When I first started learning about permaculture, the first thing I came across was the 12 principles. While I didn’t fully understand them at first, I began to see how they can be used to best develop permaculture sites.
Now, after studying permaculture for several years and getting my Permaculture Design Certificate, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about the 12 principles and provide examples for each.
Let’s jump in.
What is Permaculture?
As a quick introduction, permaculture is a design philosophy and system for creating sustainable human settlements and agricultural systems. It was developed by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s.
Who Created the 12 Principles of Permaculture?
The 12 principles of permaculture were created by David Holmgren, an Australian environmental designer and educator, in the late 20th century.
Holmgren, along with Bill Mollison, co-founded the permaculture movement, which seeks to develop sustainable agricultural and social systems based on natural ecosystems.
The principles were first published in Holmgren’s book “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” in 2002. They have since become widely used in permaculture design and are often referred to as the “Holmgren principles.”
Let’s take a look at these principles and examples of how you can implement them on your site.
1. Observe and Interact
Pay close attention to the natural features of a site and the patterns and relationships in the ecosystem. Use this knowledge to design a human settlement or agricultural system that works with, rather than against, the natural environment. Observing and interacting means:
- Monitoring the movements and behaviors of animals and plants on the site
- Tracking the flow of water, sunlight, and other resources
- Observing the changes in the ecosystem over time
- Asking questions about how the ecosystem functions and how it can be supported or enhanced
To observe and interact effectively, spend time on the site, pay attention to the small details, and be open to learning from the natural world. It’s helpful to keep a journal or record of observations and insights, and to consult with experts or members of the local community who have knowledge about the area.
2. Catch and Store Energy
Capture and conserve resources such as water, sunlight, and organic matter and use them efficiently. Here are some ways to catch and store energy in a permaculture system:
- Harvest and store rainwater: Collect rainwater in catchment systems such as cisterns, swales, and pond systems. Use it to water plants, create a natural-looking water feature or infiltrate soil slowly.
- Use energy-efficient design: Design buildings to make the most of natural light and heat, use shading devices, materials and technologies that require minimal energy to maintain.
- Conserve soil moisture: Retain moisture in soil by mulching, planting cover crops, and using drip irrigation. Mulch prevents evaporation and suppresses weed growth. Cover crops protect soil from erosion and compaction.
- Use solar energy: Install solar panels or other solar-powered technologies to generate electricity or heat water. Passive heating can be achieved by designing a home to take advantage of the sun’s warmth.
- Create habitats for animals: Provide food, shelter, and other resources for animals to encourage them to stay on the site. Bees and butterflies benefit from native flowers and shrubs. Animals such as chickens, ducks, and rabbits can help with pest control and provide fertilizer.
- Compost organic matter: Turn organic matter into nutrient-rich soil amendment by composting kitchen and yard waste. Build a simple compost bin and add layers of green and brown materials such as food scraps, grass clippings, and leaves.
3. Obtain a Yield
Get a return on the resources invested in a system, whether it is food, fiber, fuel, or other products. Here are some ways to obtain a yield in a permaculture system:
- Plant a diversity of crops: Increase chances of a good harvest by planting crops with different growing requirements and that thrive in different conditions. Diversity also promotes soil health, biodiversity, and pest management.
- Use guilds: Create a group of plants that support each other and create a favorable microclimate for growth. Guilds can provide multiple yields from a single area and reduce pest problems.
- Maximize the use of vertical space: Grow plants upwards using trellises, vertical planters, or other techniques. Vertical growing maximizes yield from a given area and reduces the need for extra land or space.
- Incorporate animals: Raise chickens, ducks, rabbits, or goats depending on the site to provide a source of food, fiber, or other products. Animals also contribute to the ecosystem through manure production, pest control, and soil fertilization.
- Use perennial plants: Perennial plants can be harvested multiple times and provide a more reliable and long-term yield compared to annual crops. Perennials also require less maintenance and inputs, and help to build soil health and biodiversity.
4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
Design systems that self-regulate and adapt over time. Use feedback from the system to guide ongoing management and design decisions. Here are some ways to apply self-regulation and accept feedback in a permaculture system:
- Emphasize diversity: Integrate a range of animals into your permaculture system, such as chickens for eggs and pest control, ducks for slug and snail control, bees for pollination, and fish for aquaponics systems. Plant a mix of annual and perennial crops to provide year-round food sources for animals and encourage wildlife to visit the site.
- Use closed loops: Design a closed-loop system that incorporates a range of elements, such as a chicken coop with a composting area for their waste, which is then used to fertilize a vegetable garden. Or, create an aquaponics system that uses fish waste to fertilize plants, which in turn purify the water for the fish.
- Monitor and assess the system: Keep records of planting dates, harvest yields, pest outbreaks, and weather patterns to track how the system is functioning. Regularly walk around the site to observe plant growth, animal behavior, and soil health. Use this data to make adjustments and improvements to the system over time.
