, cover crops, green wastes, composted vegetable matter in place of manure.

Common practices[edit]


Agroforestry in Burkina Faso, with maize under trees

Agroforestry uses the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops or livestock. It combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable land-use systems.[37] Trees or shrubs are intentionally used within agricultural systems, or non-timber forest products are cultured in forest settings.[38]

Forest gardening/food forests involve systems designed to mimic natural forests. Forest gardens, like other permaculture designs, incorporate processes and relationships that the designers understand to be valuable in natural ecosystems.

Proponents of forest gardens include Graham Bell, Patrick Whitefield, Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier and Geoff Lawton. Bell started building his forest garden in 1991 and wrote The Permaculture Garden in 1995, Whitefield wrote the book How to Make a Forest Garden in 2002, Jacke and Toensmeier co-authored the two volume book set Edible Forest Gardening in 2005, and Lawton presented the film Establishing a Food Forest in 2008.[21][39][40]

Tree Gardens, such as Kandyan tree gardens, in South and Southeast Asia, are often hundreds of years old. It is not evident whether they came from agroforestry, or permaculture. Many studies of these systems, especially those that predate the term permaculture, consider these systems to be forms of agroforestry.

Suburban permaculture[edit]

Permaculture is increasingly common in American, Australian and English suburbs. The idea is to produce basic needs locally and to reduce ecological footprints and build social cohesion. Trading grass for garden is the most common expression of suburban permaculture, but transformation can go much further.

Suburban permaculture sites such as one in Eugene, Oregon include rainwater catchment, edible landscaping, removing paved driveways, turning a garage into living space, changing a south side patio into passive solar, aesthetic features, detached structures.[41]

In cities such as Eugene and Portland Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, permaculture site tours feature suburban sites.[citation needed]

Neighbors can collaborate with each other to increase the scale of transformation. Sites such as recreation centers, neighborhood associations, city program, faith groups, schools can become part of a larger social and economic movement.

Suburban retrofit eco-villages include N Street Cohousing in Davis, California; Enright Ridge Urban Eco Village in Cincinnati, Ohio; and East Blair Housing Co-op in Eugene.


Hügelkultur is the practice of burying wood to increase soil water retention. The porous structure of wood acts as a sponge when decomposing underground. During the rainy season, sufficient buried wood can absorb enough water to sustain crops through the dry season.[42][43][44]

Natural building[edit]

Natural building involves a range of building systems and materials that emphasize sustainability. The focus is on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful or renewable resources, as well as those that, while recycled or salvaged, produce healthy living environments and maintain indoor air quality.

Natural building attempts to lessen the environmental impact of buildings and supporting systems, without sacrificing comfort, health, or aesthetics. Natural building employs abundantly available natural materials (e.g., clay, rock, sand, straw, wood, reeds), and draws heavily on traditional architectural strategies found in various climates. Building orientation, local climate and site conditions and emphasis on natural ventilation lessen operational costs and positively impact the environment. Building compactly and minimizing the ecological footprint is common, as are on-site handling of energy acquisition, on-site water capture, alternate sewage treatment, and water reuse.[citation needed] Most materials are sourced regionally, locally, or even on-site. Straw bales, and various earthen masonry techniques such as adobe bricks, cob (or monolithic adobe), rammed earth and clay-straw infill are common choices for wall material. Roofing coverings often include sod or "living" roofs, thatch, and wooden shakes or shingles. Rubble trench foundations are popular, as they do not require concrete. Likewise, dry-stacked or lime mortared stem walls are common. Natural builders also regularly combine wall systems in a single building, making best use of for example each material's thermal or water resistant properties.

