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The 12 principles of permaculture

by Timber Press on February 21, 2013

in Design, Gardening, Homesteading, Popular

Bountiful plantings, mulched pathways, and insect-attracting perennials and shrubs create a welcoming entrance to this permaculture garden.

Bountiful plantings, mulched pathways, and insect-attracting perennials and shrubs create a welcoming entrance to this permaculture garden. Photo: Permaculture Artisans

One way permaculture differs from other methods of gardening is that it is not just a set of practical techniques; it is a way of thinking and of adapting to a particular ecology. Whether you are starting a new garden, or introducing permaculture practices to an existing garden, these principles will help you to understand the design process. —Christopher Shein

Text excerpted from The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture by Christopher Shein

The Twelve Principles of Permaculture

1. Observe and interact

Permaculture relies on an understanding of your site and local conditions. Ideally, you should observe your site for a year in all seasons, learning the patterns of sun, wind, heavy rains, flooding, hail, snow, animals, noise, views, and the like. Even if this is not possible, do a thorough assessment of the site’s intrinsic qualities and visit nearby gardens to see what grows well in your area.

2. Catch and store energy

There’s a nursery rhyme about a squirrel collecting nuts during the summer to tide him over during the barren winter, and the permaculture principle of catching and storing energy echoes this lesson. There are many ways to catch and conserve resources when they are abundant so that you have access to them when they are unavailable. For instance, a greenhouse can catch and store the sun’s energy to keep plants warm. With clever placement, a greenhouse can even provide passive solar heat for other buildings. Canning abundant summer produce for lean winter months is a way of storing food energy. Harvesting rainwater or recycling greywater from the house prevents valuable irrigation water from being lost to runoff or the sewage system, and provides water energy during dry months.

3. Obtain a yield

Of course the whole purpose of an edible garden is to yield crops. But there are other less tangible—but no less valuable—yields from a permaculture garden. A yield may be the exchange of skills or information from one gardener to another. Community gardens are good examples of this principle, where neighbors work together to mulch paths and build raised beds, tool sheds, fences, and trellises. School gardens are places for experienced gardeners to teach the next generation how to grow their own food. Elders can share their wisdom, young people can share their enthusiasm and energy, and people from different cultures can share seeds, plants, planting calendars, and growing techniques.

4. Apply self-regulation and respond to feedback

I always thought the Native American idea “think of seven generations” meant to think ahead seven generations into the future. But I have been shown that it also means thinking back to our own great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and ourselves, as well as forward to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.In a garden, it means behaving as though we are part of a continuum, starting with an appreciation of the harvest of the land stewards of the previous generations, and planting perennials and enriching the soil so that years later our future grandchildren can continue to enjoy and reap the harvest of our labors. Responding to feedback can also mean remediating our own mistakes or those of our predecessors. This may mean replanting unproductive areas of the garden, or improving soil that has been impoverished.

Blackberries are normally part of the shrub layer, but they can also be trained up and over a bamboo trellis as I have done in my garden with these 'Black Satin Thornless.' Photo Marion Brenner

Blackberries are normally part of the shrub layer, but they can also be trained up and over a bamboo trellis as I have done in my garden with these ‘Black Satin Thornless.’ Photo Marion Brenner

5. Use renewable resources

Trees are an example of a renewable multipurpose resource. From them, we get fruit, nuts, seeds, building materials, and fuel. They also provide shade during summer for cooling our homes, blocking the wind, filtering the air, and releasing oxygen. Fruit trees can yield crops for many decades and are a resource that connects us to our community when we practice the ethic of fair share. Even when the trees have finished their productive years, we can chop them down and use the wood to construct new beds, cultivate mushrooms, or chip them to create mulch, knowing that all decomposing wood will eventually be transformed back into soil.

6. Produce no waste

One of the great things about a permaculture garden is that there isn’t any waste. Instead, we find ways to re-use the leftovers from our gardening efforts. Composting is one example, especially red worm composting, where creatures in the garden efficiently convert organic wastes like vegetable scraps into soil amendments that are then put back into the vegetable beds. The worms’ digestive tracts convert food scraps into castings that enhance the soil food web and are the key ingredient for compost tea. This is a complete edible plant life cycle: from harvested crop, to kitchen trimmings, to the worm bin, and finally back to the garden as fertilizer.

7. Design from pattern to details

Permaculture seeks to understand and mimic successful patterns found in nature. For example, the spiral shape is found in everything from galaxies to the structure of DNA and the garden snail. It works well as a design template for an herb bed because it creates more surface space in a small area. A spiral-shaped bed also effectively creates microclimates because you can use some plants to shade others. This means you can grow sun-loving herbs like rosemary and thyme near shade-lovers such as mint and violets.

8. Integrate rather than segregate

Placing plants together in the right combinations helps them to grow in cooperation with each other rather than in competition. In this way, the whole garden ecosystem becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And when you take the time to observe what is happening in an existing landscape, you can then find ways to make changes so that all the elements work to support each other.

