Permaculture Design Principles – Next Steps?

Once you have planned out your permaculture eco-system based on the site you already have, there are other factors that need to be considered next, in order to maximise the use of the site and output.

In order to optimise your plan, you need to take account of structural features on the site like:

-          large trees, but not to overdo the forestation and to have some areas with no or few trees

-          “edges” between e.g. grass and pond, where good conditions can be created

-          “succession” to take account of ongoing changes within the design

Permaculture designers are shown how to develop “patterns”. These often either mirror those already found in nature or are used to fulfil a particular design requirement.

“Zones” are where the human inhabited part of the design is organised, which is based on how often an area is used as well as the needs of the plants and animals. For example, herbs often used every day for cooking, would be located in a herb spiral in Zone 1, right near the house or near to the kitchen. Thus the less an element is used, the further away from the house it is located as a zone.

When it comes to limits and connections, this is best summed up by Bill Mollison in 1988, in this quote:

“It is not the number of diverse things in a design that lead to stability; it is the number of beneficial connections between these components.”

One of the main design aspects in any permaculture design is making the best use of space or the overall site, and this is best illustrated by using “layers” or “stacking”, which is also used in Forest Gardening, as follows:

Layer 1 – The Canopy – these are typically tall trees that can also provide shade for an area

Layer 2 – Low Tree Layer – for example, like dwarf fruit trees

Layer 3 – Shrubs

Layer 4 – Herbaceous

Layer 5 – Rhizosphere – root crops

Layer 6 – Soil Surface – or soil cover crops

Layer 7 – Vertical Layer – like climbers and vines

Layer 8 – Mycosphere – fungi can also be added in as a layer, depending on the site

These layers take into account and make the best use of the fact that all plants and trees grow at different heights, which can be seen in any environment or eco-system. For example, it is rare for a forest area to suffer from soil erosion, as roots are always to be found in the soil. You will also find a wide variety of animals and plants living there, which rely on each other for pollination and seed distribution.

It’s this model of how much more productive a wood can be, for example, with much less fertiliser being used, which is what Permaculture is based on.

Polyculture is where there are multiple crops in the same eco-system or site, and which is completely the opposite of what monoculture is which is based on just one crop. This is how most farms in the West are organised, and are dependent on jus tone crop each year. This doesn’t take into account changing weather patterns which can decimate a crop one year and so leaving that farm without a source of income potentially.

“Guilds” are groups of plants, animals, bacteria, funghi, etc., that are found to work really well together, which can also be considered as a more comprehensive form of Companion Planting that is sometimes used on more traditional garden designs. For example, carrots and tomatoes often do well grown together, whereas strawberries near brassicas stop both plants from flourishing.

The “Edge Effect” is where very different systems meet, where there is often an intense area of productivity and useful connections.

The types of plants that are frequently used in any Permaculture Design are perennial plants, as they need much less maintenance and fertiliser, and don’t need to be planted every year, as they come back year to year if looked after. These types of plants have a role in the Outer Zone of a permaculture site and can also be part of the layered system.

Many Permaculture eco-systems include animals and not just humans, and these animals have more than one use or output. For example, ducks are often used as slug control, but  the eggs can also be eaten, the meat can be used as food, and the bones and leftovers of the animal can be composted and put back into the soil. But it may be that your permaculture site doesn’t treat the animals as “products” and they are considered to be pets instead so living alongside the humans and having a role other than as meat. Their biggest role is usually as pest control as already mentioned as well as their droppings being an excellent source of fertiliser!!

Lastly, energy has to be considered, as the idea here is to use far less non-renewable sources of energy compared to fossil fuels or petroleum-based energy sources. In this regard your Permaculture Design is seeking to create a renewable system of food production that uses minimal or much less energy than has been used in traditional designs for food production.

All in all, you can see that there are many important elements to making sure your site makes the best use of Permaculture Design principles in order that you are able to make the best use of what you have and understand what you need to do to improve on that and to take the next steps in designing and planning your design, to minimise the resources needed and at the same time, maximising production of food for every being on your site. And I have to say that I now look at our garden and other sites with very different eyes!

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Permaculture Design Principles – Which Ones to Use?

Once you delve into the depths of Permaculture Design Principles, you will realise that there are many different processes that can be used to help you design your own piece of productive paradise. But having researched what these are, I was left more confused than enlightened!

Some of the more commonly used acronyms are OBREDIM, SADIM (ET), CEAP, SWOC and PASTE, just to confuse everyone. SWOC is the nearest one that I had heard of as it resembles the SWOT analysis I used in corporate world quite a few years ago now.

However, I have decided that the first one, OBREDIM, is the one to explore as it’s also one of the more familiar ones and is more comprehensive than the others, and explains more about the design methodology and what to look out for.

