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Intro to Permaculture

With Kari Wenger and Peter Henry

“The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. Make it now.” — Bill Mollison

“Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of existing life systems and of future survival.” — Bill Mollison

“Permaculture is a positivistic response to environmental crisis. That means it is about what we want to do and can do rather than what we oppose and want others to change.” — David Holmgren

Seminal Texts:

Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, by Bill Mollison

The first articulation of permaculture by its founder–dense and rich, more of a reference book than a sit down and read formulation of ideas, but nonetheless, a classic.

Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, by David Holmgren

A good general articulation of permaculture from one of Bill Mollison’s first students–more readable, useful and a better overview of what permaculture is and does.

Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway

Very readable text, with real life examples from a biology professor in Portland–more aesthetic, less abstract and more real life examples of permaculture in action.

Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set), by David Jacke and Eric Toensemeier

The Bible for northern temperate zone permaculture with lots of good, solid science and details on actual plants and guilds, as well as exploring step-by-step the permaculture design process.


Ethic: Earth care, people care, fair share — set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surpluses.

Permaculture is a design strategy. The strategy involves trying to fully integrate and mimic natural systems to produce greater yield, reduce waste and build fertility. Because it is a design strategy, it is dependent upon place, climate, culture, habitat, economy, etc, and because these elements are unique in each place, permaculture is unique in every application.

Three approaches to understanding design strategies in permaculture:

  1. Its principles
  2. Analyzing needs and yields
  3. Zone and sector planning.


There are many principles of permaculture as articulated by its leading thinkers. We will consider the 12 principles devised by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. The principles act more as guides or beacons to help channel design choices rather than prescriptions or laws.

Needs and Yields

Another way to understand permaculture design strategy is through systems on a homestead–what they produce (yields), and what they require in order to function (needs). Some yields can transcend physical products which are nonetheless important, i.e. sauna yields relaxation, increased health, along with physical heat.

The idea in permaculture, like nature itself, is to set up systems that self-regulate, achieve synergy by working with other elements, and which effortlessly benefit multiple systems and organisms.

Zone and Sector

A third way to understand permaculture design is to consider the zones and sectors around a homestead. Zones are discrete areas fanning out from the house based on their proximity and frequency of visit. The closer and more visited the zone, the more central functions it takes on. Examples: an herb garden should be in zone 1 near the kitchen, and the woodpile might be located on the path to the outhouse.

Sectors are directional vectors moving beyond the homestead and are concerned with energies, threats or conditions that emanate from those directions. Example: south is the sector of the winter sun and potentially strong winds, so no evergreen trees that may block solar gain or become dry fuel that could feed a fast-moving fire.

Natural Step Principles:

  1. Reduce or eliminate dependence on materials extracted from the earth’s crust, i.e. heavy metals, fossil fuels, uranium, etc.
  2. Reduce and/or eliminate concentrations of substances produced by society, i.e. pollution, plastic and chemical compounds.
  3. Reduce physical degradation of natural habitats through human settlement and development, i.e. rain forest destruction, ocean pollution, etc.
  4. Do not subject people to conditions which make it impossible for them to meet their needs, i.e. making rain catchment a crime, destroying forests, etc.