Understanding the Permaculture Principles

When I first started backyard farming, I kept coming across descriptions and references to permaculture and the permaculture principles. At the time, I was working to learn as much as possible and at first Permaculture seemed overwelming and somewhat exclusive. It felt like the only way to learn about permaculture was through an expensive course or a huge investment of time and research. Despite this, I decided to slowly chip away at my understanding of permaculture and start small (which is in fact one of the principles!)

Over the last 15 years I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the permaculture principles through reading, practice, and becoming involved in our local permaculture group. In this article I will explore the permaculture principles as well as how we’ve implemented them and things you may want to consider.

If you are completely new to the idea of Permaculture – you might want to start here: Permaculture for Beginners.

I also recomend a few books to get started in understanding permaculture including The Essense of PermaculturePermaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and Gaia’s Garden.

Understanding Permaculture Principles
Understanding Permaculture Principles


What is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a design system that focused on natural ecosystem design principles. Permaculture focuses on overserving the natural systems and transfering these systems into our own design for gardens, our home and a full life. While many of these principles can be distilled down to specific designs (like an herb spiral) these designs are not neccessarily permaculture – but a result of designing with permaculture. You can see why this can be confusing for folks!

The term “permaculture” is a combination of “permanent” and “agriculture” or “culture,” indicating its focus on creating sustainable, long-term systems.

The principles of permaculture were formulated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s. Mollison, an Australian ecologist, and Holmgren, his student, developed the principles based on their observations of natural ecosystems, traditional agricultural practices, and indigenous wisdom, as well as insights from various disciplines including ecology, anthropology, and sociology.

Permaculture Ethics

Before diving into the permaculture principles. One way to think of it is that the ethics are the overarching philosophy that provide context for the principles. The principles offer specific guidelines for applying the ethics in practical design and decision-making processes. Below are the 3 Ethics:

1. Earth Care: Earth care speaks specifically to the nurture and preservation of the natural environment. Caring for the earth depends on nurturing healthy and resilient ecosystem and advocates for practices that regenerate and maintain the health of the Earth’s ecosystems. This ethic encourages sustainable land stewardship, conservation of biodiversity, restoration of degraded landscapes, and minimizing ecological footprints.

2. People Care: Caring for people focuses both on caring for individuals as well as communities. This ethic acknowledges that sustainable living practices must meet the needs of people in ways that enhance quality of life, promote social justice, and foster strong, inclusive communities. This focused noth on becoming a better human and also recognizes the needs to the community and access to resources such as food, water, shelter, and education.

3. Fair Share: The eith ic Fair Share focuses on the equitable distribution of resources and the fair allocation of surplus. I like to think of this ethic as the positive flow through a system that ensures that everypart of the system recieves a fair share and that surplus in the system is reinvested into the syatem. This ethic encourages practices such as resource sharing, cooperative ownership, and participatory decision-making.

In summary, the three ethics of permaculture—Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share—provide a framework for the permaculture principles.

The Permaculture Principles

Permaculture principles are based on observing natural ecosystems and applying these observations to create integrated, regenerative systems that are self-sustaining and ecologically harmonious. In general I find it helpful to focus on each of the principles and then consider practical applications. It’s important to note that the examples I use below are simply how the principle can be applied in a certain situation – it does not mean that this example is the only way to apply the principle, or that this is how you should use the principle in your own homestead design.

Below you can see more about the 12 Permaculture Principles:

Understanding Permaculture Principles
Understanding Permaculture Principles

Observe and Interact

Using nature as your design guide starts with observing the natural system. Before you can organize your homestead or garden like the natural work would, you need to pay attention to what occurs naturally. By keenly observing patterns, processes, and relationships within a given environment, you can gain valuable insights that inform effective and contextually appropriate design decisions.

Put the Principle into Practice: Start by spending time in nature and specifically observing the flows and ways and places things grow. What grows well under trees, which plants seem to prefer wet areas? How are plants and trees benefiting from each other? One helpful practice is to keep a journal and give yourself time to reflect on what you are seeing.

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 principle deals with using and storing resources during times of abundance for times of scarcity. Catch and Store Energy” emphasizes the efficient capture and storage of energy within a system for later use. This can refer to many different types of enrgy such as sunlight, water, wind, or biomass.

Put the Principle into Practice: Think carefully about what energy is already flowing through your system. Think specifically of sunlight, water, wind and biomass. Are there other forms of energy? Which of these energy sources are caught and used in your system? Which of these forms or energy are not captured in your system?

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. While prioritizing ecological health and sustainability, permaculture also aims to meet human needs and improve quality of life. This principle encourages the creation of productive landscapes that yield valuable outputs such as food, fiber, fuel, and other resources, ensuring that efforts invested in design and management are rewarded with tangible returns. It’s one thing to design a forest, but permaculture depends on a yield coming from that forest.

Put the Principle into Practice: I like to consider how to maximize the yield from my garden and homestead and feel it is my obligation to produce a yield. Consider the different parts of your gardern or property and assess the yield that is coming from each element. Is there anything you’re overlooking? Do you have parts of your yard that you can include plants or trees that produce food?

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. This principle encourages you to design systems with built-in mechanisms for self-regulation, such as feedback loops, monitoring, and adaptive management strategies. Ideally you want this system to operate as much as possible on their own – the same way natural systems would respond to change.

