What is permaculture? A definitive FAQ for newbie permies in 2023 (with awesome illustrations!)

What is permaculture? Here's an expansive Permaculture FAQ with a collection of helpful links to help you on your permaculture learning journey.
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A 2-acre permaculture farm with more than 500 species of plants. Garden and photo by Heather Jo Flores

What is the definition of permaculture?

What is permaculture? The term permaculture originated as a combination of “Permanent Agriculture,” but now, some 50 years later, permaculture is a community and practice that extends far beyond agriculture. 

Permaculture is a sustainable design science that involves creating and cultivating productive ecosystems that mimic natural ecosystems. Also known as “ecological design,” this practice is a powerful tool that aims to develop self-sufficient and resilient human civilizations that regenerate, rather than annihilate, the natural world.

Permaculture is about using natural materials and organic gardening to create ecosystems that can sustainably meet human needs like food, water, shelter, and energy. This is done by growing plants like fruit and nut trees and using strategies like agroforestry and food forests. It empowers people to design ecosystems that benefit both humans and the environment.

Permaculture is a way of thinking that believes we can work with nature to make systems that can take care of themselves and help us at the same time. This way we can protect the natural environment while still getting what we need.

If it all sounds confusing and too theoretical, it helps to realize permaculture isn’t the product. It’s the process. Permaculture isn’t the destination. It’s the train.

To guide the practical and theoretical aspects of permaculture design, a set of ecological ethics is observed. There are three main focuses in this approach: Earth Care, which prioritizes the safeguarding and replenishing of natural resources; People Care, which supports the health and empowerment of individuals and communities; and a variation of Fair Share, which encourages equal distribution of resources and sharing of excess. Variations of the Fair Share ethic include “Limits to Growth and Consumption” (Mollison), “Careful Process” (Bloom and Boehnlein), “Future Care” (Harland), and “Parity” (Flores).

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Permaculture ethics and principles artwork by Heather Jo Flores

Ok so, what is permaculture?

The short answer:
It’s ecological design.

The long answer:
“Permaculture” as a practice, simply means observing nature, researching tools and techniques used by indigenous people in your bioregion, and engaging in a diligent, daily practice of balancing the needs of yourself and your family with those of the other species all around you.

All of us have this knowing inside of us, and the ecological design process is about uncovering that knowing, and applying it to our 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 any ecological design, 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.

Why Permaculture?

Because permaculture designers transform scarcity into abundance. The ecological design process balances human needs with the needs of other species. An ecological design creates systems made up of organisms, mechanisms, and feedback.

Plus, it’s super fun and personally rewarding. You can:

  • Heal the planet
  • Give back what you take
  • Create solutions to problems on any scale
  • Manifest your personal potential
  • Improve your day-to-day experience of life
  • Unleash your inner geek!

What is the minimum amount of land required for permaculture?

It’s a common misconception that you need to own land to practice permaculture. One of the great advantages of ecological design is that it can be applied to any space, whether it is a small urban balcony or a large rural farm.

Examples of successful permaculture projects can be found across various land sizes. Urban rooftops can be transformed into productive spaces by applying vertical gardening techniques, container gardening, and planting perennial plants. Suburban backyard gardens can incorporate permaculture garden ideas by integrating fruit trees, vegetable beds, and integrated pest management techniques. And fo course, larger rural farms can implement food forests and broadscale conservation strategies that create and regenerate habitat for myriad species.

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What is permaculture design? Pie chart by Heather Jo Flores

How is permaculture different than organic gardening?

Permaculture and organic gardening share a common goal of growing food without chemicals. But growing food is only one very small part of permaculture.

Permaculture goes beyond organic gardening by incorporating conscious design and observation as integral parts of the process. It is a holistic approach that aims to create self-sustaining and regenerative systems, not only in the garden but also in all aspects of life.

organic garden vs permaculture garden graphic by Heather Jo Flores 1

Is permaculture the same as regenerative agriculture?

Permaculture and regenerative agriculture share many similarities and intersections, yet they are not the same concept. Regenerative agriculture focuses specifically on restoring and improving the health of agricultural systems. It employs a range of practices such as cover cropping, rotational grazing, and organic soil management to regenerate soil health, enhance biodiversity, and increase resilience to climate change. This approach acknowledges that agriculture can have a positive impact on the environment, and aims to move beyond merely reducing harm to actually improving ecosystems.

Yet again, Permaculture extends beyond agriculture to encompass the design and integration of sustainable systems in all aspects of human habitation. Permaculture design principles can be applied to a wide range of disciplines, such as architecture, energy systems, water management, and community development.

