What are Permaculture Principles, and how do I use them?

When Bill Mollison and David Holmgren were envisioning Permaculture, they worked out some very important and useful design principles. They wanted to give students and practitioners of Permaculture all the tools they would need to design systems that work with nature.

These 12 Permaculture Principles are used to lead us through the steps that will give us the best outcome. They are designed to slow us down, help us ask the right questions, and make the necessary observations to ensure success.

The 12 Permaculture Principles

The Permaculture Design Principles are meant to give you a way to approach the design of any project. From setting up a small garden, to designing an entire property, following the principles will help you learn the value and interconnectedness of every aspect of the project.

Here are the 12 principles:

  1. Observe and interact.
  2. Catch and store energy.
  3. Obtain a yield.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services.
  6. Produce no waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate.
  9. Use small and slow solutions.
  10. Use and value diversity.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change.

Don’t worry if you don’t entirely understand what they all mean right now. I have written an article about each one, to explain how they apply to designing your permaculture projects. You can find the links to each of the principles here.

I want to show you how each design principle leads you forward slowly and carefully. Geoff Lawton says that the designer should spend 80 percent of his energy on planning, and 20 percent on doing. That sounds good to me!

Observe and interact is the first principle because it is suggested that you spend as much time as possible on the land that you are going design, before you create your design. Careful observation, walking the land in all types of weather, and noting the microclimates and possible trouble areas, are all important first steps to design.

As you gain experience, you will be able to spot all the important aspects of a property quickly, and be able to predict things such as where the sun will shine in each season, where water will flow, and where wind might be a problem.

Using the permaculture principles

For the purposes of this article, we are going to set up an imaginary garden, and see how we can apply each principle to the design. The first one is obvious, as explained above.

Observing and interacting with the land, we need to walk around and find the best place for our garden. Our observations will show us:

  • the aspect (which way the land faces)
  • any trees and buildings that might cast shade
  • where the wind might blow through the property
  • what kind of soil you have to work with
  • and so much more
permaculture principles
Walk your property in all types of weather. You will learn much more about your property on a rainy day than a sunny one.

Catching and storing energy covers a few different aspects of the design. Firstly, of course we want to capture the energy of the sun. You want to make sure you get as much sun as you can – but you might want to have some shade if you are in a hot climate.

This principle also applies to the water that falls on the land, and how you save or divert it. Since we are building a garden, we’ll want to save as much rain water as possible, and divert it to our garden.

There are several ways to do this: the various forms of hugelkultur, swales, rain gardens, etc. Which one you choose will depend on many of the observations you’ll make: soil type, slope of land, and the amount of rainfall.

Let’s move on to the next principle, which encourages us to obtain a yield. Like energy, yields can come in many forms. Since it is a garden we are designing, one of the yields is fairly obvious: food. But you could also grow medicinal herbs, or flowers as well.

A garden provides other yields: food and habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators, exercise and joy for the gardener, and as you increase the health of the garden soil, it will spread to the soil around it.

The next principle – apply self-regulation and accept feedback – can be a hard one for some, such as . . . me. Don’t you just want to jump in with both feet, and try every permaculture idea you’ve come across? Yeah, me too.

But it makes much more sense to learn to hold back, think things through, listen to your land (get feedback), and even get the advice of experts if needed. You could very well save yourself a lot of time, effort, and possibly money.

When you use and value renewable resources and services, you are learning how to connect your garden to the ecosystem around it. By gathering resources for your compost, or for mulching, you are adding diversity to your garden.

If you build a hugelkultur from old trees you find in the woods, you are using a renewable resource, and bringing new and vigorous microbes, nutrients, and fungi to your garden.

Some renewable resources you could use in your garden:

  • leaves for compost or mulch
  • grass and weed clippings in the compost
  • bamboo for stakes and trellises
  • seaweed
  • wood ash
  • manure
  • woodchips

You can find a multitude of renewable resources, if you keep your eyes open and use your imagination. Now, let’s look at the next principle.

permaculture principles
Renewable resources are all around us. Leaves fall from trees every year, and they are immensely helpful in the garden.

The sixth principle is produce no waste. The Zero-waste lifestyle is becoming very popular. And this is part of this principle’s mandate.

The other part is learning that permaculture systems almost always produce waste of some sort. Animals leave behind manure and bedding, gardens have harvest waste, and humans have human waste of all sorts.

The trick is to recognize the waste cycles, and find ways to use those wastes within the system. The garden-chicken-compost cycle is a popular system, and extremely effective.

Chickens eat the garden waste and poop it onto their straw or wood chip bedding; the bedding is added to the compost; the chickens scratch and poop on the compost; the compost grows the garden. A wonderful cycle.

