Permaculture is at the crux of Sustainability

Permaculture concepts are at the heart of any sustainable endeavor. Understanding permaculture’s vast potential to guide us toward a sustainable future is a vital to creating a paradigm shift. We have a last chance at clean air, clean water, and healthy soil, factors absolutely necessary for healthy survival. Permaculture can help us find ways that we, as individuals, can help heal the earth and revitalize our air, water, and soil.

Permaculture is a term coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. The term originally stood for “permanent agriculture” but in the last few decades, the word has developed a second meaning: “permanent culture.”  Bill Mollison was a professor and David Holmgren was one of his graduate students. Bill Mollison developed a more hands on approach to permaculture while David Holmgren focused on theories and broad perspective potential in permaculture. Both are equally revered as leading permaculture experts but it is Bill Mollison who is deemed the “Father of Permaculture”.  Bill founded the Permaculture Institute in Tasmania to teach others an array of permaculture principles through direct, hands on education. In Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison, the following are the major permaculture principles: Relative Location, Multiple Functions, Multiple Elements, Energy Efficient Planning, Using Biological Resources, Energy Cycling, Small Scale Intensive, Accelerating Succession, Diversity, Edge Awareness, and Attitudinal Principles.

Permaculture begins with looking at the world through hopeful eyes, picturing a reality in which people attempt to work in harmony with the earth, rather than against it.  To look to nature for inspiration is a great way to truly absorb and observe the importance of biodiversity. For example, planting a native pollinator garden next to a vegetable garden can promote a symbiotic relationship between plants and pollinators. Our plates would be empty without pollinators. Channeling and preserving water can significantly reduce water waste, help to retain moisture in the garden and help your garden thrive. Building your home with natural materials found on the land where your house will be built reduces your reliance on synthetic building materials, reduces your reliance on non-renewable building materials, is more energy efficient, and is very cost effective. Building berms and swales allow for the channeling and preservation of water around a specific grouping of trees or crops. A berm is essentially a raised bed made from organic materials and a swale is a specialized ditch which acts as a water preservation reservoir. When rain water falls, it is collected in and channeled around the swale, giving the berm a water reserve.

In 1999, while a senior in high school, I went on an eco-adventure in the Caribbean rainforest of Costa Rica with an environmental leadership program called Eco-Act, founded and facilitated by The Missouri Botanical Garden in 1981 to inspire earth stewardship in youth. It is here that I first heard about permaculture. We visited the Punta Mona Center for Sustainable Living and Education, an off-the-grid 85-acre organic permaculture farm on the Caribbean Coast, run by eco-entrepreneur Stephen Brooks. Stephen and his sister Lisa started an eco-tourism business called Costa Rican Adventures with the goal of educating students from around the globe about rainforest degradation, endangered species and non-sustainable agricultural practices, as well as practical solutions to these concerns. We visited the banana plantations where planes sprayed pesticides on the banana trees causing nearby villages to suffer through the clouds of chemicals. We then visited the BriBri tribe at Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.  The BriBri Tribe had been growing Cacao trees for several generations. They grew the cacao trees in the understory of their food forests.  They hand grinded the cacao and made it simply with just grounded cacao and tapa dulce, blocks of raw sugar.  The taste was authentic. Walking through their food forest, witnessing such a diverse array of tropical fruit trees amongst the jungle backdrop is memory etched in the catacombs of my mind. The BriBri tribe had a deep unparalleled connection with their food. We witnessed the entire process of making chocolate; the pods were harvested from the trees; the pods were sliced open and the pulp was removed; the seeds were sorted, fermented and dried in the sun.  A respected grandmother in the tribe, whose hands were worn from years of hard physical labor, kissed each and every dried cacao bean before she ground the seeds together by hand using a stone corn grinder. A rich drink was made using fresh goats’ milk, hot water, raw sugar and ground cacao beans. Each sip was magic. The process was beautiful. I was able to shake the hands of each of the members of the smiling BriBri tribe that worked so hard to make this one cup of hot chocolate. They sold the chocolate in a 4 inch roll, with six disks of rich rainforest chocolate wrapped in wax paper. The aroma was earthy and robust. The taste-authentic, bold, bitter and sweet all at once. This experience not only forever shaped my love and appreciation for chocolate but for all the hands of all the farmers whose hearts were committed to growing good food without pesticides. It certainly broadened my awareness of the importance of buying fair-trade chocolate. The experience of exploring through the cloud forests and jungles and along coastlines of Costa Rica reaffirmed my love for the natural world and helped to strengthen the desire to do my part for the earth.  Stephen, also the founder of Kopali Organics, an organic food company dedicated to supporting small farmers and providing a highly nutritious food source to the public, has been a major catalyst in the permaculture movement. He has taught thousands of individuals around the globe how to bring sustainability into fruition in their daily lives. Punta Mona is completely off the grid, utilizing solar energy for power, methane for gas, and growing 90% of the food they feed to thousands per year at the retreat center. The property is rich with biodiversity. There are hundreds of fruit and nut trees towering over a food forest. There are dozens of raised beds in the kitchen garden. Various types of squash thrive on the hillsides. Chinampas, wetland gardens, are home to a variety of fruits, vegetables, roots, leaves and herbs. It is one of the most beautiful permaculture design models I have seen.