Rainwater harvesting[edit]

Rainwater harvesting is the accumulation and storage of rainwater for reuse before it runs off or reaches the aquifer.[45] It has been used to provide drinking water, water for livestock, and water for irrigation, as well as other typical uses. Rainwater collected from the roofs of houses and local institutions can make an important contribution to the availability of drinking water. It can supplement the water table and increase urban greenery. Water collected from the ground, sometimes from areas which are especially prepared for this purpose, is called stormwater harvesting.[citation needed]

Greywater is wastewater generated from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing, which can be recycled for uses such as landscape irrigation and constructed wetlands. Greywater is largely sterile, but not potable (drinkable). Greywater differs from water from sewage or blackwater that contains human or animal waste. A permaculture approach to blackwater is composting through a process known as humanure; a portmanteau of human and manure. The methane in humanure can be collected and used similar to natural gas as a fuel, such as for heating or cooking, and is commonly referred to as biogas. Biogas can be harvested from human waste and the remainder used as humanure. The simplest forms of humanure include a composting toilet or an outhouse or dry bog surrounded by trees that are heavy feeders that can be coppiced for wood fuel. This process eliminates the use of a plumbed toilet.

Sheet mulching[edit]

Mulch is a protective cover placed over soil. Mulch material includes stones, leaves, cardboard, wood chips and gravel, although in permaculture mulches of organic material are preferred because they perform more functions. These include absorbing rainfall, reducing evaporation, providing nutrients, increasing soil organic matter, creating habitat for soil organisms, suppressing weed growth and seed germination, moderating diurnal temperature swings, protecting against frost, and reducing erosion. Sheet mulching is a gardening technique that attempts to mimic natural forest processes. Sheet mulching mimics the leaf cover that is found on forest floors. When deployed properly and in combination with other permaculture principles, it can generate healthy, productive and low maintenance ecosystems.[46][47][page needed]

Sheet mulch serves as a "nutrient bank," storing nutrients contained in organic matter and slowly making these nutrients available to plants as the organic matter slowly and naturally breaks down. It also improves the soil by attracting and feeding earthworms, slaters and many other soil micro-organisms, as well as adding humus. Earthworms "till" the soil, and their worm castings are among the best fertilizers and soil conditioners. Sheet mulching can be used to reduce or eliminate non-desired plants by starving them of light, and can surpass herbicide or other methods of control.[48]


Grazing is blamed for much destruction. However, when grazing is modeled after nature, it can have the opposite effect.[49][50] Cell grazing is a system of grazing in which herds or flocks are regularly and systematically moved to fresh range with the intent to maximize forage quality and quantity. Sepp Holzer and Joel Salatin have shown how grazing can start ecological succession or prepare ground for planting. Allan Savory's holistic management technique has been likened to "a permaculture approach to rangeland management".[51][52] One variation is conservation grazing, were the primary purpose of the animals is to benefit the environment and the animals are not necessarily used for meat, milk or fiber.[53][54][55] Sheep can replace lawn mowers.[56][57] Goats and sheep can eat invasive plants.[58][59]

Keyline design[edit]

Keyline design is a technique for maximizing the beneficial use of water resources. It was developed in Australia by farmer and engineer P. A. Yeomans. Keyline refers to a contour line extending in both directions from a keypoint. Plowing above and below the keyline provides a watercourse that directs water away from a purely downhill course to reduce erosion and encourage infiltration.[60] It is used in designing drainage systems.[61]

Fruit tree management[edit]

Some proponents of permaculture advocate heavily restricted pruning. Holzer used the method in connection with Hügelkultur berms. He has grew fruiting trees at altitudes (approximately 9,000 feet (2,700 m)) far above their normal altitude, temperature, and snow load ranges. The Hügelkultur berms kept or generated enough heat to allow the roots to survive during alpine winter conditions. The point of having unpruned branches, he notes, was that the longer (more naturally formed) branches bend over under the snow load until they touched the ground, thus forming a natural arch against snow loads that would break a shorter, pruned, branch.[citation needed]

Masanobu Fukuoka, as part of early experiments on his family farm in Japan, experimented with no-pruning methods, noting that he ended up killing many fruit trees by simply letting them go, which made them become convoluted and tangled, and thus unhealthy.[62][63][page needed] He learned that this is the difference between natural-form trees and previously-pruned fruit trees.[62][64][page needed] He concluded that trees should be raised entirely without pruning, allowing them to form healthy and efficient natural branch patterns. This reflects the Tao-philosophy of Wú wéi translated in part as no-action (against nature). He interpreted this as no unnecessary pruning, nature farming or "do-nothing" farming, of fruit trees, distinct from non-intervention or literal no-pruning. He ultimately achieved yields comparable to or exceeding standard/intensive practices of using pruning and chemical fertilisation.[62][64][page needed][65]

