Permaculture Defined

This is a continuation of an introductory series exploring my study and application of Permaculture.  You can find my other articles by visiting GHC’s Site Index.  All of these topics are discussed more deeply during our Workshops and Seminars.

Before I type much of anything myself, let’s ask two gentlemen who are the accepted founders of Permaculture how they define it.

Bill Mollison


David Holmgren


Now that we’ve heard straight from the best sources possible, I won’t feel so squeamish asking someone else.



Look how happy that guy is to be holding one of the newest additions to his compost making + garbage disposal + egg-producing system.

Sorry, I digress…

The word Permaculture itself is a concatenation of segments of two words… a “portmanteau” if you want to be all technical about it.  (I had to look up that linguistic term. Thanks Internet).

Permanent + Agriculture = Permaculture

The first time I encountered the word Permaculture, before going any further I conjured up a mental image from afar of a vast, dense rain forest newly discovered and untouched by man.  As my mind zoomed in, I saw the virgin landscape contained only edibles. Instead of palm trees… apples and pears.  Instead of elephant grass…. giant blueberries.  Instead of monkeys and tigers… chickens and turkeys foraged in the brush.

Obviously that’s a complete pipe dream, right?  There’s no way something like that could exist without constant human intervention – tilling, planting, weeding, shoveling, spraying, netting, work, work, work.

As I continued reading, I saw that everything I had known, and therefore everything I had ever done regarding gardening was completely backwards.  Most food production systems, no matter if they’re gigantic hundred acre monocropped corn fields, or my small backyard tomato patch… most of those systems see the world one way:

Everything is naturally unhealthy.  It’s my job to get in there, break up the innate destructive processes and micro-manage.  Every spring their soil has a serious Miracle-Gro deficiency.  Every summer their garden has a devastating RoundUp deficiency.  Stupid nature.  They need to get to work fixing these broken systems and spray away.  Forever.

Permaculturists see the world another way:

Everything is naturally healthy. Nature knows what it’s doing. After much observation, I may be able to help her speed up what she wants to do. But mostly I have to get out of the way.  Moreso, if something is broken, it’s probably my fault.

Which way do you look at your garden?

Now, let’s take a quick look at:

What Permaculture is Not


Unfortunately, some Google searches frequently turn up results that leads one to believe Permaculture seminars and techniques look like what’s above.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Permaculture can be a very big tent and I have no problem with someone enjoying a nice drum circle or interpretive dance session after a long day of garden work to unwind.

Just please don’t teach others your strawberries are flourishing because of your drum circle or because of the certain pitch you use to howl at the new moon.  That’s not Permaculture.

Permaculture is a Design Science.  A design science predicated on a lot of observation and at least the understanding of the rules of cause and effect, if not the understanding (as much as is possible) of complex natural ecological systems.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading along as we delve further into this topic.  There is a little bit of theory and bookwork to cover as it’s important to understand the foundation.  Very soon after discussing Permaculture’s Prime Directive, Three Ethics, and Twelve Principles, we dig in to some practical applications.  After that, I’m not sure where this is going, but I bet it will be interesting (at least to me).

Question of the Day: Have you encountered Permaculture before?  What was your first impression?

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15 comments on “Permaculture Defined
  1. Jo says:

    I will definitely be following along for this! Thanks for posting. So eager to learn more! –Jo
    Jo recently posted…The Trip That Started The JourneyMy Profile

  2. Such a needed discussion! I’m reading two permaculture books right now and am enthralled.

    • Mike says:

      May I ask which books? After many, “Gaia’s Garden” was my first introduction years ago and I still refer to it constantly.

      • I’m reading one sent to me by the publisher for review – Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shephard who runs New Forest Farm in Wisconsin, a stretch of land they reclaimed using permaculture principles. The book is written for farmers/growers and, to be honest, its a bit dry but I’m enjoying learning the principles. I’m not sure I jive with the pillars of permaculture but I see the point of them. All very interesting – learning new things!
        tessa Hometead Lady recently posted…Kefir fermented bread dough – no yeast!My Profile

  3. Permaculture fascinates me… and I can’t wait to read more about it! It strikes me as a way to tame my worst gardening flaw… the one that doesn’t want to pull weeds because they are “pretty” and because Mother Nature put them there. 🙂
    Christine @ Once Upon a Time in a Bed of Wildflowers recently posted…HopscotchMy Profile

    • Mike says:

      Sounds like you’re naturally inclined to Permaculture. While a few weeds do need pulled in my garden, I always try to learn why they’re there and what they’re telling me.