OBREDIM stands for Observation, Boundaries, Resources, Evaluation, Design, Implementation and Maintenance, and covers all the main factors to consider when planning your permaculture design.

Observation – you first see how the site functions on its own, to see how the inter-relationships of the site work. The longer an observation the better, as you can see it through all the seasons which gives you ample information for planning what works and what doesn’t.

Boundaries – these are the physical land boundaries like hills and streams, as well as those put up by your neighbours.

Resources – this is not just about the money needed to make the plan happen, but also the amount of labour required from people and animals, as well as what produce and yields can come out of a site both now and in the future.

Evaluation – once these first three phases are complete, you can then allow some time to prepare your plan for the next three stages. This is where you consider what you have to work with to start with, and then what may be needed to bring your plan to life.

Design – this is where you can get highly creative and imagine what you’d like to achieve. This should enable you to draw out all the current and future inter-relationships between all the component parts of the complete eco-system that make up the site.

Implementation – this is when the project starts! This is when you see your plan start to come alive over time, as it won’t all happen at once, and it is best to phase it in over time rather than try to do it all at once.

Maintenance – once you have planned your ideal permaculture eco-system, you will need to factor in the activities that will be needed to keep the site at a healthy and producing level without major changes being needed. Small tweaks can be planned in, but the idea is to get the overall design done well, so that no main changes will be required.

As you can see, this all seems to be based on common sense, and on working with what is already there at the site, when often the mistake is made to completely clear an area and start again. This takes time, effort, makes for huge waste and goes against what is already found in nature.

I believe that in order to make the most of what we already have, this design approach gives you the best framework within which to work and plan your permaculture design, using well established principles that have stood the test of time.


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What is Permaculture Design? Is it important?

To get the most out of the environment you have, permaculture design is all about how you use what you have available, and not at all about what you actually have.

Permaculture design is about designing an eco-system to be self-sufficient, to be able to recycle energy, to absorb any waste and to be very productive. These eco-systems can be anywhere in the world, from forests to the tropics, and using what you have already where you are to it’s best advantage and working with it rather than against it, as traditional agricultural methods have tended to do in recent years.

Permaculture Design actually uses old theories and ideas that have in the past, already been tested, but this is about a design system that aims to imitate the natural world. Bill Mollison realised that in nature, nothing is wasted, there is no pollution and that nature is truly resilient.

Modern Permaculture is a system design tool, consisting of:

-          looking at a whole eco-system

-          observing how all the parts inter-relate and act

-          planning to fix broken systems using ideas from actual long-term sustainable systems already in place

-          and enabling connections between key sections

with the ultimate aim being to extract as much as possible with the minimum effort possible.

When looking at all the elements of design, you are looking for synergy between all the elements, while minimising waste and saving on human labour and resources, as follows.

Energy is about using natural energy, like the sun, wind and water as well as flora and fauna, so you minimise the need to use petrol, diesel and natural gas. For example, in order to keep a house cool in Summer, plant some tall trees near the house so these provide shade, thus there is no need for air conditioning! In the Winter, these same trees will provide a windbreak against bad weather if you live in the temperate part of the world.

There has to be a way of collecting and storing water, especially rainwater, and using as much of the sewage as possible (both human and animal) so that there’s minimal pollution. For example, if you keep chickens, take the straw and chicken poop and use it as mulch on your food growing area. It goes without saying that food production needs to be organic and free from chemicals, which is why the fertilisers needs to be as natural as possible, and this reuses what you already have on your doorstep and it’s free!

When it comes to looking at the use of buildings, these can either be built from new or renovated in appropriate ways, and need to be suitable for the climate you are living in. Plants used need to be strong and again, apt for the climatic conditions of the environment.

The natural resources need to be preserved to e.g. prevent any soil erosion, as well as looking after plants and animals that live together in harmony. Preventing soil erosion can be done by designing layered planting so that areas e.g. under trees are not left bare but have plants and shrubs growing there that like the shade, and those root structures will help to keep the soil in one place and not looking so bare and liable to erosion when it rains. Look to use resources that are durable and biodegradable as this will also minimise the necessity to buy in more than is required, as well as reducing what is used.

I have knowledge of one local project where a friend of ours was asked to build a shed in the place of two old wooden sheds. Typically on these projects, you see a skip full of material that’s just thrown away and then totally brand new wood and other stuff is delivered. On this project, there was no skip, and there was new material only to add to the salvaged wood, frames and glass that were all reused to erect the new larger outdoor building. Yes, a new concrete based was required but any earth that was excavated which is otherwise thrown away in a skip, was used in other parts of the large garden and added to existing beds. There was very little wastage at all, and the shed is very sturdy and well built from the pictures I have seen. This friend of ours is very much a long time practitioner of permaculture and this is the best example yet I have personal knowledge of that uses all the permaculture design principles as they are meant to be used.

