February 22, 2011

Permaculture Thinking

In the mid 1970's, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison began working together to develop ideas for sustainable agriculture and living. After an intense working period of around two years they co-authored the book Permaculture One. This first book outlined the basic design principles and practices of what has gone on to become the Permaculture movement. David and Bill were both greatly influenced by the organic growing movement and the alternative living movement of the time, along with the writings of P. A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm), Esther Dean (No Dig Gardens) and Masanobu Fukuoka (The One-Straw Revollution). With Bill's research into understanding natural systems and David's research into system designs, the underlying principles of Permaculture revolve around designing and developing human agricultural systems that operate interactively, similar to natural systems.

Permaculture is more of a design philosophy that can be applied to food procuction in all climates and situations, rather than a rigid set of protocols that must be followed in all cases. It can also be applied to other applications such as housing and city planning. In fact it can be applied to almost every human activity as an underlying philosophy to guide designers and planners to help create a sustainable future.

I first became aware of Permaculture in the late 1970's, not long after the first book had been published and it has become a major guiding philosophy for me in how I think of gardening and food producing in my own life because it brings together and unifies many elements of living a sustainable life in harmony with nature.

After the publication of the first book, Bill Mollison, the more charismatic and outgoing of the pair, set out to promote the permaculture message to the world and teach others how to design permaculture systems for themselves. David prefered to continue his research and development on the nuts and bolts of  applied permaculture and there was a parting of the ways between the two in some ways. This was probably more as a result of the intense working relationship they had during the development of the philosophy and the writing of the first book, as well as the differences in personallity between the two of them. Both Bill and david are still working to develop and promote permaculture, which has now become a world-wide movement and an underlying philosophical foundation for most organic growers.

How Does it Work?
Permaculture in practice tries to create interactive systems that in many ways mimic nature as an aproach to designing systems for human habitation and food production in ways that are sustainable and maximise the inherent interactions of all parts of the system to minimise the need for human intervention and energy input.

In a permaculture design, everything is interactive and serves more than one function. Water, plants, animals, humans and nature are all seen as parts of the overall system and perfom multiple functions within the system. Poultry can be used to produce eggs and meat but will also be utilised to control pests and weeds and work and fertilize the soil as well. Water systems are designed to capture and direct the water through the sub-soil to areas of need, trees can be utilised for production of food, timber, windbreaks, habitats and as in the case of Tagasate (Tree Lucerne)  as animal fodder and nitrogen fixers. Plants can be ustilised to grow food, fix nitrogen in the soil, provide surface mulching and composting material and so on. Once a basic understanding of permaculture design principles and practice are understood, the possibilities that present themself for creating multiple function elements can seem unlimited.

Animals in a permaculture system perform multiple tasks, such as pest control and food production

The thing about permaculture is, you can do a little or you can do a lot. There are no minimum requirements to getting started and there are no limits to how far it can be taken. So even urban dwellers can apply permaculture principles in their own lives and start out with as little as seed sprouting and balcony growing, through to community garden involvement, right up to full-blown urban/suburban self-sufficiency. It is completely up to the individual and what they are prepared to do. In the bigger picture, every little bit helps. Everything we can do as individuals to develop ways to live sustainably in a world of diminishing resources and increasing population is a step in the right direction in my humble opinion.

If you have read my other posts on this blog, you will see that the range of topics I have discussed so far (and will discuss in the future) are all under-pinned by a solid foundation of permaculture thinking. In that regard, I would have to say that Permaculture has been a major influence upon my life for the last 30 years.

I would urge everyone who is interested in living sustainably to explore the potential of permaculture and to aid that exploration, I have compiled a number of youtube videos into playlists in which the co-creators of permaculture explain the philosophy and practice of permaculture in their own words. They are far more eloquent and informative than I could ever hope to be.

Permaculture 1 - Bill Mollison explains the history and philosophy behind permaculture
Permaculture 2 - David Holmgren in a recent interview and at home
Global Gardener 1 - Tropics and dryland permaculture with Bill Mollison
Global Gardener 2 - Temperate and urban permaculture with Bill Mollison.

Related Sites

Further Reading
Permaculture One by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren
Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay
Water for Every Farm by P.A. Yeomans
The Keyline Plan by P.A. Yeomans     Online Version
The Challenge of Landscape by P.A. Yeomans    Online Version
The City Forrest by P.A. Yeomans    Online Version
The One Straw Revollution by Masanobu Fukuoka
Growing Without Digging - No-Dig Gardening by Esther Dean


  1. Thank you for this; it's a lovely blog you're creating.
    I'm reading Yeoman's The Keyline Plan and wondered whether his ideas had influenced Mollison.

    1. Yeoman's Water for Every Farm is amust-have publication for anyone serious about sustainable food production and it definitely had a big influence on both Bill and David. I quote: "Without Percival Alfred (P.A.) Yeomans and his Keyline concepts Permaculture as we know it would not exist. Bill Mollison is quick to tip his hat toward this debt in the very first paragraph of Permaculture Two: Practical Design for Town and Country in Permanent Agriculture."
      From the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia website.