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Permaculture Ethics

Central to permaculture are the three ethics: care for the earth, care for people and fair share. They form the foundation for permaculture design and are also found in most traditional societies. Here are the 12 principles of permaculture as described by David Holmgren.

Permaculture Principles

Observe and Interact.

“Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.”
By taking the time to engage with nature, we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Permaculture relies on an understanding of your site and local conditions. Ideally, you should observe your site for a year in all seasons, learning the patterns of sun, wind, heavy rains, flooding, hail, snow, animals, noise, views, and the like. Even if this is not possible, do a thorough assessment of the site’s intrinsic qualities and visit nearby gardens to see what grows well in your area. (

Catch and store energy

“Make hay while the sun shines.”
By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

There’s a nursery rhyme about a squirrel collecting nuts during the summer to tide him over during the barren winter, and the permaculture principle of catching and storing energy echoes this lesson. There are many ways to catch and conserve resources when they are abundant so that you have access to them when they are unavailable. For instance, a greenhouse can catch and store the sun’s energy to keep plants warm. With clever placement, a greenhouse can even provide passive solar heat for other buildings. Canning abundant summer produce for lean winter months is a way of storing food energy. Harvesting rainwater or recycling greywater from the house prevents valuable irrigation water from being lost to runoff or the sewage system, and provides water energy during dry months.

Obtain a yield

“You can’t work on an empty stomach.”
Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work you are doing.

Of course, the whole purpose of an edible garden is to yield crops. But there are other less tangible—but no less valuable—yields from a permaculture garden. A yield may be the exchange of skills or information from one gardener to another. Community gardens are good examples of this principle, where neighbours work together to mulch paths and build raised beds, tool sheds, fences, and trellises. School gardens are places for experienced gardeners to teach the next generation how to grow their own food. Elders can share their wisdom, young people can share their enthusiasm and energy, and people from different cultures can share seeds, plants, planting calendars, and growing techniques.

Apply self-regulation and Accept to feedback

“The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation.”
We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. Negative feedback is often slow to emerge.

I always thought the Native American idea of “think of seven generations” meant to think ahead seven generations into the future. But I have been shown that it also means thinking back to our own great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and ourselves, as well as forward to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In a garden, it means behaving as though we are part of a continuum, starting with an appreciation of the harvest of the land stewards of the previous generations and planting perennials and enriching the soil so that years later, our future grandchildren can continue to enjoy and reap the harvest of our labours. Responding to feedback can also mean remediating our own mistakes or those of our predecessors. This may mean replanting unproductive areas of the garden, or improving soil that has been impoverished.

Use and value Renewable Resources and Services

“Let nature take its course.”
Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.

Trees are an example of a renewable multipurpose resource. From them, we get fruit, nuts, seeds, building materials, and fuel. They also provide shade during summer for cooling our homes, blocking the wind, filtering the air, and releasing oxygen. Fruit trees can yield crops for many decades and are a resource that connects us to our community when we practice the ethic of fair share. Even when the trees have finished their productive years, we can chop them down and use the wood to construct new beds, cultivate mushrooms, or chip them to create mulch, knowing that all decomposing wood will eventually be transformed back into soil.

Produce No Waste

“Waste not, want not” or “A stitch in time saves nine.”
By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

One of the great things about a permaculture garden is that there isn’t any waste. Instead, we find ways to reuse the leftovers from our gardening efforts. Composting is one example, especially red worm composting, where creatures in the garden efficiently convert organic wastes like vegetable scraps into soil amendments that are then put back into the vegetable beds. The worms’ digestive tracts convert food scraps into castings that enhance the soil food web and are the key ingredient for compost tea. This is a complete edible plant life cycle: from harvested crops to kitchen trimmings to the worm bin and finally back to the garden as fertilizer.

Design from Pattern to Details

“Can’t see the forest for the trees.”
By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

Permaculture seeks to understand and mimic successful patterns found in nature. For example, the spiral shape is found in everything from galaxies to the structure of DNA and the garden snail. It works well as a design template for an herb bed because it creates more surface space in a small area. A spiral-shaped bed also effectively creates microclimates because you can use some plants to shade others. This means you can grow sun-loving herbs like rosemary and thyme near shade-lovers such as mint and violets.

Integrate Rather than Segregate

“Many hands make light work.”

By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things, and they work together to support each other. Placing plants together in the right combinations helps them to grow in cooperation with each other rather than in competition. In this way, the whole garden ecosystem becomes greater than the sum of its parts. When you take the time to observe what is happening in an existing landscape, you can then find ways to make changes so that all the elements work to support each other.

Use Small and Slow Solutions

“Slow and steady wins the race” or “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

In permaculture, we don’t aim for the quick fix or the immediate payoff. The objective is to design a garden system that is composed of many small parts, each of which contributes in time to the overall function of the garden. An example is an emphasis on perennial crops. Perennials don’t need to be replanted every year, so they save energy, and they don’t disturb the soil like most annuals. Although their yields can be slower at first, perennials like chicory, dandelion, rhubarb, and sorrel produce earlier in cold climates because they are the first to come up in the spring. Similarly, permaculture focuses on small-scale, local solutions in preference to more industrial approaches. Sharing backyards, local produce swaps and giveaways, community gardens, and regional seed libraries are all examples of small and slow solutions.

Use and Value Diversity

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the

environment in which it resides.

Most gardeners love to look through plant catalogues for new varieties of vegetables to grow, and such diversity isn’t just interesting; it’s also smart. There is less vulnerability to a single disease or pest when different vegetables and varieties are planted in proximity, whether it’s an entire farm or a backyard garden. During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–1852, approximately one million people died, and a similar number emigrated when a single, widely grown variety of potatoes fell susceptible to potato blight. In the Andes, where potatoes have been grown and developed for 5000 years, thousands of varieties are cultivated. Each year, a permaculture garden should feature some new varieties along with old favourites. This will build a diverse repertoire of plants and create a balanced garden system that can tolerate some losses without the entire garden failing. This helps to ensure resiliency in the face of climate change and other ecological challenges.

Use the edges and Value the Marginal.

“Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.”
The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

In a permaculture garden, we aim to make use of all possible space. This can mean designing vegetable, herb, and flowerbeds in unusual shapes. For instance, keyhole beds are modelled after an old-fashioned keyhole. Garden mandalas are circular arrangements of multiple keyhole beds. If you have six keyhole beds in a circle, one path will be the entrance, and there will be a round area in the middle to give some room to turn around. This increases the number of edges to maximize plantable space and minimizes path space. Marginal spaces that may not be suitable for traditional garden beds can also be turned into productive areas. Try growing heat-loving vines like beans, grapes, kiwis, melons, and squash on the side of a stucco or brick wall to benefit from the stored thermal heat and to soften the edge between the garden and the built environment. The vines also provide shade during the summer and let in light in the winter. Even dark nooks and crannies can be used to cultivate crops. I grow mushrooms under nursery tables, where they get ample water and little sun.

Creatively Use and Respond to Change

“Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.”
We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time.

Change is inevitable in the garden. What works well one season may not be successful the following year. Adapting to the shifting patterns of temperature, rainfall, pest populations, and other external forces is an important skill for the permaculture gardener. Our goal is to work with nature instead of trying to control it. As you face the challenges that come with growing edibles, keep this principle in mind. You’ll soon realize that in the garden, there are no mistakes, just lessons pointing you toward better solutions.

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