Minnesotans For Sustainability


Sustainable:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.




Introduction to Permaculture

Steve Diver*
May 14, 1996


The Permaculture FAQ (1.3) is divided into 7 parts:
1. Introduction to permaculture
2. Permaculture defined
3. Characteristics of permaculture
4. The practical application of permaculture
5. Permaculture resources: United States Australia Around the World
6. Books on permaculture
7. Electronic sources

1. Introduction to permaculture

The word "permaculture" was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist, and his student, David Holmgren. It is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture." Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. It is an approach to land use which integrates human dwellings, microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water management into stable, productive communities.

A central theme in permaculture is the design of ecological landscapes that produce food. Emphasis is placed on multi-use plants and the integration of animals to recycle nutrients and graze weeds. However, permaculture entails much more than just food production. Permaculture design concepts are being applied in urban as well as rural settings, and are applicable to single households or whole farms and villages. "Integrated farming" and "ecological engineering" are terms sometimes used to describe permaculture. Though helpful, these terms do not capture the holistic nature of permaculture and thus the following definitions are included to provide insight.

2. Permaculture Defined

  1. From the Permaculture Drylands Institute and published in The Permaculture Activist (Autumn 1989): Permaculture: the use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology, and community development. Permaculture is built upon an ethic of caring for the earth and interacting with the environment in mutually beneficial ways...
  2. From Lee Barnes (editor of Katuah Journal And Permaculture Connections), Waynesville, North Carolina: Permaculture (Permanent Agriculture Or Permanent Culture) is a sustainable design system stressing the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the Earth. To paraphrase the founder of permaculture, designer Bill Mollison: "Permaculture principles focus on thoughtful designs for small-scale intensive systems which are labor efficient and which use biological resources instead of fossil fuels. Designs stress ecological connections and closed energy and material loops. The core of permaculture is design and the working relationships and connections between all things. Each component in a system performs multiple functions, and each function is supported by many elements. Key to efficient design is observation and replication of natural ecosystems, where designers maximize diversity with polycultures, stress efficient energy planning for houses and settlement, using and accelerating natural plant succession, and increasing the highly productive "edge-zones" within the system." Permaculture designs have been successfully and widely implemented in third-world countries, but there is current need to expand these principles in temperate climates, and especially urban areas to create more enjoyable and sustainable human habitats.
  3. From Michael Pilarksi, founder of Friends of the Trees, and published in International Green Front Report (1988): Permaculture is: the design of land use systems that are sustainable and environmentally sound; the design of culturally appropriate systems which lead to social stability; a design system characterized by an integrated application of ecological principles in land use; an international movement for land use planning and design; an ethical system stressing positivism and cooperation. In the broadest sense, permaculture refers to land use systems which promote stability in society, utilize resources in a sustainable way and preserve wildlife habitat and the genetic diversity of wild and domestic plants and animals. It is a synthesis of ecology and geography, of observation and design. Permaculture involves ethics of earth care because the sustainable use of land cannot be separated from life-styles and philosophical issues.
  4. From a Bay Area Permaculture Group brochure, published in West Coast Permaculture News & Gossip And Sustainable Living Newsletter (Fall 1995): Permaculture is a practical concept which can be applied in the city, on the farm, and in the wilderness. Its principles empower people to establish highly productive environments providing for food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs, including economic. Carefully observing natural patterns characteristic of a particular site, the permaculture designer gradually discerns optimal methods for integrating water catchment, human shelter, and energy systems with tree crops, edible and useful perennial plants, domestic and wild animals and aquaculture. Permaculture adopts techniques and principles from ecology, appropriate technology, sustainable agriculture, and the wisdom of indigenous peoples. The ethical basis of permaculture rests upon care of the earth--maintaining a system in which all life can thrive. This includes human access to resources and provisions, but not the accumulation of wealth, power, or land beyond their needs. 

