The 12 Permaculture Design Principles

Permaculture design is based on natural processes, taking inspiration from the natural world as a model for our projects. The more we can understand about the natural world and our local environment, the better our designs will be at minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs.

Natural systems have little to no waste products, are inherently sustainable, move towards biodiversity and away from simplicity, accumulate biomass and make maximum use of all resources that enter the system.

For example, in a forest, fallen leaves are used as a natural mulch, which over time break down to create new soil. The flow of water can be slowed by fallen trees or a beaver, creating a natural dam that spreads the water out across the landscape, where it can soak into the soil and recharge the aquifer to provide clean and filtered water.

The forest needs no external resources other than what is naturally abundant such as sunlight that filters through the overstory to the layers below; shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, groundcovers, and roots. There is an incredible diversity of life in a healthy forest with billions of organisms in a single teaspoon of soil including bacteria, protozoa, and nematodes. The soil web provides everything plants need to thrive, with a network of mycelium connecting all the elements and acting as the forest’s communication system.

There’s only one problem with a natural system; it doesn’t provide enough food for large human populations.

A monoculture, on the other hand, is designed to maximize yield. There is no diversity with only one crop harvested at a time. Rather than making use of naturally occurring energy, large amounts of external resources are brought onto the site such as water through irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. Large machinery is used to plow, harrow, sow, weed and to control disease. It is a great system for maximizing the yield of a particular crop, however, it is devastating for the environment and for human health; a potato crop can have up to 35 different pesticides and apples up to 47 (What’s on my Food 2016).

Permaculture design takes inspiration from nature to create a system that is of benefit to both humanity and the environment. Aesthetically, we can imitate a forest by designing a forest garden where naturally occurring trees such as spruce and elm are replaced with edible fruit and nut trees, berry bushes in the shrub layer, edible and medicinal herbs in the herbaceous layer and hardy kiwi and grapes growing up into the lower canopy.

Permaculture also goes much deeper than just the appearance of a system by looking at how ecosystems function, such as the energy flows through a site and how different elements interact with each other. In a healthy system, one element may provide multiple yields or have multiple uses. A tree can provide fruit, it can buffer strong winds, provide shade on a hot day, act as a trellis, provide a habitat for birds and provide seeds that are eaten by birds. Even after a tree comes crashing down, it can provide habitat, slow down water, clear a new patch of forest to help rejuvenate an area and finally break down into the soil to start the whole process again.

By understanding the relationships between different elements in a system, we can create hundreds of yields in a very small area, and so it is the creativity of the designer that primarily limits the yield of a system. Creating multiple uses for different elements helps grow the number of links in a system and strengthens these relationships, building vibrancy, health, and resilience.

Successful permaculture designs look to minimize inputs and maximize outputs. This can be done by working with what is already on a site, for example, if there is an established fruit tree in the back garden, it will normally be best to create a guild around the tree rather than to remove it to make way for a new design.

Ironically, the most difficult design is typically a flat landscape devoid of any features, as there are simply too many options and not enough starting points. Once existing features have been identified and enhanced, we can then begin to add new elements into the design. These will typically be introduced into a system so that different elements can work together, for example a new greenhouse may be added to a sunny wall of the house so that it can benefit from the natural warmth of the house in winter, or an orchard may be placed next to an existing water source to minimize the need for irrigation and earthworks.

The Permaculture Design Principles

Permaculture is based on 12 design principles that can be seen as thinking tools. One of the main attractions of permaculture is that these principles can be used to create ethical and sustainable solutions to real-world problems. They are the foundation of a permaculture project and an application of permaculture is one or more of these principles being applied to a problem or to a site. The principles are universal, however, they will be applied differently depending on a number of factors, including the climate, the project budget and the personal, social, political and economic needs of the client and the site.

These principles are not set in stone, rather they are open to interpretation depending on the site as well as the designer. For example, ‘obtaining a yield’ will be interpreted differently by different people based on their needs and who they are as a person. Each principle is like a portal that provides the designer with a different perspective of the site, and each principle can be considered at different depths of application.

These 12 principles were designed by David Holmgren and they are presented with his proverbs.

Observe & Interact. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Catch & Store Energy. “Make hay while the sun shines.”

Obtain A Yield. “You can’t work on an empty stomach.”

Apply Self-regulation & Accept Feedback. “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation.”

Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services. “Let nature take its course.”

Produce No Waste. “Waste not, want not. A stitch in time saves nine.”

Design from Patterns to Details. “Can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Integrate Rather Than Segregate. “Many hands make light work.”

Use Small & Slow Solutions. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Use & Value Diversity. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Use Edges & Value the Marginal. “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path.”

Creatively Use & Respond to Change. “Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.”