Understanding Permaculture for Beginners

Permaculture is much more than simple garden design and can often be a difficult concept for people to get their heads wrapped around. An easy way to think about the idea of permaculture is to think of it as ecological design. Permaculture comes from natures and uses tools, techniques and interactions that are found in nature and applied to your own practices and the human species as a whole.

Even as I read that sentence back I am left with my own confusion as to what this really means! In this article I will attempt to break down permaculture for beginners into some digestable and basic ideas to help you understand what it is, what is isn’t and get you started on applying it to your own life and homestead.

My experience with Permaculture. The term permaculture was created by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, as a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture and ecological design. Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist, and David Holmgren, his student, developed permaculture as a response to concerns about environmental degradation, resource depletion, and the unsustainability of conventional agriculture.

I first become interested in the ideas behind permaculture in a few college courses and spent a few years reading extensively on the topic. Many of the books written early on are dense and often difficult to adapt to your homestead. Some new books help fill this space and I'll share a few resources at the end of this article.

After spending many years on tall ships, I began my homesteading journey and worked to apply many homesteading principles to my plans. I also joined and become involved in my local permaculture group. While I consider permaculture a journey, my basic understanding of the principles was the perfect starting point to applying permaculture to my own life.

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What Permaculture Is Not

It might be easier to start by describing what permaculture is not.

Permaculture is not the solution to everything. Even among some permaculture literature I see the principles described as a solution to everything. It is a incredibly valuable perspecive and way to think about the world, but there are still limitations on how and where permaculture is applied and it is important to recognize these limitations.

Permaculture is not a gardening design or method. Even I have listed permaculture as a garden method when in fact, permaculture is more about a perspecive than a list of practical designs and methods. Can permaculture be applied to your garden design? Yes! Is it a garden design – NO.

Permaculture is not exclusive. By description, permaculture is inclusive, however I have heard people say that it feels difficult to penetrate or gain the knowledge. I think part of this is that it is a big topic – unlike a simple garden strategy like companion planting your garden, there are not a set number of rules to follow which can often feel overwelming. The idea that permaculture is a series of principles also makes it feel out of reach for some people. It is harder to grasp than other ideas around gardening, but ultimately, permaculture is really a starting point.

Permaculture for Beginners

What Permaculture Is

So – what is permaculture?

According to Bill Mollison, permaculture is: “…the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”

In the simplest form, it is taking observations from the natural world and applying them to human lives and ultimately garden design. The word itself – permaculture is considered a combination of “permanent” + “agriculture.”

Permaculture start with the prime directive and is based on the ideas that people will strive to do your best to take care of your own needs, given your life situation. This doesn’t mean we are all individuals cut off from the group, but rather we we are part of that group. This can apply to the food we grow in the garden as well as our lives in general.

Many of the things people mention as permaculture designs are products of the ethics and principles. While building swales in your yard may be considered permaculture design by many, building swales is a solution to resource manamegent in the landscape. You can’t just put in swales and say you are practicing permaculture, but your reason behind building swale may be related to permaculture design. The difference here is subtle but is one example of why permaculture can be confusing.

What are the Core Ethics?

Once you have a sense of what permaculture is, you can start getting into the details. The first step is to consider the core ethics:

  • Care for the earth: This is fundamental to our own well being and the well being of other and includes valueing the resources that come into and leave our site. It is recognizing that what you do on your own site has an impact – this includes what you put into the soil and how you manage rainwater.
  • Care for the people: While most people think about the first ethic when they consider permaculture, people are also important in understanding permaculture. This involves caring for yourself and reducing your own consumption which will in turn impact other.
  • Reinvest the surplus: this can be as simple as reinvesting the surplus (like rainwater) back into your homesteading system or recognizing surplus in the community and reinvesting this. An example might be the conservation of land.
Permaculture for Beginners

The Permaculture Principles

There are 12 permaculture principles are meant to be used universally in ecological design. The exact way individuals use the principles will vary based on their specific situation.

Learn more about the: Permaculture Principles.

Observe and Interact

Using nature as your design guide mean you need to start with observing nature. Every situation should be observed for patterns, flows and dynamics before changes are made.

Example: Before you design a garden, give yourself time to observe weather conditions and interactions among existing plants. This knowledge will give you information about microclimates and what plants are thriving in your environment.

Catch and Store Energy

This princple deals with using and storing resources during times of abundance for times of scarcity.

Example: This could be the storage of water in the ground or some type of catchment for using during dry periods.

Obtain a Yield

This principles shows the importance of getting a benefit from the efforts we’ve put in. Your goal is not just to manage the garden system, but to get something from that system.

Example: A garden should produce a yield – or food and you efforts in the garden should include how to produce this yield.

Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

This design principle reflects the important of your design to be adaptable and be able to self-regulate itself. You can think of this feedback as coming from the design itself.

Example: during period of dry weather or drought, you may lower the water you are putting in the garden and adapt your own behavior based on this feedback.

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

Using resources that can be renewed will lead towards long-term solutions and sustainability.

Example: Using solar or wind power either on your property or opting into these power sources will reduce environmental impact.

Produce No Waste

This is a straight forward principle that deals with developing a mindset around waste. This can be applied in your home, your garden, or your life in general.

Example: Creating a compost system on your property converts waste into soil that can be used in your garden.

Design from Patterns to Details

Start with the big patterns you observe in nature and let that dictate the details.

Example: This might be not creating permanent garden paths until you observe the natural flow of your steps through the homestead.

Integrate Rather Than Segregate

Every element should be considered for its relationship to other elements in the system. The stronger these relationships the stronger your system.

Example: Creating a system where your chickens and garden work together through rotational grazing, composting, and garden produced food benefits both elements.

I love thinking about systems on the homestead – you can read more about Homesteading Systems.

Use Small and Slow Solutions

In a world that values quick answers and speed solutions, this principle challenges us to make small changes – make the smallest change you can as this slowness will build a stonger system that is easier to maintain.

Example: Start with a small garden that can be maintained and learned from over a big garden.

Use and Value Diversity

The more diverse an ecosystem, the more resilient it is. For this reason you should avoid things like mon-culture that weaken the entire system.

Example: the more diverse your learning or network, the strong you will grow. This is also true in the garden where interplanting crops avoids problems with pests and nutrient depletion

Use Edges and Value the Marginal

The edges of every system or elements are the most dynamic and this is where you will find productive interactions occuring.

Example: garden borders, farm edge, natural space and beneficial habitats all provide vital roles in your garden system. These unerappreciated zones as often the key to increased productivity

Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Change is ineviable. Resonding to the change creatively and patiently will help you benefit from these changes instead of fighting agains the inevitably dynamic system.

Example: as a tree matures, it will naturally change the surrounding space. A thoughtful adaptation will allow you to plant around this tree to take advantage of this change.

Permaculture for Beginners
Permaculture for Beginners

How does understanding Permaculture for Beginners Connect to Gardening and Homesteading?

If you read through the principles above, you will see that they aren’t written specifically for gardening and homesteading although there are direct relationships that are relatively easy to make between the principles and your garden. Read through the examples above and then come up with your own example of how each principle applies to your own homestead.

How to Get Started with Permaculture?

Now that you have a basic understanding of permaculture for beginners, including the ethics and the principles, your next step is to go a bit deeper. Here are a few recomendations I have to keep learning on this journey:

Permaculture for Beginners

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