Introduction to Permaculture

“We gardeners are healthy, joyous, natural creatures. We are practical, patient, optimistic. We declare our optimism every year, every season, with every act of planting.” ​ --Carol Deppe

What You Will Do

  • Understand where permaculture came from, what it is, and what it isn’t.
  • Explore the concepts of systems thinking, whole system design, and invisible structures.​
  • Consider how your own project could provide learning opportunities for others.

What is permaculture?

This section by Heather Jo Flores

The short answer:
It’s ecological design, and throughout this course we will use the terms “permaculture” and “ecological design” interchangeably.

The long answer:
“Permaculture” as a practice, simply means observing nature, researching tools and techniques used by indigenous people in your bioregion, and engaging in a diligent, daily practice of balancing the needs of yourself and your family with those of the other species all around you.

It’s easy enough to define permaculture on paper but when it comes to actually putting this massive toolkit of ideas and techniques into action, perspectives and opinions on how that should be done can vary…widely.

An open heart, an open mind

​This course is taught by a faculty panel, meaning dozens of women contributed articles, videos, thoughts, and questions we want you to consider. We did it like this so that you see, that we all have slightly different, yet deeply connected, definitions of what permaculture is and isn’t.

In fact, every woman in this course has her own perspective, and that’s what makes us such a powerful teaching team. As you move through the course, if you find contradictions, that’s great! We aren’t trying to indoctrinate you and fill you with trivia for you to regurgitate. We are trying to open doors in your mind and invite you to also question, contradict, and come into conversation with any and all of these ideas. 

We hope that, with our guidance, you will feel empowered to develop your own take on all of this, and find unique and revolutionary ways to apply ecological design thinking to your land and to your life. And if sometimes it feels redundant, that’s perfect! The human mind needs to hear things multiple times to retain new information. 

Beyond permanent agriculture

“Permaculture” by name started as a compound of “permanent” and “agriculture”, and was used mostly describe a methodology for designing perennially productive landscapes, but this goes beyond our work with the plants and trickles into every corner of our human, non-human, and intergenerational communities.

We will do our best in this course not to bombard you will ALL of the information, but rather to curate and present the parts that have worked well for us, as practitioners in the real world.

The ecological design process emphasizes observation, careful planning, sharing of resources, and working with nature, rather than against it. Meeting our own needs without exploiting others is the secondary goal; regenerating the Earth so that it can continue to sustain life is the first.

And what bleeds through, as each design project evolves, is the perennial need to consider that interconnected network of invisible structures that enable (or prohibit) sustainable land design projects to stand the test of time.

In short: 

​Ecological design helps us figure out where in the cycle of life we fit in, and how we can help make things better for future generations, of every species.

​Ecological Design is all about Relationships

​The same principles that make an ecological design process so successful on the landscape also work for designing invisible structures like social, emotional, economical, and political systems that can support your work on the ground. That’s because an ecological design is not just about the components of a system; it is also about the flows and connections between those components. It is about the relationships.

​You can have solar power, an organic garden, an electric car, and a straw-bale house and still not live in a closed-loop system. Special attention must be paid to the relationships between each component, among the functions of those components, and among the people who work within the system.

Through a whole-system design process, we can organize these relationships for optimum success. Our creativity is our most powerful tool for overcoming the ills of our culture, and design helps us harness that creativity and put it to work.

​Permaculture: what it is, and what it isn’t:

What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)

Founding Principles

Bill Mollison, often credited as the “founder of permaculture,” was an Australian traveler, scientist, baker, fisherman, gardener, autodidact, and writer who researched and published extensive genealogies of Indigenous Australians, and through this work he became inspired to dedicate the rest of his life to learning and teaching integrated ways for humans to live on the planet without destroying it.

Mollison worked with many people and wrote, co-wrote, and inspired many books, organized hundreds of courses, and traveled all over the world collecting and sharing information about ecological design. He was especially enchanted with the notion of agricultural systems working together with human home systems so that each meets the needs of the other, and collaborated on a huge array of visionary design drawings with his then-colleague and illustrator, Reny Slay.