While permaculture and regenerative agriculture share common goals, permaculture serves as a holistic framework for conscious design and harmonious integration of natural systems within all aspects of life. It emphasizes self-sufficiency, closed-loop processes, and the use of natural materials. This broader, whole-systems approach sets permaculture apart..

As such, organic gardening, regenerative agriculture, silviculture, carbon farming, and all other eco-farming teachniques can fall under the umbrella of permaculture, but on their own, none of these techniques have as much power and potential as a whole-system design. 

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Words by Heather Jo Flores art by Katie Shepherd

Is permaculture considered to be environmentally sustainable?

The goal of permaculture is to create harmonious and productive ecosystems by consciously designing systems that mimic natural ecosystems. This approach emphasizes biodiversity, environmental preservation, and soil regeneration, making it a much more sustainable practice than conventional approaches to growing food and extracting natural resources.

One of the core principles of permaculture is utilizing a diverse range of plants and animals to create stable and resilient ecosystems. For example, by incorporating a variety of plants and beneficial insects, gardens and farms can naturally control pests and diseases, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This emphasis on biodiversity also contributes to overall ecosystem health and resilience.

Permaculture farming practices, such as intercropping and agroforestry, minimize the need for aggressive irrigation and eliminate the reliance on harmful chemical inputs. Intercropping and alleycropping involve planting complementary crops near each other, maximizing available space and nutrients. Agroforestry integrates trees and shrubs with crops, making use of their natural shade and nutrient-cycling abilities. These techniques increase yields while reducing water usage and the application of chemical fertilizers.

In addition, permaculture prioritizes soil regeneration through methods like composting, mulching, and cover cropping. These practices improve soil fertility, water retention, and the overall health of the soil ecosystem. By maintaining healthy soils, agricultural systems require fewer external inputs and are better equipped to adapt to climate change.

Overall, ecological design’s emphasis on biodiversity, environmental preservation, and soil regeneration makes it a highly sustainable approach to agricultural and land management. It minimizes the reliance on irrigation, pesticides, and deforestation while promoting long-term ecological health and productivity.

Here’s a fascinating paper: Permaculture—Scientific Evidence of Principles for the Agroecological Design of Farming Systems

Ecological City vision Artwork by Jackie Holmstrom, as part of a 100-image collaboration with Heather Jo Flores, for her Food Not Lawns book in 2006.
Artwork by Jackie Holmstrom, as part of a 100-image collaboration with Heather Jo Flores, for her Food Not Lawns book in 2006.

Can you make a living with permaculture?

The answer is yes. There are as many ways to make a living with permaculture as there are fruit trees in the food forest!

Permaculture offers a multitude of income opportunities for those willing to embrace its principles. The key to making a living with permaculture is diversification. By combining multiple income streams, you can observe the natural principle of redundancy and create a stable and sustainable livelihood, all while contributing to a more harmonious integration between human habitats and natural ecosystems.

Organic market farming is the most obvious example. Fruits, vegetables, seeds–all of those yummy chemical-free organic crops have a high value in a market hungry for environmentally conscious food. Additionally, offering permaculture design services is another viable income stream. As people become more aware of the need for sustainable living, there is increasing demand for permaculture designers who can help individuals and communities create productive ecosystems that mimic natural systems. Many designers also earn money teaching permaculture courses. If you choose to go this route, be sure to get some training in the teaching of permaculture, not just the design strategies.

Also, depending where you live, providing permaculture consulting services can be a profitable venture. Many individuals and organizations may require guidance and advice on how to integrate permaculture principles into their existing operations. By offering consulting services, permaculture experts can assist them in transitioning towards more sustainable practices.

However, while permaculture courses teach a generalist way of seeing the world through an ecological lens, if you want to make a good living in permaculture you’ll probably need to find a niche. Most of the most successful eco-entrepreneurs have found a specific niche market that works for their particular area of expertise. 

Check out this free/donation-based online course about how to find your profitable, ethical eco-niche.

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Eco-Niche illustration by Katie Shepherd

Who invented permaculture?

Bill Mollison, often credited as the “founder of permaculture,” was an Australian traveler, scientist, baker, fisherman, gardener, autodidact, and writer who researched and published extensive genealogies of Indigenous Australians, and through this work he became inspired to dedicate the rest of his life to learning and teaching integrated ways for humans to live on the planet without destroying it.

Mollison worked with many people and wrote, co-wrote, and inspired many books, organized hundreds of courses, and traveled all over the world collecting and sharing information about ecological design. He was especially enchanted with the notion of agricultural systems working together with human home systems so that each meets the needs of the other, and collaborated on a huge array of visionary design drawings with his then-colleague and illustrator, Reny Slay.