3. Characteristics of Permaculture
  • Permaculture is one of the most holistic, integrated systems analysis and design methodologies found in the world.
  • Permaculture can be applied to create productive ecosystems from the human-use standpoint or to help degraded ecosystems recover health and wildness. Permaculture can be applied in any ecosystem no matter how degraded.
  • Permaculture values and validates traditional knowledge and experience.
  • Permaculture incorporates sustainable agriculture practices and land management techniques and strategies from around the world. Permaculture is a bridge between traditional cultures and emergent earth-tuned cultures.
  • Permaculture promotes organic agriculture which does not use pesticides to pollute the environment.
  • Permaculture aims to maximize symbiotic and synergistic relationships between site components.
  • Permaculture is urban planning as well as rural land design.
  • Permaculture design is site specific, client specific, and culture specific.

(Source: Pilarski, Michael (ed.) 1994. Restoration Forestry. Kivaki Press, Durango, CO. p. 450.)

4. The Practical Application of Permaculture

Permaculture is not limited to just plant and animal agriculture, but also includes community planning and development, use of appropriate technologies (coupled with an adjustment of life- style), and adoption of concepts and philosophies that are both earth-based and people-centered, such as bio-regionalism. Many of the appropriate technologies advocated by permaculturists are well-known.

Among these are solar and wind power, composting toilets, solar greenhouses, energy efficient housing, and solar food cooking and drying. Due to the inherent sustainability of perennial cropping systems, permaculture places a heavy emphasis on tree crops. Systems that integrate annual and perennial crops such as alleycropping and agroforestry take advantage of "the edge effect", increase biological diversity, and offer other characteristics missing in monoculture systems.

Thus, multicropping systems that blend woody perennials and annuals hold promise as viable techniques for large-scale farming. Ecological methods of production for any specific crop or farming system are central to permaculture as well as sustainable agriculture in general. Since permaculture is not a production system, per se, but rather a land use planning philosophy, it is not limited to a specific method of production.

Furthermore, as permaculture principles may be adapted to farms or villages worldwide, it is site specific and therefore amenable to locally adapted techniques of production. As an example, standard organic farming and gardening techniques utilizing cover crops, green manures, crop rotation, and mulches are emphasized in permacultural systems.

Yet, the use of the Keyline chisel plow, rotational grazing, the Aerway implement in no-till farming, and a whole number of other techniques are adaptable to farms working within a permacultural framework. The decision as to which "system" is employed is site-specific and management dependent. Farming systems and techniques commonly associated with permaculture include rotational grazing, agroforestry, swales, contour plantings, the Keyline method (soil and water management), hedgerows and windbreaks, and integrated farming systems such as aquaculture, intercropping, and polyculture.

Gardening and recycling methods common to permaculture include edible landscaping, keyhole gardening, companion planting, trellising, sheet mulching, chicken tractors, solar greenhouses, spiral herb gardens, swales, and vermicomposting. Water collection, management, and re-use systems like Keyline, greywater, rain catchment, constructed wetlands, aquaponics (the integration of hydroponics with recirculating aquaculture), and solar aquatic ponds (also known as Living Machines) play an important role in permaculture designs.

5. Permaculture Resources

The two basic sources of information on permaculture are permaculture design courses and permaculture literature. The Permaculture Design Course is the primary vehicle for transfer of permaculture expertise. The standard course is 72-hours in length and lasts two weeks. Graduates are issued a permaculture design certificate and are entitled to use "Permaculture" in the pursuit of livelihood and for educational purposes. The permaculture literature is a rich source of information on a wide range of topics dealing with land use, plant and animal agriculture, water management, appropriate technology, energy-efficient and toxic-free housing, and community design.

Permaculture Resources in the United States

* The Permaculture Activist Box 1209 Black Mountain, NC 28711 (704) 683-4946 Editor: Peter Bane Cost: $16, quarterly THE PERMACULTURE ACTIVIST is the leading periodical for North American permaculture. It publishes articles on permaculture, edible landscaping, bioregionalism, aquaculture, etc, and provides a current listing of upcoming permaculture design courses. It serves as an important networking tool in the U.S., Canada, and Central America. Back issues are available for sale.

