Permaculture Principles

David Holmgren’s Design Principles

Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration, repertoire and patterns. It is not something that is generated in isolation, but through continuous and reciprocal interaction with the subject.


Permaculture Ethics and Principles

Image courtesy of Permaculture Principles under Creative Commons Licence

Permaculture Principles Icons, Proverb and Descriptions from Permaculture Principles



Within more conservative and socially bonded agrarian communities, the ability of some individuals to stand back from, observe and interpret both traditional and modern methods of land use, is a powerful tool in evolving new and more appropriate systems. While complete change within communities is always more difficult for a host of reasons, the presence of locally evolved models, with its roots in the best of traditional and modern ecological design, is more likely to be successful than a pre-designed system introduced from outside. Further, a diversity of such local models would naturally generate innovative elements which can cross-fertilise similar innovations elsewhere.


“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”

This icon represents a person ‘becoming’ a tree. In observing nature it is important to take different perspectives to help understand what is going on with the various elements in the system. The proverb “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” reminds us that we place our own values on what we observe, yet in nature, there is no right or wrong, only different.

Since 1985 people have come to the annual Tree Bee at ‘Commonground’, Seymour, Australia to spend the weekend planting indigenous trees, shrubs and grasses.
The property, originally cared for by the Taungurong people of central Victoria, was cleared to became pastoral land.
Participants are given a brief demonstration on technique, but they are left to themselves to find their own place and style of planting. Children are often keen to get their hands dirty and plant something their own way. Some young people compete to plant as many trees and shrubs as they can, while others are happy to carefully plant out just a few. People return year after year to check on their efforts and contribiute to the diversity that is returning to this once barren landscape.



“Make hay while the sun shines”

This icon represents energy being stored in a container for use later on, while the proverb “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have a limited time to catch and store energy.

Aldinga Arts EcoVillage, near Adelaide in South Australia, has some excellent examples of passive solar passive design.
This terrace house has a bluestone ‘Trombe’ wall on the inside of the building, which stores heat from the sun while it is low in the sky (during the cooler months). Cool air from inside the house flows in through a vent at the base, heats up and returns inside via a vent at the top. The one-way flaps in the vents can prevent cooling at night and are closed off in the summer when the heat is not needed.
Another example of this principle is the catching and storing of rainwater from the roof of the house into the tank on the right of the picture. This tank is tall, so that gravity can provide water pressure, and it is placed near the garden to reduce the hoses and pipes needed for irrigating. The garden itself stores energy too, in the form of food, which can be eaten straight away, or preserved for later on.

We live in a world of unprecedented wealth resulting from the harvesting of the enormous storages of fossil fuels created by the earth over billions of years. We have used some of this wealth to increase our harvest of the Earth's renewable resources to an unsustainable degree. Most of the adverse impacts of this over-harvesting will show up as available fossil fuels decline. In financial language, we have been living by consuming global capital in a reckless manner that would send any business bankrupt.

Inappropriate concepts of wealth have led us to ignore opportunities to capture local flows of both renewable and non-renewable forms of energy. Identifying and acting on these opportunities can provide the energy with which we can rebuild capital, as well as provide us with an"income" for our immediate needs.

Some of the sources of energy include:
* Sun, wind and runoff water flows
* Wasted resources from agricultural, industrial and commercial activities

The most important storages of future value include:
* Fertile soil with high humus content
* Perennial vegetation systems, especially trees, yield food and other useful resources
* Water bodies and tanks, * Passive solar buildings

Principle 3: OBTAIN A YIELD

Pc-Icons-Principle-3.gif“You can’t work on an empty stomach”

The icon of the vegetable with a bite out of it shows us that there is an element of competition in obtaining a yield, whilst the proverb “You can’t work on an empty stomach” reminds us that we must get immediate rewards to sustain us.

