Permaculture Principles

Principles are guidelines of where to start when looking at designing sustainable systems. The principles are the “nuts and bolts” of Permaculture design, helping to evolve the techniques. The best approach is to focus on interconnection of all the principles, not on one principle in exclusion of the others.

Note that the principles are explicitly stated in Introduction to Permaculture, but not explicitly stated in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.


An important foundation principle of Permaculture is ethics. Bill Mollison’s simplification of a system of ethics is a good starting point. Mollison’s system focuses on:

  • Care for the earth
  • Care for people
  • Give away the surplus


Permaculture is based very strongly on observation of nature and natural patterns, and trying to mimic them consciously in design projects. It is ideal to observe a site over every season before starting a design project, but this is often not possible.

Taking the time to observe, instead of putting in thoughtless action, can pay off. Remember that observation never ends. It is the most important activity in design.

Sometimes it is good to watch and observe elements not working as expected, instead of wasting labor “doing” more and more to correct a problem. Remember, every “problem” is an opportunity and challenge.

Relative Location

Consider the relative location of elements in a system, do not view them as isolated components. When the outputs (including waste products) of one component of a system are used by another component, locating the two components near each other reduces the time and energy required to move the outputs of one system to another. For instance, locate the compost pile adjacent to the garden where the compost will be used or locate the herb garden near the kitchen, so fresh herbs are easy to gather.

Multiple Functions for Single Elements

In design, try to use land as creatively as possible, with individual elements providing multiple functions. This is especially important in urban designs.

By multiplying the functions provided by each element, or “stacking functions”, a system can be more efficient in terms of energy use.

Multiple Elements Support Single Functions (Redundancy)

A sustainable design requires that critical functions are provided for in multiple ways, by multiple elements. This insures that the failure of one system does not break the design.

Consider the complexity of the relationships between elements, instead of the overall number of elements in the system.

Biological Resources

Make use of elements on site, and look first toward plant, animal, and human resources. Biological systems can be very efficient, particularly in terms of energy expenditure, and a “high tech” solution is often not the best solution.

Energy Recycling

Consider the flow of energy within the system. The more that the products and wastes can be reused in a local system, the more efficient the flow of energy is. Try to close energy loops, to prevent energy “bleeding” from the system without being reused.  Scaling back on personal energy needs and use can greatly reduce the need for external energy inputs.

Working with, instead of against, natural systems leads to improved energy efficiently. This principle goes hand-in-hand with responsible energy use and minimizing needs.

American agriculture is often put forth as being very efficient. This is true only when one looks at only the yield of crops per acre or per person-hour of labor. But when the caloric energy input for production (including the fuel for tractors, energy required to produce the fertilizers and pesticides and for irrigation) is compared to the caloric energy output (food value), the result is a net loss of energy for every bushel of crops produced.

Appropriate Technology

Consider the impact of all design choices. Use sustainable systems whenever possible to meet needs for housing, cooking, lighting, transportation, heating, waste treatment, etc. in ways that are efficient in use of energy and minimize impact to the environment. Sometimes “low tech” is the most appropriate technology.

Natural succession

Designs are always changing and expanding, and the changes as a landscape moves through natural selection should be considered in site design. Plan for plant maturity, and consider 3, 5, 10, and more years into the future.  Even with annual plants in vegetable gardens, considering same-season succession can be useful.  For instance, radish can be seeded between newly transplanted vegetable transplants, and harvested before the transplants fill in.

Do not try to fight against natural succession, instead incorporate it into your design.

Maximize Edge

In ecology, edges are the interface between two environments, for instance the border of a woodland and a meadow or a the edge of a river. Edge environments are generally the most diverse in an ecosystem, and may create microclimates particularly suited for certain plant species.

By incorporating planned edge interfaces into a design, one can take advantage of the increase in diversity.


A general principle of sustainability is that systems that are more diverse are more sustainable. Monocultures are inherantly unsustainable, and require a great deal of energy inputs to maintain. Diversity in both space and time leads to increased productivity and sustainability.

Use Local Resources

It makes a great deal of sense to take advantage of local resources in ecological design. Doing so saves a great deal of energy, and often time.  There are often excellent barter opportunities in the local community, as well.

Don’t forget to consider local “old timers” as good resources for information.


Community is an inherent, implied principle. Design should be based on the needs of the local community, and support the needs of the people without producing environmental degradation.

Consider not just the short-term needs of the people, but also the long-term needs. Try to keep in mind the Seventh Generation.

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