How Permaculture Farming Works

What is Permaculture farming?

Permaculture is an approach to farming that mimics natural ecosystems to create a sufficient and sustainable farm. Permaculture is inspired by nature, developing farming systems built on crop diversity, sustainability, resilience, and natural productivity. 

Permaculture garden
Permaculture garden- Image credit

Permaculture is based on a set of principles applied in fields such as town planning, rewilding and community resilience. There are three main ethical foundations of permaculture:

Care for the earth

Help all life systems to continue to exist and multiply.

Care for the people

Allow people to access resources needed for survival.

Fair share

Set limits to population and consumption. When we govern our own needs, we can set resources aside to foster the above principles. 

Permaculture has three building blocks; how to utilize naturally occurring patterns in nature, how to combine different species and how they function to support each other.

It determines where to place these elements to ensure they produce maximum value for the local environment. Permaculture focuses on the relationships between the elements, while minimizing waste, human labor and energy input. 

A brief history of permaculture

Permaculture was developed by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in 1978. They sought to introduce alternative farming systems in response to Westernized industrialized methods of farming that were damaging the environment. Permaculture was intended to conform to traditional agricultural knowledge. 

David Holmgren's farm
David Holmgren’s farm

Permaculture is a combination of the words permanent and agriculture. Mollison and Holmgren observed that industrialized farming methods were dependent on non-renewable resources, were harmful to the environment, reduced biodiversity, and affected the soil quality. Their appreciation for indigenous knowledge was essential to the foundation of permaculture. 

Despite Holmgren and Mollison being credited with popularizing permaculture, there were several prior works on agroforestry and forest farming that had existed since the 1920s.

Joseph Russel Smith wrote a paper in 1929, criticizing the widespread deforestation, plowing, and soil erosion in mountainous regions of the USA. He suggested the planting of fruit and nut-bearing trees as sources of food for humans and wildlife, with the added advantage of stabilizing watersheds and restoring soil health. 

How does permaculture work?

Permaculture is founded on the replication of natural patterns in ecosystems that have evolved over many years and proven to be effective. 

Permaculture involves an overall understanding of natural elements and how they interact. The design elements of permaculture are influenced by scientific ecology, biomimicry, and empirical practices established over many years by traditional societies. 

Check out these examples of permaculture farms.

Holmgren identified 12 permaculture design principles:

  1. Observe and interact– Take time to interact with nature and find the best solution that works for your agricultural needs.
  2. Catch and store energy– Capture essential resources like rainwater and solar electricity and store them for later use. Your permaculture system should collect resources when they are most abundant. 
  3. Obtain a yield– Focus on a project with a meaningful output. You should reap maximum benefits from your permaculture system.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback– Accountability is key in permaculture farming. You should be open to the opinions and criticisms from others, to ensure your system functions at maximum efficiency. 
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services– Utilize the abundance of nature, and prioritize renewable resources. Reduce your consumption of non-renewables. 
  6. Produce no waste– Permaculture emphasizes the needs to value all resources available, without wasting anything. 
  7. Design from patterns to details– You should keenly observe naturally occurring patterns as a way to get inspiration for your permaculture designs. You can later add other details that match your vision. 
  8. Integrate rather than segregate– Let relationships between your design elements evolve naturally so they can support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions– Small systems are easy to maintain and allow you to better utilize resources available in your locality. The systems also produce more manageable and sustainable outcomes. 
  10. Use and value diversity– Diversity is essential to permaculture. Planting diverse crops reduces vulnerability to pests and diseases. 
  11. Use edges and value the marginal– The meeting point of two different things is the most productive area. This is where you get the greatest diversity and maximum value.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change– Careful observation and well-timed intervention is vital to making a positive impact from your system. 

Is Permaculture Pseudoscience?

Common Practices and Techniques in permaculture.


Incorporates the benefits of combining trees and shrubs with food crops and livestock. This practice integrates agricultural and forestry technologies to produce a diverse, profitable, healthy and sustainable ecosystem. 

Forest farming combines the processes and relationships of natural forests to create highly productive and sustainable systems. 

Suburban and urban permaculture

The key element of this practice is the efficient utilization of space. Here, you seek to maximize the space for food production, while minimizing wasted space. 


Hugelkultur is a German term that means “hill culture”. It involves burying wood to increase the water retention capabilities of the soil. Decaying wood is porous and thus absorbs water that seeps into the ground.

This practice is based on the permaculture principle of catching and storing energy. 

Rainwater harvesting and distribution

You can collect rainwater and store it in tanks for later use. The water can be used for drinking, irrigation and other domestic needs. Harvesting rainwater is a way to supplement the water table and increase green spaces in urban centers. This embodies the catch and store energy principle of permaculture. 

rainwater harvesting in permaculture
Image credit

Greywater is collected by reusing water in the homestead. You can use dishwater, laundry water or bathwater for landscape irrigation. 

Sheet mulching

Sheet mulching mimics the leaf cover that occurs naturally on the forest floor. The mulch serves as a way to conserve soil moisture, preserve nutrients in the soil and attract earthworms and other microorganisms that help break down organic matter.

sheet mulching
sheet mulch

It is also a way to eliminate weeds and other non-desirable plants by starving them of sunlight.

Cell grazing

Cell grazing is preferred in permaculture as it helps minimize the destruction of the environment by livestock. It involves the rotation of animals between different pastures, paddocks or forests. You can monitor how livestock interact with the land. Further, it gives plants time to regrow after a certain period of grazing. 

Conservation grazing is using animals for the primary benefit of the environment rather than their products. You use animals to feed on weeds and other invasive plants, eliminating the need for mowing.

Natural Building

A sustainable approach to construction involving the use of recyclable materials for your building. This technique focuses on durability and the use of locally available renewable resources to build a homestead.

Natural building aims to limit the environmental implications of building while maintaining aesthetics and comfort. You can use materials such as straw, reeds, wood, clay and rock for construction. 

No-till farming

Permaculture aims to disturb the soil as little as possible. This is vital for water retention, preserving carbon in the soil and limiting the potential of germinating weeds. Tilling is not essential in permaculture and thus the soil retains its quality through the growth and maturation of plants. 


This practice combines two or more plant species that are beneficial to each other in your landscape. For example, the popular three sisters method of planting. You need to do your research when intercropping to ensure that the plants do not compete for nutrients or are detrimental to each other. 

What is the difference between permaculture and organic farming?

Organic farming involves planting annual crops, which has a negative impact on soil quality in the long term due to regular replanting. Permaculture on the other hand, involves a diversity of plants that allow the soil to get revitalized easily. It integrates the garden and home surroundings, creating a system that has a limited impact on the environment.

In organic farming, the use of natural fertilizers leads to waste from plants becoming food for another. It replicates the natural carbon cycle, requiring the death of one plant so the other can benefit. 

In organic farming, you use organic pesticides and herbicides for pest and weed control. However, permaculture does not require the use of any manufactured chemicals, rather depending on organisms in the ecosystem to control weeds and pests. 


Permaculture is a sustainable farming method that replicates the natural ecosystem to ensure productivity and resilience. Permaculture was popularized in the 1970’s in response to the environmental devastation caused by industrialized farming methods. It takes a holistic approach to the management of crops and livestock.

Permaculture can be as profitable as traditional farming, with the added benefits of less labor. The principles of permaculture allow nature to do all the work, while you wait for a bountiful harvest.