The Fryers Forest Community Woodlot, in Central Victoria, is being husbanded to encourage the growth of larger retained trees by thinning smaller and stunted trees.
David Holmgren, a co-founder of both the community and the permaculture concept, is with his son Oliver, thinning a stand of trees. By debarking the fallen timber, valuable nutrients are left at the source, and the poles can be sold at a higher price.
After cutting out the coppiced growth, the stumps are neatened up so that the bark will grow over the wound, eventually leaving large, sawlog quality timber.
This long term sustainable management provides immediate yields of firewood, durable posts and pole timbers, while improving the ecological and timber assets of the communal land.

The previous principle focused our attention on the need to use existing wealth to make long-term investments in natural capital. But there is no point in attempting to plant a forest for the grandchildren if we haven't got enough to eat today.

This principle reminds us that we should design any system to provide for self-reliance at all levels (including ourselves), by using captured and stored energy effectively to maintain the system and capture more energy.

Without immediate and truly useful yields, whatever we design and develop will tend to wither while elements that do generate immediate yield will proliferate. Whether we attribute it to nature, market forces or human greed, systems that most effectively obtain a yield, and use it most effectively to meet the needs of survival, tend to prevail over alternatives.



“The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the seventh generation”

The icon of the whole earth is the largest scale example we have of a self regulating ‘organism’ which is subject to feedback controls, like global warming. The proverb “the sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation” reminds us that negative feedback is often slow to emerge.

The islands of Uros in the Lake Titicaca, Peru, are made from floating reeds. The totora reeds which grow in the lake are continually added on top of the islands to replace the rotting material below. The reeds have many other applications too. They are a food source; they provide the building materials for houses and boats; they are used for medicine and as fuel for cooking.
Historically there has been a balance between the rate of nutrient input to the water from human waste and the rate of of nutrient uptake by the growing reeds. Increased numbers of people through tourism have upset this balance, contaminating the lake water which is the drinking water and supplies a great deal of the local food.

This principle deals with self-regulatory aspects of permaculture design that limit or discourage inappropriate growth or behavior. With better understanding of how positive and negative feedbacks work in nature, we can design systems that are more self-regulating, thus reducing the work involved in repeated and harsh corrective management.

Self-maintaining and regulating systems might be said to be the 'Holy Grail' of permaculture: an ideal that we strive for but might never fully achieve. Much of this is achieved by application of the Integration and Diversity (Permaculture design principles 8 & 10) but it is also fostered by making each element within a system as self-reliant as is energy efficient. A system composed of self-reliant elements is more robust to disturbance. Use of tough, semi-wild and self-reproducing crop varieties and livestock breeds, instead of highly bred and dependent ones is a classic permaculture strategy that exemplifies this principle. On a larger scale, self-reliant farmers were once recognized as the basis of a strong and independent country. Today's globalize economies make for greater instability where effects cascade around the world. Rebuilding self-reliance at both the element and system level increases resilience.


Icon & Proverb
The horse icon represents both a renewable resource (it can be consumed) and a renewable service - pulling a cart, plough or log (a non consuming use). The proverb “let nature take it’s course” reminds us that control over nature through excessive resource use and high technology is not only expensive, but can have a negative effect on our environment.

Gustavo Ramírez, a co-founder of Ecovilla Gaia in Argentina, demonstrates a solar cooker which, when orientated towards the sun, concentrates the sun’s rays on the pot to heat water or cook. Although resources have gone into making the cooker, it consumes very little, just the energy to move and maintain it.
The building in the background is made from a cob mix of earth, straw, sand and water on a cement floor base with an earthen floor top coat. The roof is made on a framework of eucalypt poles and bamboo with a thatched straw roof. The overwhelming majority of materials used to build this house are renewable resources available locally.

Renewable resources are those that are renewed and replaced by natural processes over reasonable periods, without the need for major non-renewable inputs. In the language of business, renewable resources should be seen as our sources of income, while non-renewable resources can be thought of as capital assets. Spending our capital assets for day-to-day living is unsustainable in anyone's language. Permaculture design should aim to make best use of renewable natural resources to manage and maintain yields, even if some use of non-renewable resources is needed in establishing systems.