* The International Permaculture Solutions Journal (TIPS) Yankee Permaculture, Elfin Permaculture, and Forest Ecosystem Rescue Network (FERN) P.O. Box 672 Dahlonega, GA 30533-0672 Editor: Dan Hemenway Cost: $27.50 for four issues The International Permaculture Solutions Journal (TIPS) is published on an irregular basis, but is a rich source of information. Prior to TIPS, Yankee Permaculture put out a fantastic yearbook called The International Permaculture Species Yearbook (TIPSY). The TIPSY series is a goldmine of permaculture information; much of the information is still quite useful. FERN publishes a permaculture newsletter called ROBIN that deals with forest issues. Yankee Permaculture also publishes The Resources Of International Permaculture - TRIP. Volume 5 of TRIP, published in 1993, is a 68-page issue that contains 1,540 listings of groups working in permaculture, sustainable food systems, and tree-based agriculture.

* Restoration Forestry Friends of the Trees P. O. Box 4469 Bellingham, WA 98227 (206) 738-4972 Editor: Michael Pilarski.

* Restoration Forestry: An International Guide To Sustainable Forestry Practices (1994) is a 525-page guide to resources in restoration forestry. It contains over 50 review articles, 780 organizations, 230 journals/periodicals, 800 books, 100 restoration forestry projects underway, and 100 directories on topics relating to restoration forestry, forest ecology, tree seedlings, bioregionalism, and permaculture. It is a massive addition to tree-based agricultural literature. Cost is $27, plus $4 handling. Other publications from Friends of the Trees include the International Green Front Report (1988, $7.00); Kiwifruit Enthusiasts Journal (Vol. 6, $17.20); and Third World Resource Guide (1993, $5.00) and the West Coast Permaculture News & Gossip Newsletter.

* Travelers Earth Repair Network (TERN) is a database maintained by Friends of the Trees containing over 2,500 permaculture contacts in 100-plus countries. The aim is to link travelers with individuals and organizations involved in sustainable agriculture, forestry, permaculture, and ecological restoration. There is a $50 fee to access the TERN database. Hosts are listed free of charge.

* Permaculture Drylands Journal Permaculture Drylands Institute P.O. Box 156 Santa Fe, NM 87504-0156 (505) 983-0663 Cost: $25, 3 issues per year Permaculture Drylands Journal (formerly Sustainable Living In Drylands) is published in April, August, and December by the Permaculture Drylands Education and Research Institute. It focuses on permaculture concepts and designs for arid lands, with a heavy focus on New Mexico and Arizona. PDJ has published articles on straw bale buildings, solar box cookers, dryland farming, and much more; back issues are available. PDI offers a regular series of Permaculture Design Courses.

* Earthword Journal Eos Institute 580 Broadway, Suite 200 Laguna Beach, CA 92651 (714) 497-1896 Cost: $20, 4 issues Earthword Journal is a glossy permaculture magazine published collaboratively by Eos Institute and the Permaculture Institute of Southern California. It explores the ecological interface between urban and rural communities and is geared to the professional designer, architect, and land-use planner. Issue No. 6 was published in January 1996.

* Temperate Bamboo Quarterly Earth Advocates Research Facility 30 Myers Road Summertown, TN 38483 (615) 964-4151 Cost: $24, quarterly Temperate Bamboo Quarterly is a quarterly publication from Earth Advocates, a permaculture team run by Sue and Adam Turtle. It focuses on the bamboo plant which has unique, multi-purpose uses. They also operate a nursery with dozens of bamboo species.

* Permaculture Resources P.O. Box 65 56 Farmersville Rd Califon, N.J. 07830 (800) 832-6285 Educational publisher and distributor of permaculture resources and publications. agAccess P.O. Box 2008 Davis, CA 95616 (916) 756-7177 agAccess, primarily a mailorder bookstore but also a publishing company and for-profit information service, carries one of the largest selections of agricultural literature in North America. They specialize in sustainable agriculture and related resources.

