The 12 principles of permaculture

a wooden heart on a fruit tree
a wooden heart on a fruit tree


The 12 principles of permaculture by David Holmgren summarize the permaculture way of thinking. The permaculture principles are to be understood as thinking tools that should help us in identification, design and development of systems.

Principle 1: Observe and interact

Nature observation and astonishment are said to have led to the emergence of philosophy in ancient Greece. The Stoics saw nature as divine and orientation to nature meant for them the orientation towards eternal divine reason. In fact, nature as a whole is a system that is unsurpassed in terms of sustainability and efficiency. Therefore, observation and interaction with nature is the first principle of permaculture.

Plan as efficiently as nature

Today’s industrial society depends to a large extent on the use of fossil energy. The industrial production of food and other goods is very inefficient in terms of energy. On the contrary the permaculture movement observes the interaction of elements in natural systems to find new efficient and sustainable ways. The goal is to set up systems that regulate and maintain themselves, while still providing the necessary resources.

Collect data and get to know your environment/surroundings

At the beginning of each permaculture design planning, a location is observed in all seasons whenever possible and as much data as possible is collected. It is also important that not only the individual components of a system are observed. Likewise the relationships between an element and the rest of the system are always included in the observations.

Principle 2: Collect and store energy

Above all, our capitalist world aims at short-term profit maximization. In the long run, however, this way of thinking allows us to withdraw from our own livelihood. In contrast, permaculture thinking attempts to use and sustain the various resources as efficiently as possible.

Save and invest in the long term

In fossil fuels energy is stored that has been collected over thousands of years. We use this energy in a comparatively short period of time to increase the harvest of renewable resources on earth to an unsustainable level. In fact the negative effects of this approach are already clearly visible today.

Permaculture Design tries to save and invest the available energy resources, so that our children will have these resources at their disposal.

Examples of renewable energy sources

  • Solar energy, wind and hydropower
  • fertile soil
  • perennial plants that produce food and other resources
  • Waters and storage tanks
  • passive houses

So this principle leads us to a long-term investment of our existing wealth in natural capital. Instead of leaving our money in the bank account, we invest it in systems that provide us with the long-term benefits we need for a good life.

solar field - solar energy is a renewable energy sources
solar field – solar energy is a renewable energy source, this is one of the principles of permaculture

Principle 3: Obtain a yield

If we invest all of our capital in a forest that will only generate income for our grandchildren and therefore we do not have enough to eat now, that does not make much sense. We also have to create a base that provides us with the necessary resources as early as possible at the beginning of the project.

The more useful one prevails

If a system does not generate immediate, usable returns, it will rather tend to atrophy. Elements that deliver truly useful resources from the beginning will be more likely to prevail over alternatives and grow healthier. This assumption is based on the principle of maximum power of Alfred Lotka.

Yield promotes development

In addition, a return, profit or income encourages the motivation of all involved and thus promotes the repetition of the system that has generated the income. System theory speaks of rewards or positive feedback loops in this context. These reinforce the original process and indeed promote its growth.

For this reason targeting rewards right from the beginning means focusing on the catalysts that drive success, growth, and imitation of proven solutions.

Principle 4: Apply self-regulation and learn from the feedback

The fourth of the permaculture principles is about those aspects of self-regulation that limit unwanted growth or behavior of the system. By better understanding the positive and negative feedbacks in a system, we can create self-regulatory systems that require less-intensive corrective action. Accordingly, in permaculture design, attempts are made to minimize the feedback that encourages inappropriate growth or behavior.

Positive feedback speeds development

Feedback is a term from the system theory. Rewards, as described in principle 3, can act as a catalyst for development. This would be an example of positive feedback. On the other hand, negative feedback is needed, which acts as a brake to keep the system from being overused or misused.

Autonomous and self-regulating systems are the ideal

Self-sustaining and self-regulating systems are an ideal of permaculture that may be intended, but perhaps never fully realized. Perhaps the greatest application of the principles of integration and diversity (principles 8 and 10) may have an impact on the achievement of this ideal. But also the twelfth principle promotes the resistance to disorders. It leads to building all elements as independently and energy efficient as possible. For example, the use of strong, semi-wild and self-replicating plant varieties and livestock breeds is a classic permaculture strategy.

Principle 5: Use renewable resources and services

Renewable, regrowing resources are like a passive source of income. We can use it long-term without any problems, as long as we do not poison the source. However, if we use non-renewable resources, we will withdraw money from an account that will one day be empty. If we make our daily consumption dependent on this account and build our entire lifestyle on it, then someday we will have a big problem. Viewed like this, today’s humanity behaves like a child of wealthy parents, which is wasting all the savings of previous generations. For this reason it’s about time we grow up and live off the resources that we’ve taken care of ourselves.

