The Principles of Permaculture (And How to Make Them Work For You!)
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Knowing how to apply the principles of permaculture to your property can make your homestead more productive with less effort on your part. But first you have to understand what the principles of permaculture are and, of course, what permaculture is!
Permaculture has been a buzz word in the homesteading world for a while now. It’s also a practice that’s been featured in various mainstream food and environmental documentaries, and is often touted as the solution to all sorts of environmental problems ranging from climate change to topsoil erosion and desertification to large-scale industrial agriculture.
But permaculture can also be a bit of a tricky concept to grasp at first, mostly due to the academic sounding principles and philosophies that guide it. However. once you understand the basic principles behind permaculture, not only does it start to make sense, it can start to make so much sense that you might wonder why more farmers, gardeners and homesteaders aren’t applying the principles of permaculture to their own properties already!
What is permaculture?
Permaculture comes from the root words “permanent” and “agriculture.” It aims to make food production (aka. agriculture) easier and more sustainable by mimicking the permanent, regenerative systems that can be found in nature.
The idea is that in the wild, ecosystems don’t need any input from human beings. They regenerate all on their own. Permaculture, therefore, aims to replicate many of the natural systems that exist in order to produce more (higher yields) with less human input (aka. time, energy and resources).
In short, permaculture works with nature rather than against it, which is in sharp contrast to conventional agricultural models that require constant management and input (ie. planting, fertilizing, irrigation, herbicides, pesticides, etc.) in order to produce a yield, and typically do a lot of ecological and environmental damage in the process.
But permaculture isn’t just some hippy dippy environmental movement (not that there’s anything wrong with that;) It’s actually a super practical way to design your homestead, your home and even your entire life in order to make things easier, cheaper and less time consuming overall. Because once you do the initial work of setting your permaculture systems up, you get to reap the benefits of those systems without having to constantly manage them, which always ends in higher yields for less work.
Related: How to Grow More Food In Less Space
The origins of permaculture
The term “permaculture” was first coined by friends and coworkers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia back in the 1970’s. They envisioned a new agricultural design that was both permanent and sustainable, using available resources in a way that offered high output (yields) while producing little to no waste.
Mollison and Holmgren envisioned a set of 12 principles that permaculture practitioners could use to design everything from a small backyard garden to a large piece of property. While many of the principles apply to the initial phases of the design process (ie. designing a brand new garden or homestead), they are certainly beneficial to anyone interested in improving their gardening or homesteading setup, no matter how well established.
The ethics and principles of permaculture
While we often think of permaculture as being directly related to agriculture, it’s actually more of a design concept than an agricultural practice (although it is both).
Permaculture design can be applied to everything from our gardens to our homes to our communities and even ourselves. It’s all based on a code of ethics and a set of principles that can be applied to everything we do.
Earth Care, Fair Share & People Care
Permaculture is based on 3 main ethical standards: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share
Earth Care is all about making sure that our actions improve (or at least maintain) the earth and the natural environment. So for example, when it comes to gardening that means we are using organic methods to make the land more productive and diverse and steering clear of herbicides, pesticides and GMOs.
In the home, Earth Care could mean using natural cleaning products and practicing good habits like turning lights and taps off when we’re not using them. In the community, Earth Care could mean walking or cycling instead of driving or picking up litter.
People Care is all about making sure the needs of the people around us are met in sustainable, self-sufficient ways. Feeding ourselves, our families and our community members with the food that we grow is one way of caring for people, but it is certainly not the only way.
Fair Share is all about taking only our fair share. In other words, take only what you need from nature and allow renewable resources time to regenerate. Cut down on consumption and waste as much as possible and harness the power of natural energy from sun, wind, rain and biomass instead of relying on the grid to support all of your activities.
The 12 design principles of permaculture
Permaculture follows 12 basic design principles. While you don’t have to follow every principle in order to implement permaculture design on your own property, the more of them you understand and incorporate, the more sustainable, efficient and self-sustaining your homestead (and your life) will be! It’s best to start with the first principle, and then move through each of the remaining principles in chronological order, although it’s not required to implement each one in order
Here’s a summary of each of the 12 principles of permaculture…
1. Observe and Interact with Nature
Observe the land and the systems that are already functioning naturally to help you decide how to make these natural systems work for you.