Renewable services (or passive functions) are those we gain from plants, animals and living soil and water, without them being consumed. For example, when we use a tree for wood we are using a renewable resource, but when we use a tree for shade and shelter, we gain benefits from the living tree that are non-consuming and require no harvesting energy. This simple understanding is obvious and yet powerful in redesigning systems where many simple functions have become dependent on non-renewable and unsustainable resource use.


Icon & Proverb
The icon of the worm represents one of the most effective recyclers of organic materials, consuming plant and animal ‘waste’ into valuable plant food. The proverb “a stitch in time saves nine” reminds us that timely maintenance prevents waste, while “waste not, want not” reminds us that it’s easy to be wasteful in times of abundance, but this waste can be a cause of hardship later.

The BikeShed at CERES in Melbourne, Australia, provides training to members from volunteer mechanics who teach people how to fix their own bikes using on-site tools. By helping people become more self-reliant, and keeping costs down, people can keep their bikes well maintained - and ride more often.
The group collects abandoned and donated bikes which are dismantled for parts, or repaired and sold at a minimal cost to raise money for tools and equipment at the shed. When people buy a recycled bike they are asked to allow a few hours to modify it and fix it up before they take it away.

This principle brings together traditional values of frugality and care for material goods, the modern concern about pollution, and the more radical perspective that sees wastes as resources and opportunities. The earthworm is a suitable icon for this principle because it lives by consuming plant litter (wastes), which it converts into humus that improves the soil environment for itself, for soil micro-organisms, and for the plants. Thus the earthworm, like all living things, is a part of a web where the outputs of one are the inputs for another.

The industrial processes that support modern life can be characterized by an input-output model, in which the inputs are natural materials and energy, while the outputs are useful things and services. However, when we step back from this process and take a long-term view, we can see all these useful things end up as wastes (mostly in rubbish tips) and that even the most ethereal of services required the degradation of energy and resources to wastes. This model might therefore be better characterized as "consume/excrete". The view of people as simply consumers and excreters might be biological, but it is not ecological.


Icon & Proverb
Every spider’s web is unique to its situation, yet the general pattern of radial spokes and spiral rings is universal. The proverb “can’t see the forest for the trees” reminds us that the closer we get to something, the more we are distracted from the big picture.

Parts of Morocco are very dry, but the low-lying areas hold the water and nutrients needed to sustain life.
Where the water and nutrients are most abundant, on the flood plains, short-lived intensive crops are planted. Moving further away from the river, longer-lived hardier varieties are planted out. Houses are built higher again where the risk of flood damage is lower, but there is still access to mud and other building materials as well as to the fertile lands below. The more modern house further up the slope appears to be built from imported materials and accessed with a vehicle, I wonder if the idea will catch on?.

The first six principles tend to consider systems from the bottom-up perspective of elements, organisms, and individuals. The second six principles tend to emphasis the top-down perspective of the patterns and relationships that tend to emerge by system self-organization and co-evolution. The commonality of patterns observable in nature and society allows us to not only make sense of what we see, but to use a pattern from one context and scale, to design in another. Pattern recognition is an outcome of the application of Principle 1: Observe and interact, and is the necessary precursor to the process of design.

The idea which initiated permaculture was the forest as a model for agriculture. While not new, its lack of application and development across many bioregions and cultures was an opportunity to apply one of the most common ecosystem models to human land use. Although many critiques and limitations to the forest model need to be acknowledged, it remains a powerful example of pattern thinking which continues to inform permaculture and related concepts, such as forest gardening, agroforestry and analogue forestry.

The use of zones of intensity of use around an activity center such as a farmhouse to help in the placement of elements and subsystems is an example of working from pattern to details. Similarly environmental factors of sun, wind, flood, and fire can be arranged in sectors around the same focal point. These sectors have both a bioregional and a site specific character which the permaculture designer carries in their head to make sense of a site and help organize appropriate design elements into a workable system.


Icon & Proverb
This icon represents a group of people from a bird’s-eye view, holding hands in a circle together. The space in the centre could represent “the whole being greater than the sum of the parts”. The proverb “many hands make light work” suggests that when we work together the job becomes easier.

