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The 12 Principles of Permaculture

design|January 31, 2023
The 12 Principles of Permaculture

Permaculture was developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, and the term was coined by combining "permanent agriculture". Permaculture is a design approach that seeks to create sustainable and self-sufficient systems by mimicking the patterns and relationships found in natural ecosystems. It is based on a set of principles that can be applied to the design of gardens, farms, and even entire neighbourhoods. It's all about working with the land, rather than against it, to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that is productive, efficient, resilient, regenerative and in harmony with the natural environment. 

The practice of permaculture is informed by three ethics:

Care for the earth: encouraging the responsible management of natural resources, including soil, water, and biodiversity. It also means promoting practices that protect and restore the health of ecosystems.

Care for people: emphasising the importance of meeting the needs of people in a sustainable way, including providing for their basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. This also includes the idea of creating healthy communities and promoting social justice.

Return of surplus: encouraging the responsible use of resources and the sharing of any surplus generated. It also means promoting the idea of using resources efficiently and returning any excess back to the system, whether it be in the form of compost, seed saving, or sharing surplus produce with others. This ethic is also about making sure that the surplus generated is used to benefit the earth and people, in line with the first two ethics of permaculture.

But permaculture is not a set of rules, it is a design approach that can be used universally. The ethics are expanded into a set of twelve practical principles that we can use as a design toolkit. Let’s take a look at each of them and how they can be applied in the context of a kitchen garden.

Infographic showing the 12 principles of permaculture

Observe and interact

The first principle of permaculture is to observe and interact. This means taking the time to really get to know your garden and the patterns and rhythms of the natural environment. This might involve keeping a journal, paying attention to the movements of the sun, and noticing which plants thrive in different parts of your garden.

By observing and interacting with your garden, you can make informed decisions about what to plant and where, and how to care for your plants. For example, you might notice that a particular plant is struggling due to lack of sunlight, and decide to move it to a sunnier spot or to plant a shade-tolerant variety instead.

Catch and store energy

The second principle of permaculture is to catch and store energy. This means finding ways to capture and use the natural resources available to you, rather than relying on external inputs. One of the easiest ways to explain this is with rainwater collection, allowing you to capture and store that water for use later down the line, the water being the energy in this case. Mulching is another example; helping to make the soil more permeable to rainwater and then the mulch acts as a layer of protection to prevent evaporation, storing the moisture in the ground. When it comes to electricity, you can generate your own on site with solar panels on your shed or a small wind turbine. Both can charge batteries for garden tools or water pumps without the need for fossil fuels.

Obtain a yield

The third principle of permaculture is to obtain a yield. This doesn't just mean harvesting your crops, but also considering the other ways that your garden can provide for you and your family. For example, a kitchen garden might provide not only food but also beauty, recreation, and a sense of community. 

By thinking about the multiple yields that your garden can provide, you can create a more diverse and resilient system. For example, you might choose to plant a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, as well as flowers and other ornamentals that provide aesthetic value and attract pollinators. Think about who else and what else can obtain a yield from your garden that you are willing to share.

Harvest of vegetables in a basket

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

The fourth principle of permaculture is to apply self-regulation and accept feedback. This means being aware of and managing the impacts that your garden has on the surrounding environment. In a kitchen garden, this might involve using organic or regenerative techniques to care for your plants, and being mindful of the resources that you use. It also means being open to learning from your mistakes and adjusting your practices as needed. In a nutshell, it’s about taking responsibility into your own hands and also being able to take a step back to look at the whole picture.

Use and value renewable resources and services

The fifth principle of permaculture is to use and value renewable resources and services. In a kitchen garden, this means planting crops such as perennials that come back year after year, or creating your own liquid fertilisers from plants like comfrey rather than buying synthetic feeds. 

Homemade natural liquid fertiliser being poured into a jar

It also means considering the value of ecosystem services, like pollination and pest control, and finding ways to support and enhance them in your garden. For example, you might plant a variety of flowering plants to attract pollinators, or use techniques like crop rotation and natural pest control rather than resorting to pesticides. For heating, you can burn wood, which is a renewable resource, and a by-product of regenerative tree management such as hedge laying and coppicing. By using and valuing renewable resources and services, you can create a more sustainable and self-sufficient garden.