Familiarize yourself with your land. Walk it throughout the year, observing such elements as climate, weather, soil types, areas of sunlight and shade, and water movement during periods of rain. Getting a good feel for your property will allow you to decide on the best place for your garden, where to plant fruit trees, where to put your chicken coop or barnyard, where you can add more growing space or increase your yield by utilizing the natural microclimates that exist around your property, and so on.
2. Catch and Store Energy
Collect natural forms of energy when and where they are available to use when needed.
This could also be translated to “catching and storing resources.” This means finding ways to harness and use natural energy and resources like solar energy, wind and rain. Examples include harnessing the sun’s energy by planting in full sun or using solar panels to power your home or equipment. It could also mean designing your home in a way that captures the sun’s heat in the winter while keeping it cool in the summer.
When it comes to harnessing natural sources of water, collecting rainwater or diverting runoff water to the garden are good examples.
Related: Homemade Rain Barrel DIY Project
3. Obtain a Yield
The goal of permaculture is ultimately to produce as much food and as many useful resources as possible from your land.
When we think of a yield in the traditional sense, we tend to think of the annual yield we from our garden crops. But in permaculture, a yield can be anything that is useful in some way (ie. fruits and vegetables, herbs, firewood, nuts, seeds, or even flowers). Even weeds and pests that are typically seen as a nuisance can produce yields of food and medicine, food for livestock (chickens love weeds and bugs!), and organic matter for your compost pile.
Meat, eggs and dairy are also yields that can and should be counted on a permaculture property, along with the fertilizer that animals like chickens, rabbits and cows produce.
Likewise, a rain barrel can produce a yield of rain water, and solar panels can produce a yield of solar energy.
4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
Always assess and reassess what is and isn’t working and make necessary adjustments.
Feedback can come from several sources; Our own reflection on our gardening practices, our successes and failures and advice from experts are just a few examples. Permaculture teaches that we need to listen and be open to receiving feedback from all sources, and most importantly we need to be willing to make changes when necessary.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources
Try to use resources that are renewable over those that aren’t. Don’t take too much, use only your fair share and allow these resources the time the need to regenerate.
The backbone of permaculture is sustainability, so we should always be looking for ways to use and value renewable resources whenever possible. There are many easy and inexpensive ways to do this.
Your property can produce food (both garden vegetables and weeds) that can feed your chickens and your compost pile, and then your chickens and your compost pile will produce fertilizer which can then feed your garden. Perennial plants and trees are renewable, along with the yields they produce. So are the seeds that we collect from our annuals to plant the following year.
Trees provide firewood, which is a renewable source of energy that we can use to heat our homes. Leaves, wood chips and grass trimmings provide a great mulch in the garden, which acts as a weed barrier, feeds the soil, helps retain moisture and provides protection from frost and cold temperatures to our perennials.
6. Produce No Waste
While it is difficult not to produce any waste at all, try to make use of the waste you do create (ie. use grey water to irrigate, repurpose old packaging, fix old tools, compost, etc.)
Some practical ways you can do this include feeding unwanted or unappetizing portions of your harvests (including bugs and weeds) to your chickens and then using their manure as fertilizer for your garden, or feeding kitchen scraps (including meat and dairy) to your pigs.
It could also mean composting food scraps and weeds, using straw or wood shavings as bedding for your hens or other animals and then using it as next year’s mulch, reducing the number of plastic bags of garden soil you purchase by building your own compost, or using wood ash produced by your wood stove (a byproduct of heating your home) to amend your garden soil or to make lye for soap.
Producing no waste also means being conscious of what we are bringing onto our homesteads and making a concerted effort to give everything more than one use. You can do this by reusing any single use items that do find their way onto your property in new and innovative ways, such as using old milk jugs as cold frames or using plastic cups as seedling pots in the spring. Be mindful of any and all waste and let your imagination provide solutions!
Related: 11 Frugal Ways to Use Kitchen Scraps
7. Design From Patterns to Details
Be intentional with the way you design your garden, homestead and property. Observe first and then design your property to take advantage of the naturally occurring systems already in place.
