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  • Rob Elgar

7 Must know principles of permaculture

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Permaculture is a way of life that integrates us with the natural world around us. Though all our actions we give back to the land in order to create a clean natural cycle. To get started on the road to permaculture we need to know about the 3 ethics of permaculture design and the most important permaculture principles.

If you have not yet read my previous article - what is permaculture - I suggest you do that first to get an idea of what creating a sustainable homestead stands for.

The principles below are a guide for a permaculture designer to follow so that all the pieces of their land can work together in a way that is efficient and all the resources are used to their greatest potential.

This is a short description of the principles of homesteading. If you would like more in-depth details you can read Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren or any of the books listed at the bottom of the page.

#1 Observe

As mentioned in the article what is permaculture, observation of the way your land acts naturally is a key aspect of planning your sustainable garden. Watch the land through all 4 seasons and through all hours of day and night. Watch where the sun moves, where water flows, and where animals spend their time. You should know the personality of the land throughout an entire year.

Some things to look out for could be:

- Where is the sunlight and where is the shade at different times of the day and year?

- What naturally grows on the land and where?

- Where do animals tend to spend their time? What do they eat and what is their natural route

- Where does water gather, flow, and where stays the driest?

Thoroughly observing natural patterns will save you a lot of effort and cut out a lot of trial and error.

#2 Connect

It is not the number of elements you have present in your landscape that makes permaculture so strong, but the number of connections between each element.

Permaculture zoning

This means that it is not the number of produce producing crops that you have (rows of corn or tomatoes), but how well each of them works together that will increase yield. Elements with the most connections should be placed closer together to increase their connections and to allow them to benefit each other.

This concept is known as permaculture zoning and can be read about in-depth in Permaculture 101: Zones. Zoning not only allows elements to benefit each other but allows us to design in such a way that things that need the most caring for are the most accessible.

#3 Catch and store energy and materials

Using natural flows reduces the amount of outside influence we need to bring in to our permaculture garden.

Waster is a great example of this. Using the natural landscape to direct water to where it needs to reduce the amount of irrigation that needs to be set up - thus decreasing consumption and increasing production.

Natural flows may include:

- Water

- Composting

- Sunlight (solar power or natural heating)

- Wind for turbines or plant stability

Any method you can use the natural elements to reduce the change of the natural environment will be essential in your permaculture design.

For natural ways to catch water you can read Rainwater harvesting for drylands and beyond or The Permaculture Earthworks Handbook: How to Design and Build Swales, Dams, Ponds, and other Water Harvesting Systems

#4 Each element has multiple purposes

The more function each individual plant has the less of them we need. This not only decreases costs but increases the value to your homestead. When plants are properly placed they complete and ecosystem and rejuvenate the land.

Plants that can be used for produce, mulching, nutrients, water retention, attract pollinators and more are examples of multi-functional elements.


#5 Use multiple elements for the same function

Using a variety of elements to support important functions adds security to your landscape as there is support if one or more elements fail.

Using a flowering ground cover can retain water in the soil, attract pollinators, and encourage healthy soil worms. At the same time, a hedge may act as a windbreak, attract pollinators, and reduce water runoff.

Both the ground cover and the hedge are used to maximize the natural water flow as well as attract pollinators. At the same time, both elements have other functions that will be supported by various other aspects of your design.

#6 Little change for maximum effect

Observe your landscape and decide what you can change with the least effort that will have the greatest effect.

Using wood to direct water flow

Using things found on your land such as logs are a good way to create a terrace to reduce soil erosion on sloping land or simply planting fruit trees along a path and parking areas are easily done and create a major difference to the space.

Simplicity is always key when it comes to the principles of permaculture.

#7 Small intensive systems

Starting small and close to your living area is an ideal way to start your permaculture garden. This reduces costs and increases your time vs production value. Start with something small and if it is successful then repeat the process in another small area. This is known as "growing by chunking".

Permaculture circle garden

Circle gardens are a wonderful example of low-maintenance growing.

Changing your landscaping into something edible is an example of growing by chunking. Replacing small flower beds with edible plants allows you to start producing produce without ripping up your entire garden. Once this is successful you can move onto another bed. Fruit forests are another great way to create small successful projects as it makes use of vertical space where small trees, vines and ground covers and all work together with little attention and a low carbon footprint.

Combining the 3 Ethics of permaculture and these 7 permaculture principles will get you well on your way to working with the land you live on in a sustainable manner. For more details on these 7 principles, you can browse the list below of my favorite permaculture books and videos.

Permaculture books:

#1 Edible forest gardens set

#2 Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual

#3 Introduction to permaculture - by Bill Mollison ( the godfather of permaculture)

#4 Permaculture design: A step by step guide

#5 Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

#6 Rain water harvesting for drylands and beyond

#7 The Permaculture Earthworks Handbook: How to Design and Build Swales, Dams, Ponds, and other Water Harvesting Systems

Permaculture design videos:

#1 Inhabit: A permaculture perspective (highly recommended)

#2 Permaculture soils

Most of these books are also available on audio - this is my personal favorite way to get through books.

If you don't have an Audible account you can sign up for a 30-day FREE TRIAL bellow.

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