Sunday, September 16, 2007


The word permaculture is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture as well as permanent culture and is an approach to designing human settlements, in particular the development of perennial agricultural systems that mimic the structure and interrelationships found in natural ecologies.

Permaculture design principles extend from the position that the only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. The intent was that, by rapidly training individuals in a core set of design principles, those individuals could become designers of their own environments and able to build increasingly self-sufficient human settlements — ones that reduce society's reliance on industrial systems of production and distribution that are fundamentally and systematically destroying the earth's ecosystems.

Modern permaculture is a system design tool. It is a way of:

1. looking at a whole system or problem
2. seeing connections between key elements (parts)
3. observing how the parts relate,
4. planning to mend sick systems by applying ideas learnt from long-term sustainable working systems.

In permaculture, we are learning from the working systems of nature to plan to fix the sick landscapes of human agricultural and city systems. We can apply systems thinking to the design of a kitchen tool as easily to the re-design of a farm. In permaculture we apply it to everything we need in order to build a sustainable future. Commonly, initiatives that are taken tend to evolve from strategies that focus on efficiency (for example, more accurate and controlled uses of inputs and minimisation of waste) to substitution (for example, from more to less disruptive interventions, such as from biocides to more specific biological controls and other more benign alternatives) to redesign -- fundamental changes in the design and management of the operation. Permaculture is about helping people make redesign choices: setting new goals and a shift in thinking that affects not only their home but their actions in the workplace, borrowings and investments. Examples include the design and employment of complex transport solutions, optimum use of natural resources such as sunlight, radical design of information-rich, multi-storey polyculture systems. This progression generally involves a shift in the nature of one’s dependence -- from relying primarily on universal, purchased, imported, technology-based interventions to more specific locally available knowledge and skill-based ones. This usually eventually also involves fundamental shifts in world-views, senses of meaning, and associated lifestyles. My experience is that although efficiency and substitution initiatives can make significant contributions to sustainability over the short term, much greater longer-term improvements can only be achieved by redesign strategies; and, furthermore, that steps need to be taken at the outset to ensure that efficiency and substitution strategies can serve as stepping stones and not barriers to redesign...

Core Values

Permaculture is a broad-based and holistic approach that has many applications to all aspects of life. At the heart of permaculture design and practice is a fundamental set of ‘core values’ or ethics which remain constant whatever a person's situation, whether they are creating systems for town planning or trade; whether the land they care for is only a windowbox or an entire forest. These 'ethics' are often summarised as:

Earthcare – recognising that the Earth is the source of all life (and is itself a living entity) and that we recognise and respect that the Earth is our valuable home and we are a part of the Earth, not apart from it.

Peoplecare – supporting and helping each other to change to ways of living that are not harming ourselves or the planet, and to develop healthy societies.

Fairshare (or placing limits on consumption) - ensuring that the Earth's limited resources are utilised in ways that are equitable and wise.

Everyone needs to eat and drink, and it is the issue of food production where permaculture had its origins. It started with the belief that for people to feed themselves sustainably they need to move away from reliance on industrialised agriculture. Where industrial farms use fossil fuel (gasoline, diesel, natural gas..) driven technology specialising in each farm producing high yields of a single crop, permaculture stresses the value of low inputs into the land and diversity in terms of what is grown. The model for this was an abundance of small scale market and home gardens for food production with food miles being a primary issue.

The Permaculture Design Innovation

The core of permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems themselves interact. A simple example of this is how the Sun interacts with a plant by providing it with energy to grow. This plant may then be pollinated by bees or eaten by deer. These may disperse seed to allow other plants to grow into tall trees and provide shelter to these creatures from the wind. The bees may provide food for birds and the trees provide roosting for them. The tree's leaves will fall and rot, providing food for small insects and fungus. There will be a web of intricate connections that allow a diverse population of plant life and animals to survive by giving them food and shelter. One of the innovations of permaculture design was to appreciate the efficiency and productivity of natural ecosystems and seek to apply this to the way human needs for food and shelter are met.

O'BREDIM design methodology

O'BREDIM is a mnemonic based on Observation, Boundaries, Resources, Evaluation, Design, Implementation and Maintenance.

Observation allows you to first see how the site functions within itself, to gain an understanding of its initial relationships. Some people recommend a year-long observation of a site before anything is planted. During this period all factors, such as lay of the land, natural flora and so forth, can be brought into the design. A year allows the site to be observed through all seasons, although it must be realised that, particularly in temperate climates, there can be substantial variations between years.

Boundaries refer to physical ones as well as to those your neighbours might place on you, for example.

Resources would include the people involved, funding, as well as what you can grow or produce in the future.

Evaluation of the first three will then allow you to prepare for the next three. This is a careful phase of taking stock of what you have at hand to work with.

Design is always a creative and intensive process, and you must stretch your ability to see possible future synergetic relationships.

Implementation is literally the ground-breaking part of the process when you carefully dig and shape the site.

Maintenance is then required to keep your site at a healthy optimum, making minor adjustments as necessary. Good design will preclude the need for any major adjustments.