First of all, look for the patterns found in nature: water, sunlight, wind, slopes, shady areas, etc. How can you use these patterns to design or improve the functionality of your property? For example, for the best yield, you’ll want to plant sun-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers in full sun. But tender greens grow well in partial shade. A slope on a hillside can mean erosion during the wet season and could be a very difficult pace to grow food, but if designed correctly with swales and berms, this could be the perfect place to plant fruit and nut trees along with other edible perennials.
Another important pattern to look for is how you and your family use and interact with your property. What areas of your property do you naturally visit the most? The least? Design your property so that the things that you use or need to visit the most (ie. your herb garden or your chicken coop) are closest to where you go in and out of your house, and things that you need visit the least (ie. your orchard or forested areas) are farthest away.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
Set things up to work together and make connections between different elements of your homestead so that they can benefit each other through their interactions with one another.
For example, you might want to integrate your chickens with your vegetable garden by placing your chicken coop next to your vegetable garden so that you can easily toss your chickens weeds and excess produce to eat, and then easily shovel fertilizer from the chicken coop back to your garden beds. By integrating these two elements rather than keeping them segregated from each other, it makes your workload easier and produces a symbiotic relationship between your chickens and your vegetable garden.
Companion planting also falls under this principle. Growing vegetables, herbs, fruits, nuts and flowers together (either in your garden or in a food forest) rather than separated in market-style rows can help to deter pests, suppress weeds, attract pollinators and even provide shade or support for other plants. Some companion plants are even said to improve the flavour of others, such as companion planting basil with tomatoes.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
Focus on establishing plants and systems that take time to set up and produce up front, but will produce massive yields later on. Likewise, when changing anything on your homestead, start by observing and making small changes over time.
take your time, observe, accept feedback and adapt as you go, and don’t dedicate all of your time, energy or resources to a big change that might not work out. Again, the goal is to mimic nature, and nature adapts and changes slowly.
This principle can apply to big things changing things like your soil’s PH balance or planting an orchard, but it can also apply to trying out new vegetable varieties or adding new garden beds.
Want to try a new variety of vegetable, but you’re not sure if it will thrive in your garden or if you’ll even like it? Try growing just a few plants next year while dedicating most of your growing space to tried and true crops. That way you’ll still get a good harvest of things you know you like to eat, and if the new variety doesn’t work out, it won’t be a huge loss. Don’t have time or money to build all those raised beds this year? That’s ok. Build what you can and save the rest for next year. Use the extra time to gather your building materials (you might even be able to get them for cheap or free!) This is more sustainable in the long run, and sustainability is the backbone of permaculture.
10. Use and Value Diversity
Plant a variety of different crops and raise a variety of different animals (if you choose to raise animals). The more diversity, the healthier the ecosystem on your property and the better chance you’ll get a harvest even if one or more crops fail.
Growing and raising a diversity of plants and animals not only makes things more interesting and provides you with a more well-rounded harvest (and diet), it also helps to maintain the health of your garden and property and improves the efficiency and output of your homestead, as well as helping to ensure that if one crop fails, you’ll still have others to fall back on.
As the famous saying goes, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” And never plant just one variety of tomato;)
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Utilize as much of the space on your property as you can. The edges of your property are great for planting fruit-producing shrubs and bramble or trees for harvesting wood. Don’t neglect or overlook the far corners of your property.
As you walk around your garden and property, pay close attention to areas that are not being used. A couple prime examples of this are fence lines and shady areas. Could you use your fences as vertical support to grow pole beans, peas or squash? As for shady areas, there are numerous varieties of vegetables and herbs that grow very well in shade and partial shade. Adding in those varieties could substantially increase your harvest.
If you have pastured and forested areas on your acreage, consider the edge of your pasture where it meets the forest. Edible weeds like nettles like to grow in this area, and so do some fruit trees and berry bushes. Livestock like cows and pigs (but also chickens, geese, goats, etc.) also like to hang out along the forest edge because it provides a variety of different forage, as well as shade. Forest edges are also great for hunting and harvesting firewood.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Find a way to adapt to the changes instead of fight them. Grow things that thrive in new environments. Start at square one again. Observe and then design. Always work with nature, never against her.