Other resources that can be shared within a community are services like transport, sport facilities, entertainment and communal spaces. If there are no such spaces, build these into your environment to encourage social interaction between people in an area, as this is hugely important.

Ultimately, at the core of permaculture design are a set of ‘core values’ or principles, which stay the same regardless of whether the project is large or small, and these values are:

-          Care of the Earth – instead of causing problems by over using the soil which often causes issues like soil erosion, permaculture seeks to restore a balanced relationship between people and their environment

-          Care of the People –is about supporting each other to improve our way of living to reduce any damage we do to ourselves and the planet and to build communities of people which support everyone

-          Care of Consumption – is about using the limited resources we have here on Earth, in the most fair and sensible manner so as not to drain those resources unnecessarily

-          And this in turn all links to the idea of sustainable food production , so that instead of relying on industrial technology (like fossil fuels etc) to produce one high yield crop, permaculture looks to diversifying the crops with low technological requirements.

by Graham Burnett at a nutshell, yes, permaculture design is very important and using what you already have and adapting that to what you need rather than getting rid of everything and starting over again; as you can see in the drawing to the left, everything can be redesigned and reused such that the design principles are adhered to, for the overall good of our planet.


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Permaculture Design Principles

It’s a lot easier to see a picture of what a permaculture garden or plot of land looks like, as it gives you an idea of the difference between a garden that most of us with houses have, and a self sustaining diverse outdoor area, designed to work with the surroundings, weather and environment with a plot of land. The diagram below shows a drawing of how it can look when designed using permaculture design principles:

Permaculture Design Principles at Work
A Permaculture Design Showing Zoning

This illustration and Copyright is by April Sampson-Kelly inspired by PcSol.

As you can see, there are several areas or “zones” each of which have a purpose as part of the overall design scheme. Typically, you have several “layers” of plants, shrubs or threes in a zone, so that unlike many traditional gardens, there are no bare patches of soil under trees for example; here, plants that love the shaded area under trees would fill the under-tree zone leaving little exposed soil being visible.

This way of designing an outdoor area, also makes the most use of every available piece of land, which is another reason why you can grow so much more in a smaller space than with traditional gardens.

It is also possible to change the overall weather on your landscape, as it has been shown for example, that water can be brought to very arid areas, which means that there is no reason to have water shortages in desert areas. But that’s for another time!

All in all, once we get used to the idea that the more you put into a plot of land, but in such a way as to make the best use of the land with the rights plants, trees and shrubs using the correct permaculture design principles, the land will improve over time and become self sustaining and will need very little work to keep it producing fruit, vegetables and other crops over time.

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Permaculture Farming – Does It Really Work?

In our quest for yet more information, serendipity would have it that we have come across another important contributor to the world of Permaculture.

Permaculture Farming had been practiced by a Japanese Farmer and microbiologist called Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008), very much along the same lines as Bill Mollison in Australia, yet at that time they didn’t know each other.

To quote this Master:

“Unless people can become natural people, there can be neither natural farming nor natural food.”

Fukuoka had 4 principles for Natural Farming, which are:

-          No cultivation – whereas we are used to ploughing the land to make it ready to plant that year’s crops, he advocated not doing this. How many hours do farmers around the world spend preparing their land for sowing each Spring?

-          No chemical fertilisers or prepared compost – having had a look at some videos of his methods, his land is covered with hay, and plants that have finished growing or weeds that are hand pulled, are left to dry before being used as mulch and compost, so everything is put back onto the land.

-          No weeding by tillage or herbicides – there is a fair bit of damage done to the soil when it is constantly weeded and tilled as its natural structure is disturbed. He found that by not constantly tilling the land, it was far more productive and in better condition than land that had been overly ploughed.

-          No dependence on chemicals – it is easy to see why if the land is left to naturally deal with weeds and insects, then there is no need for chemicals, which are damaging to the land as well as to people and animals who eat that food.

Fukuoka found that the soil would get “worn out” with constant tilling or ploughing and found that since he stopped this, his fields improved in fertility, soil structure and in their ability to retain water, which is very important. Mulch and compost are excellent in their water retention properties.

His methods and results also supported the idea that plants are used to improve the soil as well as the 4 rules above. For example, dandelion would be left in the ground to do its work as opposed to most gardeners in the western world, pulling them out or mowing them down, as we have done in the past. We have had a lawn rampant with dandelions in the past but didn’t realise that actually, the plant was there to do a role of soil improvement and to provide ground cover, as is White Clover which all added nitrogen back into the soil, thus replacing the role of chemical fertilisers.

