Design for Abundance and Optimum Living

Permaculture is Australia’s great contribution to creating a better home and property, and regenerating a continent and a planet. Designed by Bill Mollison and David Holgren during the 1970s, after Bill lived in the forest, and realised that it was highly self-sufficient, and flourished without added fertiliser, biocides, water, pollination etc.

The word “Permaculture” is coined from an abbreviation of both Permanent Agriculture and Permanent Culture. This is in recognition that a permanent culture needs as its base a permanent agriculture, as history has so often demonstrated.

Permaculture is a comprehensive agricultural and settlement design system that looks at all aspects of setting up and maintaining an entire property so that it may attain and sustain its optimum potential. It satisfies both the wholistic and the sustainability aspects of sustainable communities, and an excellent example of seamless integration, or fusion of multiple, life-enhancing skills.

The purpose of Permaculture is to design permanent, life-enhancing settlements by selecting and using the best practices, whether traditional or modern, and to develop a system of permanent agriculture by creating ecosystems that can provide food, energy and shelter, in ways as self-sustaining and self-maintaining as nature.

Permaculture Defined:

  • the design and maintenance of sustainable human settlements,
  • including their agricultural support systems,
  • by enhancing or creating suitable microclimates,
  • that are arranged in zones of intensity,
  • and stacked with appropriate annual and perennial plant guilds,
  • to form ecologically enhancing garden and food-forest ecosystems,
  • that are integrated, pollution free and essentially self-maintaining,
  • and have the robustness, durability and recoverability of natural ecosystems.

Natural Foundation

Permaculture is rooted in the highly creative, organising and regenerative powers of nature that manifest at every level of existence, from microscopic processes right up to entire forests and bioregions. Nature, on its own, wherever and whenever possible, will develop fully integrated ecosystems, each sufficiently diverse to take care of all outputs and by-products, thus eliminating pollution and waste.

As ecosystems mature, they tend towards a climax ecology that is both stable and durable, with the resilience to recover from natural outside disturbances. Climax ecologies have diverse, healthy species, in optimum abundance to yield fresh, clean air and water, and increasingly enriched soil.

Through exercising careful design, judiciously using species appropriate to our needs, and rapidly speeding up the development process, Permaculture aims to achieve a similar kind of result. Such a system does not need to be overly complicated. Rather, it is a matter of making good use of whatever nature has already provided, and then modifying or enhancing this with well selected or properly designed components, sited in the best places so that everything can work together to form an harmonious and productive system.

This requires much thoughtful planning, and one should be prepared to spend considerable time turning ideas and possibilities over in the mind, to ensure the eventual emergence of the best possible outcome. Permaculture is happy to incorporate whatever is useful from any method, system or form of agriculture, so long as it works well, does not damage the immediate or greater environment, and adds to sustainability.

Permaculture Ethics

Permaculture has an underlying ethical foundation. These ethics have been derived from a study of older religious and co-operative groups in a search for universal guiding principles. These are:

  • care of the earth, with harmless and rehabilitative practices;
  • caring for people, with food, shelter, education, employment and convivial company;
  • setting responsible limits to consumption; and
  • contributing surplus time, money and energy to caring for land and people.

Permaculture is a design system that interlinks the various disciplines involved in agriculture and settlement practice. The essence of Permaculture is the skill in making productive linkages, so that the output from one component becomes the input of another component, thus benefiting and enhancing the whole system.

Permaculture designs not whimsical or haphazard. Nor are they based upon narrow goals, such as maximising short-term profits. Permaculture always looks at the larger issues of ecological integrity and sustainability, so that solutions may combine all components in ways that add to overall success. By taking into full account the intricacies of the specific land in question, and making good and proper use of nature, land may be brought to its optimum ecological potential for sustained human benefit.

Permaculture Design Principles

In order to ensure that designs really do work, and are not unworkable fantasies, certain principles are utilised to assure the best, most successful results.

