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The 12 Permaculture Principles

The 12 Permaculture Principles

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Permaculture is an ecological design system that aims to mimic nature by integrating the needs of land, resources, people, and the environment into closed-loop systems. The founders of permaculture created 12 principles to highlight important fundamentals to keep in mind while adopting a permaculture lifestyle.

The 12 permaculture principles are intended to help us design resilient and efficient systems on our land, in our home, and also guide us in our everyday decision-making processes.

If used properly and intentionally to lead more sustainable and eco-friendly lives, these permaculture principles will lead to a drastic reduction in energy and material consumption, a more resilient ecosystem, and a world prepared to fight the battle against climate change.

Can you imagine if even half the population seriously adopted these principles? What a change it would make!

To gain a deeper understanding of what permaculture really stands for and how to integrate it into our lives, let’s dive into each of the 12 Permaculture Principles.

Learn more about permaculture from these articles:
What Is Permaculture? An Introduction To Regenerative Gardening
The 6 Permaculture Zones and How To Use Them
The 5 Best Permaculture Books To Read

1. Observe and Interact

The first principle reminds us that in order to mimic nature, we must observe how nature behaves first.

As you read more about permaculture, you’ll find experts always telling you to observe your property or a particular component of your property before you even start planning projects. It’s beneficial to see how nature acts in each season before making major changes to your land.

Observing can also teach us a lot about how to live more simply and resiliently.

Have you ever noticed that nature already has solutions for just about every logistical problem that we humans have in our lives? We often don’t like to admit it because technology provides more convenient solutions.

Some examples of useful observations are: observing any natural low-lying wetlands or vernal pols where water congregates in the spring, monitoring how the sun shines differently as trees grow and drop leaves, and noticing where animals make nests, hibernate in dens, or migrate through your land.

These are useful observations because they can inform decisions during the planning and designing process.

If you see that a particular tree houses a family of raccoons, you can opt to cut down a different one and leave that individual standing. If you observe frogs and salamanders congregating in a vernal pool to breed, you can leave that area undisturbed to support a more diverse ecosystem on your property.

By applying this principle you can design your property using observations of existing patterns in natural systems which can lead to more sustainable and self-sufficient systems.

2. Catch and Store Energy

This principle is about collecting resources when they are abundant and storing them in a way that allows them to be used when needed.

The best and most abundant source of energy we can harvest is sunlight.

Energy from the sun is captured in fruits, vegetables, and herbs that is then stored as food, in trees that is then stored as firewood, and as energy that can be stored as heat in a passively designed home. Of course, it can also be captured in solar panels and then turned into electricity, although I personally don’t promote solar power.

Other resources that this principle applies to include rainwater, gravity, and wind. With a little creativity and ingenuity, many methods of capturing and storing energy in these forms can be implemented on a homestead without highly advanced technology.

3. Obtain a Yield

Humans need yields to survive, so this principle is somewhat self-explanatory.

A large part of permaculture is growing our own food to become self-sufficient, or at least less dependent on outside sources for sustenance.

Another aspect of this principle is the intangible yields that permaculture can provide us. These include benefits to our physical and mental health that not only come from eating healthy food but also the satisfaction that comes from growing and tending the garden that produces that food.

A basket of vegetables grown and  harvested using permaculutre principles.
Growing food is the most basic and essential way to obtain a yield.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

It is crucial to be able to evaluate our own work and figure out ways to make it better or more efficient.

Take for example that as the climate at broad continues to warm and your property (in theory because you’re adopting a permaculture lifestyle) becomes a more diverse and healthy micro-climate, your land will have different needs than when you first planned your landscape.

It may be necessary to alter your established systems to adapt to these new needs. Maybe it involves you distributing more water to an area that has recently become drier. Or you might need to add more layers to a windscreen because the winds have become consistently stronger and possibly destructive.

Noticing that changes are needed and then implementing those changes is what applying self-regulation and accepting feedback is all about.

Maybe a vegetable you grow isn’t producing as much as you expected. Noticing this and then trying different methods to increase the harvest is a great example of this principle.