The following list describes ten concepts central to permaculture that I learned about during my stay at Punta Mona almost fifteen years ago:

Permaculture incorporates the existing ecosystem into the plans of development without compromising the integrity of the land, the water or the habitat of native flora and fauna.
Permaculture works with nature, not against it.
Permaculture gardens provide food for humans, animals, pollinators, and the soil.
Permaculture fosters symbiotic relationships.
Permaculture provides a global solution to widespread epidemics including hunger and starvation, environmental degradation, deforestation, pollution, and reliance on fossil fuels.
Permaculture gardens can help heal the land and its people by filtering water using plants, by revitalizing contaminated soil using plants, by utilizing grey water systems, by implementing rain garden techniques, by growing food with the contours of the land, by growing more food per square foot.
Permaculture promotes all aspects of sustainability and focuses on how all of the solutions for a greener future can work together. Integrating alternative energy systems into small-scale organic food production is just one way of carrying out permaculture concepts.
Permaculture promotes healthy food, clean air, and clean water.
Permaculture focuses on the complex interrelationships within the food web. It restores our balance with the natural world.
Permaculture is a catalyst for a sustainable future. Anyone and everyone is capable of practicing permaculture techniques in their own lives.

Rest in Peace Toby Hemenway

Toby Hemenway offers my favorite definition of permaculture. Hemenway states, “I think the definition of permaculture that must rise to the top is that it is a design approach to arrive at solutions, just as the scientific method is an experimental approach. In more concrete terms, permaculture tells how to choose from a dauntingly large toolkit—all the human technologies and strategies for living—to solve the new problem of sustainability. It is an instruction manual for solving the challenges laid out by the new paradigm of meeting human needs while enhancing ecosystem health. The relationship explicitly spelled out in that view, which connects humans to the larger, dynamic environment, forces us to think in relational terms, which is a key element of permaculture. The two sides of the relationship are explicitly named in two permaculture ethics: care for the Earth, and care for people. And knowing we need both sides of that relationship is immensely helpful in identifying the problems we need to solve. First, what are human needs? The version of the permaculture flower that I work with names some important ones: food, shelter, water, waste recycling, energy, community, health, spiritual fulfillment, justice, and livelihood. The task set out by permaculture, in the new paradigm, is to meet those needs while preserving ecosystem health, and we have metrics for assessing the latter. The way those needs are met will vary by place and culture, but the metrics of ecosystem health can be applied fairly universally. This clarifies the task set by permaculture, and I think it also distinguishes permaculture from the philosophy—the paradigm—required to use it effectively and helps us understand why permaculture is often called a movement. Permaculturists make common cause with all the other millions of people who are shifting to the new paradigm, and it is that shift—not the design approach of permaculture that supports it—that is worthy of being called a movement. Permaculture is one approach used by this movement to solve the problems identified by the new paradigm. To do this, it operates on the level of strategies rather than techniques, but that is a subject for another essay. Because we are, in a way, still in the phlogiston era of our ecological awareness, we don’t know how to categorize permaculture, and we can confuse it with the paradigm that it helps us explore. Permaculture is not the movement of sustainability and it is not the philosophy behind it; it is the problem-solving approach the movement and the philosophy can use to meet their goals and design a world in which human needs are met while enhancing the health of this miraculous planet that supports us.”- Toby Hemenway


In this image, illustrates a comprehensive solution based example of how a paradigm shift can create a world that works for everyone. It focuses on equality, environmental intelligence, spiritual awakening, localization of food and resources, community building and a unified desire for positive change. What if this could be implemented worldwide? Think of the possibilities.