Produce no waste

The sixth principle of permaculture is to produce no waste. This means finding ways to reuse and recycle resources, and to minimise waste in all aspects of your garden. In a kitchen garden, this might involve composting food scraps and yard waste, getting a worm bin, using biodegradable or recycled materials, and finding ways to reuse resources like water and soil. A common example is to use greywater from your kitchen sink to water your plants. It is amazing just how many uses ‘waste’ can have, and even putting scrap wood into a pile for bugs and insects provides an incredible benefit.   

Pile of wood

Design from patterns to details

The seventh principle of permaculture is to design from patterns to details. This means starting with a broad view of the system and then working down to the details. When I create a planting plan, I firstly consider the overall layout of the garden, and then start to fill it in bit by bit with the specific plants I want to grow, constantly thinking about how the design will work as a complete and efficient system. Patterns in permaculture take inspiration from those that occur in nature, but also practicalities like where you walk around in the garden. Consider which paths you use most often and grow crops that you would harvest most often, such as herbs and salads, along these routes to save you time in the long run. 

Salad growing along the edge of a well-used path

Integrate rather than segregate

The eighth principle of permaculture is to integrate rather than segregate. This means finding ways to combine different elements and functions in your garden, rather than keeping them separate. For example creating a composting pathway that allows you to access both beds either side with the added benefit of producing compost. Or perhaps you have a very sunny site, so you grow climbing beans in a way to create shade behind where you can grow salads more successfully during the hottest months. Another common example is planting flowers and herbs among vegetables to attract pollinators and deter pests.

Calendula growing among vegetables

Use small and slow solutions

The ninth principle of permaculture is to use small and slow solutions. This means starting small and gradually building up your garden over time, rather than trying to do everything at once. It also means using techniques that are gentle and low-impact, rather than ones that are aggressive or destructive. No dig is a prime example, rather than digging in fresh compost or manure every year, apply it as a mulch on top instead and let nature do the incorporating. Another is to create a simple water catchment system off the roof of your garden shed, and then increasing water storage capacity over time. 

Water catchment system in garden

Use and value diversity

The tenth principle of permaculture is to use and value diversity. This means planting a variety of crops and using a range of techniques in your garden, rather than relying on a single method or species. In a kitchen garden, this involves planting annual and perennial plants, incorporating edible flowers and herbs, using a mix of traditional and innovative techniques, growing multiple varieties of the same crop and leaving a patch of nettles to grow on and benefit butterfly populations. Diversity can be applied anywhere; think a diversity of flavour, visuals, texture, composting systems, perennials, etc. Diversity is one of the best ways to create a resilient and productive garden. 

Diverse planting in a kitchen garden

Use edges and value the marginal

The eleventh principle of permaculture is to use edges and value the marginal. This means making use of the areas in your garden that are often overlooked or underutilised, like the boundary between beds and paths, or the area behind the polytunnel you never quite know what to do with. In a kitchen garden, this might involve creating semi-permanent trellising around the boundary to increase the value of that space allowing you to grow more vertical crops and enjoy a more sheltered space. By using edges and valuing the marginal, you can increase the productivity and diversity of your garden. Perhaps you have a shady spot that you just want to fill with something and so growing a load of mint there could bring you self-sufficiency in fresh and then dried mint tea all year. The edges of a raised bed are full of potential, allowing you to do things like growing nasturtiums off the sides to maximise growing space within the bed. 

Creatively use and respond to change

The twelfth and final principle of permaculture is to creatively use and respond to change. This means being flexible and adaptable, and finding ways to use change as an opportunity rather than a threat. In a kitchen garden, this might involve adjusting your plantings to reduce potential losses, I remember a year where the potatoes got really impacted from blight, and so now my maincrop potatoes are Sarpo Mira and produce incredible yields. I also grow a variety of new potatoes as they are ready before blight season hits. One example I used last year was being proactive in adapting to changes in the environment, like the drought, by collecting more rainwater and setting up more Gardena soaker hoses in the polytunnel, or deciding to mulch some of my sensitive crops with grass clippings to lower soil temperature and protect soil moisture levels. 

Grass clippings as mulch around celery

If you are new to permaculture, I’d advise you to not try and implement all these principles at once. As with the ‘small and slow solutions principle’, don’t overwhelm yourself with lots of things to do immediately. Instead, explore 2-3 principles that really spoke to you and start looking at how you could use those to influence your garden this year.