Mollison was also influenced by writers who had come before him, such as Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962), Ken & Barbara Kern (The Owner-Built Home, 1961), P.A. Yeomans (Water for Every Farm, 1965), and J. Russel Smith, who wrote Tree Crops for a Permanent Agriculture (1929), the title credited with sparking the idea to call it “perma-culture.”

And guess what? Many of the exact ideas Mollison presented in his early books can also be found in the above four books. Read them and see for yourself. He did NOT invent this concept and neither did any of his students!

Indeed, throughout his life until he died in 2016, Mollison consistently pointed back to his sources and reiterated that he did not “own” any of these ideas, and that this type of knowledge can not and should not be owned.

In all of his work, we see an ethical and practical reliance on a fairly short list of ecological design principles, summarized here from his early writing:

  • 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.​

We’ll come back around to these principles and many more, but for now can you see how these ideas could help you to design not only a garden and homestead, but also a social and emotional landscape that is more resilient, abundant, and safe than the current (degenerative) systems in which most of us now exist?

To understand better what permaculture is and isn’t, watch this video:

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

Is permaculture a cult?

Permaculture is a sustainable living methodology aimed at creating harmonious integration between humans and the natural environment. Although some may argue that permaculture has cult-like characteristics, it is essential to analyze its principles and practices to determine its true nature.

Permaculture’s focus on sustainable living through Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share distinguishes it from cult-like practices and emphasizes its commitment to creating a regenerative and fairer world.

Some misconceptions about it being a cult arise due to its close-knit community and the passionate (and often quite vocal) dedication of its practitioners. However, permaculture’s foundations are grounded in scientific principles and practices. Its approach is based on observing and mimicking natural ecosystems and principles, utilizing renewable resources, and minimizing waste.

Contrary to cult-like practices, permaculture emphasizes conscious design and encourages individuals to adapt its principles to their local climate and culture. It is not an exclusive group with a leader but rather a community of like-minded individuals, educators, and designers who share knowledge and promote sustainable living practices.

So, while some may perceive the community to be cult-like due to certain patterns of interactions in a few particular areas of the world (and the interwebs) it’s important to remember that there are a huge diversity of people practicing and teaching permaculture, and it’s worth it to look deeper for a niche in the learning community that feels right for your needs.

There are certainly a handful of would-be cult leaders in the online permaculture sphere, so it’s a good idea to do your due diligence while looking for a place to learn. While you explore, be mindful and focus on finding a space that keeps its foundations in scientific principles and ethical guidelines, while avoiding spaces that “permavangelize,” or preach permaculture as the “one true path.” Even Bill Mollison, the permaculture teacher who created the Internationally-respected Permaculture Design Course curriculum, consistently advised against becoming dogmatic about it.

Permaculture, by definition, defies both ownership and large-scale leadership. Permaculture is a set of actions and strategies based on site-specific, climate-aware, community-invested ecologies. In this sense, leadership beyond the immediate stakeholders is not practical nor is it possible. Permaculture is about personal responsibility, thoughtful action, and careful, ecological design. It is about science, evidence, and results.

Your teachers are just the messengers, and a good design needs no teacher’s approval, because a good design validates itself through the integrity of the ecological systems it perpetuates.

A “Food Not Lawns” work party. Photo by Heather Jo Flores

What permaculture did get wrong?

Like any concept, philosophy, or land-use practice permaculture is not without its flaws and the best permaculture designers are the ones who face these limitations head-on. To a trained permaculture designer, looking at “what permaculture got wrong” is simply another tool for learning how to get it right.

One criticism of permaculture is its potential for being overly idealistic and impractical. While permaculture principles aim to mimic natural systems and create harmonious integration, implementing these designs on a larger scale can face challenges. The complex interconnections of natural environments make it difficult to replicate.

Furthermore, some critics argue that permaculture can be hard to implement in urban or heavily populated areas, where land availability and regulatory restrictions may pose barriers. The concept of permaculture design, which emphasizes natural materials and closed-loop systems, may not always be feasible or cost-effective in such environments, and can be especially inaccessible to the people who might need it most–the poor.

Another area where permaculture has faced criticism is its limited focus on invasive plants and pests. While permaculture aims to create productive ecosystems, the lack of attention to invasive species management can lead to unintended consequences and ecological imbcalance for native plants and animal species.

