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The 12 Core Permaculture Design Principles

The 12 Core Permaculture Design Principles

Permaculture Design Principles

What is Permaculture?

In 1978 Bill Mollison along with student David Holmgren combined the ideas of permanence and agriculture to create Permaculture. Their seminal book Permaculture One created a movement which continues today.

Permaculture is a discipline that uses natural principles to usually create ecological systems. Permaculture can be used to reduce the negative impacts of humans on their environment. Central to the aim of permaculture is the notion of caring for the earth, caring for people, and the returning of surplus to both people and earth, this is often referred to as 'earth care, people care, and fair share'. There are 12 core design principles in permaculture, and when you govern your design with them, using them to help supply your needs, you are well on your way to living in Accord with Nature.


The 12 core Design Principles of Permaculture:


Observation

Observation is the first and most critical of the design principles. If humans were to only use one design principle this would be it. Observation forces us to see reality before we attempt to mold reality into whatever we wish. The modern method of meeting problems is to develop solutions without adequately observing the natural factors that make the reality of the problem. Many solutions completely disregard the real problem and work around it rather than with it. This leads to future instability in the system.

In agriculture the method of economical production is usually directly opposed to the local ecology, the health of the land, the real quality of the product, and even the economy of the local community. Without observation of patterns and details we cannot build a valuable and lasting system. Instead we build systems that harm people and planet and are reliant on non-renewable inputs, like fossil fuels. It is up to people to recognize the real value of these truly valuable systems, and to both demand, fund, and create them.

When designing a garden with permacultural principles, the species are chosen from the possibilities of the location. This means that if a permaculture designer is working with a swamp, they do not drain the swamp and plant corn, but instead they find a species which will grow in swamps. The design may involve swamp oaks and hickories as nut bearing over-story and an under story of blueberries, or whatever other water loving species are around. This is also somewhat why permaculture struggles during this transition phase of an oil descent civilization. The economic importance of hickories (except pecans) and acorns is not very high but the trees are still valuable, they can, for instace, support humans or pigs, chickens, or ruminants of some sorts, in fact many of our own human ancestors were raised on acorns, but the markets are almost never realizable because of the economies of scale, and public whim. Paying a person a living wage to pick acorns is not economically viable, so instead the corn man on his mega-tractor rides around on his super farm, sprays poison and chops it all up with giant swords at the end of the season. This is something that might make us cringe, yet we are just as wary of paying extra dollars for something much more sustainable, (a shabby man's bucket of acorns).

For landowners it is not necessarily important whether the totality of their land is of economic importance, and this is a useful modern perk. It is of practical use to decrease their dependence on fossil fuels and the industrial system at large, and they aren't forced to make a profit if it is a hobby rather than a job.

It is also important that people begin to expand their tastes and interests to go beyond wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes. I don't just mean things in the supermarket either. The future will require sustainable ecological systems in diverse environments and the people who make efforts to grow and breed tree crops and other alternative crops are deserving of support. People must use observation to identify local edible, useful, and beautiful plants, and use them in their landscape design.

When we use observation we can take huge amounts of work and reduce it to nearly nothing. By understanding the way things Accord with Nature we may implement our plan in a way such that the environment does our work for us, after our initial labor (a time to sow and a time to reap). Permaculturists and other advanced agriculturalists have bloated the internet with different observations and insights into the natural world, browsing these can certainly help, but there is no substitute for your own observations in your own place and at your own time.

If you want to do something with your land or the land of a friend, first look at the land good and hard. It will save much time and effort. 

The masters of observation are the remaining native peoples of the earth, but if we look for authors and visionaries two stand out. Sepp Holzer and Masanobu Fukuoka are kings in the field of natural observation.


Catch and Store Energy

 

Global warming is a trendy concept, everyone is concerned with getting their respective governments to find some magical cure to the soothsaying predictions of future disaster. Everyone seems to acknowledge that energy usage (fuel burning) is to blame, and yet for all the talk people do, they take very little action in order to reduce their energy footprint (not you of course). In fact many people can't take many types of action because their economic situation won't allow it. 

