Principles of Permaculture: A Beginners Guide
The principles of permaculture are a central feature of permaculture. They form the conceptual foundations of permaculture along with the ethics of permaculture (Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share).
However, for beginners, the principles of permaculture can seem quite intimidating. There are after all, no fewer than 12 principles.
Therefore, we thought it would be a good idea to provide an introductory guide about the principles of permaculture.
In this guide we will share with you what the 12 principles of permaculture are and discuss how they can be used in your own permaculture design.
Table of Contents
- What Are the 12 Principles of Permaculture?
- 1. Observe and Interact
- 2. Catch and Store Energy
- 3. Obtain a Yield
- 4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
- 5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
- 6. Produce No Waste
- 7. Design from Patterns to Details
- 8. Integrate Rather than Segregate
- 9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
- 10. Use and Value Diversity
- 11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
- 12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
- Why are the Principles of Permaculture Important?
- How do I Begin to Implement the Principles of Permaculture?
What Are the 12 Principles of Permaculture?
There are 12 principles of permaculture.
They were introduced by David Holmgren in his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
However, they are the natural development of the original permaculture theory that Holmgren and Bill Mollison introduced in Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements in 1978.
The 12 design principles are Holmgren’s way of organising the “diversity of permaculture thinking”.
Together, they form a robust set of guidelines that can avoid the issues caused by modern agriculture. However, they are also good guidelines to follow in respecting and protecting the Earth. This is especially true in the age of the ecological crisis.
The first 6 principles focus on the “bottom-up perspective of elements, organisms, and individuals.” In contrast, the second 6 “emphasise the top-down perspective of the patterns and relationships that tend to emerge by system self-organisation and co-evolution.”
The principles can be applied universally. They are not limited to gardens or outdoor spaces.
Therefore, they can help organise human settlements, businesses, political systems, economic systems, learning environments and the areas of health and child raising.
But what are the individual principles?
Let’s take a look…
1. Observe and Interact
The first permaculture principle is to Observe and Interact.
It’s also often one that individuals overlook. Why? Because it simply involves watching and learning.
This can be difficult when you’re excited to start a new permaculture design project.
However, it’s extremely important that you observe and interact before you begin.
Observation enables us to recognise details and patterns. To Holmgren, this is “the foundation of all understanding”.
Interaction is an extension of observation.
It entails interacting with different elements to see how they act and react. Therefore, it adds dimensions to any initial observation.
2. Catch and Store Energy
The second permaculture principle is to Catch and Store Energy.
The principle acknowledges that we live a highly wasteful lifestyle. We produce, and then waste, surplus of what we need. In doing so, valuable energy and resource is wasted.
However, as the ecological crisis continues, it’s likely that shortages of key energy resources will occur. This threatens all life on Earth.
Therefore, the principle of catching and storing energy recognises that all things on life require energy. Thus, it’s important to catch and store this energy where possible. Following a ‘waste not, want not’ approach.
With this in mind, it’s important to understand the different types of energy. Examples include, thermal, chemical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic, light and sound.
It’s also important to understand how energy transfers and transforms from one type to another. This is fundamental if we are to catch and store energy.
Examples of energy transfer include:
- A battery (chemical energy) creating torch light (electromagnetic energy).
- Petrol (chemical energy) fuelling a moving vehicle (mechanical energy).
- Sunlight (electromagnetic energy) being used by plants for photosynthesis (chemical energy).
These are simple examples but energy transfers happen all the time and can be much more complex.
Planet Earth already captures and stores energy naturally.
For example, groundwater, ponds, swamps and lakes are natural stores of water. Similarly, healthy soil is a huge mineral and nutrient store.
However, our current way of living and production is negatively impacting natural stores of important resources.
Permaculture design using the Catch and Store Energy principle enables us to address this.
3. Obtain a Yield
The third permaculture principle is to Obtain a Yield.
The Obtain a Yield principle focusses on making sure we have enough for today.
The principle encourages us to be self-reliant in any areas that we can. It utilises Principle 2 – Catch and Store Energy to maximise this and to allow self-reliance to continue into the future.
It understands that without a yield today, any system will struggle to survive tomorrow. This is because it will not have the necessary elements and inputs to do so.