Fruit trees form the main canopy layer in the food forest. In the center of my garden, I have apple trees, apricots, and tree tomatoes-some of my favorite food crops. Photo: Marion Brenner

Fruit trees form the main canopy layer in the food forest. In the center of my garden, I have apple trees, apricots, and tree tomatoes; some of my favorite food crops. Photo: Marion Brenner

9. Use small and slow solutions

In permaculture, we don’t aim for the quick fix or the immediate payoff. The objective is to design a garden system that is composed of many small parts, each of which contributes in time to the overall function of the garden. An example is an emphasis on perennial crops. Perennials don’t need to be replanted every year, so they save energy, and they don’t disturb the soil like most annuals. Although their yields can be slower at first, perennials like chicory, dandelion, rhubarb, and sorrel produce earlier in cold climates because they are the first to come up in the spring. Similarly, permaculture focuses on small-scale, local solutions in preference to more industrial approaches. Sharing backyards, local produce swaps and giveaways, community gardens, and regional seed libraries are all examples of small and slow solutions.

10. Use and value diversity

Most gardeners love to look through plant catalogs for new varieties of vegetables to grow, and such diversity isn’t just interesting, it’s also smart. There is less vulnerability to a single disease or pest when different vegetables and varieties are planted in proximity, whether it’s an entire farm or a backyard garden. During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–1852, approximately one million people died and a similar number emigrated when a single, widely grown variety of potato fell susceptible to a potato blight. In the Andes, where potatoes have been grown and developed for 5000 years, thousands of varieties are cultivated. Each year, a permaculture garden should feature some new varieties along with old favorites. This will build a diverse repertoire of plants and create a balanced garden system that can tolerate some losses without the entire garden failing. This helps to ensure resiliency in the face of climate change and other ecological challenges.

11. Use the edges

In a permaculture garden, we aim to make use of all possible space. This can mean designing vegetable, herb, and flowerbeds in unusual shapes. For instance, keyhole beds are modeled after an old-fashioned keyhole. Garden mandalas are circular arrangements of multiple keyhole beds. If you have six keyhole beds in a circle, one path will be the entrance and there will be a round area in the middle to give some room to turn around. This increases the number of edges to maximize plantable space and minimizes path space. Marginal spaces that may not be suitable for traditional garden beds can also be turned into productive areas. Try growing heat-loving vines like beans, grapes, kiwis, melons, and squash on the side of a stucco or brick wall to benefit from the stored thermal heat and to soften the edge between the garden and the built environment. The vines also provide shade during the summer and let in light in the winter. Even dark nooks and crannies can be used to cultivate crops. I grow mushrooms under nursery tables, where they get ample water and little sun.

12. Creatively use and respond to change

Change is inevitable in the garden. What works well one season may not be successful the following year. Adapting to the shifting patterns of temperature, rainfall, pest populations, and other external forces is an important skill for the permaculture gardener. Our goal is to work with nature instead of trying to control it. As you face the challenges that come with growing edibles, keep this principle in mind. You’ll soon realize that in the garden, there are no mistakes, just lessons pointing you toward better solutions.


“Whether you are starting a new edible garden or looking to take your veggie patch to the next level, this book is worth exploring.” —Edible East Bay

1 suzanne April 19, 2013 at 9:09 pm

This is one of the best & most useful sites out there! Keep up the good work!

2 Brian Ridder April 22, 2013 at 9:39 am

Hi Suzanne,
Thanks for the compliment! Please let us know if you have any suggestions on how we can improve.

3 phyllis rosner September 5, 2013 at 8:40 am

Another super wonderful use for a tree is to simply, and for the most part, leave it alone to provide safe places for wildlife to nest and thrive.

4 Brian Ridder September 5, 2013 at 10:13 am

Good point, Phyllis. Thanks for dropping by!

5 Anna Schmidt September 19, 2013 at 3:02 am

What a great post! Thank you for sharing. I shared it on our facebook page and it got quite a few likes, so went on to include it in our latest e-bulletin! Just a small thing: The site seems to load quite slowly…is there anything that can be done about that? many thanks and looking forward to reading more :)

Anna Schmidt

Strategic Communications Coordinator
Permaculture Association

6 Brian Ridder September 23, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Hi Anna,
Not a small thing at all. Thank you for your support! I will email you soon about the loading time of the site.

7 mary April 23, 2018 at 10:32 pm

Thanks for helping me thanks

8 Mxolisi September 12, 2018 at 5:33 pm

I do want to strongly study this subject and plough it back to my community, eastern Cape, Willowvale, South Africa, I do have little training of it with a certificate from hope farm, east London. Want to study further and if there’s any volunteer work that’ll assist me in achieving my interest, I’ll avail myself. Thanks

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