      Maybe you and I can be the stars of a new venture – “The Weed Whisperers”. 🙂

  4. Amber Pixie says:

    I resemble that drumcircle picture. 🙂 But yes, most of my spangled, jingly hippie friends are of the hardworking, gardening variety. We do what we can in our rented home, but I’ve been doing my best to learn permaculture principles so that I can apply them fully once my husband and I have land.
    Amber Pixie recently posted…Asheville Herb Festival 2014My Profile

  5. Patrick says:

    Looking forward to what you have to say about Permaculture. It is a big tent, with room for everybody, but some of the nonsense I read and come across, leads me to the opinion that some people need to be relegated to the kiddy table. We need people looking critically at what works and what is hocus pocus.
    Patrick recently posted…My Favorite Podcasts And ResourcesMy Profile

  6. Christina says:

    I would like to know how you came to your knowledge… what was your educational process? And would you do anything differently if you had it to do over again. For instance, I am a licensed acupuncturist, and if someone wanted to become one, I think I could tell them how to learn much more, and to reach the goal a bit quicker… probably save them at least 2 years and come out with much better and deeper knowledge as well. This is what I am looking for. I have been studying with ever-increasing fervor for about three years, as time and location permits.

  7. Love permaculture and its many components. Hugelkulture, pollyculture, beyond organics, and the list goes on and on.

    Look forward to the rest of your posts.

  8. A great topic to cover. I first learned the term with reference to tropical ecology, when researching the rationale behind shade grown cocoa and coffee. I learned that growing these crops peppered amidst a diversity of wild plants, rather than within a monoculture, reduced the need for pesticides because the ecosystem remained relatively intact and pest insects did not get out of control. I was intrigued, and was inspired to mimic the idea with my vegetable garden. So far, so good, and perhaps I’ll post about that sometime.
    Janet Pesaturo recently posted…Creating a Chicken Habitat with Tips from Jungle FowlMy Profile

  9. I am following along with this series. I don’t know much about permaculture, but I am all for a natural way of doing things. Thanks for sharing at Green Thumb Thursday.
    Rachel @ Grow a Good Life recently posted…Sourcing Seed Potatoes in Maine for the Backyard GardenMy Profile

  10. lisa lynn says:

    Good info! Thanks for sharing on The HomeAcre Hop! Hope you can join us again today 🙂
    lisa lynn recently posted…The HomeAcre Hop #70My Profile

  11. Jory Freyee says:

    Hi Mike,

    Some off my thoughts on permaculture.

    I was born into permaculture, with my parents practicing permaculture from before I was born, and then moving to a permaculture village when I was four, and currently live (I am now thirty). I have seen most aspects of permaculture from the physical (trees growing, eco structures, people collaborating to create) to the spiritual (outlook on life, knowledge on how to live harmoniously). The main thing I see is that permaculture takes a lot of work, especially in the beginning. However, if you adapt to the permaculture way of thinking, or in my case born into it, you will be practicing permaculture without even thinking about it. I find the way I look at the world, has been influenced by my upbringing. I look at the way most people live in an urban lifestyle and see the potential of creating a working community that can bring in self-propagating goods and use waste in the most effective ways. Nevertheless, even after showing people how they can live in such ways. They all think it to be too much work, looking at the now rather than the future.
    Jory Freyee recently posted…What is Permaculture?My Profile

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Permaculture Defined"
  1. […] Growing your own food starts with growing good dirt.  Need to know how to do that?  Here are a few links: Survival at Home – The Dirty Truth About Composting; Mom Prepares has a whole category on compost and building up your soil; Homestead Lady’s Gentleman can show you how to DIY Compost Tea Bucket.  How about a DIY Rotating Compost Bin from Lone Star Farmstead.  Are you focusing on organic amendments (I’m a big fan!), here’s an article from The 104 Homestead that might help. Interested in Permaculture?  Here you are:  Little Mountain Haven, Homestead Lady, Northern Homestead, Gentleman Homestead. […]

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