Passive benefits can be used without consuming the host

The wood of a tree would be an example of a renewable resource. A living tree also provides shade and shelter as a performance to us. Since we do not consume the tree through the benefits of these services, this would be an example of a renewable performance. In permaculture these passive functions (renewable services) play an important role. Plants, animals, living soil and water provide a variety of renewable services that we can use without consuming the host and without having to spend energy harvesting them.

Use the functions of elements intelligently

Plowing a field with a tractor consumes petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. In addition, there is a high workload, which is not very efficient. In the permaculture design process, the question now arises which plants or animals in nature take over the same task. For example, chickens and pigs prepare the soil perfectly for planting. Also if the renewable services of these animals are used for the treatment of the soil, only the labor to change the fence line is required and the use of tractor, tiller and pesticide is avoided.

tree trunk - wood of a tree is a renewable resource
tree trunk – wood of a tree is a renewable resource

Principle 6: Do not produce waste

Waste, according to Bill Mollison, is an output from a system component that is not being used productively by a component of another system. The principle “Do not produce waste” leads us to look for ways to minimize pollution and the production of waste. On balance, permaculture design always tries to use all outputs of a system productively.

Use the waves of abundance

If a garden is threatened by too many snails, it means a lack of ducks feeding on these snails. In some regions, too much grass and trees of course can lead to destruction by bushfires. Here, grazing animals can be used to keep the spread of grass and trees in a meaningful setting. On the other hand, too many herbivores can lead to overgrazing. The permaculture design process is always looking for creative and innovative ways to efficiently use the waves of abundance.

Use waste as resources

In natural systems, waste from all elements always serves as resources for other elements. For example, an earthworm feeds on plant remains and converts them into humus. The humus then provides nutrients to the plants. Permaculture Design also tries to use all waste as valuable resources.

In the long run, the input / output model of the industrial world is very unprofitable

In the industrial world, natural materials are transformed with energy into products and services. In the long-term, however, the products are waste that has to be disposed of in landfills with high energy consumption. The burning of oil also produces many pollutants that can not be used and even lead to environmental poisoning and climate change. In the long term, climate change then will generate significant costs, making the use of oil as an energy source much less profitable.

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

The first six principles of permaculture tend toward a perspective that looks first at the elements and then at the organisms and individuals that make up the elements. The next six principles look at the systems from a higher perspective and deal with the general patterns and relationships that become visible when you look at the whole system.

The seventh of the principles leads us to take a holistic perspective. Instead of focusing only on the details of a picture, a permaculture designer tries to look at the whole picture.

The recognition of patterns enables holistic understanding

For example, in a spider web a clear pattern can be seen, but the details of the spider web vary constantly. The recognition of patterns is a necessary precursor of the permaculture design process. When we recognize the patterns of systems, we also understand the higher structure of the system, and we can use the same patterns in a different context for other systems. Furthermore, patterns allow us to sort out the jumble of options and scopes for design.

Finding patterns is more important than understanding all the details

If we focus too much on the complexity of the details, we run the risk of not seeing the forest for the trees. This can lead to the planning of large-scale projects that look impressive but do not work. Complex systems that self-regulate and operate permanently usually consist of functioning simple systems. Therefore, finding a proper pattern for a design is far more important than understanding all the details of the elements of the system.

Zone and sector planning

In the permaculture design process, this principle is used, among other things, in zone and sector planning. For example, use-intensity zones (zones where much work is required) are located in the environment of an activity center (e.g., farmhouse).

The definition of such zones simplifies the placement of elements and subsystems. Similarly, sectors may be determined by solar radiation, wind, flood, and fire hazard. The permaculture designer keeps the characters of these sectors in mind, which then helps him understand the plot and organize design elements of a working system.

Principle 8: Integrate instead of exclude – Integrate rather than segregate

From system theory we know that one system is more than the sum of all parts. Because the relationships and interactions between the parts first make the system what it is. When a system is broken down into parts and these subsystems are examined independently, the relationships between the elements are not included in the investigation. This can lead to a total distortion of the result.

Connections between elements are as important as the elements themselves

In the internal functioning of organisms to entire ecosystems, the connections between the elements play just as important a role as the individual elements themselves. Therefore, the permaculture designer tries to arrange the elements of a system so that each one serves the needs of the other elements and can include products of others.

Complex relationships strengthen the entirety

In industrial agriculture, elements are separated, for example in a monoculture. By reducing the complexity of relationships, however, a system automatically becomes unstable and vulnerable. Many relationships between elements that support each other bring many benefits and are necessary for efficient self-regulation. Therefore permaculture tries to create systems that are closely interlinked.