Reproduced with permission from Toby Hemenway


Permaculture Principles:

Permaculture Ethics & Principles


Care for the Earth
Care for People
Return the Surplus


Primary Principles for Functional Design:

Observe. Use protracted and thoughtful observation rather than prolonged and thoughtless action. Observe the site and its elements in all seasons. Design for specific sites, clients, and cultures.
Connect. Use relative location: Place elements in ways that create useful relationships and time-saving connections among all parts. The number of connections among elements creates a healthy, diverse ecosystem, not the number of elements.
Catch and store energy and materials. Identify, collect, and hold useful flows. Every cycle is an opportunity for yield, every gradient (in slope, charge, heat, etc.) can produce energy. Re-investing resources builds capacity to capture yet more resources.
Each element performs multiple functions. Choose and place each element in a system to perform as many functions as possible. Beneficial connections between diverse components create a stable whole. Stack elements in both space and time.
Each function is supported by multiple elements. Use multiple methods to achieve important functions and to create synergies. Redundancy protects when one or more elements fail.
Make the least change for the greatest effect. Find the “leverage points” in the system and intervene there, where the least work accomplishes the most change.
Use small scale, intensive systems. Start at your doorstep with the smallest systems that will do the job, and build on your successes, with variations. Grow by chunking.


Principles for Living and Energy Systems

Optimize edge. The edge—the intersection of two environments—is the most diverse place in a system, and is where energy and materials accumulate or are transformed. Increase or decrease edge as appropriate.
Collaborate with succession. Systems will evolve over time, often toward greater diversity and productivity. Work with this tendency, and use design to jump-start succession when needed.
Use biological and renewable resources. Renewable resources (usually living beings and their products) reproduce and build up over time, store energy, assist yield, and interact with other elements.


Turn problems into solutions. Constraints can inspire creative design. “We are confronted by insurmountable opportunities.”—Pogo (Walt Kelly)
Get a yield. Design for both immediate and long-term returns from your efforts: “You can’t work on an empty stomach.” Set up positive feedback loops to build the system and repay your investment.
The biggest limit to abundance is creativity. The designer’s imagination and skill limit productivity and diversity more than any physical limit.
Mistakes are tools for learning. Evaluate your trials. Making mistakes is a sign you’re trying to do things better.

Rules for resource use:

Ranked from regenerative to degenerative, different resources can:

increase with use;
be lost when not used;
be unaffected by use;
be lost by use;
pollute or degrade systems with use.


These principles are designed to be implemented into permaculture design projects and can apply to growing gardens, food forests, terraced gardens, community gardens, and farms in eco villages. These plans and ideas can be scaled down or scaled up and are good guidelines to follow in any planting or community building endeavor. Permaculture techniques work especially well in areas which lack rainfall. Permaculture techniques are meant to be resilient and long lasting when implemented correctly. Some of the techniques do take more time to create initially but over time require less physical work for a high yield.

Growers from all around the globe help heal themselves, their communities, and the environment around them by bringing permaculture to life one seed at a time. The essence of permaculture is the ability to listen to and understand the stories of symbiotic relationships between people and people, plants and people, and plants and the earth. Paying homage to each other as stewards of the earth by offering support and encouragement is one way we can truly send out ripples of change to the world.

Illuminating how real food grown from the earth is the very point at which all of these relationships intersect is up to us. Across the globe and throughout cultural history, human beings have had a connection to the land and to their food. Being in tune with nature and the changing seasons deepened this connection. For example, certain civilizations held grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds as sacred. Rituals, ceremonies and celebrations were held during planting and harvesting.  