Permaculture principles dictate that the energy that enters a site is kept and stored there. If an economic reality stands in your way you need to look at ways of harvesting natural and man made abundance, and keeping it from flowing back to other places and people. In a practical example that might mean ditching the 100 dollar a month smart phone bill, (1,200 dollars a year and 3,820 dollars for three years and 33,000 over 20 years with 3% compounding interest). 

A couple examples should suffice to explain this principle in an ecological context. First consider traditional farming methods, like the aforementioned draining of wetlands. Energy in the form of water is taken from where it is at a high potential for work (high elevation) and taken to a place where it has low potential for work (low elevation). Rather than produce energy in that endeavor, they expend energy to accomplish a discordant goal. Couple that net energy loss, with the fact that it increases the speed at which fresh water becomes salt water, since it is not given time to replenish the underground water, and we can see that by releasing the energy in the form of water we degrade the site, (and that is just in this strictly human way). If instead water is captured on the land as it falls it not only reduces flood risks downstream, increases the level of water in the aquifer, and the total quantity of freshwater available for all land species, but it makes it all available by trapping its potential near to where we need it.

Considering that temperate swamps and wetlands are as, or nearly as, productive as the worlds tropical rainforests we can further see the value of retaining the energy that arrives on site (rainforests store most of their energy in the mass above ground, and in temperate regions it is stored in the soil as well as above ground woody matter). A tremendous resource is lost with the destruction of a swamp. The retained water on landscapes can be put to work in various ways. Perhaps it can be used to grow aquatic plants, or fish, and there is also the potential to put that water to work in a physical way, like a water wheel, ram pump, or electric generator. Lastly ponds are are serene places to increase human comfort and happiness and they water countless animals. Water is life and its retention serves life fully.

Humans working for something other than the biomass of the earth, are humans working selfishly.

Another example of catching and storing energy is the energy from the sun. In a corn field the sun is used to grow a crop of corn the plant itself turns the energy from the sun using the process known as photosynthesis. The corn plant has captured the energy of the sun, a permaculture principle--and yet here traditional agriculture falters. By growing a single crop, known as a monoculture, large amounts of sun go wasted. There is the spring period before the crop is planted, with nearly bare soil, where no sun energy is being retained. In fact ultraviolet rays from the sun beating down on bare soil has the effect of killing micro organisms. Then there continues to be wasted sun while the corn plants are small. There is maybe a peak month or two where a good amount of sun energy is caught and retained by a corn field. Even conventional farmers have recognized this and begun using cover crops to protect soil and harvest sun in between crops, but the use of short lived crops will always have this problem. Compare that field to a multi-storied food forest or savannah and we will understand just how lacking a monocrop can be in terms of sun harvesting. Perennial plants that live year after year may not always have the exact same urgency to harvest sun and produce seed as an annual plant, but the sheer size and duration of the growing season (yes perennials often do focus growth in a shorter than full season as well) implies great gains in solar harvesting. This needs to be calculated in terms of all biomass, and a corn field may produce roughly equal calories per area to the top natural systems, and are easier for humans to harvest, (this sort of mining of the nutrients is problematic in the long run), but the whole biomass is actually less because the underground portions of the earth only have a percentage of the root mass, and the above ground portions a percentage of what a forest would have.

Cut it down, burn it up, and ship it back in

There is a final example that I will mention to illustrate the point. Traditional slash and burn agriculture is the antithesis of 'storing energy'. We also see this commonly in residential properties and tractor oriented farms, mega farms, and home-garden-lawns, where excess organic matter like leaves, sticks, and corn stubble are seen as unsightly or impediments to work. By burning the resources they are releasing stored energy and sending it into the atmosphere as pollution. It is a significant infraction against the environment and completely contrary to the notions of sustainability and regeneration. The end of that twisted idea is that homeowners, and farmers will then ship in nutrients because their lawns and crops have a barren soil. 

Future Energy Demands Need Sustainable Systems

It is easy to think of Solar and Wind power (electric) as our future. But our future is much more complex and it will likely require much more natural ways of storing energy. It is important that we develop the ability to harvest energy with ecological systems, when we do that everything will benefit.