Obtaining a yield is essential to any permaculture design. However, it doesn’t matter what you are designing. It could be a small garden, a balcony or a simple windowsill planter. It could be an office, a school or a community space. Whatever it is, this principle dictates that at least some elements of the space produce something.
It’s important that any plants used in a system have functions that produce useable elements. For instance, vegetables provide a source of food, medicinal plants can be used in medicines and many trees can be used for timber or fuel.
A garden without any yield-producing elements can be considered wasteful. Ornamental gardens may be aesthetically pleasing but as we move through the ecological crisis they drain natural resources that could help produce much needed sustenance for yourself or local community. Therefore, the introduction of yield-producing elements in any design is important.
Obtaining a yield is not a one-off principle. It’s an ongoing process. It evolves with your design.
If you’re interested in becoming self-sufficient in something check out the video below!
4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
The fourth permaculture principle is to Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback.
Holmgren writes that it deals with the “self-regulatory aspects of permaculture design that limit or discourage inappropriate growth or behaviour”.
It guides permaculturists in the how to conduct themselves when creating systems. It also encourages considerate resource use and sets limits on what we do and use.
Therefore, it’s linked with self-reliance and self-maintaining systems. The latter is considered the “Holy Grail” of permaculture. The processes of self-regulation and accepting feedback enable designers to work towards this.
For example, self-regulation determines how we intend systems to work. It also helps highlight areas we’d like to become self-reliant. Feedback, drawing on Principle 1 – Observe and Interact, assesses this and instigates any necessary changes.
An example of this is:
Self-Regulation – Creating a permaculture garden that you intend to spend 5 hours a week tending to and watering no more than twice a week.
Feedback – After a month of observations you realise you are spending 7 hours in the garden each week because it’s dry and you are having to water every other day.
Making Changes – A mulch is used to help store water and to limit evaporation from the soil. Also, a rain collection and solar-powered automatic irrigation system is set up to self-water areas of the garden cutting down the time you spend doing it.
Repeat the Process – The self-regulation process continues and is repeated.
The whole process enables us to limit things that aren’t working. In the example above, a negative feedback loop was established. Water was being wasted as it evaporated from bare soil, leading to it needing more water.
The use of a mulch mitigates this. It stores more water and stops more evaporating. Thus, it means less is used in weekly watering.
There are plenty of good examples of this. As Holmgren states, it enables us to “contribute to a more balanced and harmonious world capable of continuing to support life and humanity”.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
The fifth permaculture principle is to Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services.
But what do we mean by ‘renewable resources’ and ‘renewable services’?
In his book, Holmgren provides two simple definitions:
- “Renewable resources are those which are renewed and replaced by natural processes over reasonable periods without the need for major non-renewable inputs.”
- “Renewable services (or passive functions) are those we gain from plants, animals and living soil and water without them being consumed.”
Therefore, timber from trees is considered a renewable resource. On the other hand, shade provided by a tree is considered a renewable service.
Good permaculture design takes into consideration and uses both renewable resources and services.
When deciding how to use and value renewable resources there are questions to consider. For example:
- Is the use of this resource reasonable?
- Is the use of this resource the best and more efficient way to use this resource?
In answering the first, it’s good to ask whether the function of the product will last as long as it took for the resource to be generated. For example, paper products may last only a few years but can take hundreds of years to be produced. Alternatively, a bench made from timber could last hundreds of years. This makes it a more reasonable use of the resource.
In answering the second, it’s important to consider the type of function you get from the resource. Turning a tree into woodchips could be considered wasteful. Especially if other needs could be met with the use of the timber.
Using and valuing renewable resources and services is key to permaculture design. It enables us to work towards a life that works with nature. One that doesn’t destroy nature as it goes along.
6. Produce No Waste
The sixth permaculture principle is to Produce No Waste.
It’s perhaps the simplest permaculture principle. However, this principle takes a much more intricate look into the waste we produce and how this can be reduced.
On a planet of finite resources, waste is a problem. It can reduce yields, increase costs and cause pollution. Therefore, it’s important to take steps to produce no waste.
You may remember the “5 R’s”. They are the perfect guide to produce no waste.
