My SoCal Garden

The Twelve Design Principles of Permaculture

By Steve Thomas-Patel·
Chickens on a grass surrounded by trees

Permaculture is a system of design that follows twelve principles.

The three tenets of permaculture are:

  • Care for the planet
  • Care for people
  • Fair share

The idea is to look at the entire ecosystem and our place in it, and realize the effects of everything we do. We strive to achieve the three tenets. In working toward those three tenets, we follow 12 basic design principles. These are those principles:

  1. Observe and Interact

Designing for permaculture means starting with observation. No matter where you are working, there is something there to begin with. At the very least, there is sun, air and land.

The land has some sort of shape. The soil has some qualities, whether it is available nutrients or a lack of available nutrients. Another major concern is water. How you use and manage water is always an important consideration in a permaculture landscape.

Permaculture is about limiting inputs such as your own work energy. Good observation lets us understand what the space already provides in order to get the most out of it. Our goal is to work with nature, not against it.

  1. Catch and Store Energy

Energy is provided in many forms. The most abundant is sunlight. There is also wind and water. A permaculture system may include advanced power systems like solar or hydro. But for many of us, this might just mean harvesting gravity to deliver water from tanks. Or optimizing the placement of our plants. Plants are the original solar cells, turning light energy into edible sugars.

  1. Obtain a Yield

Yield is a flexible term. It means getting something out of your space. The most obvious yield is food. Food is tangible and measurable and offers obvious benefit. Other yields can be happiness, serenity, mental health. Gardening provides great psychological benefits.

I would also argue the yield doesn’t have to go to people. The earth has suffered great loss in recent years due to habitat destruction. I put as much value on providing habitat to the animals as I do on people.

  1. Apply Self-Regulation and Feedback

Changes in permaculture should be made as slowly as possible. A small change can have a dramatic effect on surrounding systems. Ideally, one or two changes are made at a time and the effects are observed before another change is made. We want to understand whether and how our goals are fulfilled by our changes.

  1. Use and Value Renewables

Our ease of access to utilities can make it feel like water and power are infinite. But there are costs to using them beyond the monthly bill. Water should be captured when it can be, such as with rain barrels or buckets in the shower. Use trees where shade is needed, deciduous trees can provide shade to a house in summer and allow heat through in winter, saving on electric bills.

  1. Produce no waste

It seems like everything we do creates waste. Every ecommerce purchase comes wrapped in cardboard or plastic or both. 20% of waste that ends up in landfills are food that could be composted and added to our gardens. At the very least, compost your own household waste, perhaps even take in your neighbors. Recycle anything that can be recycled. Cardboard boxes can be composted, fed to worms or used in lasagna mulching.

  1. Design from Patterns to Details

Use your observations of the existing features to be lazy. If water tends to pool in certain places, use that. Perhaps plant marsh loving plants there. Or dig channels and add rocks to spread the water around.

  1. Integrate don’t segregate

Traditional agriculture taught even us home gardeners to plant in monocultures, planting like with like. This seems to make things easier on us and human beings. It simplifies our problems. It also makes things easier on pests and diseases that tend to specialize on a small number of plants, or at least family of plants.

Biological systems do best when there is diversity. If your tomato plants are spread out, disease may take over one, but not reach over the okra and cucumbers to reach the next tomato plant down the way.

  1. Use small, slow solutions

Taking on too much at once is a recipe for failure. It’s better to start a small garden and grow it out over time than to plant many gardens and become overwhelmed.

  1. Use and value diversity

Use diversity to control pest populations and attract different birds and other predators. An enjoyable garden is much more interesting when it has many different types of plants instead of the same one planted over and over again.

  1. Use edges and value the marginal

This is perhaps one of the most impactful observations recognized in permaculture. Things happen on the edges. Treetops are not packed full of leaves from core to stemtip. Most leaves are at the edges of the canopy. If you observe birds in a tree, they hang out near the edges.

Edges are where fertility is. A tree may protect the space within it’s canopy, and other plants will thrive around the edges of it. Plants, whether wanted or not, thrive in a circle around the birdbath. Dips in the ground create opportunities for life due to the sheltering or the way water collects there.

  1. Creatively use and respond to change

When we plan we often get a picture in our mind of some ideal of how we want our land to look. Even if we could achieve that perfectly in our implementation, it would only be temporary.

Any look of the land is only a snapshot, since everything is in constant change. The sun is always moving, winds are shifting, bugs are moving seeds, attacking plants. Plants are defending, water is flowing. Plants are growing, dying, or coming in or out of dormancy.

Our neighbors may unexpectedly prune a tree we relied on for shade. You can gripe over the change and make yourself miserable over things you can't control, or you can be embrace it or even be excited about it.

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Copyright 2021 - Thomas-Patel