Smart Energy Living - July 2011

Building Permanent Agriculture and Culture:
Care of the Earth. Care of People. Fair Share for All.

By: Mary O'Brien

The values of caring for the earth and its people, along with providing a fair share for all, are the core ethics of a worldwide grassroots movement known as permaculture that offers a new way of designing our gardens, farms, ranches and even our lives.

solar garden

Photo of a hoop house

Permaculture emphasizes sustainability, ecological sensitivity, cooperation with nature and social justice.  It began in the 1970s with two Australians, ecologist David Holmgren and educator and naturalist Bill Mollison.  After years of observing indigenous agricultural practices, nature’s ecological patterns and the relationship between human and natural systems, they decided maybe there is a better way to grow our food, communities, organizations and environments.

sheet mulching

Photo of  sheet-mulched keyhole plots 

Permaculture started as purely an agricultural movement but the ethics and principles are now being used to guide the creation of businesses, organizations, communities and economies, in other words, to create permanent (sustainable) culture.

Permaculture design is a whole systems approach to ecological design.  It incorporates a set of design principles and practices which can be used to establish, design, manage and improve all efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards sustainable human settlements.  It is a way of integrating people into Nature’s design.

Permaculture brings together, in a sensible system, ourselves and our communities, with whatever bit of land or space we are tending.  It can be as small as a windowsill with potted plants, an urban backyard or as large as a farm or a bioregion.  It can be in the city, the suburbs or in the country.

Permaculture sites integrate plants, animals, landscapes, structures and humans into a system where each part serves the other, many parts perform more than one function and “waste” is recycled back into the system.  These sites are designed to be high yield, diverse, resilient and to minimize labor and pollution.

Photo of  cardboard mulching

Permaculture incorporates a variety of techniques:

  1. Organic gardening
  2. No dig gardening
  3. Sheet mulching
  4. Composting
  5. Worm farming
  6. Natural building techniques
  7. Forest gardening
  8. Water retention and regeneration
  9. Polyculture, or multiple crops in the same space
  10. Guilds, or grouping plants, animals and microbes which work well together.  This is an expansion of the idea of companion planting.
  11. Perennial plantings
  12. Animals
  13. Renewable energy resources
  14. Multiple functions and multiple outputs

appletree boragen asturtium clover

Photo of an Apple tree, Borage, Nasturtium and Clover Guild 


The 12 design principles of permaculture are whole system thinking tools that can help us work through each element of a design.  They can be applied in designing constructed ecosystems of any size anywhere on earth. 

In permaculture, the design process starts with the house and other areas of high use and moves out to encompass the whole site.  The goal is to maximize productivity in a relatively small area, use resources efficiently and leave some land in a more wild state.

These are restatements of Holmgren’s design principles from his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability;

  1. Observe and interact - By taking the time to engage with nature, we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy - By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield - Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback - We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services - Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste - By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details - By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate - By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions - Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity - Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal - The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change – We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.


Photo of a Permaculture garden

Permaculture is all about observing nature.  We spend so much time, energy and fossil fuels fighting nature and trying to control it.  If we watch how nature’s systems work together, how strength and resiliency are built in, and try to mimic that resilience, we can create increasingly self-sufficient human settlements – ones that reduce our reliance on the industrial systems of production and distribution that are destroying earth’s ecosystems.  It is also about observing how traditional peoples have been living with the earth for generations, and, where applicable, re-learning, adopting and adapting those methods. No one system is preferred but all ways of working in harmony with nature are possibilities.

There are many great resources in print that can guide your conversion to permaculture practices. They include:

  • Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren  
  • Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
  • Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway
  • Edible Food Forests by Eric Toensmeier and Dave Jacke

Workshops and design courses are offered throughout our region.  Permaculture design consultants are also available to work with you on designs for your individual situations.  These can be challenging times but they can also be exciting times of opportunity and creativity in shaping a more resilient, just and promising future for ourselves and our future generations.

Mary O’Brien is an herbalist specializing in using bioregional plants and is certified in Permaculture design.  She teaches both herbal medicine and Permaculture throughout Colorado.

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