The best way to track your observations is by taking regular notes. This will help you compare observations of your environment/garden year to year, week to week, or even day to day if needed. Not only will this assist in identifying issues and potential improvements that can be made, but also tracking how and which changes you make fail or succeed.

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources

Renewable resources are incredibly important, not only in successfully implementing permaculture on a property but also in the grand scheme of the environment at large.

Using and valuing renewable resources includes solar and wind power, collecting rainwater, creating compost from waste, designing a passive solar home, and more.

This principle is crucial to the closed-loop systems that permaculture strives to create. The more we use renewable resources, the fewer inputs we need to bring in from outside sources, such as fossil fuels, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, etc.

Not only is this best for the planet, but it will help you stay more self-sufficient and resilient.

6. Produce No Waste

This principle certainly overlaps with the last one, as renewable resources typically produce little waste. Additionally, closed-loop systems are based on the idea that nothing goes to waste. Every resource that’s used creates a byproduct that can be reused and doesn’t have to be thrown away.

The best and most widely applicable way to adopt “produce no waste” though, in my opinion, is being mindful of our purchasing decisions!

Typically, our biggest source of waste comes from buying things that we either don’t need or that aren’t quality. If we are more intentional about what we buy, whether that’s clothing, food, appliances, gadgets, electronics, etc., then we can reduce the number of materials we throw away. Buying secondhand is also a great option in helping each other produce less waste.

The more things we can find secondhand uses for, the less that end up in landfills.

7. Design from Patterns to Details

Patterns naturally occur in the environment all over the place. As we attempt to imitate nature in the design of our landscapes, we should try to mimic the patterns that we observe.

This principle suggests that as we design and plan, we should keep the big picture in mind and worry about the details later. Getting bogged down by the details at the beginning of the process will distract us from our goals, and possibly waste our time.

For example, you might draw up a garden design for your yard incorporating raised hugelkultur mounds, a pond, a windscreen of trees, and grazing pasture. Designing from patterns to details would mean sketching rough structural outlines before placing specific species or quantities of plants.

Another use of this principle would be designing these systems in areas that lend to their success, such as placing a pond in a low-lying perpetually wet area rather than trying to dry that area out to plant a garden.

Ducks foraging within the understory provides nutrition to the animals and fertilizes the plants we hope to harvest from.

8. Integrate – Do Not Segregate

Integration is at the core of what permaculture is all about. How can we, as humans, integrate the systems that provide for our needs with the already established systems of nature?

This principle certainly isn’t mutually exclusive with integrating natural and human-made systems. We should also try to integrate across multiple man-made systems. An illustration of this principle might be constructing a gray water system that automatically waters a veggie plot near the house where the water is collected.

If you have animals, you might consider integrating a grazing area in the understory of a fruit and nut tree orchard. If designed correctly, you will have nutritious and natural feed for your animals, and they will in turn fertilize the ground surrounding your valuable trees.

Thinking in this way will probably require significant planning and labor upfront. However, in turn, you’ll have more self-sustaining systems that require less maintenance and save you time and resources over the years to come.

9. Use Small, Slow Solutions

Using small and slow solutions can be interpreted in two different ways – both are valid and helpful.

1. It is helpful to test out ideas on a small scale before starting big projects or making major changes. Experiment with one 50-gallon barrel for your rain catchment system, before hooking up 6. This way if your system doesn’t work as originally planned, you can make changes before wasting a lot of time and potentially money.

2. Look for simple and easy-to-implement options while designing a system before turning to more complicated (but potentially “easier”) solutions. What jumps out to me for this aspect of the principle is delaying any implementation of advanced technology until absolutely necessary. Let’s take a wood-burning stove vs a furnace heating system, for example.

A wood-burning stove has one main component – the stove, plus a supporting component – the chimney. After installation, all that’s required to produce heat is properly dried wood and yearly maintenance/cleaning. There are no moving parts to a wood-burning stove.