- Refuse – Don’t consume items when it’s not necessary.
- Reduce – Limit the energy needed to consume items or the frequency that they are consumed.
- Reuse – Continuously reuse items or use them for other actions.
- Repair – Fix broken items without using many additional resources.
- Recycle – Break items down into basic elements for use or to be reprocessed for other uses.
Producing no waste can seem daunting, especially in the modern world. Every item is covered in copious amounts of packaging. However, it can be done.
People have gone whole years without producing more than a jar of waste. Zero waste shops are becoming more popular allowing you to produce no waste everyday. Furthermore, producing no waste can be done without costing a penny.
It can also be done in your garden. I’ve recycled an old futon into a raised bed planter. Similarly, I’ve done the same with an old disused pallet.
7. Design from Patterns to Details
The seventh permaculture principle is to Design from Patterns to Details.
This is where permaculture draws on the idea of pattern thinking. Simply put, it observes patterns found in nature and implements them into permaculture design.
Holmgren encourages us to start with patterns. The details can be added at a later date. For example, “complex systems that work tend to evolve from simple ones that work”.
Therefore, it’s about finding and implementing the right pattern for the specific design in question.
To identify different patterns you need to go back to Principle 1 – Observe and Interact to observe your surroundings. Patterns are everywhere. Examples include, but are not limited to:
- Seasonal patterns
- Weather patterns
- Sleep patterns
- Work patterns
- Travel patterns
- Growing patterns
- Landscape patterns
- Soil patterns
Observing and implementing natural patterns is one of the best ways to work with nature. It enables your design to find the most natural and efficient pattern for your site. This is fundamental in successful permaculture design. Therefore, it’s important to notice natural patterns.
Start today and see what you notice!
8. Integrate Rather than Segregate
The eighth permaculture principle is to Integrate Rather than Segregate.
It focusses on relationships between things. For example, it understands that each element of nature is part of a wider system and that these relationships are fundamental to successfully working ecosystems.
There are many different relationships in nature. For example:
- Predatory relationships
- Parasitic relationships
- Competitive relationships
- Avoidance relationships
- Mutualism relationships
- Symbiotic relationships
Holmgren expands on each of these in Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
To Integrate Rather than Segregate allows the needs of one element to be met by the output of another. Individual elements are lacking by themselves. However, as part of an integrated system they can thrive.
Food forests are a great example of an integrated system. Different fruits, nuts and vegetables help each other to grow. Therefore, if one succumbs to pests or diseases there are other fruits, nuts and vegetables that do not. The system still provides.
In contrast, monoculture is susceptible to huge losses if the chosen crop is damaged.
In short, this type of segregation increases vulnerability.
The beauty of this principle is that it can be applied in all areas of your life. For example, it can be applied to your finances, hobbies and community.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
The ninth permaculture principle is to Use Small and Slow Solutions.
It encourages systems to work at the smallest scale that they are efficient in and not the biggest.
It moves away from large-scale global thinking to small-scale and local. For example, look at what’s around you.
Are there local resources that can be used instead of ordering things from afar? Locally-sought items can be cheaper and will have less carbon footprint to get to your site.
Similarly, be patient. Take your time. Don’t make wholesale changes. Instead, observe and tweak things slightly. Observe again and see how the system reacts to the change. Repeat this again.
Small-scale, slow changes are more easily monitored. If something is going wrong you can respond without overhauling everything.
As Holmgren says “small is beautiful” and “slow is sane”. The evidence of this is all around us. Therefore, all we have to do is look.
10. Use and Value Diversity
The tenth permaculture principle is to Use and Value Diversity.
This principle is closely linked to Principle 8 – Integrate Rather than Segregate. This is because it values diversity over individuality. Meanwhile, segregation limits diversity.
To reiterate the point above. The benefits of an abundant food forest outweigh those of a monoculture plantation.
However, including diversity in permaculture design goes even further. We need to protect the little nature that we have left.
By using diversity in our design we can give back to nature. We can help it survive.
Different plants and animals can be used to attract and provide different species with habitats and foods. This can naturally increase yields (see Principle 3 – Obtain a Yield) and help with pest issues.