Obtain a Yield

 

This is a concept everyone can appreciate, but it is no small matter. If we put effort into something it can be easy to become discouraged if we do not have anything to show for it. Likewise the goal of our efforts might be healthy food, sound ecological ethics, and reducing our load on the industrial system as well as the pressure we put on 'developing' nations. Producing food might let you worry less about the food in the supermarket being loaded with toxins, since you will have to consume less of it.

Obtaining a yield affirms our efforts. It is also (logically) the last part that we learn about. Early efforts in desiging our own systems are focused on the creation of our vision, we neglect to learn the harvest and usage of what we have created. Also if the scope of our project is too large we may find that all of our effort is in continually creating the system and we do not have time for the harvest of our abundance. Obtaining a yield can help us to step back, enjoy what we have done, and make a healthier world for ourselves, our neighbors, and the rest of the planet.


Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback

 

Any natural system which does not rely on self regulation is not in natural. It so happens that most of modern farming is not self regulated, but economically regulated. What I mean to say is that the growth of the plants on a farm is not tied to the natural cycling of nutrients, but instead is tied to the economic value of the crops and ensuing issuance of the purchased nutritional supplementation given to the soil.

Said another way, a forest, is self regulating. There is a minimal natural inflow and outflow of nutrients; that which is moved is brought about by life (squirrels absconding with nuts, or bears with berries,) the weather, and the mechanical action of water. These flows are offset by the natural self regulation of organisms coming in and organisms going out. The difference is that man doesn't base his practices on this (the return of the crop to the earth in the form of, what we commonly call 'waste,' or 'humanure' as it has been so elegantly put. Since the farmers in most 'developed' nations do not have access to the 'waste' (and in some places there are strict laws about this) the farmer must use the cash acquired from the sale of his produce to pay for amendments to the soil, thus the soil health is not based on self regulation, but economic regulation.

We will find in most natural things that self regulation is a real solution to environmental problems, but in the world of man, self-regulation, commonly thought of as capitalism, is an extremely dangerous idea, because it implies that mankind will self regulate, while the opposite is often true. The goal of a free market is a truly natural idea, but the implementation must be governed by sound ecological and social principles. This is why the Accord with Nature is not solely focused on the natural but several criteria which imply an Accord with Nature, rather than just 'the natural.' For a more thorough rundown of the Accord visit inAwN.com, where you can see the criteria we use to develop an Accord with Nature.

Edges Evolve

If edges take a different shape than what you thought, give a good consideration to accepting the advice.

In nature we may watch how our property responds to our actions, this is observation and our primary goal is to accept the feedback of what we are observing. This is what permaculture is in many if not all ways, working in Accord with Nature. Any time we try to fight nature we will find difficulty. The modern way of using greater and greater amounts of 'horse-power,' (from man to donkey to teams of horses and massive tractors) is a way of subdoing nature, but it is a temporary solution--because the larger mechanisms of nature will eventually catch up with our folly. So in permaculture we make ponds and pools where water stagnates and plant dry land species on dry land.


Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

 

Due to the nature of a 'transition society' it can be hard to only use resources and services that are renewable, but we should strive to value them. By valuing things that are better for the environment we can show others that it is an acceptable thing to do. It will also benefit the earth in significant ways, over the long term.

Say that you move to a new land, and there are a great number of Black Walnut trees. We might say to ourself that we prefer the English Walnut, and that perhaps this would be good land to grow it. Instead we should value the abundant and natural resource of the Black Walnut. By our own acceptance and valuing of the Black Walnut it will naturally become of value to others. The value of the wood is high, but the tree will grow every year, and until it is old it can produce copious amounts of food. The old wood may be less valuable in an old tree, but overall we have had an increase of value for ourselves and the environment.

We also must value renewable resources by not using them for frivolous purposes. The use of non-renewable resources in a haphazard and unregulated fashion is one thing, but if renewable resources follow suit the earth will dwindle to nothing. Then one day the human race is likely to end. If we do not prepare sustainable systems before the non-renewable resources are unavailable there will likely be widespread chaos and death for all species. 