- Be open to change: Experiment with new techniques such as cover cropping, green manures, or hugelkultur to see how they work in your specific environment. Be open to feedback from other gardeners or permaculture practitioners and incorporate their ideas into your design. Continually assess and adapt your system based on new information, changing needs, or unexpected events.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Rely on resources that are replenished naturally, such as solar energy, and value the services that natural systems provide, such as pollination and soil health. Here are some ways to use and value renewable resources and services in a permaculture system:
- Use solar energy: This involves installing solar panels or other solar-powered technologies to generate electricity or heat water.
- Conserve water: This is done through techniques such as catchment and storage systems, drip irrigation, and the use of drought-resistant plants.
- Use natural building materials: Materials such as straw bales, cob, and timber are used to create buildings and other structures that are energy-efficient and have a low impact on the environment.
- Plant native species: Native species are adapted to the local climate and ecosystem, and provide valuable ecosystem services such as pollination, pest control, and soil health.
- Add animals: Depending on the site, raise animals such as chickens, ducks, rabbits, or goats, which provide a source of food, fiber, or other products while also contributing to the ecosystem.
6. Produce No Waste
Design systems that efficiently use resources and produce no waste, or that reuse and recycle waste products. Here are some ways to produce no waste in a permaculture system:
- Use closed loops: Reduce waste and create a more self-sustaining system by designing closed-loop systems, where waste from one element becomes the input for another. Closed-loop systems can reduce waste and environmental impact while increasing sustainability.
- Compost organic matter: Generate heat and provide a source of slow-release nutrients for plants by decomposing organic matter. Composting reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and creates a valuable soil amendment that improves soil health and fertility.
- Use vermicomposting: Break down organic matter using worms to create a high-quality compost that is rich in nutrients. Vermicomposting is a sustainable and efficient way to recycle organic waste and create a valuable soil amendment that benefits plants.
- Use graywater: Reuse wastewater from activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing to water plants, reducing freshwater needs. Graywater systems can reduce water consumption and wastewater production while providing a sustainable source of irrigation for plants.
- Use natural cleaning products: Reduce waste and environmental impacts by using natural cleaning products or making your own. Natural cleaning products are less harmful to the environment and can reduce the amount of chemicals and waste produced in the home. For example, we use white vinegar as a multi-surface and window cleaner (it works the same, if not better than chemicals!).
7. Design from Patterns to Details
Start with a broad understanding of the ecosystem and the overall goals for a site. Then work down to the details of specific design elements. Designing from patterns to details involves several steps:
- Assess the site: Gather information about the physical features of the site, such as the climate, soil type, topography, and natural habitats. Understand the social and cultural context in which the site is located, including the needs and goals of the people who will be using it.
- Identify patterns and relationships: Look for patterns and relationships in the ecosystem and understand how they interact and support each other. For example, you might notice that a certain type of plant attracts pollinators, which in turn helps to fertilize other plants.
- Determine the overall goals for the site: Set clear goals for the site based on the needs and values of the people who will be using it. For example, you might want to create a self-sustaining food production system, or a space that is conducive to relaxation and recreation.
- Create a concept design: Sketch out a rough design that incorporates the patterns and relationships identified in step 2 and achieves the goals identified in step 3.
- Refine the design: Flesh out the details of the design, including the placement of specific plants, animals, and other elements, and the use of specific techniques such as water catchment or soil conservation.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
Create diverse, self-sustaining systems that function in harmony with one another. Here are some ways to integrate rather than segregate in permaculture:
- Plant guilds: Create mutually beneficial relationships between plants by grouping together plants that have complementary roles, such as nitrogen-fixing plants, pest-repelling plants, and plants that provide shade or support. Plant guilds increase productivity, diversity, and self-regulation in the ecosystem.
- Intercropping: Planting different crops in close proximity to one another increases overall productivity and diversity, as well as providing natural pest control and soil fertility. Intercropping maximizes the use of space and resources and creates a more resilient and self-sustaining system.
- Multiple functions: Choose plants and design elements that serve multiple functions, such as using edible plants as hedges or incorporating a pond that serves as both a water source and habitat for wildlife. Maximizing the functions of each element increases efficiency and reduces waste.
- Animals: Integrating animals into the permaculture system provides natural fertilizers, pest control, and food, as well as adding to the overall diversity of the system. Animals contribute to the self-regulation of the system and increase its resilience and sustainability.
- Human use: Design the permaculture system to meet the needs of humans, including food, shelter, and other resources, while also considering the needs of the larger ecosystem. Creating a system that meets human needs while respecting the environment ensures long-term sustainability and benefits for all.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
Emphasize the importance of starting small, using local resources and solutions, and allow time for systems to develop and mature. Here are some ways to use small and slow solutions in permaculture:
- Start small: Focus on creating a small raised bed or container garden, or starting with a small composting system. Once you have gained experience and confidence, expand your efforts to larger areas or more complex systems, such as a full-scale vegetable garden or food forest.