One simple way to encourage diversity is to let nature run its own course. Dedicate a ‘natural space’ to your site where you let nature grow as it wishes. Don’t interfere. Just observe. You’ll soon notice diversity creeping in naturally.
Anastasiya Trubytska provides a wonderful example below!
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
The eleventh permaculture principle is to Use Edges and Value the Marginal.
An “edge” is where two elements connect. For example, it can be the area where two ecosystems or habitats join.
Edges are important. This is because they are considered more productive and contain richer variety than each ecosystem contains on its own. Therefore, in permaculture design, it’s important to try and create bigger edges.
Creating bigger edges leads to more valuable, diverse and productive elements within the system.
A simple way to achieve this in your own permaculture design is to use keyhole garden beds. These “increase the accessible edge for a given area of path and bed”.
Valuing the marginal is slightly different but can have just as profound effects.
Valuing the marginal is the equivalent of doing the small things. They may even seem inconsequential. For example, you could:
- Place containers of water around the garden
- Leave a wildflower growing in your vegetable patch
- Build a small bee or insect hotel
- Put up a bird box or bird feeder
While these may seem very marginal, inconsequential acts can have far reaching impacts. For example, that wildflower will attract pollinators. In turn, this will increase the chances that your fruit plants will bear fruit.
Similarly, encouraging birds to your garden will help fix any slug or pest problems you may be having.
Marginal changes like this are cumulative. The more subtle changes you make the greater ongoing impact they will have.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
The twelfth permaculture principle is to Creatively Use and Respond to Change.
The idea of change may seem scary. We all like to be in our comfort zones every now again. But change is a part of life. It’s natural. Things are changing all the time. We deal with it daily.
For example, if it rains we put on a coat. If we get too hot indoors we turn down the heating.
Change in unavoidable.
However, it doesn’t have to be scary. We can use change in permaculture design to achieve positive outcomes. Heck, you already do it!
If you plant different summer and winter crops, you are responding to seasonal changes. You are planting what you know will grow best for that time of year.
This principle helps us apply this to all areas of our permaculture design. For example, if you realise you are experiencing an unusual spell of wet weather you could set up water collection butts to catch this important resource.
Similarly, if your favourite chair breaks beyond repair, creatively restore it into a planter (see Principle 6 – Produce No Waste).
Changes happen all the time. It’s important not to panic. Relax. Think clearly and think creatively. There will be positive ways to respond to every change imaginable.
Why are the Principles of Permaculture Important?
So there you have it. A complete overview of the 12 principles of permaculture. It’s a lot to understand and take in. However, it’s important to do so.
Previously we mentioned how the principles of permaculture were used as a way to organise the “diversity of permaculture thinking”. Together they contribute to successful outcomes. However, the benefits of the principles go much further.
For example, each principle is important in it’s own way. Below, we’ve put some ideas forward as to why each individual principle is important. However, please note this is not an exhaustive list!
The Importance of the Permaculture Principles
|Permaculture Principle||Why is it Important?|
|1. Observe and Interact|| |
|2. Catch and Store Energy|| |
|3. Obtain a Yield|| |
|4. Apply Self Regulation and Feedback|| |
|5. Use and Value Renewables|| |
|6. Produce No Waste|| |
|7. Design from Patterns to Details|| |
|8. Integrate Don't Segregate|| |
|9. Use Small, Slow Solutions|| |
|10. Use and Value Diversity|| |
|11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal|| |
|12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change|| |
How do I Begin to Implement the Principles of Permaculture?
The 12 principles of permaculture provide an exceptional guide to follow. However, they don’t have to be overwhelming.
You don’t need to implement them all at once. Therefore, simply being aware of them is a good starting point. Similarly, choosing just one and learning more about it is a good first step.
Once you are more familiar with the principles of permaculture you can begin to implement them.
There is no order to follow. However, Principle 1 – Observe and Interact is always a good place to start.
In doing so, you will learn about what your garden and design need. This will then lead you to the principle to focus on.
For example, after a period of observation you notice you are producing a lot of waste. Therefore, it makes sense for you to start at Principle 6 – Produce No Waste.
Now it’s time for you to begin! Let us know how you get on in the comments below. As always, if you have any questions let us know! We are more than happy to help with your permaculture design!