What is permaculture?

There is no one definition for 'permaculture'.  In fact, ask that question to a permaculture designer, and they will probably umm and errr a lot.  One thing permaculture isn't is succinct. 

A quick look into the history of permaculture, its applications and tools can help explain what it is. 

The History: Permaculture = permanent + agriculture

When the term 'permaculture' was first coined in the 1970s, the problems with industrialised food production were become clear: reliance on oil for farming meant fluctuating prices, soil erosion from tilling, increase use of pesticides and fertilisers polluting water systems, etc.  This wasn't good for the earth, it wasn't good for people, and it certainly wasn't sustainable.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren looked to natural ecologies and indigenous communities as a guide for a more ecologically sound way of growing food.  For example, a forest's wide range of plants growing together in different layers of the canopy was used as a model to design gardens that were more diverse and therefore resilient.  

Other applications: Permaculture = permanent + culture 

Even in the early days, it was recognised that permaculture needed to be applied more widely to our homes and buildings, our health, how we trade, restoring nature, etc.


Permaculture can also be seen as a toolkit that you can use to make a positive difference to the world around you. For example, you can use permaculture design for renovating your home, growing food in an urban garden, improving the air quality in your home, or improving collaboration on an industrial site.  

Some of the basic tools are:

  • Any permaculture design will aim to meet the three ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares.
  • It will use permaculture principles as a guide. There are lots of them, but examples include observe and interact and produce no waste.
  • To help figure how to do a design, a design process or two can come in handy, like SADIM (Survey Analyse Design Implement Maintain).

So permaculture isn't just food growing and self sufficiency; rather, it seeks to find solutions to the many challenges and problems we face.  

Permaculture can be described as common sense made common again.  

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