Bill Mollison was also influenced by writers who had come before him, such as Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962), Ken & Barbara Kern (The Owner-Built Home, 1961), P.A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1965), and J. Russel Smith, who wrote Tree Crops for a Permanent Agriculture (1929), the title credited with sparking the idea to call it “perma-culture.”

And guess what? Many of the exact ideas Mollison presented in his early books can also be found in the above four books. Read them and see for yourself. He did NOT invent this concept!

Indeed, throughout his life until he died in 2016, Mollison consistently pointed back to his sources and reiterated that he did not “own” any of these ideas, and that this type of knowledge can not and should not be owned.

In all of his work, we see an ethical and practical reliance on a fairly short list of ecological design principles, summarized here from his early writing:

  • Work with nature, rather than against it.
  • The problem is the solution. “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.”
  • Make the least change for the greatest effect.
  • The yield of a system is limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.
  • Everything gardens, and is in relationship to its environment.
  • It is not the number of diverse components in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components.
  • All design is ecological design, in that all designs, whether intentional or not, affect their environment.​

However, as you know, this is a course by and for women, and so this is one of the last times we will mention Mollison’s work to you. However, since much of his writing has heavily influenced the builders of our course, we do want to share just a little more of it before we dive into the work of women who came before and after:

From Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual:

  • The prime directive of permaculture: “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children’s.”

Big yes! But this is so much easier said than done. And it requires a diligent, daily practice.

  • Principle of stability: “It is not the number of diverse things in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components.”

Here we echo the importance of relationships, because if there are numerous connections, there will be plenty of support even if one connection is lost or is not available at certain times or seasons. But when there is a dearth of beneficial connections, there is no back-up. Linear systems often rely on single connections between different components. These single connections are crucial and make the system vulnerable: losing one connection, even temporarily, threatens the stability and sustainability of the whole system.

  • Law of return: “Whatever we take, we must return.”

The words “we must” can make it sound as though this is optional but, as the name “Law of Return” implies, returning what we take/use is mandatory if we are to honour the Earth and its inhabitants.

  • The yield of a system is, theoretically, unlimited. “Yield is not a fixed sum in any design system. It is the measure of the comprehension, understanding, and ability of the designers and managers of that design.” 

The possible number of uses of a resource within a system is limited only by the creativity and resourcefulness of the designer. If we turn this around, it also means that when yields are limited, when there are shortages, these are often the result of human actions and designs.

For example, with the focus on our yield, we must acknowledge that our system impacts others’ yields as well. The ecologically-designed community Village Homes, in Davis, California, asks that no one block a neighbor’s solar access. This is a good example of when limiting your yield would be appropriate: in this case, by limiting your nut crop by keeping your nut trees to a reasonable, thoughtful height. As designers, we must be vigilant, especially in those brilliant creative moments when we unleash our own yield, that we don’t inadvertently block the yield of somebody else. Be imaginative, be creative, but also be kind, considerate, and aware of the needs of others.

  • Everything gardens. “Everything gardens, or has an effect on its environment.”

As humans, we have a tendency to assume that the things we make are not part of nature. We make clear distinctions between “man-made” or “artificial” on the one hand and “natural” on the other. But everything we design and produce is made from things here on earth. There is no other source of materials. What we make may damage the earth through pollution, but it is still part of the ecosystem.  

All design is ecological design, for good or ill, and many hands make light work. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, people, animals, and creatures of all shapes and sizes are hard at work, participating in a system. Sometimes those actions are helping the Earth, sometimes they are hurting it. Either way, the more creatures who work together, in one direction or the other, the faster we see results!   

“Everything gardens” also means everything is constantly in flux with its surroundings, whether those effects were intended by a designer, or just happened to occur on their own. Becoming an ecological designer is about noticing and valuing the different roles a single component plays within the larger system, the different benefits it brings, and the wide variety of connections it has with different aspects of the whole. By watching how the elements in an existing system interact, we can then start thinking in terms of slight tweaks to the system, rather than wiping the slate clean and starting anew.