- Use local resources: Collect rainwater in barrels or cisterns to irrigate your plants, rather than using municipal water. Use organic materials such as compost or manure sourced from local farms or gardens, rather than purchasing synthetic fertilizers. Use locally sourced materials such as wood, stone, or straw bales for building garden features.
- Allow time for natural processes: Allow an area of your garden to go fallow for a season, or plant a cover crop such as clover or buckwheat to replenish the soil with nutrients. Plant a diverse range of species that attract beneficial insects and pollinators to the site, such as milkweed for monarch butterflies or dill for ladybugs.
- Emphasize diversity: Plant a mix of annual and perennial vegetables, herbs, and fruits to create a varied and productive garden. Integrate a range of wildlife habitats such as birdhouses, bee hotels, or bat boxes to encourage beneficial species to visit and contribute to the ecosystem. Incorporate diverse garden features such as a greenhouse, a pond, or a vertical garden to increase functionality and diversity.
10. Use and Value Diversity
Increase the resilience and stability of systems by providing a range of options and resources. Here are some ways to use and value diversity in permaculture:
- Plant a diversity of species: Plant a mix of vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers in your garden. Incorporate nitrogen-fixing plants such as legumes or clover, which help to improve soil health. Plant a variety of crops that mature at different times to ensure a continuous harvest throughout the growing season.
- Incorporate a range of functions: Install a rainwater catchment system to collect and store water for your garden. Plant a variety of trees and shrubs to create a wildlife habitat and provide shade. Use composting or vermicomposting to recycle organic waste into nutrient-rich soil.
- Use a diversity of techniques: Incorporate indigenous knowledge such as companion planting, polyculture, or agroforestry, which have been developed over generations to create sustainable agricultural systems. Use modern technologies such as drip irrigation, solar energy, or vertical gardening to increase efficiency and productivity. Incorporate a range of design principles such as permaculture zones, keyline design, or food forests to create a holistic and integrated system.
- Value and respect diversity: Create a garden that reflects the natural diversity of your local environment. Encourage wildlife such as bees, birds, and butterflies to visit your garden by providing habitat and food sources. Use organic and sustainable gardening practices that avoid harm to the environment and promote biodiversity.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
“Edges” and “the marginal” refer to the areas where different elements of a permaculture system meet and interact. These areas are often the most productive and diverse, as they provide a range of resources and opportunities for integration. Here are some ways to use edges and value the marginal in permaculture:
- Use edge areas for food production: The edges of a permaculture system, where different elements meet, are often some of the most productive areas for food production. For example, the edge of a pond can be a good place to grow aquatic plants, while the edge of a forest can be a good place to grow shade-tolerant crops.
- Look for opportunities to integrate elements: Rather than separating different elements of your permaculture system (such as plants, animals, and water systems), look for opportunities to integrate them and create mutually beneficial relationships.
- Utilize “waste” resources: In permaculture, there is no such thing as waste as everything has the potential to be used as a resource. Look for opportunities to use waste materials, such as compost or graywater, to create value in your system.
- Emphasize diversity: The marginal areas of a permaculture system are often the most diverse, as they provide a range of resources and opportunities for integration. Emphasize diversity in these areas to increase the resilience and stability of your system.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Change is an inevitable part of life, and permaculture design provides a framework for creatively responding to and managing change. Here are some ways to creatively use and respond to change in permaculture:
- Observe and interact: Spend time in your garden observing the behavior of insects and wildlife, tracking changes in temperature and rainfall, and noting which plants thrive in different areas. Use this information to make adjustments to your planting scheme, water usage, and pest control methods.
- Use change as an opportunity: If you notice that your tomato plants are struggling in the heat of summer, consider replacing them with a more heat-tolerant crop such as peppers or eggplants. Alternatively, if you notice an influx of pests in your garden, consider introducing natural predators such as ladybugs or praying mantises to help control the problem.
- Emphasize diversity and resilience: Plant a diverse range of crops in your garden, including vegetables, herbs, fruit trees, and flowers. Incorporate companion planting, intercropping, and crop rotation to maximize productivity and reduce the risk of pests and diseases. Create a wildlife habitat in your garden by planting native shrubs and trees and providing food and water for birds, bees, and other wildlife.
- Foster flexibility: Experiment with different growing techniques, such as raised beds, vertical gardening, or hydroponics. Try new crops each season and adapt your planting scheme based on which crops are most successful in your area. Use low-cost or recycled materials to create new garden features, such as trellises, compost bins, or rainwater catchment systems.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. Check out this list to see your local services.
- Permaculture Consultation: Need help with a bigger project? Send us a message.