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Discovering Permaculture

For a while now I have been hearing about permaculture (and going to our local permaculture gatherings), and I had an idea that it was something to do with organic gardening and designing systems to recycle and minimise waste, and working out where to put your chicken pen in the relation to the compost heap, or something...... It wasn't until someone asked me what it was that I realised I didn't actually know enough to explain it myself, so, in a quest to inform myself, I bought a book. I didn't really know where to start so I just looked for a recent book by the founders of permaculture (Bill Mollison and David Holmgren) and I ended up with Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren.

I soon discovered that this book was far from a beginners guide! Its taken me a long time to start reading it properly, but I was lucky to have a few helpful comments on my blog by some people who know more about permaculture than I do (particularly Linda from Greenhaven Good Life) and those comments finally put the book in perspective (even though they didn't know I was trying to read it). I think I can now answer the question "what is permaculture?", because this book really describes how to apply permaculture to all aspects of life, explaining the philosophy rather than the practical aspects, I still can't answer the question "what practical permaculture ideas can I use to improve my farm?"! I think that will come later from a different book. Now that I realise what permaculture is all about I'm really excited about finding out more, and I think its the perfect time, now that we have a new farm and house to design.

What is permaculture? This question is difficult to answer because permaculture means slightly different things to different people and because it is a field of science (social science as well as pure science) that is constantly evolving.

The word itself it derived from "permanent" "agriculture" and "culture".

Some descriptions of permaculture from the interwebs:

  • Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. (
  • Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and design principles which can be used to guide efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future. (
  • Permaculture is a practical concept applicable from the balcony to the farm, from the city to the wilderness. It enables people to establish productive environments providing for food, energy, shelter, material and non-material needs, as well as the social and economic infrastructures which support them. Permaculture means thinking carefully about our environment, our use of resources and how we supply our needs. It aims to create systems that will sustain not only for the present, but for future generations. definition from Permaculture International Journal ( 
  • Another good introduction article here. My definition - permaculture is about designing a way of living within our means (natural and financial) so that we are prepared if/when we can no longer rely on the supply chain to provide our needs. This means building resilient communities as well as considering how food, energy, fibre and shelter needs can be produced sustainably and locally in the long term.
For someone who wasn't involved in permaculture from the start, it can be difficult to figure out all the different characters and ideas that have participated since the concepts were first developed. Fortunately I found a very detailed explanation here, which did help me to understand how permaculture was developed and how it has changed from the original ideas. My understanding is that permaculture was first proposed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and first discussed publicly in 1976, as a result of the turmoil of the 60s and 70s and worries of resource and energy scarcity. The first book "Permaculture One" was published in 1978 by both originators, however since then they have worked separately, and many other teachers, practitioners and authors have joined them, both in Australia and overseas.

The difference between permaculture and organic gardening/farming

I have borrowed from a friend Bill Mollison's book "Permaculture – A Designers’ Manual" (although he has published about 17 books (that I could find on Amazon, maybe more), this seems to be the most popular, see his website here), and I have read the "Introduction to Permaculture" pamphlets from Bill's original lectures (free here). Compared to David Holgrem's book, I find Bill's work less structured, and more prone to hyperbole, also he rarely uses references so its hard to follow where his ideas are coming from, although this does not discredit the validity of the permaculture design ideas that he discusses, and the results speak for themselves, he does have some genius ideas, he just doesn't communicate them well in my opinion. David seems to have a more disciplined approach in regards to referencing and is more restrained, I found his book easier to read once I got into it. David references Bill throughout his book, so I assume that there's no hard feelings between them, and that David has respect for Bill's work, which gives Bill some extra credibility.

A completely un-politically correct interview with Bill Mollison, if you can put up with early life without cars in a Tasmanian village, he does have some good points.....

To me, there seem to be two aspects to permaculture, the overarching ethics and principles, or philosophy of permaculture, that can apply to every aspect of life, rather than just gardening or farming, and the design ideas, such as hugelkultur, swales, food forests, chicken tractors, seed saving and rocket stoves and many more. I'm looking forward to learning more about these design ideas and how to apply them to Cheslyn Rise, being able to start a new property from scratch is a very exciting prospect! The important thing is that you can take from permaculture whatever is useful to your own life, you don't have to accept the entire philosophy, you can just pick out design ideas that you like, or you can use it as a basis for all your life decisions, it is very flexible.

Permaculture is based on three ethics: earth care (sustaining natural systems), people care (making the products of natural systems available to people) and fair share (governing our needs to that resources are available to all), and as far as I can find out, these ethics were expounded right from the outset. The permaculture principles appear to have evolved, from a list of 34 from Bill Mollison (listed here, scroll down), to the 12 principles proposed by David Holmgren (also listed here and here). Both lists are self-contained, but are complimentary rather than mutually exclusive. Permaculturalists can benefit from the consideration and application of the principles in both lists.

A far more lucid discussion from David Holmgren about a transition to a future with less energy....

In general, permaculature is all about finding ways to adapt to life without fossil fuels or "energy descent". I think we can all see the general chaos in financial systems, uncertainty over climate change, peak oil and resource availability, the problems are just as real now as they were in the 70s. I don't believe that we can continue to "engineer" our way out of our problems, in fact I think that every technical/engineering solution that takes us further from nature has been a step in the wrong direction and simply caused more problems to be engineered around. I found myself agreeing with all the permaculture ethics and principles. Its exactly what I want to be doing, I just didn't know it had a name and a structure until now! I am looking forward to reading more (and found that my local library actually has a number of permaculture books, so I can try before I buy this time!).