Permaculture Resources in Australia

* Permaculture International Journal Permaculture International Ltd. P.O. Box PG6039 South Lismore, NSW 2480 Australia Phone: (066) 220 020 International: (066) 220 579 Cost: U.S. $24, quarterly. Available in the U.S. through The Permaculture Activist. PIJ serves as the leading periodical for permaculture worldwide. It contains articles, book reviews, and news of permacultural events around the world. It serves as an important networking tool. Back issues to the early 1980s are available for sale.

* The Permaculture Edge Permaculture Nambour, Inc. P.O. Box 148 Inglewood 6050 Western Australia Cost: U.S. $20, quarterly. Available in the U.S. through The Permaculture Activist. The Permaculture Edge aims to report activities that are seen to be at the cutting edge of permaculture developments around the world. The "permaculture edge" refers to the "edge effect" found at the boundaries of two ecological systems where there is more synergism, biological activity, and variations in the microenvironment and which can be used to increase yields in designed systems. It also points to permaculture ideas as being "at the edge" of a change in the push towards a sustainable future. International Permaculture Institute P.O. Box 1 Tyalgum, NSW 2484 Australia Phone: (066) 793 442 The International Permaculture Institute in Tyalgum, Australia, serves as the international coordinating organization for permaculture activities such as permaculture design accreditation.

Permaculture Resources Around the World

* Permaculture Magazine Uk: Ecological Solutions For Everyday Life Permanent Publications Hyden House Limited Little Hyden Lane Clandfield, Hampshire PO8 ORU England Cost: U.S. $24, quarterly. Available in the U.S. through The Permaculture Activist, A quarterly journal published in cooperation with the Permaculture Association of Great Britain. It contains articles, book reviews, and solutions from Britain and Europe. A good source for temperate agroforestry species and permaculture design projects.

* Ground Cover Permaculture Association of Zimbabwe Box CY 301 Causeway, Harare Zimbabwe Telephone/Fax: (+4) 726911 Cost: U.S. $30, per year.

* Permaculture India Newsletter and Ecological Visions Earthcare Books c/o Classic Books 10 Middleton St. Calcutta 700 071 India.

6. Books on Permaculture

* Introduction To Permaculture by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay. 1991. Tagari Publishers, Tyalgum, Australia. 198 P.
* Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture For Human Settlements, 3rd ed (Reprint of 1978 ed) by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. 1987. Tagari Publishers, Tyalgum, New South Wales, Australia. 127 p.
* Permaculture Two: A Practical Design For Town And Country In Permanent Agriculture by Bill Mollison. 1979. Tagari Press, Stanley, Australia. 150 p.
* Permaculture: A Designer's Manual by Bill Mollison. 1988. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia. 576 p.
* The Best Of Permaculture by Max O. Lindegger and Robert Tap. 1986. Nascimanere Publishers, Nambour, Australia. 136 p.
*The Permaculture Way: Practical Ways To Create A Self-Sustaining World by Graham Bell. 1992. Thorsons, London. 239 p.
* The Permaculture Garden by Graham Bell. 1994. Thorsons, London. 170 p.
* Urban Permaculture by David Watkins. 1993. Permanent Publications, U.K. 152 p.
* Permaculture In A Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield. 1993. Permanent Publications, U.K. 75 p.
* Earth User's Guide To Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow and Rob Allsop. 1994. Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW Australia. 152 p.
* Getting Started In Permaculture by Ross and Jennifer Mars. 1995. Candlelight Trust, Hovea, Western Australia. 60 p.

A Few Good Books for the Permaculturist's Bookshelf

* Cornucopia: A Source Book Of Edible Plants by Stephen Facciola. 1990. Kampong Publications, Vista, CA. 678 p.
* Designing & Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik. 1986. Metamorphic Press, Santa Rosa, CA. 370 p.
* Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith. 1987. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 408 p.
* The Permaculture Book Of Ferment & Human Nutrition by Bill Mollison. 1993. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia. 288 p.

