Permaculture: A Language for Gardeners
by Peter Bane
The Hawaiian people have a phrase in their
language which expresses deep understanding of their place on the
earth, "ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono." It
translates into English as, "the life of the land is
preserved in righteousness." This feeling of deep gardening
is the sensibility we must invoke to describe Permaculture or
Permaculture is a nation without borders and with no government.
It can be found on every inhabited continent among peoples as
diverse as Tswana herders in Southern Africa, apartment dwellers
in London and Sydney, desert ranchers in Arizona, jungle settlers
in Colombia, communitarians in northern Germany, and subsistence
villagers in Nepal. More than a form of organic gardening,
permaculture is a whole system of design for the creation of
sustainable human habitats. It is about culture; the use of tools
in our adaptation to the world around us, and what that means in
the post-industrial era.
Traditional peoples around the earth have known the limits and
the languages of their places. But along with biological
diversity, these unique human adaptations are being rapidly lost
at the frontier of economic globalization. Human beings
everywhere on earth are becoming increasingly dependent upon and
subject to centralized systems of production and control. The
consequences of this colonizing process are pollution,
desertification, poverty, famine, tyranny, and genocide. To move
beyond the destructiveness of our present culture, which is based
on continuing war and industrial capitalism, we must recover and
propagate knowledge and ecological linkages that sustain living
systems: air, water, and soil. We must reclaim the lands we
inhabit as we learn again to feed, clothe, house, heal, and
educate ourselves and our children.
Permaculture is an ethical approach to land use and economics
- Care for the Earth, its air, water, forests, soils, plants, and
- Care for people, who need not only the things of the earth, but
each other; and
- Care for Community, through limiting our own consumption and
population, and the distribution of that which is surplus to our
In the words of Australian ecologist Bill Mollison, co-author
(with David Holmgren) of the permaculture concept,
"Permaculture is the design of sustainable human habitats.
It is the design of cultivated ecosystems where we work with, not
against nature. It uses the naturally inherent qualities of
plants and animals, including humans, combined with the natural
characteristics of landscape to create sustainable,
low-maintenance, and productive agricultures for both city and
country using the smallest practical area." Permaculture
empowers us to recreate living systems out of the devastation of
How do we do it?
By observing patterns in nature and in traditional farming and
building systems we derive the principles which guide
permaculture design. To these principles we add the insights of
modern science, concoct a set of stories which convey these
essential understandings and begin repeating them to our friends.
You do the same. The effect is inspiring and contagious.
Because everything is connected to everything else and everything
must go somewhere, you cannot just do one thing and there is no
free lunch. Remember that everything gardens and "Nature
knows best." With that introduction to ecology, you are now
ready to learn permaculture.
A rough dozen principles can help us to design
1. Relative beneficial location. Put elements of the system near
other things with which they can have beneficial relationships.
Link rain barrels to roofs, and kitchens to gardens by bringing
them close together. If carrots love tomatoes, plant them
together; let the beans climb on (and fertilize) the corn.
2. Multi-functional elements. Make sure that everything in the
system has at least three functions. In this way space and cost
is saved while yields are increased.
3. Redundancy. Make sure every important function (like water,
warmth, food, and income) is supported by multiple elements.
4. Energy-efficient planning. Place elements in zones of
decreasing access and intensity of use radiating outward from the
center of activity (the home). Analyze outside influences (sun,
wind, weather, pollution, wildlife, views) on a site by sectors,
and let that guide your placement of elements also. Take account
of gravity by allowing elements to flow through the landscape
from high elevation to low.
5. Biological resources. Choose elements which are
self-propagating, self-healing, and which can be disposed of
without toxic residues. Living systems build real wealth. Prefer
wood to steel, bamboo to aluminum, worms to rototillers, legumes
to chemical fertilizer, trees to air-conditioners, and chickens
to bug spray.
6. Energy cycling and recycling. Energy flows and materials cycle
in ecosystems. Keep nutrients, water, heat, genetic material,
money, and other valuable resources in close circulation. Harvest
your own garden seed and begin to adapt plants for the
microclimate of your back yard. Water coming in as rain can be
collected, rather than drained away. If filtered, drunk or washed
with, it then flows out as greywater and urine from the
household. Instead of dumping it into sewers or septic tanks
where it can pollute, clean it on site with plants, harvest mulch
material from the artifical wetland, use the cleaned water for
fish habitat, and then irrigate crops with the pondwater.
