What permaculture is and isn’t

By Heather Jo Flores

What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)

It’s a common misconception that permaculture is “revolution disguised as gardening.”

Let’s unpack that:

First of all, permaculture isn’t a gardening technique. It’s a design system. That system can and should include plants and other living beings but no garden, by itself, can be a permaculture design unless it connects to the rest of the system (water, energy, waste, built environment, etc.)

And also: revolution in disguise is not revolution at all — it’s subversion, which is, arguably, a far more effective choice right now. To say that permaculture is “revolution disguised as gardening” not only confuses people, it radically understates the power of permaculture.

It would be far more accurate to say “permaculture is radical subversion disguised as food security.”

What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)

So, what is permaculture?

The short answer:
A design system for ecological AND eco-logical living.

The long answer:
A set of tools and techniques innovated in part by indigenous cultures around the world, then organized by designers into a whole-system strategy, and applied to physical, social, and emotional landscapes, with the goal of creating living, evolving systems that mimic nature, produce food and energy, and regenerate, rather than annihilate, the Earth.

But it’s still got something to do with gardening, right?

Yes, gardening is part of permaculture, because plants are a part of life. Without them, we die. So, if we are creating systems in which we can thrive and be of help to other species, then we have to include plants! But we must never stop there. The garden inspires us, feeds us, connects us to nature…and then we have to get to work on the rest of the system.

In addition to gardening, permaculture is about:

  • Designing with nature by observing her functions, patterns and the interdependence of systems.
  • Building spaces and communities, not just to sustain growth and abundance, but to regenerate as well.
  • Growing, harnessing, protecting, and cultivating to create environments that thrive.
  • Manifesting functional, symbiotic relationships that provide a mutual benefit to all parts of the system.

Permaculture is about finding your niche, growing your passion, and sharing the abundance, together and as individuals, for the betterment of ourselves and the planet.

And it’s about love. Earth love, people love, self love, and love for all species.

What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)

Again, for the folks in back:

ALL whole-system permaculture designs will incorporate plants and food production, and almost ANY style of gardening could be part of a whole-system permaculture design, but no garden, by itself, is ever a permaculture design. This is why the term “my permaculture garden” is a bit of a misnomer, and why people need to move away from using permaculture as a synonym for organic gardening. It simply isn’t accurate.

If it helps, close your eyes and imagine the permaculture design process as a starburst pattern that starts with the plants and spirals out in every direction, into every aspect of your life.

Does your garden feel like that? If it doesn’t — if it just feels like a place where you go to grow food for yourself and your family — that’s fine, but that’s not permaculture. If your garden feels like the starting point for a way of life and a series of clear, intentional, and regenerative actions that will support many species in ripple effects across everything you do…YES! NOW you are on the permaculture path!

Here’s a video I made for the first class in the Permaculture Women’s Guild online permaculture design course, which explains a lot more about what permaculture is…and what it isn’t.

What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)

Here’s a bit more for the theory geeks among us:

Permaculture scholars Bill Mollison and David Holmgren taught from an ethical and ecological basis that used Birch’s Six Principles of Natural Systems, as follows”

  1. Nothing in nature grows forever. There is a constant cycle of decay and rebirth.
  2. Continuation of life depends on the maintenance of the global bio-geochemical cycles of essential elements, in particular carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus.
  3. The probability of extinction of populations or a species is greatest when the density is very high or very low. Both crowding and too few individuals of a species may reach thresholds of extinction.
  4. The chance that a species has to survive and reproduce is dependent primarily upon one or two key factors in the complex web of relations of the organism to its environment.
  5. Our ability to change the face of the earth increases at a faster rate than our ability to foresee the consequence of change.
  6. Living organisms are not only means but ends. In addition to their instrumental value to humans and other living organisms, they have an intrinsic worth.
What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)

And when I first started learning permaculture, way back in the 1990’s, I started by learning these principles, as presented by Mollison and Holmgren:

  • Work with nature, rather than against it.
  • The problem is the solution. “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.”
  • Make the least change for the greatest effect.
  • The yield of a system is limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.
  • Everything gardens, and is in relationship to its environment.
  • It is not the number of diverse components in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components.
  • All design is ecological design, in that all designs, whether intentional or not, affect their environment.
What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)

If you want a laundry list of published principles in the permaculture lineage, go here.

The point is not to belabour them but rather to spend some time ruminating on these ideas, as they influence every layer of your life, on the daily. Journal about them. Meditate on one principle, each day for a month. What comes up for you? Can you see how these ideas and fundamental ecological truths could help you to design not only a garden and homestead, but also a social and emotional landscape that is more resilient, abundant, and joyful than the current (degenerative) systems in which most of us now exist?

In sum, permaculture is not a gardening technique, but gardening with a permaculture mindset is the gateway to understanding how to create a permaculture system. Great news!

So basically, here’s how to go from “just gardening” to “doing permaculture”:

Take what you learn from the plants, apply it toward becoming an equal, participating, and intentionally regenerative part of the ecosystem around you. This understanding comes naturally, over time, and through a direct interaction with the plants and other living beings on your site.

Want to see some samples of permaculture designs from the students in the Permaculture Women’s Guild online course? GO HERE

and if you want to learn permaculture for free, via a yearlong series of online classes that I created for you, go to www.freepermaculture.com

What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)


Here’s a fun exercise. It will help you tune into the living systems around you and begin to cultivate a “designer’s mind.”

Choose a tree near your home.

Perhaps it’s on your street and you pass it every day. Go to the tree and touch it with your hands. Look at it up close and from far away. Smell the bark, the leaves, the soil around the trunk. Hug it, lean against it, touch it with your tongue.

What benefits does this bring to your neighborhood? What do the people who live near this tree get from it? What resources does it provide?

And how do the tree’s surroundings affect the tree? Think of animals, insects, birds, wind, humans, water, weather, pollution.

How does this tree interact as a living, evolving element in a whole system?

Write about it, draw a mind-map about it, or just think about it for a while and then share your thoughts/drawings/writing in our Free Permaculture forum!

What Permaculture Is & Isn't, w/Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns & Permaculture Women's Guild)


#permaculturewomen #freepermaculture #permaculturedesign #whatispermaculture

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