You can also attend permaculture design courses, which I might look at eventually. Given the multitude of approaches to permaculture, I think I'd like to read widely first, rather that just learn about one person's idea of how permaculture should be applied.

Any suggestions of good books or courses? (Even if outside SEQ, as they may help others looking for a course). Any corrections or additions to my beginners' assessment of permaculture?


  1. I've been going down a similar path to you, of reading as much as I can and slowly starting to understand it before putting it into practice, and hopefully doing the Permaculture Design Certificate next year. I've found some of the writing incredibly inspiring and some quite unpenetrable! I look forward to watching some of those videos you've found.

    I'm currently reading a book called "Permaculture Pioneers" edited by Kerrie Dawborn which is a series of essays written by the pioneers and gives a really good context to understanding where it all came from, and how those people are using it today. You might find that useful for a background.

    Also, did you watch the Gardening Australia episode 2 weeks ago where they featured sustainable farming? There was quite a focus on permaculture in that. I went on a tour of some urban permaculture gardens earlier this year. It really helps to make sense of it all when you can see it in action.

  2. Hi Liz
    It seems a lot of us are on the same path at the moment as I have recently read "The Permaculture Home Garden" by Linda Woodrow who also has the blog "The Witches Kitchen". It is all about what in my mind is the perfect home garden layout and I only wish that I had read it when we first moved here as the design is so practicle. It is really worth the read. I really enjoyed this post and the effort you have out in is great. I will be reading all the links when I have more time.

  3. Interesting post... I did take a little offense at "every technical/engineering solution" but as I re-read, I don't think you intended what I initially read. ;-)

    Engineering is the act of thoughtfully solving problems within certain constraints. It's important to identify sustainability and environmental responsibility as constraints or priorities. A lot of companies don't and that frustrated me when I was a practicing engineer.

    Are you familiar with Paolo Soleri? He built a community north of Phoenix, Arizona based on these principles. He uses the term "Archology." I visited his other place closer to town in Scottsdale... quite interesting to experience.

  4. What a great idea to do all this research before you start planning your new property. You had some interesting links - thanks for sharing them all.

  5. Well gee! I'm floored! I thought you had done a PDC for sure. Never doubted it. You would love permaculture because of your thinking, analytical way of approaching things. Linda Woodrow has a fantastic book as does Rosemary Morrow.

    Most PDCs should give you the tools to use permaculture to your advantage. It is not prescriptive but teaches you to access and implement ideas, make changes etc. according to your own observations. Therefore most accredited courses should be good. I think David Holmgren is amazing and I could listen to him talk all day. I have not met Bill Mollison but would love to! I believe he is perhaps more of a 'character' than David.

    Milkwood Permaculture is a widely known teaching school and fellow blogger Kate at Purple Pear would be another person to check out. Both are in NSW. Eltham College, here in Victoria, run a permaculture course too. I think they have a TAFE recognised course?? You could visit while you were here!

    Thanks so much for the seeds. I received some from you and from Evi at Sister Sun on the same day! I was feeling really down that day and it made me happy!!

    Again, I'm in shock. When I found your blog I followed it knowing I had found another permie! You're already practising it, you know.

  6. Very interesting concept... I should be looking into it and see if I can apply it in my garden...

  7. For a long time I was into gardening and Permaculture was just something there on the edge I'd see on the internet. Often when I followed a link or read a blog post there would be kind of spiritual themes woven into it that I found a little bit of a turn off, not that I have a problem with people being spiritual, it just wasn't what I was looking for. Then the thing that really brought it all together for me was seeing the Geoff Lawton videos from the Permaculture institute, in particular the Introduction to Permi Design Principles and the one about Soil blew my mind (I can lend you a copy at the next meeting if you want :). That it is science based and practical just clicked with me, it has taken over my life, I've walked away from my career as much as money will allow and work towards a working permaculture system every day I'm on my farm.

    Permaculture Design Trailer -
    Permaculture Soils Trailer -

    I'm also interested in the "culture" side of permaculture. I may not do much commercial work as an animator any more, but I still teach it a couple of days a week in the city and I am exploring with a co-worker ways that permaculture can teach students to enter the world of commercial art in a way that does not leave them burnt out like it did me. Probably not at the core of what you are interested in, and still a work in progress, but here is the blog I keep for animation teaching stuff (its been taken over by permaculture!) -

  8. Permaculture is certainly getting momentum these fact I'm booked in for at two-day course next month ;)

    I'm kind of at the same level you were before hitting the books and am really looking forward to learning more.

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  10. Hi everyone, thanks for the comments and glad that there is so much interest in permaculture, the more I read the more I want to know more and more!! I have bought a couple of books on kindle to read, and I want to get Linda Woodrow's book (not on kindle yet) and thinking about Permaculture Design Manual - but its $104!! so maybe not until I've read some of these other ones.


  12. Check out Milkwood permaculture (if you haven't already done so) as these guys are the most generous Aussie permaculturalists that I know...putting their money where their mouth is and sharing it with the rest of us freely :)


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