7. Revalue appropriate traditional technology. Plants were our
first medicines; they are still our best health insurance. Grow
herbs in your garden and learn to use them in tinctures, teas,
poultices, and salves. The corn straw broom is still superior to
any plastic whatyamacallit ever made. Masonry stoves are the best
way to use wood for heating. Unglazed clay pots (called ollas in
Spanish) sunk into the ground and filled with water are the most
efficient way to irrigate gardens in drylands. Mud (earth) is a
healthy, low-cost building material available almost everywhere.
8. Stack yields in both time and space. All ecosystems evolve
toward greater complexity over time. Lawnmowers waste energy and
cause pollution trying to prevent this from happening. Go with
the flow instead. Plant perennial crops with different maturities
and different heights all at once. The forest yields at crown,
mid-level, near the ground, and under the ground. The 7-layered,
4-dimensional polyculture garden can do the same. Annual
vegetables succeed to berries to tree fruits and nuts as the
9. Maximize edge in cultivated systems. Use all the in-between
spaces. Edge is where the action is; where nutrients accumulate
and life grows fat. Our internal organs are small in size but
have huge surface areas for exchange of gasses and fluids.
Gardens can be designed on the same principles. They can remain
compact but gain enormous capacity.
10. Observe and replicate natural patterns. In permaculture,
observation is vitally important. If forests are the dominant
ecosystem in your area, it's because they are the most
thermodynamically efficient response to that kind of climate.
Streams meander, birds flock, cattle herds graze heavily in one
area then move on, not to return for many months. Model nature,
it's been around longer than humans.
11. Increase diversity. Natural systems become richer by
increasing the number of species and interactions between them in
a given area, not by adding more of the same. Adding diverse
elements into your system is a way to increase the sum of yields,
while enhancing stability.
12. Scale. Start at your back door and work outward on a
controlled front. Get your own life and your back yard in good
shape before you go anywhere else. A small, intensively
cultivated system will have surplus form which to expand or
create other systems. A large, spread-out system is an energy
sink, always requiring more energy to maintain than it produces.
Working on the edge. Permaculture has five
principal strategies which give it an "edge" over both
traditional and scientific agricultures. These are:
1. The use of recombinant ecologies and worldwide species
resources to achieve nutritionally and energetically superior
niches for humans in small areas.
2. Modelling the best of nature for highest energy yields, eg.
aquaculture and agroforestry model the most productive
ecosystems: marshlands and forests.
3. Managing time by pushing succession: stacking space and time.
We consciously acknowledge and participate in the evolution of
4. Recognizing the information content of systems. Gardening is a
highly interactive or cybernetic practice which places humans in
the landscape and ensures continual re-adjustment. It
consistently outyields any other form of agriculture.
5. Use of the historical opportunity of cheap energy.
Permaculture seeks to establish sustainable systems by using the
temporarily available supply of fossil fuel and machine
technology to micro-engineer landscapes for long-term natural
productivity. This transformation of embedded energy in the form
of industrially derived knowledge, tools, and infrastructure into
ecological, humanly productive systems which can endure
indefinitely into the future is the paramount challenge of our
In addition, permaculture spreads itself. It is inspiring and
empowering, and it promotes cooperation, furthering and fostering
environments in which it can thrive.
Origins and disseminations
In the early 70s, after a decade in "the bush" working
as a field biologist, Bill Mollison, then a lecturer at the
University of Tasmania, in conversation with his student David
Holmgren, gave shape to the permaculture ideas which were first
published in 1978 as Permaculture I. From about 1979, Bill began
teaching in Australia and soon after in America and Europe as
well. From this beginning, Permaculture has spread to more than
60 countries. Over 10,000 individuals have been trained in its
Education is built into permaculture as part of its internally
sustainable logic. Knowledge of permaculture design is
transferred primarily by short courses (10-15 days). Initially
Bill Mollison and a small cadre of teachers carried the system to
different regions. Now their second-, third-, fourth-, and even
fifth-generation students are teaching their peers in many
languages and most parts of the world.
Though most of the concepts in permaculture design are not new or
unique to it, their assembly into a coherent system is.
Permaculture is not traditional knowledge, though it borrows from
traditional systems; it is not science, though it applies
scientific learning; permaculture is not a belief system, though
it is based on ethical action. Permaculture is the edge between
all these different approaches. It is interdisciplinary and so
you will still have a hard time finding it in the university,
where departments strictly separate branches of knowledge.
Permaculture exists at the edge between agriculture,
architecture, and forestry. It is not a thing, but a way of
seeing all things.
How can I learn more?
The ideas in permaculture are universal, but every application is
local. And since humans learn best by example and by positive
reinforcement, the best way to learn to apply permaculture is to
seek out those in your area who are already doing it and work
with them to spread the knowledge.