Permaculture designs are based on patterns; so learning to design from patterns to details is a matter of studying the patterns of the land, and applying them to your design.

Patterns, and their application to design, can be a difficult subject for some to understand. Let’s talk about a couple, so you can see how important it is.

Water is one of the most important parts of your new garden. And water creates certain constant patterns. For instance, water always runs downhill – duh – but it also always takes the path of least resistance; and it always finds its level. It can be a very destructive force if not directed safely.

So, knowing that, you can learn how to create patterns that will lead the water where you want it to go; and you can block it, to keep it from going where you don’t want it to go.

Wind is another element that has certain patterns. When you discover the patterns of the wind on your property – where it comes in, and where it goes out – you’ll know how you can block it, or capture it for energy.

So you see, observation will enable you to find the patterns on your property, and then you can design with those patterns in mind – from pattern to detail.

What’s next? Ah, yes, one of my favorites – integrate rather than segregate. This principle is the one that makes permaculture like a puzzle to me. How can I connect the various parts of my permaculture design so that they support each other and work together?

Since we are building a garden, let’s look at some of the ways we can integrate it into our permaculture property. And since we are building a fictitious garden, we might as well have some imaginary chickens that we can integrate it with.

Chickens and gardens make wonderful companions, if done properly. They each produce waste that the other can use; and they keep each other healthy. They support one another in numerous ways:

  • chickens eat garden waste, which makes for healthy chickens
  • chicken bedding goes into the compost, which makes a healthy garden
  • chickens eat garden pests – good for the garden and the chickens

And the list goes on. This is how we integrate different areas into the whole permaculture design – find the waste or output of one area, and then find the area that can use that waste or output. Find the mutual relationships.

I love thinking about how I would fit all of the different areas of my dream permaculture paradise together. And it’s really good practice for when I have a place of my own.

permaculture principles
Chickens are excellent composters. They take garden waste and turn it into high quality compost.

The next principle is another one that admonishes us to slow down and take our time – use small and slow solutions. Rather than try to do everything all at once, and risk making colossal mistakes, it behooves us to work slowly, trying things out on a small scale before we implement our ideas on a larger area.

For instance, let’s say you want to see if certain plants will grow where you live. Obviously, it would be a little bit foolish to plant huge fields of them.

But you can plant small patches to see how they do, and not lose out too much. You can test out a few different plants in a small patch, and learn what you can plant more of next year.

Next, let’s talk about how to use and value diversity. If you have studied permaculture at all, you’ll know how important diversity is in your system.

Bill Mollison tells us that diversity isn’t only about the number of elements in a system, but also the number of connections you can make between those elements.

So the connections between our garden and our chickens, between our greywater and our gardens, between our chickens and our compost systems – all of these connections make a system stronger, more resilient, and more productive.

We’re almost done with our list of permaculture principles. Only two to go.

The next one is, use edges and value the marginal. This is the other principle that can be difficult for some people to understand. In a growing system, edges are the most productive. You can read more about the edge effect here.

Because edges are so productive, you want to increase the edges in your system to take advantage of that aspect. One way to increase edges is to take your straight edges and make them curvy. It might sound silly, but it works.

There are plenty of garden designs that create a lot of edge. Keyhole gardens and mandala gardens are a couple of designs which will enable you to take advantage of the edge effect.

And now, last but not least, the permaculture principles ask us to creatively use and respond to change. Change comes to everyone and everything; and it’s our ability to adapt that makes us strong and resilient.

There are lots of changes that can happen which will affect your garden: the weather, the soil, time, calamity, predation. And how the heck can we creatively use any of these changes?

It might seem impossible to imagine how we could possibly creatively use a change such as a slug infestation. But where do you think Bill Mollison’s most famous saying came from? “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency.”

Maybe not every change can have such an amusing response. The point is to watch for changes, and respond positively and with imagination. Take advantage of what change offers, and make the best of it.

Using the tools in the permaculture tool box

This is a lot to take in all at once. The 12 principles are meant to make your life much easier, by offering a set of tools to be used whenever you take on a design project. But you won’t necessarily understand the full extent of their usefulness until you put them to practical use.

Take time to study them, and learn to apply them as you build your garden, or work on other permaculture projects. In time you’ll see how they can help with planning, decision-making, and problem solving.

I hope this little introduction to the Permaculture Principles was helpful in showing you how they can be used to lead you through the planning process, and help you cover all of the important aspects of permaculture design.

If you have any questions, observations, or suggestions, please drop them in the comment section below. I’m always happy to hear from you!

Health, Hope & Happiness


permaculture principles
There is no reason for this bunny picture except that I thought it was the sweetest thing. And sometimes we just need to see sweet things.

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