Chief amongst these is to work with, rather than against, nature. For many, this seems a very radical approach, as western civilisations have been trying to create solutions through conquering, rather than enhancing the workings of nature. This inconsideration has led to many widespread, complex and intractable ecological problems now affecting air, land, rivers and seas. The solution to these problems will ultimately lie in working with, and not against, nature.

Using biological systems saves much time and effort, and will make the system more self-managing. For instance, we may grow umbelliferous plants to encourage predator insects; tether goats to feed off brambly weeds; use ducks and geese to forage in gardens at appropriate times; plant deciduous trees where we require winter sun and summer shade, etc.

Another important principle is to turn liabilities into assets. There are two main ways to do this:

We can re-orientate our perspective so that problems can be turned into solutions. For example, harvesting pest rabbits could yield cheap pet food and be the start of a ‘green’ fur industry.

A second way is to redirect outputs from one part of the system to become inputs to another part thus saving both wastes and costs. Most wastes can easily be put to good uses that add to the overall solution. For example, used newspapers make great mulch, and also saves CO2 output caused by burning. Excrement may be a source of methane and the waste from this can then be used as fertiliser.

Any component in a system should serve many functions. This gives economy of use, and ensures no redundancies. Poultry can keep orchards clear of rotting fruit and fruit fly larvae and other insects, as well as manuring the ground beneath the trees and providing eggs for human consumption.

Each function should be supported by many components. This gives ruggedness, dependability and stability to our system. We may get water from dams and creeks as well as collecting rain, rather than relying on only one source. Cattle can be fed from fodder trees as well as grass, especially during winter and droughts. These trees could also provide shade for the cattle during the hot summer months.

Effectiveness is improved by putting our efforts where they will have the greatest effect. Efficiency is improved by designing to extract the maximum result from the least input and least amount of change. The design and strategic siting of dams to make use of natural concentration points, and gravity feeding overflows to other, lower dams thus making water serve many times over, are ways to employ both these principles.

The more energy contained within a system, the better it functions, and the more capable it is of meeting unforeseen circumstances and overcoming emergencies.

Solutions are devised to be energy conserving, and systems kept self-managing through treating results and effects as inputs to be fed back into the system for further utilisation.

To maintain and keep increasing the energy held in a system, resources are replaced and even increased as they are used, rather than being allowed to run down. The greatest use is made of replanting, recycling, multiple-use, durability and beneficial disposal of wastes. The more successfully these are done, the greater the true yield of the system.

In general, the more we are able to free up our time and energy in our projects, the more time and energy we have at our disposal to do further things. The more that our systems are able to run themselves, the more effective we have been, and the more leisurely our lives can be lived, which then allows us even more time for further protracted thought towards optimal solutions.

Permaculture Techniques

Permaculture lends itself well to small scale, intensive systems, which require less external energy inputs, rather than a more spread out system. A great deal that can be accomplished in the average suburban backyard, if our designs are intelligently conceived and applied.

  • Growing plants and animals in Guilds, which are compatible species clustered around a central element. This can reduce root competition, provide shelter and nutrients, assist in pest control and increase production per unit area.
  • Stacking, or planting close together many diverse, but compatible species of plants of varying heights helps to crowd out weeds and will supply a greater abundance of food than a well spread out garden, while minimising attacks from insects and birds. This arrangement could include canopy trees, smaller trees, shrubs, climbing plants and herbs into a guild of compatible plants.
  • Growing perennial plants, such as fruit trees, and self sowing vegetables, lessens seasonal work and frees one from being bound to the land at certain times of the year.
  • Swales, or shallow, horizontal ditches are dug on slopes to intercept rain run-off and increased ground soakage, Swales may also be planted up on the outer edge, requiring much less watering to maintain.
  • Creating micro-climates to make selected spots warmer, colder, wetter or drier enables the growing of a greater variety of foods over a more extended time than a location would otherwise allow.
  • Edges, or interfaces between two mediums, such as found where a pond meets the land, are highly productive areas to be utilised. The length of edges of a pond may be increased by incorporating curves and other irregular shapes.
  • Sheet mulching is a way of making an instant garden without the need for digging. Laying down layers of saturated cardboard or newspapers will smother weeds and grasses. As these rot down, they attract worms which convert the composting vegetable matter to humus. The paper can be covered with straw mulch to hold moisture in. Eventually the paper itself will break down with the help of worms to also become incorporated into the soil.