The squirrel steals all of my hickory nuts when the winds don't blow them down in time, but being well fed and distracted they leave me my walnuts. That is an Accord with Nature that I could terminate if I wished, (an easy chore to eat the squirrel and the walnut,) but that opens up new problems, and I don't eat land animals at all anyway. I don't advocate the killing of the squirrel, as this is the job of the dog and the cat. To pay the labor of the cat and the dog (prevention of vermin and predators), they are kept fed by the abundance of the land. Most things in nature provide a service to other things. This is the symbiosis that defines the planet. Humans should also provide a service, which would be to use their skills of observation, their book of knowledge, and their simple tools of the trade to increase the biomass of earth. We as humans believe in life, and biomass is life, that is a true Accord with Nature.


Produce No Waste

 

This principle is about 'waste' disposal. To make sense of waste we should consider there to be two types, there are the types that belong on land and will compost, and types that belong no where and will notcompost.

Of the types that belong on land, they need to be added to land when humans are finished with them. Placing organic matter in plastic bags and burying it in toxic landfills is a tragic mistake. Basically what is happening is you are mining all of the nutrients out of the soil, to make food for you to eat. You then take the two waste streams of excrement and leftovers and hide them from your planets biological mass. It is an unspeakable mistake, a great act of hubris and deception, and it must stop immediately as there is only a finite amount of nutritious foods (life) that can be produced by the soil. If we don't stop harvesting our abundance and hiding it from the earth, we will experience disaster.

The things that don't compost are inappropriate to use. Their manufacture is toxic, and even if they are easily recycled, they will pollute the earth at the end of their life span. The only thing that can be done, by the general public is to use less of these items. You may then use your creative talents to repurpose the items already produced.

As always and everywhere in life there can be confusing possible exceptions. Time and economics often dictate our behaviour and it can be impossible to find the time to find their items in a completely organic fashion. Modern rules dictate that you buy new goods with a certain amount of packaging, this flaw is difficult to deal with, but the hope is that people find better and better ways to sell their items with less and less packaging. Items that we seek should always be understood to be net energy losses from the begining, and we should decide if tha objects can pay us back, or is a necessity.


Design From Patterns To Details

 

Designing from patterns to details is a critical design technique. It means that we don't do things haphazardly and without vision. We should make our design such that the work we have to do is grouped in like components. This makes the work easier to do. If we look at the patterns of nature we can work with them and incorporate them into our plan. The larger patterns of what is going on in any system will drive future results. For instance if we need to make a path we might use the natural form of a river, meandering through crops we need to tend and harvest. Water is known to take the path of least resistance, and we will find that our paths follow a similar snaking pattern when following natural settings.

Patterns are all over nature, for example, spider webs, branching structures, spirals, and rays. One way we can implement this practically in the idea of the keyhole bed. A keyhole is cut into a raised planting bed, for a person to walk in which maximizes the growing space. For the bee this is a hexagon, the comb neatly maximizing space in an amazing architectural feat. For the human in a raised bed his deficit is reaching distance, and so he too should base his horticultural designs on the bee. Circles lose area to their paths while equidistance can be more easily maintained using hexagons. Bees and Hexagons

For growing crops, the larger patterns of nature are things like weather and the annual change of the seasons, they are steady but unrelenting. We take these things for granted but once the big picture is understood, you can begin to look at locations, and times, in different ways. There might be variables in sheltered or exposed locations, low or high positions, over exploited or under exploited areas. Maybe the nature around us is already providing exactly what we need and yet we simply don't recognize it.

Patterns are vital to permaculture. The natural physical patterns visible in nature are often solutions to our problems in design.


Integrate

 

Beings are built to function with other beings. The earth is the perfect distance from the sun. The sun causes the perfect temperatures we know about for life to thrive. This has allowed our planet to develop numerous species which all must work as one in order to survive. Our sun powers most of what we experience by being incorporated into the bodies of plants and algae. These beings sustain numerous creatures from noticeable to invisible, from bug to bear. Beings form complex relationships like shark cleaning fish, or ants culturing trees, sap, and fungi. Humans are just one part of this planet. Despite all of the paving and bricks of our civilization we simply cannot remove ourselves from being integrated with nature. No matter what we think, all of our needs and wants are derived from nature, in more or less complex ways. Side stepping natural limits for short term gain will always fail us in the long term.