This is a compost-making workshop, run at Carters Road Community in Margaret River, Western Australia, by Gwyn Hitchin and Tim Lane.
Compost is made up of a collection of various elements: food scraps, water, plant matter, manure, ash, etc, which when added individually to the garden are of limited benefit. When these items are brought together in the correct proportions it becomes rich source of food that can readily be taken up by plants.
Working together towards a common goal provides the motivation lacking in individual action.

In every aspect of nature, from the internal workings of organisms to whole ecosystems, we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Thus the purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements.

This principle focuses more closely on the different types of relationships that draw elements together in more closely integrated systems, and on improved methods of designing communities of plants, animals and people to gain benefits from these relationships.

By correct placement of plants, animals, earthworks and other infrastructure it is possible to develop a higher degree of integration and self-regulation without the need for constant human input in corrective management. For example, the scratching of poultry under forage forests can be used to harvest litter to down slope garden systems by appropriate location. Herbaceous and woody weed species in animal pasture systems often contribute to soil improvement, biodiversity, medicinal and other special uses. Appropriate rotationally grazed livestock can often control these weedy species without eliminating them and their values completely.

In developing an awareness of the importance of relationships in the design of self-reliant systems, two statements in permaculture literature and teaching have been central
1. Each element performs many functions.
2. Each important function is supported by many elements.

The connections or relationships between elements of an integrated system can vary greatly. Some may be predatory or competitive; others are co-operative, or even symbiotic. All these types of relationships can be beneficial in building a strong integrated system or community, but permaculture strongly emphasizes building mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationships. This is based on two beliefs:

1. We have a cultural disposition to see and believe in predatory and competitive relationships, and discount co-operative and symbiotic relationships, in nature and culture.
2. Co-operative and symbiotic relationships will be more adaptive in a future of declining energy.


Icon & Proverb
The snail is both small and slow, it carries its home on its back and can withdraw to defend itself when threatened. The proverb “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” reminds us of the disadvantages of excessive size and growth while “slow and steady wins the race” encourages patience while reflecting on a common truth in nature and society.

High in the Andes, Peru, this small camping location services hikers on their way to Choqek’iraw. Fodder is grown amongst the fruit trees to feed the donkeys that service these small outposts, and is harvested as needed using the small sickle hand tool shown.
Though it may be slower to use than a machine, this tool is actually the perfect solution to the job at hand. It uses no fossil fuels, can be serviced on site, is relatively cheap and can perform many tasks.
The very small areas of flat land in this mountainous region makes growing space precious. This tool allows every bit of fodder to be easily harvested to be taken away.

Systems should be designed to perform functions at the smallest scale that is practical and energy-efficient for that function. Human scale and capacity should be the yardstick for a humane, democratic and sustainable society.

For example, in forestry, fast growing trees are often short lived, while some apparently slow growing but more valuable species accelerate and even surpass the fast species in their second and third decades. A small plantation of thinned and pruned trees can yield more total value than a large plantation without management.


Icon & Proverb
The remarkable adaptation of the spinebill and hummingbird to hover and sip nectar from long, narrow flowers with their spine-like beak symbolises the specialisation of form and function in nature. The proverb “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” reminds us that diversity offers insurance against the variations of our environment.

The markets of Ollantaytambo in Peru are very popular for both tourists and locals alike. Local people from the region come to trade seeds, fresh produce and dyes, while the tourists come to visit the ancient city ruins and purchase textiles, arts and crafts.
Maize is a staple food for local people and the rich diversity in varieties available ensures good crops during the fluctuating natural cycles, each variety having its own specific qualities and climatic preferences.
Maintaining a pure strain of maize (unlike many other vegetables) requires the highest skill of the seed saver. These techniques have been perfected by the Andean peoples over hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The great diversity of forms, functions and interactions in nature and humanity are the source of evolved systemic complexity. The role and value of diversity in nature, culture and permaculture is itself complex, dynamic, and at times apparently contradictory. Diversity needs to be seen as a result of the balance and tension in nature between variety and possibility on the one hand, and productivity and power on the other.