Meaningful placement strengthens self-regulation

Through a meaningful placement of plants, animals, earthworks and other infrastructure, a higher degree of integration and self-regulation can be achieved, which minimizes the necessary corrective measures. For example, wild herbs in livestock grazes contribute to soil improvement, biodiversity and herbal healing. Cattle on rotation pastures can control these weeds without completely eliminating them.

For an awareness of relationships in the design of self-regulating systems, the following statements from the permaculture literature play a central role:

  • Each element fulfills many functions
  • Every important function is supported by many elements

Principle 9: Use small and slow solutions

This principle contradicts the idea of “bigger is better”, which is often the basis of today’s economy. Whereas permaculture systems always try to fulfill their function in the smallest, practically meaningful and energy-efficient scale.

Small and slow solutions are more efficient

Cheap energy subsidizes the use of large-scale facilities and long trade routes. But this also leads to a destruction of community and to an increased energy demand. Small and slow solutions are actually more efficient and sustainable than fast and big ones. A well-known representative of this realization is the British economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher. In 1973 he published the book “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered”with a collection of essays on this principle.

Fast-paced processes are destructive

Many practical examples argue against the use of fast-paced processes. Fast growing trees are often short-lived. Although other species grow slower, they are more valuable and after 20 to 30 years they grow even faster than the short-lived ones because of their size. Fast-growing livestock fed with concentrated nutrients is often more susceptible to disease and has a lower life expectancy.

Even highly bred plants are less resistant to pests and therefore need more care. In big cities, cars seem to be comfortable and fast. In practice, however, they impede mobility and lower the quality of life. Smaller and slower bicycles allow a freer and more energy efficient movement without causing noise and pollution.

Principle 10: Use and value diversity

The systemic complexity in nature is achieved through the enormous variety of forms, functions and interactions between the elements. A permaculture designer must find a balance between diversity on the one hand, and productivity and performance on the other hand.

Diversity strengthens the system

Monocultures are vulnerable to pest and disease and therefore the main cause of pesticide use and inefficient use of energy. Cultivation of various plants in polycultures promotes diversity in order to reduce pest vulnerability, unfavorable seasons and market fluctuations. It also reduces dependence on markets and strengthens household self-sufficiency.

Different elements support each other

Of course, the principle of diversity is not only applied to polyculture. It applies to species and populations and also to human society. The preservation of different cultures and languages is just as important as the conservation of biodiversity.

However, the permaculture does not only want to preserve the already existing diversity, but also to create a new diversity out of the melting pot of nature and the inherited culture. Many different elements support, strengthen and inspire each other.

a flower meadow mixed with fruit trees is a good example for bio-diversity
a flower meadow mixed with fruit trees is a good example for bio-diversity

Principle 11: Use edge zones and value the marginal

A river outfall is an example of a boundary zone. It serves as a complex interface between land and sea. The shallow water allows it to flood with sunlight, promoting algae and plant growth. At the same time, the shallow water is a feeding place for birds. Even the living soil with its microorganisms is a marginal zone. For any life, including humanity, it is even the most important marginal zone of all.

Edge zones are not a problem, but a chance

At edge zones always the most interesting things happen. But often we do not see them because we focus on other aspects. The agricultural industry tends to focus more on crops and clearly articulated goals. This can lead to a devaluation of marginal land and to the destruction of wild plants. Even the less visible needs of women, the disadvantaged and the landless can be overlooked by such a focus. The economy is more focused on big business and thriving cities. However, the biggest innovations emerge in small businesses and in smaller, less affluent locations and systems.

The expansion of peripheral zones increases productivity

Expanding the marginal and invisible aspects can increase the productivity and stability of a system. When the shore between the land and the pond is enlarged, both systems become more productive. Alley cropping also increases productivity by extending the marginal zone between the field and the forest by combining the planting of rows of trees with cereal crops.

Principle 12: Creatively use and respond to change

Change can be a great opportunity if used in a conscious and cooperative manner. This also applies to major changes that are beyond our control. The last of the permaculture design principles leads us to go with the changes, rather than fighting them with a lot of energy. Permaculture design even tries to create a foundation that supports and fosters a creative form of development and change.

Water is stronger than stone

In the short term, a stone seems to be stronger than the water. In the long run, however, the water breaks through and makes its way through stony ground. The Taoists try to use this example to explain that it makes more sense and more efficient to adapt to their environment instead of responding to an obstacle with direct violence. This principle is also used, for example, in Asian martial arts. Instead of fending off an opponent’s stroke directly, the opponent’s power is used against him.

Only flexible system can survive permanently

The principles of permaculture aim at the permanence of natural, living systems. And only those systems that can react flexibly and intelligently to change are permanent. When environmental conditions change, only those living things that can adapt to the new conditions can survive.

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