The Basics of Permaculture

Learn all about the natural, wild garden design and lifestyle of permaculture, which works to incorporate natural surroundings into your environment.

ducks in a stream

In permaculture, animals are often used to remedy problems.

Photo courtesy Jessi Bloom

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Describing permaculture in a few words can be a challenge for even the savviest of experts. That’s because permaculture is less of a defined technique or standard and more of a framework used to design holistic, interwoven systems. But that doesn’t mean permaculture is overly complex. On the contrary, permaculture seeks to find the simplest, most common-sense solutions to problems, guiding us to mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature. In a sense, permaculture means putting the cycles and resources in nature to work to support human life. Permaculture makes use of natural resources and seeks to eliminate waste output, creating systems —whether a garden, a building or our personal finances—that work as elegantly as the natural world. For example, in a garden designed from a permaculture perspective, the plants might give shelter and food to chickens, who then eat the weeds and bugs. Ultimately, the garden produces food for humans, who then recycle food waste back to the plants and animals. Jessi Bloom is the co-author with Dave Boehnlein of Practical Permaculture for Home, Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth, and the owner of N.W. Bloom EcoLogical Landscape, based near Seattle, which is known as an innovator in the fields of permaculture, sustainable landscape design, construction and landscape management. She is a frequent presenter at our Mother Earth News Fairs—hands-on celebrations of sustainability held around the nation. Here, she shares some permaculture basics.

Ethics of Permaculture

Permaculture design is predicated on its three main tenets, known as “ethics.” These ethics are the primary considerations of anyone designing a permaculture system.

1. Care of the earth
2. Care of people
3. “Fair share,” or the return or surplus to earth and people

How would you briefly explain permaculture to an absolute newbie?

Permaculture is a way to design human habitats. It’s a design system that gives us tools and a framework to make decisions. In permaculture, we design a big picture, and we think about everything we need and all the systems we rely on for survival. Another way I can describe it is that permaculture is how to create your own paradise.

Is permaculture consistent from one place to another?

Permaculture is a way to make decisions, so you’ll never see two permaculture sites that are exactly alike. There’s no prescription or formula. It’s about perspective and making good choices. But that requires us to have an ecological understanding of how the earth works, how water and nutrients are cycled, what all the different ecological services are that the earth offers us and matching all that to what the specific humans need.

Is permaculture applicable only to people who have land?

Permaculture can be applicable to anyone anywhere. I was just at Beacon Food Forest, a community permaculture site in Seattle, which is an urban food forest site created on public land. It’s a good example of how someone with no land can get involved in growing food for themselves. When you look at urban permaculture, it does look different than rural. You can’t use the same techniques necessarily. But you can use it anywhere. You could apply permaculture to a bowling alley. It can apply to a school system or to your finances or relationships.

OK, give me one example for finances and one for relationships.

Well, if you’re thinking about the ethics—taking care of the earth first—if you are managing your money in a way that is growing corporations that do damage, it might not be a great way to invest your money, right? But you can apply your investments to a company with the same ethics you have, or give money in a way that gives back. And in personal relationships, there’s an equation you can apply from permaculture. You always weigh what an element needs versus what it gives. If you’re in a personal relationship that’s not regenerative and doesn’t give back, but you put a lot of energy into it, then it’s not the best relationship.

That makes sense.

It’s a filter to always think about. Is it really nurturing you? Because in a paradise setting, we would always be nurtured. We would always feel like we had an abundance. We wouldn’t feel a scarcity or like something was always taking from us. Permaculture is about balance and being in harmony with the earth. So a lot of what I teach is getting to know your plants, getting to know the soil, getting to know the weather patterns. We’re so far removed nowadays that a lot of people don’t know when it’s the right time to plant something. We don’t have that wisdom built into us. That’s a critical thing with permaculture—just being in tune with all the relationships in the environment.

What are the first steps to move toward permaculture?