Compare this to a furnace used to heat an entire house. This system requires hundreds of components that must all work in order for any heat to be produced. Yes, it’s less manual work to use a furnace. However, what’s gained in convenience is lost in surrendering self-sufficiency and significant ongoing expenses. A furnace requires professional installation, professional maintenance, professional repairs, and a source of non-renewable fuel that must be transported to your residence.

For anyone adopting permaculture principles and with access to wood, the wood-burning stove is a pretty cut and dry winner here.

There are endless situations on a property where these kinds of decisions will be necessary. Remember: in permaculture and homesteading, simpler is always better.

10. Use and Value Diversity

Diversity offers protection from fluctuations and unexpected circumstances created by the environment.

Weather, pests, and diseases are unfortunately out of our human control. But, we can mitigate their damaging effects on our land and plants by creating an ecosystem of thoughtfully varied vegetative composition, landscape features, and resilient-minded design.

Think about those unseasonably wet summers. If you’ve only planned for dry weather and planted mostly drought-tolerant species or varieties, the majority of your plants may die that year. On the contrary, if you have a healthy mix of drought-tolerant and moisture-loving vegetation, even if some plants die, you’ll still have a flourishing garden.

In the same vein, diversity is very useful in keeping a healthy tree population. We’ve seen entire tree species wiped out due to just one disease or pest that spreads quickly throughout US forests.

If you are lucky enough to have forested property, but it is dominated by one species, this could be an opportunity for improvement. By introducing other tree species, you can protect your forest from total destruction if the primary tree is wiped out.

Instead of planting huge monoculture beds of annual vegetable crops, try intermixing vegetables that grow well next to each other (also known as companion plants). This is just one way to protect against the spread of disease or pests among your vegetables.

For example, in a large plot of tomatoes, if one of the plants gets blight, it’s very possible that the disease could spread to all of your tomato plants. If there are multiple sections of tomatoes separated by other plants or located across the yard from each other, then the disease is less likely to spread by plant to plant contact.

Apart from diversity safeguarding the ecological resources we humans need, it is just plain better for the environment. A diverse ecosystem builds healthier soil, attracts more wildlife, insects, and pollinators, and is more resilient.

A riverbank with important and diverse vegetation growing within its edge environment.
A riverbank is a great example of an edge environment.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Edges result when two ecological communities meet at a boundary and sometimes overlap. When a forest meets grassland, there is usually a distinct boundary where you can tell one starts as the other ends. Where water meets land on a riverbank or the shore of a pond is another great example of an ecological edge.

When two separate ecosystems meet, a new micro-ecosystem is created. It is a space where plants and animals from the two original environments can thrive, in addition to an additional third group of species that can only survive in this special micro-ecosystem. Without edges, these species would have no home.

At the edges, all sorts of materials—leaves, wood, water, salt, scat, rocks, shells, fungus, bacteria—are exchanged, creating the potential for a fuller, more abundant flow of energy across ecosystems.

These edges create an incredibly diverse and productive environment that we should take advantage of when designing a permaculture garden or property. This means harnessing the benefits of naturally occurring edges, but also creating as many new edges as possible.

In permaculture literature and design examples, you’ll often see spiral shapes and curved lines replace basic rectangles and straight lines. This is because they create more surface area of edges within a property, therefore increasing its diversity.

This principle is a bit more challenging to explain, so I suggest observing some edge environments so you can see for yourself.

Find an area where field meets forest or land meets water to sit and observe. Notice any plants, animals, or activities that occupy these spaces that might otherwise be absent if the edge weren’t present. Do the same in your own yard and brainstorm possible ways to create more edge environments.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Change is inevitable in all aspects of life, but particularly in the environment and especially now. As climate change continues to impact weather events, average temperatures, and availability of resources, we must create the most resilient systems possible. This also means evaluating what changes are occurring on our own properties and creatively using them to our advantage.

All of the other 11 permaculture principles culminate in this last one and promote a greater purpose of preparing for inevitable and unexpected change.

It’s really at the heart of what permaculture is all about! If we create systems that self-regulate, can adapt, are diverse, and build redundancy, then we will be prepared for change.