Marine systems[edit]

Permaculture derives its origin from agriculture, although the same principles, especially its foundational ethics, can also be applied to mariculture, particularly seaweed farming. An example is marine permaculture[66][67][68] wherein artificial upwelling of cold, deep ocean water is induced. When attachment substrate is provided in association with such an upwelling, and kelp sporophytes are present, a kelp forest ecosystem can be established (kelp needs the cool temperatures and abundant dissolved macronutrients present in such an environment).[69] Microalgae proliferate as well.[70][71] Marine forest habitat is beneficial for many fish species,[72] and the kelp is a renewable resource for food, animal feed,[73] medicines[74] and various other commercial products.[75][76] It is also a powerful tool for carbon fixation.[70][77][78] The upwelling can be powered by renewable energy on location. Vertical mixing has been reduced due to ocean stratification effects associated with climate change.[79] The Permian Mass Extinction was thought to have been brought on by such ocean warming, stratification, deoxygenation, wikt:anoxia, and subsequent extinction of 96% of all marine species. Reduced vertical mixing and marine heatwaves have decimated seaweed ecosystems in many areas.[80][81][82] Marine permaculture mitigates this by restoring some vertical mixing and preserves these important ecosystems. By preserving and regenerating habitat offshore on a platform, marine permaculture employs natural processes to regenerate marine life.[68][83][84]

Intellectual property[edit]

Trademark and copyright disputes surround the word permaculture. Mollison's books claimed on the copyright page, "The contents of this book and the word PERMACULTURE are copyright." Eventually Mollison acknowledged that he was mistaken and that no copyright protection existed.[85]

In 2000, Mollison's U.S.-based Permaculture Institute sought a service mark (a form of trademark) for the word permaculture when used in educational services such as conducting classes, seminars, or workshops.[86] The service mark would have allowed Mollison and his two institutes to set enforceable guidelines regarding how permaculture could be taught and who could teach it, particularly with relation to the PDC, despite the fact that he had been certifying teachers since 1993. This attempt failed and was abandoned in 2001. Mollison's application for trademarks in Australia for the terms "Permaculture Design Course" and "Permaculture Design" were withdrawn in 2003. In 2009 he sought a trademark for "Permaculture: A Designers' Manual" and "Introduction to Permaculture", the names of two of his books. These applications were withdrawn in 2011. Australia has never authorized a trademark for the word permaculture.[87]


The Charter of the Forest makes extended use of permaculture ideals and techniques such as forest gardening as they are related to the philosophy of anarchism.[88][89][90] It also employs permaculture issues as metaphorical commentary on real-life events, such as referencing the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic timeline in the scene "Pale Rust and An Albino Hawk".[90]


Critics Peter Harper and Rob Scott pushed for less reliance on anecdote and extrapolation from ecological first principles, in favor of peer-reviewed research to substantiate productivity claims and to clarify methodology.[citation needed]

Defenders respond out that permaculture is not yet a mainstream scientific tradition and lacks the resources of traditional agriculture. Ferguson and Lovell point out that permaculturalists rarely engage with mainstream research in agroecology, agroforestry, or ecological engineering, and claim that mainstream science has an elitist or pro-corporate bias.[91][92][93]


In his books Sustainable Freshwater Aquaculture and Farming in Ponds and Dams, Nick Romanowski expresses the view that the presentation of aquaculture in Bill Mollison's books is unrealistic and misleading.[94]


Greg Williams argues that forests cannot be more productive than farmland because the net productivity of forests declines as they mature due to ecological succession.[95] Permaculture proponents respond that this is true only when comparing data between woodland forest and climax vegetation, but not when comparing farmland vegetation against woodland forest. For example, ecological succession generally results in rising productivity until it reaches the woodland state (67% tree cover), before declining until full maturity.[21]

See also[edit]


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