It is now widely recognized that monoculture is a major cause of vulnerability to pests and diseases, and therefore of the widespread use of toxic chemicals and energy to control these. Polyculture (the cultivation of many plant and/or animal species and varieties within an integrated system) is one of the most important and widely recognized applications of the use of diversity to reduce vulnerability to pests, adverse seasons and market fluctuations. Polyculture also reduces reliance on market systems, and bolsters household and community self-reliance by providing a wider range of goods and services.


Icon & Proverb
The landscape catchment feeding a river at sunrise or sunset evokes a world defined by edges. The proverb “don’t think you are on the right track just because its a well-beaten path” reminds us that the most common, obvious and popular is not necessarily the most significant or influential.

This anti-uranium protest in a Darwin mall in Northern Australia in 1997 was the beginning of actions that later involved thousands around the country with hundreds of arrests. In this silent action activists lay in the mall, their outlines traced with chalk, reminiscent of the ‘shadows of Hiroshima’.
The Jabiluka Uranium mine lies within the ecological boundaries of the Kakadu National Park World Heritage area, on land belonging to the Mirrar Aboriginal people, who steadfastly opposed the mine. Rehabilitation works to close the mine commenced in 2003 and in 2005 traditional owners were given veto rights over future developments at the site.
The social fringe is where people can express themselves in creative ways to get important messages across.

Tidal estuaries are a complex interface between land and sea that can be seen as a great ecological trade market between these two great domains of life. The shallow water allows penetration of sunlight for algae and plant growth, as well as providing forage areas for wading and other birds. The fresh water from catchment streams rides over the heavier saline water that pulses back and forth with the daily tides, redistributing nutrients and food for the teeming life.

Within every terrestrial ecosystem, the living soil, which may only be a few centimeters deep, is an edge or interface between non-living mineral earth and the atmosphere. For all terrestrial life, including humanity, this is the most important edge of all. Only a limited number of hardy species can thrive in shallow, compacted and poorly drained soil, which has insufficient interface. Deep, well-drained and aerated soil is like a sponge, a great interface that supports productive and healthy plant life.

This principle works from the premise that the value and contribution of edges, and the marginal and invisible aspects of any system should not only be recognized and conserved, but that expansion of these aspects can increase system productivity and stability. For example, increasing the edge between field and pond can increase the productivity of both. Alley farming and shelterbelt forestry can be seen as systems where increasing edge between field and forest has contributed to productivity.


Icon & Proverb
The butterfly is a positive symbol of transformative change in nature, from its previous life as a caterpillar. The proverb “vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be” reminds us that understanding change is much more than a linear projection.

The Hundertwasserhaus, designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, is an apartment block built from 1983-86 in Vienna, Austria. It has uneven floors, a roof covered with earth and grass and large trees growing from inside the rooms, with limbs extending from windows. The architect took no payment for the design of building, declaring that “it was worth it to prevent something ugly from going up in its place”.
With a mix of apartments, offices, public and private terraces, a café and 250 trees and bushes it has become one of the most visited buildings in Vienna. Its vision has become an inspiration for other similar buildings that have since been built in the region.

Permaculture is about the durability of natural living systems and human culture, but this durability paradoxically depends in large measure on flexibility and change. Many stories and traditions have the theme that within the greatest stability lie the seeds of change. Science has shown us that the apparently solid and permanent is, at the cellular and atomic level, a seething mass of energy and change, similar to the descriptions in various spiritual traditions.

The acceleration of ecological succession within cultivated systems is the most common expression of this principle in permaculture literature and practice, and illustrates the first thread. For example, the use of fast growing nitrogen fixing trees to improve soil, and to provide shelter and shade for more valuable slow growing food trees, reflects an ecological succession process from pioneers to climax. The progressive removal of some or all of the nitrogen fixers for fodder and fuel as the tree crop system matures shows the success. The seed in the soil capable of regeneration after natural disaster or land use change (e.g. to an annual crop phase) provides the insurance to re-establish the system in the future.