Design Procedures

Site Analysis

In general, we design our properties to optimise functioning and increase yields without inducing stress on our system. Prior to doing any design, it is helpful to analyse our site to better understand what we are working with. This may be done with a series of drawings or, ideally, built up as a set of transparent overlays that can be used to show as little or as comprehensive and integrated a picture as we wish at any time.

Sector Analysis

A property can be analysed into sectors that show the directions from which influencing external elements play upon the property. These elements may include:

  • summer and winter sunrise, sunset and midday angles,
  • directions of hot, dry, cold and wet winds,
  • directions from which fires, rains and floods tend to come,

Natural Features

Most sites will have existing natural features, such as rocky outcrops, groves of trees, sun- facing slopes etc. These may also be mapped and consideration may be given to how these may be incorporated to enhance a design. For example, a sun-facing north slope might be utilised to better effect by siting a gravity-watered garden above the frost line. In such a case would plant hardier species above, and more water-and-nutrient loving species below.

Site Design

When designing a site we must blend the existing conditions, of climatic effects, microclimates and natural features with our intended goals to achieve a balanced, functional and integrated outcome. This does not necessarily imply compromise as in many cases, an enhanced solution may be possible combining the best of all worlds.


A layout showing the nature and extent of seasonal variations and locations of microclimates may then be prepared. Microclimates are the areas on a property that exhibit variations from the property’s average climatic conditions. Some places may be colder, wetter, more shaded, frost free, drier etc.  These characteristics may be useful to us when we decide where to plant which species or erect what structure. Using this process, we may be able to grow tropical plants in temperate climates, or moisture loving plants in drier climates, etc.

New and Modified Microclimates

After becoming thoroughly aware of the environmental elements that play upon, or are part of our site, and the effects they are likely to have, we can begin to consider what uses these existing microclimates and natural features could be put to. Microclimates may also be enhanced in various ways, to intensify even further those characteristics so that they may better serve our needs.


In the preparation of our designs, it is helpful to divide our property or site into zones of functional intensity, beginning at the house as Zone 0, and working outwards towards untouched wilderness areas as Zone 5. Zones should also take into account existing microclimates and natural features that lend themselves to particular types of function.

Zone 0: The Homestead

Houses should be sited to make best use of the elements. Typically, this means facing north or north-east to make good use of sun, and where cool breezes and shade can assist cooling in summer. Often a shade house may be built against the north east wall to filter air through making it cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Thermally insulating materials will also enhance this effect. House designs can include large eaves and controllable passive ventilation systems. Road and water access are other important considerations, as is the type of soil being built on and protection from fire and floods.

Zone 1: The Home Garden or Food Shop

This is the most observed, controlled and intensively gardened, and the most often visited. This area would be the most heavily mulched and attended. Home gardens are not necessarily built on areas of greatest existing soil fertility as this is usually fairly easily improved. Home gardens should make use of grey water outflows and consideration should be given to providing habitat for predator insects and birds using indigenous plants.  Many techniques such as crop rotation, companion planting, herb spirals and mandala gardens lend themselves well to this zone.

Zone 2: The Orchard or Food Forest

These are areas needing spot mulching and include orchards, poultry yards etc.

Food forests may be enhanced using leguminous cover mulches to enrich soil and invigorate trees. Windbreaks, swales and small dams should also be considered. Diversifying tree crops will help cut down on pests and habitats may be purpose built to encourage the whole range of predators including wasps, frogs, lizards, spiders and insectivorous birds. Running ducks, geese sand poultry may also be a consideration.  Deciduous trees may also allow other crops beneath them in winter. Bee hives may improve tree fertility and supply local honey.