Every gardener knows that no two growing seasons are the same. Nature is always changing, and as homesteaders and gardeners, we’re constantly having to adapt and respond to this change. The climate is changing, new pests can emerge seemingly out of the blue, seasons change, and of course the weather is always unpredictable!
Maybe you’re noticing that your summers are getting hotter and drier. This might mean that lettuce and brassicas bolt earlier in the season, so you might want to adapt your gardening plan to plant these crops in your fall garden instead when the weather will cool off. At the same time, you might consider planting more tomatoes, peppers, melons and heat-loving plants in your summer garden.
Understanding, adapting and planning for the inevitability of change is another key aspect of sustainability and a way of life for those following the principles of permaculture. How we respond to that change is laid out for us in the previous 11 principles of permaculture: Observe nature, diversify, use creative solutions and work with nature and both you and your homestead will thrive!
For a more comprehensive understanding of the 12 principles of permaculture, check out David Holmgren’s book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
For a practical guide to designing a home-scale permaculture garden or homestead, I recommend Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway.
A permaculture homestead can typically be divided into five zones. These zones provide a design template that can be personalized to suit you and your unique property, as well with how you interact with it. No two zone maps look exactly the same, because it all depends on your individual needs and goals, along with your behaviour and your property.
Ideally, the five zones are set as concentric circles with your home being the centre point, or “Zone 0.” Immediately next to Zone 0 is Zone 1, which would be the next most highly trafficked area, and then Zone 3, Zone 4 and finally Zone 5 is the zone you visit the least (typically the farthest zone from your house).
As with all things permaculture-related, the point is to “work smarter, not harder,” and permaculture zones help you do just that. Think of each zone as containing tasks that need to be completed or resources that need to be accessed. Those tasks that require daily attention or resources that you use most often should be located as close to your house as possible. Conversely, those tasks or resources that require the least amount of attention should be located farthest from Zone 0.
Here is a breakdown of the permaculture zones and suggestions for what should (or could) go in each one.
Your house. This is considered the nexus or centre point of your homestead, even if it’s not at the geographical centre of your property, because this is where you spend the most time.
This zone requires the most thought because, aside from Zone 0, it’s the one you will frequent most often. Herb gardens, potagers (aka. kitchen gardens) and small chicken coops are often found in Zone 1.
Other ideas for Zone 1 would be recycling bins, worm compost containers, and perhaps a small greenhouse with seedlings that need to be tended to frequently. Small animals like rabbits could also benefit from being in this zone.
Tasks that need to be completed a few times a week are located in Zone 2. Large annual gardens, market gardens, greenhouses, berry patches, compost piles, sheds and barns are well suited for Zone 2.
Livestock are typically best suited for Zone 2. While some (like a small number of chickens or rabbits) might end up in Zone 1, typically most livestock will be houses in Zone 2.
Zone 3 is also called the “Farming Zone.” Elements in this zone will still find their way on your “to do” list, but on a much less regular basis. Pastured land, grazing animals. animals, beehives, mushrooms, grains such as wheat and corn, and fruit and nut trees would all be good choices for Zone 3.
Some uses for this “semi-wild” zone include fishing and hunting, foraging for wild edibles, forestry and wood harvesting.
This zone is the “true wild” and is typically used only for observation, conservation, reflection, and learning. If you’re lucky enough to have a wilderness zone on your property, you might consider building a small cabin or packing your tent up for an overnight camping trip to Zone 5!
Zone 6, 7, 8, 9 and so on…
While there are 5 “true” zones in permaculture, the zones could technically keep going forever. So long as you start at zone 0 and then work your way out, you could look at your larger community, your county, state or province and so on as zones. Maybe you forage for food in parks in your community.While that’s not technically on your property, it can still be considered a zone.
There are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes a permaculture zone. And the idea of zones can be applied anywhere, even to an individual person! A good friend of mine who practices permaculture once told me that he considers his consciousness to be Zone 0, his thinking mind to be Zone 1, his physical body to be Zone 3 and his environment to be Zone 4. As with most things in permaculture, how you apply the design principles are highly personal, adaptable and up for interpretation:)
What about you? Do you practice permaculture principles on your own homestead or in your life? What does this look like for you? Let me know in the comments below!