Bridging the gap between cultural diversity and biodiversity is a key component in permaculture. Understanding the symbolic connection between humans and food is vital in understanding the importance of food and the direct effect that food production has on the environment. Understanding the complexity of nature’s resilience and strength gives us a model to study and learn from. Sharing these observations with growers around the globe is very important for the future of the planet. We can learn from each other and teach each other based on our own observations. From witnessing a dandelion plant grow through the cracks of concrete to seeing a redwood tree sapling emerge from a clear cut; we have so much to learn from nature. Nature inspires people. People inspire people. People have been cultivating the earth for thousands of years. Methods of gardening and farming have been passed down through scriptures and scrolls and oral traditions. New innovative ways of growing food seem to be more prevalent today than ever before because of the use of social media.   More and more people are experimenting with gardening in their own yards. Once you delve into the art of growing food,  so many other endeavors are discovered: growing herbs for medicine, food preservation, foraging for wild edibles, wild crafting, beer making,  bee keeping, animal husbandry, and so many more. Growing food then becomes this momentous act that has the potential to define the rest of one’s life course. It was for me anyway. It brings about a feeling of liberation and independence that is unmatched. And it empowers me to rely less and less on industrialized food systems for nourishment.

Practice permaculture in your own backyard:

Grow an organic vegetable garden to feed your family, friends and neighbors. Use straw to mulch or practice lasagna gardening and sheet mulching to suppress weeds.
Integrate a food forest into your existing landscape.
Plant perennial fruits and fruit trees.
Get a rain barrel and use a rainwater catchment system to water your garden. Build simple bio swales to channel water.
Start a compost pile to produce your own organic fertilizer and reduce waste. Build your soil by adding organic matter.
Plant native perennial flowers to attract pollinators. Plant native trees to clean the air and provide a habitat for wildlife.

Permaculture can be easily implemented in relationships and in spiritual practice in terms of healing the self and living in symbiosis with each other. Acknowledging strengths in others is a vital aspect; encouraging, uplifting and inspiring each other to work toward common goals and for the greater good is a necessity in the paradigm shift. Letting go of the ego and the competitive nature of humans and replacing it with unconditional love and compassion for all life. Practicing gratitude is also an instrument for positive change.  


A Permaculture Poem

In dwellings around the globe, individuals are awakening to a calling greater than themselves.

From urban city apartments to humble abodes at the foothills of magnificent mountains… people are waking up

From flats in Ireland to huts in Ghana… people are waking up                                               

From high rises near the equator to low valleys in the southern hemisphere… people are waking up

From the banks of the Mighty Mississippi to the shores of the Caribbean Sea… people are waking up


We feel an innate connection to the earth in our hearts. We see the damage that has been done to the earth and we realize the need for change. As a collective response to earth’s wound that we have witnessed, many of us are coming together to create a paradigm shift. Our collective consciousness is expanding; our human race is evolving and always developing. But without permaculture, we stop healing, as a race we stop caring and the wound deepens.

As individuals with the beautiful gifts of free will, creativity, and passion, we have a major advantage. We have infinite resources available at our fingertips—and within ourselves and in our community. The collective knowledge of past and present communities is abundant and free-flowing, if one knows where to look for it.

With these gifts, we can make a difference. We are making a difference.

Natural ecosystems have painted our earth with beauty in the form of forests, deserts, prairies, wetlands, mountains, valleys, rivers, oceans, glaciers.... The “Green Hearts” of our time are creating new works of art on our earth: prairie and wetland restorations, backyard gardens, fruit and nut orchards, community gardens, organic and biodynamic farms, and permaculture villages, all of which are purifying our air, improving water quality, giving nutrients back to the soil, providing food to families, and creating habitats for pollinators. 

In gardens around the globe, we are planting seeds of change in fields of hope. People from all walks of life are waking up to the importance of sustainability by reading, listening, reflecting, brainstorming solutions and enacting them.

We are getting back to our roots and respecting the land as ancient cultures did long ago. Being self-sufficient is no new endeavor, of course, but wading through the muck that the industrial revolution and mass consumption have left behind makes it seem new.


Permaculture grounds us with possibilities for positive change.

My husband and I have always dreamed of getting our permaculture certifications, but our finances and our inability to spend a month away from our children have prevented us from doing so. However, this does not imply that we are incapable of bringing visions of permaculture into fruition in our own lives. In fact, it proves that anyone and everyone can practice permaculture techniques, with or without an official certification.

Welcoming permaculture into your life:

Pick a manageable permaculture project to implement this month, this quarter, or this year. Perhaps your goal is to grow 70% of your own produce this year. Or maybe you would like to have a medicinal herb garden. Or, more generally, say you want to become more self-sufficient. Figuring out how a specific project designed with permaculture concepts can assist you with your personal goals is a wonderful place to start.

