Permaculture Is…

Describing permaculture is a big task, but if I had to sum it up in one phrase, I would say that permaculture is a method of growing food sustainably. The term “permaculture” was coined with the phrase “permanent agriculture” in mind, illustrating its intent of sustainability. It takes nature as its inspiration and uses design to mimic natural processes. It seeks to collaborate with nature, rather than trying to dominate it. In this way, it is similar to indigenous traditions and the ancient knowledge of living in reciprocal relationship with the land. It is both a method and an ethic, and the method flows from the ethic. From my perspective, the ethic of permaculture is rooted in care. In terms of food production methods specifically, it’s about care for the earth and for how our methods of food production affect the land. It’s rooted in caring about ecological relationships.

Some of the core tenets of permaculture are as follows:


  1. Earth care
  2. People care
  3. Fair share

Design Principles

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

(Taken from:

Because of all the lists and guidelines associated with permaculture, it initially seems like a complicated endeavor, and in some respects it certainly is. But there are a variety of ways to approach the idea of permaculture – whether it’s through the principles, through the idea of sustainability, or through the idea of working with nature – and the beauty of permaculture is that it can be approached in so many ways. You can even start with just one principle as a doorway to understanding the whole system. It’s a pretty comprehensive ethic, but you can start anywhere and build up from there. Some of the principles are self-explanatory, while others require some explanation and thought. But they are also up for interpretation. What does it mean to you to use small and slow solutions? What does it mean to you to creatively use and respond to change?

Thinking about permaculture principles in the abstract can be challenging, so I’ll share some practical applications of permaculture principles that we have enacted at Sister Gardens. We produce as little waste as possible at Sister Gardens because we have a composting system, which also incorporates food waste from the cafeteria at Regis as well as a nearby coffee shop. We use and value diversity by growing heirloom crops – we have many varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and squash that can’t be found at grocery stores, to name a few. We grow a diversity of crops in the garden. This is better for the soil than mono-cropping because different crops pull different nutrients out of the soil, so growing a diversity of crops improves nutrient cycling. It also makes the garden more resistant to pests. The inception of Sister Gardens itself was an act of valuing the marginal because it has been cultivated on a marginal piece of land. This is especially true of the wedge garden, which was created on a former construction site.

One of my favorite aspects about permaculture is that it advocates for a closed loop system, which means that the farm produces all of its own inputs and doesn’t require inputs from outside the system. This means that energy from fossil fuels is reduced or eliminated. Although this often means that more human labor is necessary, when permaculture design is done well, human labor can be minimized as well because the system takes care of itself for the most part. Another of my favorite aspects of permaculture design is that it can be applied absolutely anywhere and on any piece of land. It’s all about local context and understanding how the local context impacts design for optimal food production and earth care.

Although I’ve only talked about food production so far, permaculture is more than that – it’s also a lifestyle. These ethics permeate a certain lifestyle of farming, but they can impact the way we interact with other people as well as how we interact with the earth. As may be obvious from the ethics and the principles, permaculture has implications and applications for social relationships as well. This just so happens to be the theme for next week’s blog posts, so stay tuned for more!

{Amylyn Thayer}


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