The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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Permaculture Basics

Jill Cockram takes us through some of the essential ideas of Permaculture

In February, I finally got around to doing my Permaculture Design Certificate run by David Holmgren (co-founder of Permaculture) and Fiona Buining, a permaculture compatriot from previous days with Permaculture North - Sydney. The course was held in Hepburn Springs, Victoria, where the climate and soils are very similar to the Southern Highlands of NSW - an advantage when you are hoping to pick up some ideas that can be applied in your own back yard.

I was pleased to find that David’s approach to teaching permaculture is process-driven - he provides a step-by-step procedure for determining which elements you include in your design with regard to your own site specifications and conditions, and how you assess and re-assess, with time, their effectiveness. This actually gives you some guidelines to follow, rather than creating a haphazard design based on very little rational planning.

The course was very intensive - the days were very long, but fruitful and enjoyable. Included in the course were various field trips and site visits (to the Holmgren’s permaculture design in Hepburn, to Fiona’s home with the first composting toilet/reed bed to be allowed in a sewered residential area in Australia, and to a certified organic farm and to a mobile saw-mill). There were also videos, guest speakers, lots of integrated hands-on projects and of course a full timetable of lessons/lectures. To balance out the exercise the brains were getting (and I suspect, to wake us up after many hours of listening and learning) they also scheduled in daily yoga-type exercises for the body. It certainly had the desired effect of giving a sense of well-being, along with the vegan food we were being fed three times/day. There were twenty three participants in the course and the residential nature of the course allowed us to really get to know one another, to the extent that when the time came to leave, we were all torn between hesitation in going back out into ‘the real world’ and the enthusiastic urge to rush home and get stuck into our permaculture projects at home.

One of the important aspects of the course for me was the session on Permaculture Ethics and Principles. The following is my summary of the essence of Permaculture as opposed to other philosophies:

12 Principles of Permaculture


This is the ‘thinking globally - acting locally’ ethic where we recognise that because we are a major cause of the global crisis, we are therefore also the major solution to it. We should aim to get off the treadmill of addictive consumerism and make the transition to responsible producers, who are self-reliant, self-regulating community members.


In real estate the saying is ‘position, position, position’. In permaculture it is ‘observation, observation, observation’, with the desired outcome of learning from nature - how we can work with it rather than against it, the latter being a total waste of energy! Here, we combine the knowledge of ecological science with observations of nature and apply the results for the greatest effect to our specific site conditions. Through observation we can learn that 'the problem is also the solution'.


A fundamental principle for survival perhaps. This strategy is fairly self-explanatory; we capture the Earthís natural energies (sun, wind, water flows and climatic cycles of food and forest production) and store them for maximum usage in our own systems. An equally important energy that we can capture is that of human activity and knowledge which can be captured and stored in libraries, art galleries architecture and culture in general.


Something we all hope for when we set up a vege patch! In this case we are trying to take responsibility for our own survival by growing food/timber and materials in a sustainable way and preferably with a surplus. If we eat produce 'in season' (including wild products such as rabbits etc) and preserve the surplus for the lean months we are actively contributing to sustainable lifestyle.


Renewable Resources:

sun, wind, water, biomass

Biological Resources: soil, plants, animals & people

Using these in combination leads to sustainable lifestyles. Use of fossil fuel resources should be kept to a minimum, perhaps only in the establishment stage of a sustainable system or industry (for example, use of a bulldozer to build a dam).


There has been a dearth of education programs on this principle, but how well do we actually rate in our day-to-day efforts to live by it. Apart from recycling in household and industrial systems, we can make a difference by re-using items for the next best use which requires the lowest quality energy (an example being giving kitchen scraps to the chooks rather than putting them straight into the compost, after which they will be recycled into the compost via the chook manure anyway).


This ethic involves designing a system which incorporates strategies for energy flows (onto and off the site), natural energies like solar, wind gravity as well as human energy for the best possible outcome. We use zones, sectors, slope and infrastructures (buildings and dams for instance) and work with, rather than against, natural energies to achieve a system that requires the least input of external energies like fossil fuels.


Most existing agricultural systems result from reductionist thinking into specialised and segregated areas. Permaculture takes a holistic approach, bringing many disciplines together to produce an integrated system. The often quoted example of integrated design is including chickens in your orchard system to provide some of their food, for pest control, fertilisation and aeration of soil and the output of eggs. David Holmgren drew to my attention the existing practice of segregating land into separate parcels for agriculture, forestry, commercial use and residential use, when integrating these land uses allows you to divide the land areas by natural formations (like rivers) and contours as well as helps to form integrated communities more likely to care for their environment.


.. as opposed to large-scale agriculture and industry. We have seen what devastation large scale agricultural/industrial systems can wreak and this leads on to international trade policies which disenfranchise individuals and small communities (especially in the developing world). Small-scale systems on the other hand can be set up to suit local site conditions, are more adaptable to change (or even disaster), bring self-reliance and empowerment to individuals and community groups and lead to local employment and trade.


Monocultures are often plagued with massive crop failure due to insect invasion, increasing use of toxins to combat pests and which end up in our food chain and water supplies, as well as large slumps in world commodity prices for cash crops. In all these situations a great deal of human misery ensues. Bio-diversity is a MUST in sustainable systems to allow increased self-reliance (a larger variety of food/materials for survival), a longer cropping period and to encourage a more balanced and dynamically system which requires less maintenance and interference from humans.


Edges are the places between two different media (such as land and water). These areas are generally very productive because there are biological resources available to both media. We endeavour to introduce edges and margins in our permaculture designs to capture this increased productivity and to render it a more diverse ecosystem (eg. bodies of water are an important part of most designs).


This applies the accepted Law of Ecological Succession in living systems. When we disturb a natural system, nature steps in and revegetates the area with pioneer species, which in turn create the correct conditions for the a larger, more diverse system to re-establish itself. We can observe these processes and accelerate and mimic them to our own advantage to re-afforest or heal damaged land.

I hope the above explanations have not been too dry or that the article comes over as being part of a permaculture dogma. I know that David Holmgren would not approve as he is opposed to permaculture becoming a dogmatic philosophy, rather that it just give some guidelines to setting up a sustainable society that can live ethically, well into the coming centuries.

Reference: Permaculture Design Course Notes (Holmgren Design Services - 1996)

J17 Autumn 97