Principles of Permaculture

By Ross Mars


While Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are both recognised as co-originators of permaculture, their seminal text Permaculture 1 did not discuss any overarching principles on which permaculture was based. Nor did Permaculture 2, which was published in 1979 by Mollison alone. It wasn’t until 1991 that Mollison first discussed the principles of permaculture in Introduction to Permaculture – which are listed in the table below. He did mention a few vague principles in the Designers Manual (1988) such as “work with nature and not against it” and “everything gardens” – but these tend to be overlooked.

Holmgren’s twelve principles were first published in 2002. Some practitioners consider one set over the other, but I tend to use whatever is applicable at the time. However, I was only teaching about Mollison’s principles for the first ten years in my permaculture courses as Holmgren had no involvement in the permaculture movement for quite some time. When you examine the table comparing the two sets of principles you will find some repeats and overlaps. As you might expect a direct comparison is not clearcut.

The principles

For simplicity, the table lists Mollison’s eleven principles in order with Holmgren’s ideas matched wherever possible. Very little explanation and elaboration is provided here, and these are my interpretations of how the principles align, so you can further explore this at your leisure.

[1] Relative Location – Every element is placed in relationship to another so that they assist each other

[2] Each element performs many functions

[3] Each important function is supported by many elements
[8]  Integrate Rather Than Segregate

By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
[4] Efficient energy planning – For house and settlement (zones and sectors) Zone Planning, Sector Planning, Slope[7] Design From Patterns to Details

By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
[5] Using Biological Resources – Emphasis on the use of biological resources over fossil fuel resources[5] Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
[6] Produce No Waste

Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources. By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
[6] Energy Cycling – Energy recycling on site (both fuel and human energy).[2] Catch and Store Energy
[6] Produce No Waste

By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.
[7] Small Scale Intensive Systems – Plant stacking, time stacking.[3] Obtain a yield

Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the working you are doing.
[8] Accelerating Succession and Evolution – Using and accelerating natural plant succession to establish favourable sites and soils.[9] Use Small and Slow Solutions

Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.
[9] Diversity – Polyculture and diversity of beneficial species for a productive, interactive system. Guilds.[10] Use and Value Diversity

Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
[10] Edge Effect – Use of edge and natural patterns for best effect.[11] Use Edges and Value the Marginal
[7] Design From Patterns to Details

The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
[11] Attitudinal Principles – Everything works both ways. Permaculture is information and imagination intensive.[12] Creatively Use and Respond to Change

We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time.
 [1] Observe and Interact

By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
 [4] Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback

We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. Negative feedback is often slow to emerge.

In addition to the above, Mollison provided these others in his Designer’s Manual (1988):

  • Work with nature, rather than against it
  • The problem is the solution
  • Make the least change for the greatest possible effect
  • The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited
  • Everything gardens
Applying the principles at the Witchcliffe Ecovillage: A case study

Some of you were able to visit our place at the permaculture meeting in February and see how the principles of permaculture overlay the various elements of the house, garden and site. Here are some brief examples of how the permaculture principles underpin all aspects of our property.

Passive solar house, solar pergolas, photovoltaic panelsEfficient energy planning, Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Greywater systemUsing Biological Resources, Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services, Produce No Waste
Rainwater harvesting and useEnergy Cycling, Catch and Store Energy
Intensive (and extensive) gardensSmall Scale Intensive Systems, Obtain a yield, Accelerating Succession and Evolution, Use Small and Slow Solutions, Design From Patterns to Details. Relative Location – every element is placed in relationship to another so that they assist each other. Each element performs many functions. Each important function is supported by many elements. Integrate Rather Than Segregate. Diversity, Use and Value Diversity.
EUA (to be developed)Edge Effect, Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Ross, Jenny and ChristinaObserve and Interact, Attitudinal Principles, Creatively Use and Respond to Change

It is easy to see that we have adopted the ethics and principles of permaculture to all aspects of our lives and these guide our decisions and provide a clear direction to the path we must all follow.

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