If designing a system, it is important to recognize the way our system integrates into the whole. Likewise this principle intstructs us to work with our fellow humans, animals, insects, for a division of labor. If we work in isolation we may find that things are more difficult. Three people can move three 150 lb rocks far faster than one person can move one 150 lb rock. A great many activities are made far more fluid when a number of people take them on.

Although some may object to the labor of animals, working with horses, mules, donkeys and all the rest may allow for greater productivity, and therefore more biomass. I say if the man can work to better the planet, so can the mule. Animals must be taken appropriate care of and must never be valued simply in death, even if that is their end use after their labor. In a culture of abundance it should be that all of mankind's partners in work are given the ultimate right to live and respect in death.

We can integrate nearly anything into our design. Rather than spraying poison to reduce a certain bug population, it is in Accord with Nature to attempt to increase a praying mantis population instead. This does not have to be done by purchasing a praying mantis, but instead providing habitat and protecting the egg sacks (ootheca) from damage.

These simple forms of integration rather than segregation or elimination are crucial to working in Accord with Nature and are not to be ignored. The vast systems that sustain the patterns of our landscape can be made to work for any situation, and to increase the stability and structure of our design.


Small and Slow

 

Particuarly when dealing with established rather than damaged landscapes we need to consider our work as dangerous (not merely to ourselves but our environment). We need to only make small changes to previously functional landscapes. We may wish that our understory of berries was less shaded by a thick growth of maple, but to simply go in and clearcut the maple would be a mistake. It is likely that there would be a major net outflow of nutrients in such a clearcut and in permaculture design the goal is always to retain the natural fertility as much as possible.

The point here is to make small changes, slowly, allowing the land to adapt to the changing conditions. Leave the large fast alterations in the landscape to the devastating effects of natural disasters (and unquenchable humans). The abundance of the modern day helps to allow us to make small and slow decisions, but there is the risk that if we don't adapt our landscape now to adequately supplying our needs in a regenerative way, nature may be always treated with an ever increasing short term gain mentality, until reaching the hard limit. What we need are not only people smart enough to not cut down their walnut grove, for a couple years of corn production, but the walnut grove in the first place, and people willing to eat black walnut. Go plant a grove of foods, you will be a hero.

Even in damaged landscapes it can be hard to predict the effects of our labor. If we act big and fast and in two years our orchard is an overgrown mess we may become very discouraged. It is certainly more reasonable to act quickly in a damaged landscape, but it is not always a foolproof method. Such severely damaged landscapes pose various challenges that might even force us to act small and slow. There is no one size fits all prescription in permaculture. Small and slow is a good cautionary principle to have.

In a first year garden grow a few things with a lot of effort rather than nothing with a lot of effort. Keep it small for your available energy and time. Make time and the energy will come.


Use and Value Diversity

 

I value diversity so much that it is a fairly controversial opinion. I am not a believer in "invasiveness" as it is commonly understood. Since I believe in an Accord with Nature, I believe that it can only be man that is invasive. Since plants do not share in our morality, it is their business what it is they do when people take them elsewhere.

If you'll notice the term invasive only arises when it is that mankind brought something somewhere. The natural phenomena of plants moving around is more of a migration. When mankind uses machines and transportation techniques to bring things far away, it becomes 'unnatural' and 'invasiveness' is presented due to the negligence of mankind. I believe that the issue is framed wrongly though, its not about plants moving around, it is about the disruptions man causes to native habitats.

The appropriate term, in my opinion, is that plants are opportunistic. Riding on the backs of clear cutting tools, bullets, and changing water-flow patterns, plants can take over locations. Often people see these species in the woods and fret, but the truth is most plants aren't going invasive in a healthy habitat. Plants ultimately turn native when their is a niche to fill, or when man gives them a good start to express some genetic variability in the sun. If a plant does go 'invasive' it is the humans job to manage the area for what he wants and the earth needs. Otherwise it turned out that there was a fitter plant, and that land is its now.

Almost no plants are parasitic, often, they are cooperative. Plants rarely force other plants to extinction (as far as I have seen demonstrated). This is to say, that the original native plant still maintains niches, or hidden locations that the out-competing opportunistic species does not reach. This is the rise and fall of species, it is natural. Its is the job of people, if it is reasonable, to preserve struggling species. It is the gift of our minds that allow us to do that.

