Ep #23 Demystifying Permaculture Principles

When I first heard the word permaculture & heard that there were 12 principles it conjured up all sorts of complicated concepts that my new gardening brain just couldn’t fathom. 

I was flat out working out how to keep a few pots of herb alive let alone applying 12 principles to my gardening. I mean, come on!! Who has time for that?

What I came to realise is that we all do. Permaculture is something we can all use to help guide our food growing journey and more. 

I want to demystify permaculture for the newbie gardener a little but. Take out some of the unfamiliar language that can some times cause us to think what the fuck does that even mean. 

Let’s start from the beginning.. Back in the 70’s when I was born 2 coworkers and friends Bill Mollinson and David Holgren from Tasmania Australia developed a sustainable agriculture system. It was a system that took it’s concepts and methods from the natural environment and the word Permaculture is a combination of the words Permanent Agriculture. 

The system is designed to have closed energy cycles. What that means in simple terms is that the gardens or farms don’t need a bunch of external energies like chemical fertilizers, irrigation and human work like plowing fields for it to produce a great harvest. 

The waste from one would feed the other like cutting and dropping the unused portions of the plants so that it becomes mulch that helps retain moisture and breaks down adding nutrients back into the earth. Just like trees do with leaves and bark. 

It means growing different types of plants together or in a sequence so they help each other out with nutrient needs and help to keep moisture held in the soil. 

It also means carefully observing nature so that our gardens and farms mimic the local ecology. Designing also takes into account the ease of use. No point having something that is great in theory but is too hard to implement and use.  Thinking about how other energy sources can naturally come into the growing area. Designing gardens in a way that water is directed into the growing areas and is stored instead of running off into drains and waterways. 

It also considers animals in the mix. It might be planting your garden on the low side of your chicken coop so when it rains the nutrients naturally go into your vegetable garden.

This is a very simplistic example but it gives you the idea. 

The original intent of permaculture was all around growing food but it has evolved to be so much more now. It takes in the way we live our lives, how we move through our immediate environment and out in the world, it considers community, waste, other energies like electricity and so much more. Permaculture has gone from the ideas and concepts of 2 Tassie blokes to a global movement that is growing day by day.  

It was interesting for me when I started to understand what permaculture meant and how it the 12  principles can be applied. I realized that I had been applying these principles to some degree already for several years. 

I had one of those moments where you think to yourself ‘doesn’t everybody else think like this too?’ And, many people do. 

At the heart of permaculture is 3 values. Earth care, people care and fair share. 

I think these are pretty easy to understand. Look after the earth and all that is on her, look after ourselves, families and communities and do things in a way that helps distribute abundance. 

Around the 3 values are the 12 principles. I’ll go through them briefly and give you a bit of an example for each to help demonstrate that they aren’t complex concepts, they are practical guidelines for how we can live and grow our food.

As this is a self-sufficiency podcast with a focus on food growing I will keep it applicable to food gardens but each of these can be as small as your kitchen garden or large as the world. 

Observe And Interact

Slow down and take a breath. This principle is about looking around and seeing what nature is doing, what others are doing and how they are doing it. Interact with nature and other people. Like real live people not the ones we scroll past on our phones. 

A really good way to observe and interact is to go to a local gardening event. It could be but your local Garden Centre or local organic growers group has an open day where you can watch demonstrations and speak to growers to learn more about your local environment. It could also be that you just sit in your garden and watch the way the sunshine falls on your plants and note the different bugs you see. 

Catch And Store Energy

I always feel warm when I think of this principal. For me a big part of catching and storing energy is getting my solar on. That means being outside in the sunshine. It fills me up and makes me feel awesome. 

More examples of catching and storing energy could be installing solar energy or hot water systems, diverting ground water back into your garden or installing more water tanks to catch rain water, canning and preserving food and using organics to make compost. 

Obtain A Yield

This one is what every food grower is striving for. Without obtaining a yield The whole exercise of growing your own food becomes a bit pointless. Obtaining yield means exactly that you are getting a suitable amount of produce for your efforts. What a suitable amount is different for each of us. For growers who are just starting growing and using fresh herbs may hit that principle. For others it might means drying their herbs to use all year round. 

Apply Self-regulation And Feedback

I wasn’t very good at this one and sometimes I still suck at it but we all have our strengths and weaknesses right. Applying self-regulation and feedback means using self-control and accepting feedback of what works and what doesn’t and then adjusting what we do. 