Despite these criticisms and limitations, it is important to recognize that permaculture has achieved success in many instances. The flaws and challenges within permaculture design do not discount its potential as a powerful tool for achieving sustainability and conscious design. It is incumbent upon permaculture designers to continually evolve and adapt the approach to address these limitations and create more effective and resilient systems.

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Ecological design strategies can help us create abundant spaces even in marginal climates, like this year-round food producing greenhouse in cold-climate Albany, New York. Photo by Heather Jo Flores

Where to learn permaculture?

There are many places to learn more about becoming an ecological designer. You can learn these skills on any schedule and with any budget, and start applying the concepts in your daily life right away. For the purpose of this article, we’ll provide a quick overview of free and paid options..

Learning permaculture for free is as easy as signing up for the Permaculture for Beginners course online. You’ll be amazed at how much you get and how much you learn, and from there you can follow the recommended resources to an array of learning opportunities for your permaculture research adventure! 

If you prefer learning from books, go to your public library and request a copy of any of these books, then read them cover to cover:

  • Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
  • Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison
  • The Permaculture Garden by Graham Bell
  • The Earth Restorer’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow
  • (and don’t forget Food Not Lawns by Heather Jo Flores! Read it for free here)

What about online permaculture communities like Permies?

One of the best ways to get an introduction to permaculture is by joining one of the many online permaculture communities found on social media networks and hosted by permaculture associations around the world.

Online permaculture communities provide a platform for individuals to connect with like-minded individuals and share their experiences and knowledge about permaculture. These communities play a crucial role in spreading awareness and facilitating learning and collaboration among enthusiasts of sustainable living.

By joining these communities, individuals can learn from the experiences and expertise of others, discover innovative techniques and practices, and stay updated with the latest trends in permaculture. Connecting with like-minded individuals creates a supportive network where members can seek advice, share success stories, and find inspiration for their own projects.

The first online permaculture community most people come across is Permies, an active forum with thousands of users and endless lists of comments going back over a decade. Another popular community is the Permaculture Global Network, a platform that enables users to connect with permaculture practitioners worldwide, with more of a professional emphasis.

There’s also the Eco Design Hive, a free public forum that offers a marketplace area, a local connections board, and a range of online permaculture courses for students of all levels of experience.

You’ll also find a plethora of permaculture groups on Facebook, though these tend to be riddled with trolling and spam, so it’s hit or miss. For a safe bet, check out the groups hosted by the Free Permaculture network.

The UI, features, and overall “vibe” of each of these forums is radically different, so explore them all and find a space that feels right for you.

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What is a Permaculture Design Course?

A Permaculture Design Course (aka “PDC”), if done correctly, provides students with a life-changing transformation that will forever improve their interactions with the natural world. This course provides a holistic understanding of permaculture principles, design methods, and practical techniques.

In-person courses happen all over the world and usually involve camping out in a rural setting and practicing the ideas on a shared design project with a small group of cohorts. The students benefit greatly from the real-time interaction but the most common complaint about these courses is that the students don’t really get a chance to design the place where they actually live. Also, the in-person courses can be terribly expensive to attend, especially once you calculate in the travel expenses, time off work, and so on.

Online permaculture design courses are also fairly common, but it can be a bit harder to determine which are offered by legitimate teachers and/or which provide enough support for the student to actually achieve the “permaculture transformation” of both their garden and their mind.

Whether online or in-person, most teachers offer a free “Introduction to Permaculture” course, and it’s highly recommended you sample a few of these before making the investment in their full PDC. In general, student feedback about learning permaculture online is exceedingly positive because the students enjoy having the time and space to work on designs that are relevant to their own homes and lives.

No two PDCs are alike, and the quality of them varies widely, but they all (should) contain the same basic curriculum to conform with the International guidelines. The easiest way to check and make sure a PDC follows this curriculum is to choose one that has been reviewed by a 3rd party such as a Permaculture Association. If you go with a course that seems to be run by a lone wolf, your chances of overpaying for a sub-par experience (and missing out on a big transformation) are much higher.

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What is permaculture certification and does it mean anything?

To obtain permaculture certification, individuals need to complete a PDC. This course covers various aspects of permaculture, including natural ecosystems, sustainable agriculture, organic gardening, and renewable resources. It equips learners with the skills and knowledge required to apply permaculture principles in their own projects.

Permaculture certification is meaningful because it implies that the teacher of that course has interacted with you directly, has reviewed your assignments, and can confirm that you fundamentally understand the core ideas around ecological design.

However, it’s important to understand that a “permaculture certificate” is simply a certificate of completion. All it says is that you took the course. The value of any one permaculture certificate over another is arbitrary, because there is no such thing as a central “permaculture certification board” or anything like it.