  • Work with nature, rather than against it. “Become aware of the natural elements, forces, pressures, processes, agencies, and evolutions, so that we assist rather than impede natural developments.”

And also: is it even possible for us to work against nature? Aren’t we nature too? As a student, designer, and practitioner, you should never accept anything at face value, not even the stuff in this course! You should think critically about each and every piece of information we share.

  • The problem is the solution; everything works both ways. It is only how we see things that makes them advantageous or not (if the wind blows cold, let us use both its strength and its coolness to our advantage). A corollary of this principle is that everything is a positive resource; it is just up to us to work out how we may use it as such. Although, sometimes a problem, like when somebody is being abused and/or exploited, is not a “solution” at all–it’s just a really big problem that needs to be faced and resolved.

Take a moment to breathe into each of these ideas. Can you see how they could help you to design not only a garden and home system, but also a social and emotional landscape that is more resilient, abundant, and safe than the current (degenerative) systems in which most of us now exist?

Observation, connection, flow: whole systems design

this section by Marit Parker

Ecological design looks at a whole system, whether it’s a garden, a hospital or a business, rather than focusing on one part. It helps us see how the different elements, components, flows, and patterns within a system interrelate.​

At its root, this practice is about connections between humans and nature, or between humans and other parts of nature. Observation is a key part of the process, because the more inter-connections you notice in the world around you, the more you understand and appreciate how the world works. Observation helps us see cause and effect relationships.

As you go through this course, we ask that you look deeper at patterns of behavior, at our human systems, and at ways of thinking that shape events that we witness.

If we start noticing the effect of our actions, this helps us reduce the number of unintended consequences our actions have, or at least limit their impact.

​Reflecting on the impacts of our actions may increase our knowledge and understanding of our habitat. Once your eyes open to the links between nature and humanity, you will be using ecological design as a lens to view the world.

The power of comes from a deep grounding in how nature actually works, which enables us, for example, to develop strategies and techniques that effectively heal the Earth.

Taking an ecological view means being aware of our place in the ecosystem and making sure what we do is beneficial, not harmful. Everything is interconnected, so everything needs to be considered, including:

  • Food should be ethically grown and harvested, with minimal damage to local ecologies. “Cultivated Ecology” refers to gardens, livestock systems, or foraging areas that are managed in a way that creates abundance rather than decreasing it in the long term.
  • Water should be used respectfully, stored appropriately, and be able to clean itself infinitely within natural ecological processes. Sites should strive to stay within the local “water budget” of precipitation that falls from the sky.
  • Shelter should reflect the materials and resources of the region, be thoughtfully designed to use minimal resources, be comfortable and safe and able to be repaired and modified.
  • Technology should design for tasks first, then electricity. (Like designing first for line drying laundry and only later for installing solar panels to run a clothes dryer). When electricity is employed, it should be manageable by the inhabitants, reflect an appropriate scale, and cause minimal waste and damage to ecologies.
  • Transport. Including transport in designs is important because most of us travel regularly, and how we do this has an impact on us, on air quality, on noise and on accessibility. Design in walking, cycling and public transport, instead of assuming people will drive.
  • Waste. Flushing toilets use a lot of clean drinking water, and the “waste” is, well, just that: wasted. Both pee and poo are full of valuable nutrients for the soil, so long as they are collected and treated properly to avoid risk of disease, hence the composting loos.
  • Energy. Passive solar makes the most of the sun’s warmth, utilising sun-facing walls (south facing or north facing, depending on which hemisphere of the world you are in) to warm houses, for example by adding larger windows or a lean-to greenhouse or conservatory on this side.
  • Community needs can be met with real live people developing connections and growing together, rather than design that encourages isolated mistrust and addictions.  