For example, this year, our goal is to integrate permaculture into the CSA Farm we manage. Our plan is to start with the orchard. With the help from permaculture enthusiasts in our area, we will install a bio swale along the perimeter of the orchard to preserve and channel water, plant native flowers and shrubs to attract pollinators, mulch each tree with heavy compost to feed the soil, and integrate alliums to deter pests. Bringing the basic concepts of permaculture into practice builds a strong foundation for the process of growing as an ever-evolving art form.

Read a book on permaculture. There are several very well written books on the topic.  Each of them are tailored to specific learning styles and you can request them at your local library or buy them directly from the author. Permaculture creates paths of inspiration. The reader will follow the path that is right for them. The following are all good books to start with:

The Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
Permaculture: Principal’s and Pathways beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane
Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shephard

Permaculture Magazine

Permaculture in the kitchen: Start your personal revolution in the kitchen. Make a pledge to eat only fair trade, organic, non-GM foods. Support your local food economy by supporting local small-scale farmers and small businesses that are making an effort to be more sustainable in your community. Eliminating processed foods becomes a form of direct action. Inspiring friends and family to eat healthy foods becomes a step toward positive change. Growing your own fruits and vegetables and reprogramming your brain to eat with the seasons becomes a way to reduce your carbon footprint.


Start a Permaculture Network in your community or join an existing one. Check social media sites to find local Permaculture Groups or Meetups. Get together often. Organize and host workshops. Work on projects together. Start a backyard revolution in your community.

Permaculture in the workplace: organize lunch potlucks or permaculture plantings at your work place. Start a recycling program. Talk your organization into only buying green office supplies. Ask them to convert to green ware in the cafeteria.


Permaculture in Big Cities: Get the youth involved. Suggest to your local teachers to include permaculture projects and concepts into their curricula. Teachers love new ideas and ways of engaging their students in the natural surroundings around the perimeter of their schools. Outdoor classrooms are more common than ever, and community service days provide an excellent opportunity to get kids excited about growing food. Planting trees, installing vegetable gardens, building a rain garden, and landscaping with native plants are just a few ways to implement simple permaculture concepts into the landscape of school grounds. Visit urban farms and community gardens. Volunteer to organize neighborhood plantings.


Learn about permaculture online or by reading Permaculture Magazine. There are several free online permaculture courses available. Research them to find out what options are best for you. The United States is home to hundreds of thousands of permaculture enthusiasts, and the internet is a great way to connect with others who are working on projects similar to yours.


Attend a Permaculture Conference. This is an excellent opportunity to meet like-minded individuals from around the world who are interested in Permaculture.



Sustainability starts from within.Permaculture brings the vision into fruition.

Permaculture is a global solution to many environmental crises.

In the permaculture household, you will find a myriad of useful supplies and resources:

A collection of mason jars in a variety of shapes and sizes
A collection of saved seeds that are accurately preserved and labeled
A library of books on all aspects of sustainability including but not limited to permaculture of course, gardening, natural health, medicinal herbs, native plants, native trees, wild edibles, a slew of tree, plant, bird, mushroom identification books, text books saved from every Ecology, Biology, Chemistry, Geology and Earth Science class ever taken, and many others.
Stacks and stacks of decade’s worth of magazines including National Geographic, Mother Earth News, Permaculture Magazine, Grit, and others as well as every local publication that contains an article about gardening. 
An organized stockpile of reclaimed materials that will eventually be used for a building project
A pantry full of homegrown canned fruits, veggies, jams and jellies, jars and jars of dry good staples including organic dried beans and grains
A home apothecary of dried herbs for cooking, making tea and medicine
Lots of house plants for air purification and to keep you company when you must do inside work
Recycled everything, especially office paper and toilet paper
A tea pot and a French press
A food dehydrator, a blender, a food processor, possibly pedal powered or solar operated
An ongoing to do list that is added to most likely every fifteen minutes
A wood burning stove and a stockpile of fallen wood
A dozen different journals
Handmade furniture, some articles of handmade clothing, and pretty much handmade everything else
Various art supplies and hobby supplies
A secret stash of fair trade organic chocolate
An unbreakable spirit