Zone 3: Broadscale Farming

Many of the considerations that apply to Zone 2 are also relevant to this zone. Many broadscale techniques such as Biodynamics and Fukuoka Natural Farming methods may also be applied here. Serious consideration must also be given to larger dams with gravity feeding if possible. Tree crops may be planted in Hedgerows where animals may forage in between to reduce grass and fertilise soil.

Zone 4: Plantation Forests and Woodlots

Timber is becoming a very valuable scarce resource world wide and many fast growing species promise good returns in the future. An area where firewood may be collected.

Zone 5: Natural Forests and Wilderness

These are areas set aside for the enjoyment and preservation of natural species. Typical areas are creeks, rivers and gullies, as well as farm and paddock boundaries. Wildlife corridors to allow passage of wildlife between larger wilderness areas are another special consideration.

Water Systems

In Australia, water is the main limiting factor to natural plant growth, so the provision and use of water is always one of the major considerations in Permaculture designs. If possible, designs should provide for copious amounts of water all year around, even in dry years. This may mean installation of large dams over a considerable area of the site. Water can be thought of in a number of categories, according to its function.

Water for Drinking and Cooking

This is usually provided through a clean creek or spring, or via rainwater tanks. Tanks may need careful siting to supply on gravity feed basis. Often, flatter, larger diameter tanks are needed.

Water for Washing

Where the above supplies of water are inadequate, Dams may provide solutions. A smaller dam above tap level may supply gravity feeding. Houses may be fitted with a dual supply system of two grades of water.

Water for Gardens

For gardens, larger dams may be the answer. Sometimes, due to their size, these cannot be placed above a garden, which may need to be sited above the frost line. Here, a pump would be required, perhaps with a header tank above the garden that can be quickly filled to allow watering over a longer period. Drip irrigation is very conserving of water and requires little pressure. Watering is best done at night, when evaporation is lower and likewise human demands.

Grey water from household, non-sewerage, wastes may also contribute to garden water. Where hygiene considerations are an issue, grey water can be fed into a scoria bed beneath the garden to feed the roots. In such cases, root vegetables should be grown elsewhere.

Commercial Viability

Permaculture can be applied on any scale, from a house balcony to an entire bioregion and beyond. If our economics valued the biological health of our food, soils, air, rivers and forests, then conventional methods of farming would be abandoned as unaffordable, in favour of ecologically enhancing methods of farming, and the biosphere would rapidly improve instead of continuing to deteriorate. Permaculture would become the norm.

Application to communities

Permaculture can be applied to individual households and common areas for overall community development. Implementing Permaculture on a community would work best being applied at all levels. There is no conflict in this, as boundaries between individual properties and bordering common land, are also edges, where the most intense biological activity takes place. Each household’s individual Permaculture will naturally enhance neighbouring permacultures, and contribute in a meaningful way to the community or common Permaculture.

Generalised Principles

Many of the Permaculture wholistic, whole-brain principles apply beyond the natural world of gardens and living beings, to how we structure systems for optimal human functioning. Much is applicable to the sustainable community model. Many of these sustainable systems and techniques can be used within Permaculture designs, as Permacultures’ overriding philosophy could be described as “whatever works best”.

EcoCity Farm – Integrated  Aquaponic System

An excellent model of synergistic integration, and urban permaculture, ecoCity Farm is a self-contained, aquaponic fish and plant growing system, demonstrating what can be done in a small space.

Solids and liquids from the fish-growing tank are processed through a worm farm, and the output recombined. The nutrition-rich water is then fed into an organic, hydroponic system. The purified water from the hydroponic system is then fed back into the fish tank. Complete circulation takes 13 minutes. The entire system is vertically stacked, reducing the footprint to one fifth, and can be created on any scale. This system is biologically balanced, fully self-contained and produces no waste.

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