Permaculture designer and teacher Larry Santoyo calls the principles “indicators of sustainability.” Any design, whether it is of a garden, a house, or a nonprofit corporation, that uses these principles will be more efficient, effective, and ecologically balanced than one that violates them.
The aim of permaculture is to design ecologically sound, economically prosperous human communities. It is guided by a set of ethics: caring for Earth, caring for people, and reinvesting the surplus that this care will create. From these ethics stem a set of design guidelines or principles, described in many places and in slightly varying forms. The list below is the version I use, compiled with the aid of many permaculture teachers and flowing from the work of Mollison, Holmgren, and their coauthors.
- A. Core Principles for Ecological 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, that is, place the elements of your design 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, temperature, and the like) can produce energy. Reinvesting resources builds capacity to capture yet more resources.
- Each element performs multiple functions. Choose and place each element in a design 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. Understand the system you are working with well enough to find its “leverage points” 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. Grow by “chunking”—that is, developing a small system or arrangement that works well—and repeat it, with variations.
- 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 translated. Increase or decrease edge as appropriate.
- Collaborate with succession. Living systems usually advance from immaturity to maturity, and if we accept this trend and align our designs with it instead of fighting it, we save work and energy. Mature ecosystems are more diverse and productive than young ones.
- 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. Favor these over nonrenewable resources.
- B. Principles Based on Attitudes
- Turn problems into solutions. Constraints can inspire creative design, and most problems usually carry not just the seeds of their own solution within them but also the inspiration for simultaneously solving other problems. “We are confronted by insurmountable opportunities.”—Attributed to 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 usually limit productivity and diversity before any physical limits are reached.
- Mistakes are tools for learning. Evaluate your trials. Making mistakes is a sign you’re trying to do things better. There is usually little penalty for mistakes if you learn from them.
Use the principles to guide your decisions and, as you create your garden, try to apply them in as many places as you can. Pay particular attention to situations where the principles aren’t being followed, as those will be the spots that drain the most labor and do the most environmental damage.
The principles have deep and surprising interconnections as well. A piece of a design that strives to, say, be multifunctional will often turn out to also follow the principles “use biological resources” and “make the least change for the greatest effect.” When synergies like these occur, they show we are on the right track.
Permaculture, then, is about far more than gardening. But since permaculture is grounded in the wisdom of the natural world, many people come to permaculture first through their love of plants and gardening. I will struggle in this book to limit my coverage of permaculture to the home landscape.