7. Electronic Sources of Permaculture Information

  1. Permaculture Mailing List in the United States permaculture-mg@amani.ces.ncsu.edu (post your articles to this address) To subscribe, send email to almanac@amani.ces.ncsu.edu type: subscribe permaculture-mg in the body of the message.
  2. Permaculture Mailing List in Western Australia perma@eepo.com.au To subscribe, send email to listserv@eepo.com.au type: Subscribe Perma [Type your name here w/o the brackets] in the body of the message.
  3. Organic Gardening & Permaculture Information http://sunsite.unc.edu/london/The_Sustainable_Farmstead.html http://sunsite.unc.edu/london/permaculture.html Email: london@sunsite.unc.edu.
  4. Permaculture Guide at Communications for a Sustainable Future http://csf.colorado.edu:8080/.
  5. Permaculture International Journal (Australia) http://nornet.nor.com.au/environment/perma/ Email: pcjournal@peg.apc.org.
  6. International Permaculture Institute (Australia) Email: perminst@peg.apc.org.
  7. Permaculture Global Assistance Network (Australia) http://www.peg.apc.org/~pgan.
  8. Permaculture in Western Australia http://www.eepo.com.au/perma/.
  9. Permaculture in South Australia - "What's Happening in Permaculture" http://dove.mtx.net.au/%7Esteveo/wotsnu.html.
  10. Correspondence Course on Permaculture (Australia) http://www.qldnet.com.au/acs.
  11. Permaculture Visions International's Correspondence Course (Australia) Email: askpv@ozemail.com.au.
  12. British Permaculture Magazine/Permanent Publications Web Site http://www.uea.ac.uk/~e415/home.html.
  13. PermaWeb in Great Britain http://www.sysmag.com/permaweb.
  14. Permaculture Association (Britain) http://www.sysmag.com/permaweb/groups/pcbritain.
  15. Bay Area Permaculture Group http://www.nbn.com/people/bapg/.
  16. Permaculture Institute of Northern California http://www.nbn.com/people/bapg/pinc.html.
  17. Friends of the Trees http://www.pacificrim.net/~trees/.
  18. Cross Timbers Permaculture Institute in Texas http://csf.colorado.edu/perma/ctpi/cross_t.htm Email: 72530.1353@compuserve.com.
  19. Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute Email: 103070.2354@compuserve.com.
  20. Permaculture on "Mind*Body*Spirit" (South Africa) http://www.pix.za/mbs/body/perma.htm.
  21. Permaculture on Carmela's Home Page http://www.ozoline.com.au/permaculture/index.html.
  22. Plants for a Future On-Line http://www.liv.ac.uk/~rmorris/pfaf/index.html.
  23. Institute for Bioregional Studies http://www.cycor.ca/IBS/.
  24. EcoVillage Information Service http://www.gaia.org/.
  25. Crystal Waters Permaculture Village http://www.gaia.org/crystalwaters/.
  26. The Farm EcoVillage Training Center http://www.gaia.org/farm/.
  27. Intentional Communities on the Web http://www.well.com/user/cmty/iclist.html.
  28. Findhorn http://www.gaia.org/findhorn/.
  29. Arcosanti http://www.arcosanti.org.
  30. Auroville http://www.webcom.com/~miraura/aa/av/av.html.
  31. Permaculture FAQ on the Web Hyper-Text http://csf.colorado.edu/perma/faq.html Ascii-Text < http://sunsite.unc.edu/london/permaculture.faq.v1.3 >.

[MFS note: works from other authors are available on the "Sustainability Authors" page here.]
Used with permission of the author.
The Permaculture FAQ Version 1.3 May 1996
See original at < http://www.ibiblio.org/london/permaculture/faqs/permaculture.faq.v1.3 >.


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