A key part of ecological design is being aware of how people will interact with the design. We are creatures of habit, and easily forget to do things differently unless it’s obvious, or unless we’re guided towards the new feature. For example, a bike rack near an entrance is a visual reminder and may increase numbers cycling, whereas a composting toilet that is accessed via a ladder is less likely to be used by many people.

As designers, we strive to consider all of the interconnected relationships that make up the many layers of a design, of a community, and of the world. We call these “invisible structures,” and they are what enables your design, in the real world, to stand the test of time.

Here’s Marit Parker, explaining what “permaculture” is, without mentioning gardening:

What is permaculture?

Beyond the garden: Invisible Structures

This section by Heather Jo Flores

By now, you know that what we are teaching here is way more than gardening. Of course, food growing is essential; we all need to eat, and food security is a big issue. But it’s not an isolated issue. There are fundamental reasons why food is scarce in some places and abundant in others, and why some people can afford food while others in the same place can’t.

​Looking at these underlying and interlinked issues through an ecological-design lens means looking at the basic injustices built into our current system. Many people focus, understandably, on our treatment of the environment, e.g. the soil, when looking at the food system, but don’t step back to see the whole system at play. If we don’t include human relationships in our whole system design, that design is doomed to fail.

We want you to succeed, so we include topics in this course such as conflict resolution, active listening, and observation of social dynamics. For example, specifically creating a welcoming atmosphere for quiet voices and opinions will do much towards making accurate designs and cultivating whole group agreement.

We’ll circle back to many types of invisible structures as we move through the course, from your “inner landscape” to economics, neighborhood relationships, and more.

​Indigenous Wisdom and Common Sense

Most of these skills have been the basis of human culture for millennia.

Up until recently, the debt permaculture leadership owes Indigenous and other land-based societies has rarely been acknowledged; however, a growing number of permaculturists are becoming aware of this omission, and taking action. A body of work is developing that adds greater depth to our work. This course is part of that, so you will hear about specific cultures, civilisations and communities whose work has inspired us, learn how our learning community can give back, and be offered opportunities to explore the deeper nuances and wider benefits of some original ideas and approaches.

Right about now (and all through this course) you might find yourself thinking, “Permaculture is just common sense!” And yes, it would seem so. But unfortunately it isn’t common practice. So here we are, trying to make it so.

Whatever happens, know this: we are not the authority.

Nobody owns “permaculture” and nobody has the right to tell you how to connect with nature. All of us have this knowing inside of us, and the ecological design process is about uncovering that knowing, and applying it to our physical, social, and emotional landscapes, with the goal of creating living, evolving systems that mimic nature, produce food and energy, and regenerate, rather than annihilate, the Earth.

Permaculture, by definition, defies both ownership and large-scale leadership. It is a set of actions and strategies based on site-specific, climate-aware, community-invested ecologies. In this sense, leadership beyond the immediate stakeholders is not practical nor is it possible. It is about personal responsibility, thoughtful action, and careful, ecological design. It is about science, evidence, and results.

Your teachers are just the messengers, and a good design needs no teacher’s approval, because a good design validates itself through the integrity of the ecological systems it perpetuates.

Heather Jo Flores is a mixed-race indigenous person of Cree and Chihuahua descent.

​Rhetoric versus Reality

As you proceed through this course, remember to pay attention to process, not just the land applications.

Remember everything is interconnected. Ecological design is relevant anywhere, not just in the garden, and one of the challenges (and joys) is to apply what you learn to your existing areas of expertise. As you delve deeper into the ethics and principles, and hear about practical examples from a wide range of projects, the implications of applying this perspective to your current work may start to become clearer.

Design with a purpose, one that creates a sustainable future beyond your own backyard.

However, remember not to allow “permaculture” or any other catchphrase to replace critical thought, common sense, and a steadfast commitment to being present, available, vulnerable, and willing to do the work, on the ground, in the community, every day. And not just the land-work. The heart-work is just as important. That’s what the third ethic is about. That’s what this is. And that’s why we’re all here.