The use of patterns both in nature and reusable patterns from other sites is often key to permaculture design. This echoes the pattern language used in architecture which has been an inspiration for many permaculture designers. All things, even the wind, the waves and the earth on its axis, moving around the Sun, form patterns. In pattern application, permaculture designers are encouraged to develop: 1. Awareness of the patterns that exist in nature (and how these function) 2. Application of pattern on sites in order to satisfy specific design needs. The application of pattern on a design site involves the designer recognising the shape and potential to fit these patterns or combinations of patterns comfortably onto the landscape. We can use branching for the direction of our paths, rather than straight paths with square angles. Or we may use lobe-like paths of the main path (these are known as keyhole paths) that minimise waste and compaction of the soil.

Permaculture zones

Permaculture zones are a way of organizing design elements in a human environment based on the frequency of human use. Frequently manipulated or harvested elements are located close to the house in zones one and two, while less frequently manipulated elements of the design are farther away from the house.

Links and connections

Also key to the permacultural design model is that useful connections are made between components in the final design. The formal analogy for this is a natural mature ecosystem. So, in much the same way as there are useful connections between Sun, plants, insects and soil there will be useful connections between different plants and their relationship to the landscape and humans. Another innovation of the permaculture design is to design a landuse or other system that has multiple outputs. A useful connection is viewed as one that maximises power: that is, maximizes the rate of useful energy transformation. A comparison which illustrates this is between a wheat field and a forest. “It is not the number of diverse things in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components.”


In permaculture and forest gardening, seven layers are identified:

The canopy
Low tree layer (dwarf fruit trees)
Rhizosphere (root crops)
Soil Surface (cover crops)
Vertical Layer (climbers, vines)
The 8th layer, or Mycosphere (fungi), is often included in layering.

A mature ecosystem such as ancient woodland has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects and other animals. Plants grow at different heights. This allows a diverse community of life to grow in a relatively small space. Plants come into leaf and fruit at different times of year.

For example, in the UK, wild garlic comes into leaf on the woodland floor in the time before the top canopy re-appears with the spring. A wood suffers very little soil erosion as there are always roots in the soil. It offers a habitat to a wide variety of animal life which the plants rely on for pollination and seed distribution. The productivity of such a forest in terms of how much new growth it produces exceeds the most productive wheat field. It is in this observation of how more productive a wood may be on far less input of fertilizers that the potential productivity of a permaculture design is modelled. The many connections in a wood contribute together to a proliferation of opportunities for amplifier feedbacks to evolve that in turn maximise energy flow through the system.


Polyculture is agriculture using multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems, and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture. It includes crop rotation, multi-cropping, and inter-cropping. Alley cropping is a simplification of the layered system which typically uses just two layers, with alternate rows of trees and smaller plants.


Permaculture Guilds are groups of plants which work particularly well together. These can be those observed in nature such as the White Oak guild which centers on the White Oak tree and includes 10 other plants. Native communities can be adapted by substitution of plants more suitable for human use.

The Three Sisters of maize, squash and beans is a well known guild. Guilds can be thought of as an extension of companion planting.

Increase edge

Permaculturists maintain that where vastly differing systems meet, there is an intense area of productivity and useful connections. The greatest example of this is the coast. Where the land and the sea meet there is a particularly rich area that meets a disproportionate percentage of human and animal needs. This is evidenced by the fact that the overwhelming majority of humankind lives within 100 km of the sea. So this idea is played out in permacultural designs by using spirals in the herb garden or creating ponds that have wavy undulating shorelines rather than a simple circle or oval. Edges between woodland and open areas have been claimed to be the most productive.

Perennial plants

Perennial plants are often used in permaculture design. As they do not need to be planted every year they require less maintenance and fertilisers. They are especially important in the outer zones and in layered systems.


Many permaculture designs involve animals. For e.g., chickens can be used as a method of weed control and also as a producer of fertiliser. Agroforestry combines trees with grazing animals. The animals should be treated as friends, co-habitators and co-workers of the site.

Annual monoculture (anti-pattern)

Annual monoculture such as a wheatfield can be considered a pattern to be avoided in terms of space (height is uniform) and time (crops grow at the same rate until harvesting). During growth and especially after harvesting the system is prone to soil erosion from rain. The field requires a hefty input of fertilizers for growth and machinery for harvesting. The work is more likely to be repetitive, mechanised and rely on fossil fuels.

No pattern should be hard and fast and depending on the design considerations they can be broken. An example of this is broadscale permaculture practiced at Ragmans Lane Farm, which has a component of annual farming. Here the amount of human involvement is a key factor influencing the design.


Applying these values means using fewer non-renewable sources of energy, particularly petroleum based forms of energy. Burning fossil fuels contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming; however, using less energy is more than just combatting global warming. Food production should be a fully renewable system; but using current agricultural systems this is not the case. Industrial agriculture requires large amounts of petroleum, both to run the equipment, and to supply pesticides and fertilizers. Permaculture is in part an attempt to create a renewable system of food production that relies upon minimal amounts of energy.

For example permaculture focuses on maximizing the use of trees (agroforestry) and perennial food crops because they make a more efficient and long term use of energy than traditional seasonal crops. A farmer does not have to exert energy every year replanting them, and this frees up that energy to be used somewhere else.

Traditional pre-industrial agriculture was labor intensive, industrial agriculture is fossil fuel intensive and permaculture is design and information intensive and petrofree. Partially permaculture is an attempt to work smarter, not harder; and when possible the energy used should come from renewable sources such as wind power, passive solar designs or alternative fuels.

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