Permaculture Basics

Permaculture (derived from the words Permanent Agriculture) is about working with nature rather than fighting it. By using permaculture design tools, principles, and ethics we seek to create sustainable systems which requires the minimum input for the maximise yield.

As an example, take a moment or two to consider these potential solutions to the following problem.  Notice that we haven’t said “The Solutions”  but instead  “Potential Solutions” as every situation is different.

Image a sloping and wet hillside planted with trees that require nitrogen.

Which answer (a,b or c) would you choose to provide that Nitrogen? Don’t let the colour coding give you any hints.

a) Buy artificial fertiliser . Go round to each tree and give it a measured dose. Repeat on a regular basis.

b) Animal manures. Go round to each tree and give it a measured dose. Repeat on a regular basis.

c) Plant nitrogen fixing trees. Some trees and other plants naturally produce nitrogen which is shared by fungi with other plants in well treated soil.Best solution permaculture traffic light design

Lets examine the 3 potential solutions in a little bit of detail.

Answer (a) Chemical fertiliser. Advantages. Results are quick and fairly predictable . Disadvantages, it takes time, effort and money to apply. On a sloping wet hillside much of it will be washed away and become pollution perhaps in streams or increasing weed growth. It’s production uses huge amounts of natural resources and creates large amounts of greenhouse gas. A 2002 report suggested that the production of ammonia consumes about 5% of global natural gas consumption, which is somewhat under 2% of the world energy production. (

Answer (b) Animal manures. Advantages. Results are fairly predictable, use of a waste products that would otherwise need disposing of. Disadvantages, collection and distribution are both time consuming and hard work, manure having a much lower nitrogen content than chemical fertilisers. Like chemical fertilisers it can also be washed away causing ecological problems. It can also contain chemicals like antibiotics.

Answer (c) Planting nitrogen fixing trees and plants. Advantages. Once in place they requires little or no further inputs. Fixated nitrogen will not be washed away by rain. It will actively reduce greenhouse gases. Leaves will add humus to the soil.   Nitrogen fixing trees can be trimmed to provide shelter, micro climates for crop trees, stabilise the soil and can also provide a yield such as wood for fires or manufacturing. Disadvantages. Slow to start with, may need care for the first year or two.

Answer (d) Okay we never offered answer (d) at the start but permaculture isn’t about saying “For problem X, apply solution number 17 from the Permaculture Bible” Permaculture is about using the principles, ethics and design tools to come up with what is appropriate for you. Perhaps in your case, it might be the trees you want to add nitrogen to are a few yards from your back door, or near where you spend time each day and the best solution —  is a solution. Just wee on them.

Now this does not mean that we have to create a “New” solution to every problem we find. Certainly not, one of the first questions a Permaculturist learns to ask is “Has anyone else solved this issue?” assuming they have “Is it appropriate for my situation?” and finally “What (if any) alterations can/should I make to best fit my needs?” Why re-invent the wheel?

So lets have a look at a couple of the

Permaculture Design Principles  developed by David Holmgren,

Observe and interact:

You are (unless there are some aliens reading this) of the species Homo sapien (sapien meaning sage or wise). So as a member of this species do you believe that the quality of your solutions will be in proportion to the level of observation of your problems?

For instance someone (lets call them Bob) might buy a new piece of land and in the first month it rains solidly. Bob might from this limited observation decide that they need some serious drainage and spend vast amounts of time and money creating ditches, burying pipes and generally messing up the landscape. As a permaculturist  you will learn to observe over time and to predict how changes you make will effect your system. In this example a permaculturist might look up records of weather for general details and trends, then consult neighbors to better understand the geology and climate of the local area. It may have been that during this first month the wind was atypically coming from the West which forced water laden air up and over the land causing unusually high rainfall. If however the rest of the year the wind is predominantly from the East then most of the water might get deposited on the other side of the hills. The solution then would not be drainage but making use of the next design principle.

hourglass red green sand permaculture design ideasUse and value renewable resources and services:

Water; to much or to little, both can be disastrous. In our example we have to much water at the moment but later we may not have enough. So lets again consider some options. Remember to take a little time to think this through.

(a) Dig and install drainage channels, soakaways, pumping or other equipment.

(b) Buy lots of water storage containers. (Hint 50mm of rain falling on a field 100m x 100m will receive 50m3 (50 tonnes) of water)

(c) Plant lots of willow and other water loving plants.

(d) Dig channels and link ponds to capture the water.

Answer (a) Dig and install drainage. Advantages. If designed correctly it will rapidly remove water from Bob’s land. Disadvantages, it takes time, effort, money  and much disruption of the local ecology. It will require ongoing maintenance and if pumps are needed electricity costs will be a factor. When you need water you will have to pay to bring it to your site.

Answer (b) Buy lots of water storage containers. permatank water tank permaculture design principle example Advantages. By collecting some of the water at times of high rainfall you can reduce the risk of flooding. Water can be stored for later use. Containers can be used to make micro climates for growing and have other uses.  Disadvantages. Containers cost money and will have a limited lifespan and capacity, pumping may be required to fill or empty them which means manual intervention when it is raining.

Answer (c) Install water loving plants and trees. Advantages. Trees like willow can consume wast amounts of water. Can be very cheap to implement and give a yield. Disadvantages, Can take a number of years to achieve the desired results and may be overwhelmed by persistent rain. Can reduce what you else you can grow depending on planting density. Plants can be lost in drought conditions.

Answer (d) Dig channels and link ponds to capture the water. Advantages. Channels and ponds can rapidly drain away water to make the land usable again. Soil dug from the ponds can be used to make raised / Hugelkultur beds. Ponds can be used for aquaculture and can reflect extra light onto plants on it’s North side. High thermal mass of water will help keep temperatures stable. From an unlined pond trees can draw their own water. Will benefit wildlife. Can be placed where they will be needed so reducing the need to transport water. Fast results. Disadvantages. Initially disrupts ecosystem (long term it will be of benefit), may have high costs depending on if liners are needed and will take a lot of work either manually or with a digger.

Answer (e) Come on you were expecting an answer (d) by now weren’t you? But did you think there might be an answer (e) written by you? What’s you solution? Is it a mix of the above or something totally different?

If you would like to learn these and other principles and techniques of Permaculture why not book your place on our full Permaculture Design Course which starts on  May 30th 2015 
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Permaculture prism problems solutions principles rainbow