I’ve written a lot about permaculture on this blog. I’ve talked about different permaculture plants and techniques in the garden, but I haven’t really talked about permaculture as a concept, or even defined the word it is for those who may not be familiar with it. So here goes.

Permaculture is an ethical and ecological design science, with the goal of creating sustainable systems that provide for humanity.

Permaculture, as a concept, was created by Bill Mollison. The word itself is a combination of “Permanent” and “Culture,” and that is its main goal. To create permanent systems and cultures.

There are no rules, per se, in permaculture, but there are 3 ethics and a prime directive.

The prime directive is that: “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. Make it now” ~ Bill Mollison.

The three ethics of permaculture are:

1. Care of the earth.

Pretty simple really. Don’t do anything that damages or destroys the earth. This might include spraying herbicides, clear cutting old growth forests, or planting millions of acres of monoculture row crops that require clear cutting forests and spraying hundreds of thousands of gallons of pesticides a year.

2. Care of people.

Also fairly simple. Don’t do anything that will hurt, or make another person ill. Using the pesticides example, it might not be a the best idea to spray extremely toxic chemicals in the lawn where your kids play, or your neighbor’s kids play, or anyone plays. How about damming up a river upstream and completely stopping the flow downstream? First, that would completely shatter the ecology of the river and the surrounding areas, thus violating the first ethic. Second, by damming the river, any people downstream who depended on it as a source of water for irrigation or drinking would be out of luck, a violation of the second ethic.

3. Return of Surplus to the first 2 ethics.

This one is a bit harder. The third ethic has been a source of controversy in the permaculture movement. I won’t get into that here, suffice to say that the third ethic calls for any surpluses that may arise from a system, be they yields of fruit, waste, by-products like organic matter such as leaves from deciduous trees, or knowledge from experimentation and experience, be somehow put back into the system in a way that strengthens it.

An example: fruit from an apple tree can be harvested and sold at a farmers market, the profit from the sale ensures the mortgage for the farm is payed, which ensures that the farmer can continue to produce healthy apples. There may be some apples that rot, or are damaged by bugs. These can be returned to the system by either feeding them to pigs or chickens, breaking the pest cycle, and fertilizing the tree with manure. As winter comes, the tree drops its leaves, and instead of raking them up and taking them to the landfill, the farmer lets them decompose at the base of the tree, providing mulch, and completing the nutrient cycle in preparation for another year of apple growing.

None of these actions violate any of the ethics. In fact, by utilizing the surplus of the system in an efficient and intelligent way, the permaculturalist avoids creating an expensive problem and instead makes his system stronger and more resilient.

Permaculture is more than the prime directive and ethics, though. There are many principles that help lay out the path towards sustainable design, and many techniques as well. These principles can be applied to anything, not just growing food, but also building houses, creating communities, and even planning weddings.

A great metaphor I’ve heard about permaculture compares permaculture design to a wardrobe. In your wardrobe you have different types of shirts, pants, socks, belts etc. and everyday when you get up, you have to decide which things you’ll wear based on your actions for the day, and especially based on the weather and nature. In permaculture, things like digging swales, establishing food forests, chop and drop mulching, and passive solar heating are all part of the wardrobe.

It falls to the individual to determine what will work and what won’t, based on observation and drawing from the wide base of global knowledge, traditions, and forgotten techniques. What tie matches the shirt. Not wearing a wool coat when it’s 90 degrees outside. Growing a deciduous vine like grapes along a southern wall to provide shade in the summer and reduce cooling bills, a delicious yield of fruit in the fall, and allowing the winter sun through to heat the home during the coldest part of the year. That’s permaculture.



Permaculture Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison

Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

Geofflawton.com ~ Some awesome, and inspiring videos by one of permaculture’s best teachers.