Species preservation is not about hoping some constituent of that being will hold a chemical cure for cancer. It is about the ethics of being part of something larger than you... Nature.

I do not believe anything should go extinct if it can be helped. I think everything should receive support, insofar as it is for the purpose of following the ethics of my Accord with Nature. I believe people need to successfully use their logic to alter the landscape in such a way that it decreases the burden on the planet, that it increases the biological life around them, and leads to the exclusion of no species.

An egregious error of our time is that we feel compelled to fight rather than support. Do not fight the weed, out-compete it, support its neighbours, and if you fail, learn to use it.

When it comes to non-native plants I am as libertarian as they get. I do not suggest adding known weeds to a garden where they are unwanted. The disturbance in the ground will always lead to their excellence. I do not suggest bringing a plant where it is not already, for strictly ornamental purposes. Mankind's goal at the current speck of time needs to be to support himself locally and not worried about the lonely psychological fear of the foreign.


Used Edges and Value the Marginal

 

This is another great principle, and amazingly useful observation.
 

The edge of the land, (think of the scene of a field with a flat wall of trees at its end,) is the most productive part of the land. It contains not only the ecosystem outside of the trees, and the ecosystem within the trees, but also the ecosystem of their combination. Edges allow an abundance of light to hit a forest floor making it ideal for plants that live in shade. Edges allow protection for animals in their varied looks. Edges provide windbreaks and collect debris to decompose. Edges are beautiful and comforting to travellers, they provide a light-heartedness to people and probably animals too. The hawk can relax and hunt over a wide expanse, and the rabbit can safely skirt the edge only daring out when the hawk naps.

Marginal land is another important consideration. Often in reading I hear about marginal or unproductive land, but this to me is nonsense. Land is only unproductive if man doesn't use it, or allow other species to. While certain land may not grow corn well, (usually due to over-farming, or being under/over watered by rain) it will likely grow a walnut or pear tree. It will likely give you raspberries and most certainly it can grow your own greens. You can find dandelions in parking lots all the time. The options are infinite in the modern world for marginal land, but they may not be forever. The people of this and other countries need to begin to establish all marginal lands, and to tweak all edges to give us more. Use the field and the forest, humanity depends on it. Use the wealth and abundance of the modern error to grow the future of this planet.

Create edge everywhere. As long as you leave corridors of cover and areas of approximately six hours of unobstructed sun per summer day, you can grow nearly anything that can be grown and in a proper way. Right now there are rare corridors of cover through the open expanses of human settlement. When you look from an air plane you see huge swathes of lawn and wheat lawn, and so little areas where the forest connects. Connect the forest with food you want to eat. It needs to happen now.


Creatively Use and Respond to Changes

 

Change is the rule of the universe; climates change, things change in general; without change nothing new can arise. The change of death allows the children to have families and new beings to experience life forever. Change is going to happen, so we are going to have to embrace it or we will forever be in the same ruts.

Managing a forest garden means that you will have to adapt. If you don't have to adapt you likely tried way too hard in establishment and didn't allow natural feedback loops alter your plans. Plans are great, and they need to be thorough, but plans are not reality. Reality is how nature responds to your overture. It is important that we turn downed trees upside down and look at the loss of the tree as a swathe of sunlight for the next generation of food, fuel, or habitat.

Accidents and losses happen in horticulture, farming, and gardening, but they are only important insofar as we can learn from them. We can never be prepared for all changes, and so we use permaculture to establish resilience in the system we create. A forest garden's resilience is what makes it far superior to other food acquiring methods.


Conclusion

Permaculture design principles are most commonly understood in an ecological context, but they can be interpretted for almost any discipline. Using these ideas we can increase the value of almost anything we do. By understanding and applying these natural principles we are designing in Accord with Nature, and it would be hard to do otherwise. When used in conjunction with the permaculture ethics of caring for people and planet, we have the core ideas of how to go about building a better planet.

It is my hope that you learned something here and take it upon yourself to be a producer of designs in Accord with Nature. 

 

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