Over planting your tomato gardens year after year and having issues with grubs and poor nutrient uptake but still doing it each year because you have too many seedlings and you just can’t bear not planting them all isn’t using this principle.. I will not confirm no deny I have been here too many times.

Use And Value Renewables

Often we hear the word renewables and can often think of big picture things like wind or solar farms to produce our electricity. Think on a local and garden level of how you can use and value renewables. The idea is to minimise and ultimately have no dependency on finite and scarce resources. 

Can you mulch your garden with locally sourced mulch or go one better and create your own mulch? 

When you are building your garden beds are you using some or all renewable materials? 

Can you use human power instead of powered gardening equipment?

Produce No Waste

Pretty straightforward. But this is one that many people find hard because it says NO WASTE.. If this is too much right now then start with producing minimal waste. 

Buy your seedlings from a local supplier who uses containers that break down or if plastic is your only option, aim for reusable pots rather than single use plastics.  

Compost your food scraps and all organic waste including old newspapers, cardboard, egg cartons and compostable packaging. 

Design From Patterns To Details

If you don’t have a design brain this one can seem a bit daunting but in simple terms it just means designing your garden in a practical way. If you never go down the back behind the garden shed then don’t put your food scrap compost bin there. If you find that you naturally go to the left when you walk out your backdoor then that might be a great place for your kitchen herb garden. 

Look at how your land and environment flow and follow that design as this is the natural way you move and interact with your garden. Look for efficiencies where you can expel minimal energy for maximum results.

Integrate Don’t Separate

Where some gardens segregate each area of their gardens. Aa permaculture garden is far more integrated. Think polyculture, food forests and using animals to prepare growing areas. 

One of my  favourite examples of this is our chicken coop. A  few years ago a friend gave us  2 beautiful muscovy ducks, Thelma and Louise. Now, ducks need a swimming area so we upcycled an old kiddies pool that we filled from the tank water connected to our shed, but this needed cleaning each week as it got mucky fast. Ducks poop a lot!

So we designed a system where the wastewater from cleaning out the duck pool went onto an area that we planted with all sorts of goodies that the chickens and the ducks loved to eat. The bonus is that the water was pre-fertilised from the duck poop plus any soil and chook poo that was on their feet when they jumped in for a splash. So it was a win-win-win!

Use Slow Small Solutions

Using slow and small solutions means they often require much less resources, are far more adaptable to the local areas and can be applied quicker than big fast solutions. 

I always encourage new food growers to start small and slow. Don’t go out there with the intent of starting a farm. Start with one garden bed. Get a feel for it, understand it and once you are ready add another. Also think about the produce no waste principle. Start with reducing your waste rather than going for zero waste. We are looking to make big impacts through sustainable ways of being. 

Use And Value Diversity

Nothing thrives in isolation. People, plants, animals, bacteria we all need diversity. The more diversity your garden and your life has the more rich it becomes. 

Change from growing monoculture crops or single plant gardens to adding in a few neighbours. Grow beans and corn together, plant coriander around your carrots, add plants that attract beneficial bugs into your garden. 

Use Edges And Value The Marginal

This principle is literal and metaphorical.  It means to literally use the edges and the margins of your environment. Where grasslands turn into swamps is where you’ll find the most biodiversity and life happening. The same applies for your garden. Use the edges and push the physical boundaries of your growing area. Can’t grow horizontally, grow vertically, don’t get much sunshine, use shade loving plants. It also means to push the boundaries metaphorically. Try the wacky idea that you came up with, be part of out-of-the-box solutions and start to ponder what if…

Creatively Use And Respond To Change

Finally, change is an inevitable part of life. It’s important to remember that permaculture isn’t just about now, but about the future. Times change, opinions change, opportunities change, the seasons, the environment and the climate are all changing. Even you are changing.

Don’t be afraid to change your beliefs and opinions either. As we learn, we grow and we change the way we see the world around us. We must respond to these changes to ensure our future generations live on in a world we are proud of. 

I hope that I have helped you understand what each of the 12 permaculture principles mean and how you can potentially apply them to your food garden and even broader, how you go through your time on this earth. 

I want to end with a quote from a beautiful soul. Maya Angelou.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Want to know something in particular? Let me know and I will cover it on a future episode.


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Keeping chickens is so much easier than you think!

Download my simple beginners 'chicklist' to get you started.

Keeping chickens is so much easier than you think!

Download my simple beginners 'chicklist' to get you started.

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