What you will find, instead, is an assortment of regional and international Permaculture Institutes and Associations who work collectively to keep teachers accountable so that the certificates actually mean something. This is another reason to, as mentioned above, seek training with permaculture teachers who indicate they are a member of a Permaculture Association and can demonstrate that their curriculum has been reviewed accordingly.

You can certainly find permaculture courses online that offer a certificate but do not provide any feedback about your design work, but you have to take that with a grain of salt. Does this mean you shouldn’t pay the 16 bucks to watch those 54 hours of video on Udemy? No! You should for sure watch those videos. Just…don’t stop there. Go and earn your certificate with the support and supervision of a dedicated professional permaculture educator, and you’ll see why it matters.

Earning your PDC is a way to make sure you’ve covered all the bases as you assemble your permaculture beginner’s toolkit. You can certainly learn permaculture on your own, from books, and through hands-on practice in your own context. But when you willfully invest in a learning experience that was created by an impassioned teacher, you not only help that teacher keep teaching, you’re also paying into a healthier economy. You’re helping the movement grow and putting your money where your mouth is, so that the next generation of students can do the same.

So yes, permaculture certification holds great significance in the permaculture community. It allows individuals to obtain recognition for their expertise in sustainable and regenerative agriculture systems, offering opportunities for professional development, career advancement, and credibility. 

For those who have already completed a PDC or have a specific area of interest within permaculture, niche-specific classes are also available. These courses delve deeper into particular topics such as food forests, natural building techniques, or regenerative agriculture. Taking these classes allows you to gain specialized knowledge and skills that can be applied to your own permaculture projects.

Whether you choose to pursue a traditional PDC, explore more niche-specific classes, or both, the options for learning permaculture are vast. Take the time to research and find the courses that align with your goals and interests. By investing in your education, you can gain the knowledge and skills needed to create sustainable and regenerative systems in your own backyard or community.

Whether you choose to go for permaculture certification or not, learning about permaculture is guaranteed to improve your garden, your home space, and your relationships.

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Garden and photo by Heather Jo Flores

Is a permaculture design course worth the money?

Taking a permaculture design course can be a valuable investment for individuals interested in creating sustainable and regenerative systems. These courses provide comprehensive knowledge and practical skills that go beyond traditional gardening or agriculture techniques.

But what if you just really don’t have the money? Is it worth it to go into debt to learn permaculture?

if you lack the funds to invest in a Permaculture Design Course but you feel that permaculture certification could benefit your personal and/or professional life, you have a couple of options. Many people do a small crowdfunding campaign to ask friends and family for tuition money, sometimes in lieu of holiday or graduation gifts. You can offer design work, after the fact, as rewards to the people who donate to your training. You can also try to find a teacher who is willing to do a work-trade with you in exchange for tuition. this is very common, especially for in-person courses. Contact them well in advance, as these positions tend to fill up quickly.

In general, out of all the things you spend your money on, investing in a Permaculture Design Course is unlikely to be at the top of your list of regrets. Most graduates consider it to have been well worth the money for a transformation that would have otherwise perhaps been missed entirely.

Go here for an article about different ways to do fundraising, not just for your education but also for your permaculture projects now and in the future.

Doing a work-trade with a local teacher can bring exponential benefits. Photo by Heather Jo Flores

What is the best online Permaculture Design Course for certification?

Here’s the point where I could give you a rundown of the top-rated online permaculture design courses, but really I just want to tell you to enroll in mine! It’s the culmination of 25 years of experience and I created it to address what I see as the shortcomings of the other online programs (namely, that they are too focused on people who own big land and inaccessible to the rest of us!)

So here it is:

Our Online Permaculture Design Course offers rolling enrollment, so you can go at your own pace, and finish within a few months or take up to a year. We give you a template and walk you through creating your own, actionable permaculture plan.

But more importantly: we make sure you experience the mindset transformation that makes permaculture so powerful.

Through our streamlined, accessible curriculum and ongoing support through both public and private forums, our program is designed to help you really “get it” as an ecological designer, quickly, without getting bogged down in dogma or utopian fantasy. Our course is practical and focused on helping normal working folks (who don’t own big land or have tons of money) take daily action towards a more sustainable life.

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Relevant Links and Resources

This beautiful documentary explores some of the ideas about where permaculture techniques came from and reminds us how much we can learn from some indigenous cultures, about caring for nature.

Tending the Wild (Hour Long Special) | KCET

Here’s an awesome 90 second introduction to permaculture with Xochiquetzal Salazar.

What Is Permaculture?
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