Put the Principle into Practice: This principle requires us to be open, to see and accept both the reality of the result of our actions (or inactions) and listen to and consider criticism from others. Think through the systems and designs on your garden – are these systems designed so that in times of additional inputs the system will respond to self regulate? As a part of the system how does this apply to you as a human? Do you bring ego to your garden that limits feedback?

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. This principle underscores the importance of prioritizing renewable resources and ecosystem services. Permaculture in general support the use of natural resources that can be replenished, such as solar energy, rainfall, soil fertility, and biodiversity.

Put the Principle into Practice: Think about the resources you are using in your garden – which of these are renewable? Are there places you can improve or move from a non-renewable to a renewable resource. Think specifically about anything that comes into your garden that is not renewable -plastics, rubber and metal come to mind?

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. This principle directly relates to the last principle This principle advocates for the efficient use of materials, energy, and outputs within a system, aiming to create closed-loop cycles where waste products become inputs for other components. By designing for resource efficiency and waste reduction, practitioners can minimize environmental pollution, conserve resources, and create more sustainable and regenerative systems.

Put the Principle into Practice: What are the outputs on your backyard farm or garden? How are these being put back into the system?

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

Understanding Permaculture Principles
Understanding Permaculture Principles

Design from Patterns to Details

Start with the big patterns you observe in nature and let that dictate the details. Garden design should start with an understanding of overarching patterns and principles before addressing specific details. This principle encourages practitioners to observe and analyze natural patterns and processes, such as ecosystems, landscapes, and ecological cycles, and use this knowledge to inform the design of human systems.

Put the Principle into Practice: This principle can feel overwelming when you are just starting out. You may want to know how to grow specificl crops and need this information before considering how that crop fits into your homestead plan. Give yourself time to build up to this principle and give yourself time to see and observe the patterns in nature. Can you place your plants stratigically based on natural patterns so some plants get more sun? By creating succession planting can you maximize your outputs?

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. This principle encourages you to design systems that maximize beneficial interactions and synergies between components, such as plants, animals, water, and structures. The garden is best when we observe and foster these interactions. Think of this as interactions between the same elements in the system (like companion planting) or as synergies between different systems. While we have systems within our chicke coop to keep your hens fed and safe, we also integrate chickens into our gardens.

Put the Principle into Practice: Think through the elements in your garden or homestead. How can the benefits of each element benefit other elements? Are you maximizing the benefit of buildings? Animals? Plants? Trees?

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. This principle recognizes that small, locally appropriate interventions are often more effective, adaptive, and sustainable than large-scale, top-down interventions. By starting small, observing the results, and iteratively refining designs over time, you can minimize risk, optimize resource use, and create more resilient and responsive systems that are better suited to local conditions.

Put the Principle into Practice: This principle can be applied in many ways. It can be tempting to rearrange your whole homestead and create a full design from the start. Instead, it might be better to start with a small garden and build out from here with smaller interventions. This can also be applied in many other ways.

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. Diversity is essential for resilience, adaptability, and ecosystem health at every level. By incorporating diverse species, varieties, practices, and perspectives, you can increase system stability, productivity, and innovation, while also fostering social cohesion and cultural richness.

Put the Principle into Practice: This is another principle that can be applied in a small scale on your property or on a larger scale in the community. Are there parts of your garden or homestead system that would benefit from diversity? Are you planting a lot of one crop in one area continuously? Are you taking in a diverse set of opinions in your learning? Even focusing on just one perspective on gardening can be limiting. When I first embraced permaculture principles, I focused on interplanting so much that I often overlooked plants and it become complicated for watering and havesting. Ultimately I realized that there are some crops that benefit from row planting.

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. Consider how the systems on place maximize edge effects, such as increased biodiversity, productivity, and resilience. Ecotones, where two different ecosystems meet, provide rich opportunities for biodiversity and productivity. By creating planting guilds—groups of mutually beneficial plants—at these edges, practitioners can capitalize on the diverse microclimates and nutrient gradients present. For instance, planting fruit trees at the edge of a forest or integrating nitrogen-fixing plants along the border of a field can enhance yields and ecosystem services.

Put the Principle into Practice: Think through as many elements as possible that exist in your garden/homestead/life. What happens at the borders and edges? This can be a garden edge, rows, water feature etc? Do the border mimic natural systems?

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 against the inevitably dynamic system. This principle encourages you to anticipate and embrace change as an opportunity for learning, innovation, and evolution. This is important for both short and long term success and resiliency.

Put the Principle into Practice: Often this principle starts with a mindset. As a human how well do you respond to change? Can you anticipate change on your homestead? This can be as simple of anticipating the changes that may come from the growth of a tree or it may be biggest system changes like a new baby who takes time away from certain tasks or a few years of drought that has a long term impact on the property.

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.

Applying Permaculture Principles

Understanding the permaculture principles is a great place to start in understanding and implementing these principles into your life and your homestead. But permaculture is not something you can master but rather a starting point. You will likely find yourself coming back again and again to these principles as your property is constantly growing and changing.

I am also on this continued journey of using permaculture to improve my own life and homestead – I often share resources, tips, and my own experience on my backyard farm through my newsletter – you can sign up here: Newsletter for the Backyard Farming Connection.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *