What is Permaculture? And How Does it Work?

What is permaculture

What is Permaculture? A Brief History

In this blog, we will attempt to answer the question, "What is permaculture?"

But before we get ahead of ourselves... If by chance you would like to listen to a short podcast on this very same question click below!

Let us begin by revisiting the time when the word,  "permaculture" was first coined.

It was the 70s and a young graduate student and his mentor start working on an alternative solution to conventional agriculture. From their thesis is born, "Permaculture One," a book that later on becomes the basis to the better known "Permaculture Designer's Manual."

This video by DogsGoWoof Productions highlights the truest explanation of what permaculture is from none less than the co-originators of the term, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.


Below, are four facets of permaculture I'd like to tackle in this article. 



what is permaculture? principles

Courtesy of PermacultureNews.org

1. permaculture redefined

On the last day of our Permaculture Design Course (PDC), Wayne Weiseman our teacher asked the class this same question, "What is permaculture?" Each student was asked to come up with his or her definition and internalize it.

For me, certain aspects unique to permaculture always stand out. One is that the very idea of permaculture comes to us in the shape of a pattern. And that pattern is a spiral.

Why a spiral?

There's a little known anecdote about how Bill Mollison was once hired by the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) to consult on a sustainability project.  He subsequently proceeded to ask them what their definition of "sustainability" was.  To his surprise and no doubt chagrin, they were unable to reply.

what is permaculture? input

by Bill Mollison

"Sustainability," Mollison said, "is when your system's output, far exceeds its input."

Well, this definition is certainly worth noting even today, when the word, "regenerative" is often touted as a word that is "better" than "sustainable."

Honestly, I use it (regenerative) often enough myself.  But I sometimes wonder, if we would need the word "regenerative" if we understood the word "sustainable" to mean the same thing as Bill Mollison took it to be.

The only missing piece then would be to use excess output as input.  Which is what the word "regenerative," as in "regenerative agriculture" basically means.

what is permaculture? patter

Permaculture as a spiral

2. permaculture as pattern

Permaculture is not merely a linear system.  At first glance it appears as a cycle, the output of which is used to fuel even greater input the first year-round.

So we many initially have a truckload of topsoil delivered to our backyards to create our dream gardens.  But the idea is for us to recreate that more than that truckload worth of soil each year.  With each iteration, with each turn of the circle, something bigger and more abundant is created.

Permaculture Research Institute defines permaculture as a "design system for ecological and sustainable living, intergating plants, animals, people, buildings and community."

One of the reasons that permaculture is not merely a circle, but a spiral is because of the words "design" and the permaculture principle of "observation."  (More on this below.) With each year, the designer, must take a step back at his system and observe:

  • What went wrong?
  • What went right?
  • How can we improve?

The answers and subsequent applications of those answers make that system more productive, more efficient, more resilient the next go around.

With the "acceptance of feedback and regulation," each year your garden becomes more and more abundant.

I see permaculture take the shape of a spiral.  What patterns do you see in permaculture?

Wayne's ending his 72-hour PDC with the on-going question, "What is permaculture?" is very much in line with what Mollison and Holmgren would do.

Although permaculture at its core is universal, each application is unique to its location, climate, and culture. Because of it being such a massive concept, our understanding of it will vary and may change based on our experience.
Permaculture was never intended to be a cookie-cutter template for mass consumption. But rather a core of ethical principles intended to sustain human life.


shade garden sedum

Earth Care

shade garden mache

People Care

shade garden mint

Fair Share

"Ethics" Courtesy of PermaculturePrinciples.org

shade garden herb

3. an ethical system

It was important for Bill Mollison that this new system of agriculture which he and David Holmgren were proposing was based on ethics - or moral principles governing one's behavior.

His experience as a field biologist, private school teacher, and world-wide consultant, allowed him to witnessing the vast degradation of the planet, and of humans.  From this experience, he arrived at three main ethical principles.  One of his later students, Geoff Lawton, sums these principles up quite succinctly as the following:

  • "Earth Care"
  • "People Care" and
  • "Fair Share."


Earth Care


Earth Care

David Holmgren also calls this "Rebuilding Natural Capital." 

Anything that we do, (whether it is the practice agriculture, the building of homes, or any activity that supports human life) should never be done at the expense of the destroying the planet.  

An organic grower may raise crops and certify it as "organically grown" simply by avoiding pesticides.  However, "organic" may still mean that the grower waters his crops using a limited supply from  aquifers underneath that farm.  Used unsustainably, these aquifers may be depleted faster than they are being replenished.

This is organic gardening but not permaculture gardening.

To simply comply with organic regulations without a thought to the effect on the environment would be to disregard the age-old wisdom of the American Indians who made decisions based on how it would affect their 7th generation.

This leads us to the next permaculture ethic: People Care.


People Care

Organic growers may employ migrant workers without giving them fair wage or humane treatment in order to more efficiently harvest crops for sale and increase company profits.  This is organic gardening, but not permaculture gardening.

In an ideal world, the people who care for the earth should be able to harvest the first fruits and be paid a just wage for their hard work.

Each person is called to take responsibility for providing him/herself, their family and community with the best food, medicine and soul-nourishment that humans need to live out their highest potential



People Care

Fair Share


Fair Share

Finally, permaculture systems are bounded by the limits of production and consumption.  We cannot expect a sustainable system to arise out of over-consumption of resources.  It's even worse when those overconsumed resources in some parts of the world are wasted.  This is the case of water and food.  

According to the non-profit, Charity Water, "633 million people in the world live without clean water."

According to the non-profit, Charity Water, "633 million people in the world live without clean water." And according to the Environmental Protection Agecy (EPA) we waste 40% of our food in America.

what is permaculture? foodwaste

Courtesy of the EPA

When we use only what we need, and share equitably what we have a lot of, we live out this third permaculture ethic. 

Luckily, several wonderful initiatives are growing out of awareness about this "Fair Share" problem. 

One such example is Food Loop Composting, a local food scraps collection service in Northern VA.

shade garden shrub

4. a universal system

In an upcoming blog, (or perhaps series of them) we will take a closer look at 12 Permaculture Principles that are the cornerstone of regenerative systems.


To learn more about what permaculture is and how it can be applied to your specific garden situation, join GIY, our garden mentoring program where we take you step-by-step through simplified and strategic permaculture gardening!

Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links. The small commission we receive if you choose to purchase goes towards making this gardening education available for free! We do not affiliate for anything we do not personally use. Thanks so much for your support!

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