We can’t all make changes overnight. It’s important to take your time and be kind to yourself. My first homestead took 15 years before I felt like it was done. Now I’ve just moved, and I’m only 18 months in. I’ve got a good start, but I still have years of developing the site before it will be self-sufficient. It takes time and I don’t think I’ll ever be done. We’re always learning, and everything we fail at, we learn from. I encourage people as a starting point, a challenge, to try to produce no waste. That’s a permaculture principle based in nature. Nature doesn’t produce waste. So how can you produce zero waste? It could be looking at how you shop and buying things that have no packaging, or putting all the biodegradable material in your house back into your garden. Another thing I tell people is that we’re all designers. Even if you don’t claim that title, if you made your breakfast or you put together an outfit, you’re a designer. And we can all design what we want in our lives. We just have to have the empowerment and the tools. And permaculture is a set of tools.

How do animals, insects and other creatures factor in?

So all animals have jobs—whether it’s an ecological service like bees pollinating our flowers so we have food, or a predator insect eating a pest for a crop. From an insect point of view, the more insects you can attract, the better. The larger the animals get, they obviously need more space and more care. But if you have a certain job to do, I always look at what animal can fit the bill. In the Pacific Northwest, we have a crazy plant that’s every gardener’s worst weed: buttercup.

It’s pigweed here in the Midwest, I think.

It’s funny you say pig, because the only thing I know to control our worst weed is pigs. We can often look at a problem and find a solution with animals. Slugs here are also a huge problem. Bill Mollison said that if you have a slug problem, then you actually have a duck deficit.

That’s great.

It’s cute. Chickens are the hardest-working critters you can have. Anybody with a little land can have chickens (given legalities). They can weed for us, we can use their manure, we can have a constant source of protein. My chickens free-range. We have tons of predators here, but they have little, fenced-off safe areas that they can escape to if they need to get out of a predator’s reach. And we have layers in the garden built specifically as habitat for them. Chickens are forest or jungle birds and shouldn’t be wide-open exposed to hawks and coyotes. But if we create a food forest for them, then they get food and safety from it, and we can get food from it, too. And they do the weeding and the fertilizing. I don’t have insect problems, primarily I think because of my poultry. There are pest problems that other gardeners here have that I just don’t have, period. Chickens are biological pest control. I also have a goat I consider a weed-eater, and she’s a companion. And I have horses. Their job is to quickly digest biomass. Their manure is useful in building soil. Worms love their manure. And then the chickens help spread it. Everybody works together. It’s a big team. And nobody gets away with not having a job. Turkeys are good for meat and pest control, and help keep certain predators away because they are big. Cats and dogs can do rodent control. I have a terrier. That’s one of his jobs. He also alerts us when there’s visitors or danger. And he’s a foot warmer, so we don’t need as much heating.

What are some of the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is to create a new system. You have to work with what you have. If you buy a house, for example, and it’s not oriented for passive solar, you have to work with that. If you have to build a whole system, it’s usually going to be pricey. If you’re not willing or able to pay upfront, then you might have to build slowly. I put a new solar [electric] system on my house, and it was expensive. But I’m making payments on it. Rather than making payments on a new car, I’m paying off my solar panels. I did the math to make sure it was a financially ethical decision. I want to upgrade my home, because it was built in the ’70s when nobody cared about energy efficiency or water conservation. I’m looking at the big picture, and ticking off things that are most impactful for the smallest amount of money. You have to take it in small chunks. Or learn how to do it yourself. And sometimes that can be a challenge—assuming you’ll have time to learn and do something. And then halfway through it, you realize you bit off more than you can chew. I see that a lot. Lifestyle changes are another challenge. Sometimes you start making changes and other people in your family aren’t on board with it. Like food, that’s a big one with getting buy-in. I had one family tell me they all had to read my book together and it was like family therapy. They all had to work through everything together.

What resources do you recommend to explore perma-culture further?

It really depends on the specific things you want to do. Our book, Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth, is for the beginning, for starting the process. Permaculture magazine is a great resource. Oregon State University has a free online course that offers a global perspective, and you can go at your own pace. You could also look for hands-on courses in your area.