In terms of permaculture farming, think about it. If we keep weeding and ploughing the ground to get rid of weeds, we have to keep doing it time after time and time again. Why not leave the weeds to become organic matter that improves the spoil rather than take it away and have to add fertiliser?

The best insect control is to grow crops in a healthy environment, which is balanced and abundant if left to its own devices. Fukuoka found that those crops which were attacked by pests were often the least healthy and so again, it’s nature way of keeping the strongest plants alive and thriving.

Fukuoka met Bill Mollison many years after he had developed and used his own permaculture farming methods , and found that they had very similar ideas for permaculture albeit they had been doing this system of growing in two separate parts of the world.

Masanobu Fukuoka’s work (e.g. read his book “One-Straw Revolution”) lives on as a huge contribution towards learning how to use permaculture farming to improve on crop yields as well as keeping the earths resources in the best possible condition, for many generations to come. So yes, this method of farming works much better than the traditional farming methods that we have known and seen in our own parts of the world.


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Permaculture – You and Sustainability

We’ve probably all heard the term “permaculture” at some time or other but unless we’re already involved with this topic, we may not really know what it is or what it entails or even how it links to sustainability. Even gardeners who may already be using some of the ideas and principles may not know how what they do is related to permaculture!

The definition of permaculture is:

- a system of cultivation intended to maintain permanent agriculture or horticulture by relying on renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem.

To put it another way, it’s an approach to designing systems of settlement for people, and agricultural systems that support the natural ecosystem of the land. This means that you are designing sustainable land use designs via ecological and biological principles, which often reflect nature, and in turn return maximum results for minimal work.

The ‘Prime Directive of Permaculture’
“The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.” Bill Mollison.

Permaculture aims to create stable and fruitful systems that provide for human needs, integrating the land with those who live on it, using proven technologies for food, energy, shelter and infrastructure. This would include the ecological processes of plants, animals, their nutrient cycles, climatic factors and weather cycles also being included and integrated into the design as well as being inter-dependant on each other.

Within a permaculture system, work is minimised, “waste” is made into a resource, productivity and yields increase and environments are restored using principles that can be applied anywhere, on any scale, from one individual home to entire regions.

The first recorded modern practice of organised permaculture was by the Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer in the 1960’s which relatively speaking is not that long ago, and around the time I was born! However the method was further precisely developed by Australians Bill Mollinson and David Holmgren and their associates in the 1970’s. These two people are responsible for bringing permaculture to people’s attention, and their ideas are still as relevant today as they were back then. In fact, I’d say even more pertinent given the need for everyone to at least consider becoming more self sustainable today given the global economic and climatic state of affairs.

Thus permaculture sets out a universal set of guidelines that are used in designing sustainable ecosystems, and has three key aspects that need to be taken into consideration, namely:

-          an understanding of how nature works

-          an ethical framework

-          and a design approach

This simple combination is then used to create a sustainable and productive, as well as non-polluting and healthy community, and can either mean adapting what there is already or starting with nothing and creating from scratch.

The original principles that Bill Mollinson laid out have recently been reviewed by David Holmgren in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. These principles encompass those laid out in Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollinson and Reny Mia Slay, as follows:

-          Relative location

-          Each element performs many functions

-          Each important function is supported by many elements

-          Efficient energy planning: zone, sector and slope

-          Using biological resources

-          Cycling of nutrients, energy, and resources

-          Small-scale intensive systems, including plant stacking and time stacking

-          Accelerating succession and evolution

-          Diversity, including guilds

-          Edge effects

-          Attitudinal principles: everything works both ways, and permaculture is both information and imagination-intensive

and those found in Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual by Bill Mollinson, which are frequently considered more of a value system:

-          Work with nature rather than against

-          The problem is the solution

-          Make the least change for the greatest possible effect

-          The yield of a system is in theory unlimited

-          Everything gardens (or modifies its environment)

Clearly stated, the ethics of permaculture are:

-          Care of the Earth, which is working with nature as opposed to not, and is the opposite of most of which is happening on the land today in most parts of the world

-          Care of People, whether this is individuals or whole communities; everyone has the chance to adopt an environmentally high quality lifestyle in whichever part of the world you live

-          and Setting Limits to Population and Consumption as this is in recognition of the limited resources on Earth and that there are several billion people who need to have a fair share in these resources across the globe

To summarise, Permaculture is about environmental sustainability and you, working with the land, using principles that minimise any harm to the environment and maximise the output from that terrain and surroundings, and to sustain communities of people with what they require to live in sync with the Earth.


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Welcome To The World Of Permaculture!

We know that Permaculture is amazing and what we need to be doing for our planet, so we look forward to bringing you the best information, know how and education we can, in order that you will know what you can do at home and in your gardens to preserve and work with nature rather than against!

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