These slow, steady changes in the way you experience the world shouldn’t be taken lightly, nor should they be rushed. Don’t forget, reading this article won’t get you much farther than the armchair: you have to get out there and try this stuff in your own yard, in your own community. You have to do the thing. Daily.

So, let’s engage as a community of individuals who think our own thoughts, do our own work, and yet trust and rely upon each other as we move toward a common and fruitful future. One step at a time, we can become adept at caring for the Earth, caring for the people, and finding a myriad of ways to communicate and demonstrate equality, sharing, and abundance.

Similar to yoga, writing, and art, ecological design is a life-path, a daily practice. At first, you might not feel like you’re very flexible.

​Don’t worry about it. Just keep trying. Breathe in, breathe out, chop wood, carry water.

And…get your art supplies together, because we are about to get super creative!

Jargon buster!

This section by Marit Parker

Throughout this course you’ll encounter these words again and again. Here’s a mini-glossary to help turn rhetoric into reality:

Empowering means we can do it ourselves. We don’t have to wait for those “in power” to do something. For example, when Mary Clear and Pam Warhurst started Incredible Edible, they didn’t ask for permission to plant vegetables around Todmorden, their local town; they just got on with it. Now they have the full support of the local council, police, schools and medical centres because the community has witnessed the multiple benefits this project has brought to the area. They empowered themselves and, in turn, their whole community.

Regenerative means something that re-creates itself. A forest is an example of a regenerative system. The leaves capture energy from the sun to enable the tree to turn nutrients from the soil into nourishment. When the leaves fall, they are turned into fertile soil by worms and fungi. Seeds land in this soil and grow into new trees.

Design system means we are looking carefully at what we do and what we want to do, and trying to design a way of doing things that makes sense. Because we are trying to mimic natural systems, this includes being aware of how every element of the system interrelates with everything else.

Sustainability means a system that is self-sustaining. It’s a cyclical system, rather than linear. Think of the difference between traveling by car, bicycle or on foot in terms of the inputs required. Plus the more we ride a bike, hear birdsong and feel the elements, the more we’ll want to bike again. We introduce ourselves to techniques that evolve into hobbies we love.

Abundance means there is plenty for everyone. This may seem obvious. However, consider for a moment how long modern tools and appliances last. Annie Leonard describes “planned obsolescence” and how our economy depends on this in the video The Story of Stuff (11:00). Think how this differs from the “BUD” principle, i.e. making things that are Beautiful, Useful and Durable.


All module homework is optional/strongly recommended, but the only required assignments for your certification are in the “design project deliverables” you’ll create as you move through the Design Studio.

Questions for Review

These questions are just for you to review and reflect. Read and contemplate or write down all of your answers and ideas–whatever works for your learning process.
  1. What is your definition of ecological design, aka permaculture?
  2. Why permaculture? What are you doing here, anyway?!? Begin to envision your niche in the permaculture milieu. How will you best contribute?
  3. What can an ecological design perspective offer you in your current situation?
  4. Each human is also an important component in the larger system. What are your connections with your habitat, your neighborhood?
  5. Brainstorm a list of problems you think ecological design can solve, for you personally and for the world.

Recommended Hands-On

These activities are recommended, if possible, to solidify your learning and help advance your design project.

This exercise will help you tune into the living systems around you and begin to cultivate a “designer’s mind,” which is the first step in becoming a designer!

Choose a tree near your home. Perhaps it’s on your street and you pass it every day. Go to the tree and touch it with your hands. Look at it up close and from far away. Smell the bark, the leaves, the soil around the trunk. Hug it, lean against it, touch it with your tongue.

What benefits does this bring to your neighborhood? What do the people who live near this tree get from it? What resources does it provide?

And how do the tree’s surroundings affect the tree? Think of animals, insects, birds, wind, humans, water, weather, pollution.

How does this tree interact as a living, evolving element in a whole system?

Refer to the drawing and try to think of even more uses, functions, and connections. Write about it, draw a mind-map about it, or just think about it for a while.

PDC student Tamsin Driver used an oak tree near her home for this exercise. Here’s what she came up with!