Design courses are offered by qualified instructors in most
regions of the U.S., Canada, and overseas. Most events are
scheduled for the warmer seasons of the year, but may be offered
in southern venues during winter. Costs vary depending upon
facilities and accommodations, but range from $50-$80/day in the
Permaculture networks have grown with the support of a handful of
journals. Those listed below are the most prominent
The Permaculture Activist, P.O. Box 1209, Black Mountain,
NC 28711. Bi-monthly, $19/year. Since 1985 the source for North
American permaculture events, featuring report for grassroots
groups and designers working "on the ground." Each
issue presents a theme. Recent topics include Forest Farming
& Gardening, Animals & Aquaculture, Cities & Their
Regions, Useful Plants, and Village Design (current issue). Also
publishes a catalog of permaculture books and videos.
Permaculture International Journal, PO Box 6039, South
Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia. Quarterly, US$24/year (in N.
America order from Permaculture Activist, in Britain from
Permanent Publications), elsewhere US$33. The flagship journal of
the Permaculture movement, now in its 20th year. Extensive
reports from Australia and regular worldwide coverage.
Periodically publishes a global directory.
Permaculture Magazine (U.K.), Permanent Publications,
Hyden House, Little Hyden Lane, Clanfield, Hampshire, PO8 0RU.
Quarterly, US$20/year (in N. America order from Permaculture
Activist, in Australia from PIJ), elsewhere from publisher (U.K.
£10/yr, Europe £12/yr, rest of world £16/yr). High-quality
production values, superior coverage of Europe, cool climates,
and urban applications. Occasional articles on Africa. Directory
of events in Britain.
The Permaculture Edge, Permaculture Assn. of Western
Australia, PO Box 430 Subiaco WA 6008 Australia. Irregular,
US$20/4 issues (in N. America order from Permaculture Activist,
in Britain from Permanent Publications), elsewhere from publisher
AUD$26 airmail. A spare and thoughtful publication emphasizing
development issues, the unexpected, and the Indian Ocean
Permaculture Drylands Journal, Permaculture Drylands
Institute, PO Box 156, Santa Fe, NM 87504-0156. 3/year, US$25
includes support of the institute’s teaching work. An attractive
journal covering the arid parts of the U.S. and Mexico with
occasional articles on similar regions overseas.
Rhizomes, 592 Avenue Dolez, B-1130 Bruxelles, Belgium. A
Francophone journal edited by Kali de Keyser for readers in
Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Iberia.
The Villager, Box 319, Irene 1675, Gauteng, South Africa.
Handbook-sized journal of the Permaculture Assn. of South Africa.
A valuable source of information on the rapidly growing movement
in this cauldron of social change.
Groundcover, Zimbabwe Institute of Permaculture, PO Box
8515, Causeway, Harare, Zimbabwe. Newsletter of Z.I.P., the
senior permaculture institute in Africa. English-language news of
For information about permaculture demonstration sites which may
be visited in North America, contact The Permaculture Pilgrim's
Guide, c/o Chuck Marsh, 55 Grove St., #15, Asheville NC 28801.
Permanent Publications (see address above) has available
"The Permaculture Plot," a guide to sites in the
British Isles. £5.50 U.K., £6.50 Europe, £7.00 rest of world,
The standard Introduction to Permaculture, 2nd ed., 1994.
Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay. Tagari Press, Tyalgum, NSW,
Australia, is distributed to North America by Permaculture
Resources, PO Box 65, Califon, NJ 07830. Available by mail order
from The Permaculture Activist (address above), and in Australia
from PIJ, in Britain from Permanent Publications. This is the
best single-volume introduction to the subject.
The Permaculture Designers Manual, 1990. Bill Mollison
with Andrew Jeeves. The complete reference to permaculture
applications in all climates and ecosystems.
The Best of Permaculture, Max O. Lindegger, ed. 1986. A
collection of insightful essays drawn from the worldwide
permaculture literature on cutting edge subjects such as building
biology, urban forestry, land restoration, health, nutrition, and
The Global Gardener, video, 1991. Featuring Bill Mollison
in a global review of permaculture's accomplishment around the
world. Originally aired by Australian Broadcasting Corporation,
this brought Mollison national acclaim.
Some Internet Resources
Permaculture Intl. Journal, firstname.lastname@example.org
Global Ecovillage Network, email@example.com
The Permaculture Edge, firstname.lastname@example.org
Permaculture Magazine, email@example.com
Permaculture Activist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Bane publishes The Permaculture Activist,
and lives in the Earthaven Village community. He has taught
permaculture for six years and is a member of the faculty of the
Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm.