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Permaculture Design Principles

Following these Permaculture Design Principles helps you design sustainable environments effectively.

Permaculture Design Principle 1 - Relative Location:

The simplest way to explain the principle of relative location is to say every element must be put into the right place to work to its full potential.

Thus you can place the vegetable garden between your house and the chicken pen. So, while bringing kitchen scraps to the chickens, you can also bring grab unwanted weeds and other greens from the garden, and on your return, bring back manure for the compost heap.

It's the easiest way to reduce needless walking and thus maximise your efficiency.

Permaculture Design Principle 2 - Efficient energy cycling:

The need to use energy efficiently is one which is becoming increasingly prevalent in today's world. Permaculture systems seek to stop the flow of nutrients and energy off the site and instead turn them into cycles.

For example, instead of throwing your food waste into the bin, you can turn it into compost.

Permaculture Design Principle 3 - Every element performs many functions:

This Permaculture Design Principle simply means to choose and place each element so that it performs as many functions as possible.

A fruit tree, for example, offers shade. It provides food and protection from the elements if used as a windbreak. It can also help improve the soil, thus serving multiple functions.

In deciding how to place elements we look the following factors:

Form: In Permaculture Design, we look at a plant’s lifestyle and shape including its height.

Thus we identify whether a plant is annual or perennial, whether it is deciduous (loses foliage in winter) or evergreen (has foliage all year round), and whether it is a shrub vine or tree.

Tolerances: Here we look at the climate, whether it is sunny or shady; and the soil, whether moist, dry sandy, clay, ph acid or alkaline. We also look at the soil’s life – where there is lots of life in the form of ants, beetles or earthworms, for instance, the soil is good.

Uses: Here we analyse what the plant’s potential uses are. Is it edible or medicinal? Can it be used for animal forage or to improve the soil?

Would it serve a useful purpose as wind/fire breaker? In planting it, does it serve to control erosion? Would it attract bees or control insects? Can its wood be used as a building material or for crafts?

Permaculture Design Principle 4 - Each function is supported by many elements

This principle simply means that basic needs such as water, food, energy and fire protection are supported in more than one way.

For instance, if you live on the coast, you can control winds by creating a strong windbreak of trees and shrubs as well as fences and trellises.

Permaculture Design Principle 5 - Planning for energy efficiency

This means using energy economically. Thus we divide a site into zones, sectors and slopes.

Zones involve placing portions of the site according to how much we use them. It’s fairly logical: structures and features that are needed for daily activity are placed near each other and close to the house, while features needed less frequently are placed farther away.

This reduces the energy used to get to them and streamlines the infrastructure.

  • Zone 0: This is your house and the centre of your activity.
  • Zone 1: This is the area which is most productive and is closest to your house. Your herb and veggie garden will be placed in Zone 1 and should be in an easily accessible spot. Paths here will be used frequently.
  • Zone 2: Here plants require slightly less attention, but perhaps more space. Fruit trees and trellised fruit; hardy crops like potatoes, sweet corn and pumpkins; and perennial herbs and spices that aren’t used that often are best placed here.
  • Zones 3 - 5 really only apply if you have a lot of land. However, they are important even for the small-scale permaculturist to understand and achieve a holistic view.

  • Zone 3: This is the farmlands, field crops and pastures. It is where you can plant your larger fruit and nut trees.

  • Zone 4: This is rough grazing land and pastures. Used for gathering wild foods and timber.

  • Zone 5: Refers to wilderness. This is the wild life corridor and conservation area. Staying true to nature, always try and set aside a small area of your garden to grow wild!

  • Sectors are directions from which natural energy comes to the site from outside it, energy such as wind, sunlight, water, fires, water flow etc.

    Thus you can place components to manage incoming energy. For instance, you could plant trees in order to block out unwanted incoming energy such as excessive winds. To optimise this energy, you could build a windmill to use as a pump for the dam.

    Slope can be defined as the contour of the land, the elevation of each part in relation to the other. You can maximise your use of sun-facing slopes for solar energy or take advantage of water flows by placing water tanks on higher ground, thus eliminating the need to pump.

    Permaculture Design Principle 6 - Small-scale intensive systems

    Large-scale industrial agriculture requires extensive energy input in the form of fossil fuels to power machinery and chemical fertilizer to feed the mono-crops.

    Permaculture Design reduces the need for both by planting densely and in small plots, using the land efficiently. We use methods such as: time stacking and vertical (or space) stacking.

    Time stacking:

    In nature, plants are replaced as others finish their cycle. Thus, if you plant new seedlings as your existing plants come to the end of their productive cycle, you can literally stack your plants in time to get extended crops throughout the season.

    For instance, by planting early bulbs such as tulips under fruit trees, the bulbs are near the completion of their growth by the time the fruit trees produce full leaf structure, and they need less sun.

    Vertical stacking:

    Stacking occurs naturally in forests, thus in permaculture we try mimic this structure. It allows as much as possible to grow in a limited area. We thus arrange or stagger plants according to the resources available (nutrients, water, light).

    A widely used example is that of sweet corn, beans and cucumbers. The corn is tall and acts as a trellis for the beans to climb up, while the cucumber acts as ground cover.

    Permaculture Design Principle 7 - Accelerate succession and evolution

    Natural systems evolve slowly to more productive states by succession. The process of succession begins naturally after fires, droughts and floods. Thus, you can accelerate this process by carefully planning the succession of plants and animals to yield short, medium and long-term yields.

    For instance, weeds, herbs and pioneers can be planted which are nitrogen fixing, or reduce salts, stablilise slops, absorb moisture or provide shelter. This creates habitats for other species to in turn modify the environment.

    You can institute the following measures in your garden to make significant changes in a short timeframe:

  • Use existing weeds and pioneers to build soil fertility
  • Introduce tough plants that will easily survive and can provide protection for favoured species
  • Recondition soils through using mulches, green manures and compost which will prevent weeds and encourage growth
  • Once soil is healthy, plant a diverse range of high-yield, climax species

    Permaculture Design Principle 8 - Diversity

    A permaculture site includes many species of plants and animals. Although the yield for a monoculture system might be greater for that crop than one species in a permaculture system, the sum of yields in a mixed system will be larger.

    What’s more, diversity builds immunity and insurance against stress, for example if pests wipe out a fruit crop, other produce is available to eat or sell.

    To disperse yields over time:

  • Select early, mid and late season varieties
  • Plant the same variety in early or late ripening situations
  • Select long-yielding species
  • Increase diversity or multi-use of species in the system, so that the root, leaf, flower, fruit and seed give yields
  • Use self-storing species such as tubers, hard seeds, nuts or rhizomes that can be dug on demand
  • Preserve, dry, pit, freeze and store
  • Trade within and between communities, or purchase land at different altitudes

  • A permaculture site which maximises diversity is marked by a cooperative diversity of species, called guilds. A guild is an association of mutually-beneficial species often clustered around a central element. Companion planting in gardens and beneficial crop mixes in agriculture are examples of guilds.

    Benefits of creating a guild include reducing root competition from invasive grasses, providing physical shelter, and natural pest control (marigolds repels nematodes, for instance. What’s more, planting sacrificial (pests attack this) or insectary plants (act as host for insects) can draw attention away from your preferential plants.

    Permaculture Design Principle 9 - Use biological resources

    A site designed using Permaculture Design Principles uses natural methods such as plants and animals wherever possible to save energy and do the work of the farm.

    For example, you can use nitrogen-fixing plants instead of fertilizers. Chickens can be used to prepare a garden bed as they scratch up the area and eat all the weeds and insects before you plant.

    Permaculture Design Principle 10 - Increase edge within a system

    By “edge” we mean the interface between two different mediums or the boundary between one area and another. It is wherever species, climates, soil, slope or any natural condition or artificial boundary meets.

    The edge gets resources from two different environments, so is the most fertile and abundant region with the greatest diversity of species.

    For instance, instead of a straight path through your vegetable garden, you can create multiple short paths leading off it into the surrounding space. It’s easier to manoeuvre through your garden and you now have more edge to plant shrubs and trees, creating sunny, protected bays.

    Related Articles

    Permaculture Ethics: Clearly defined Permaculture Ethics give us purpose and clarity, enabling us to measure whether our project meets these criteria.

    No-dig gardening: Build a thriving no-dig gardening bed with virtually no effort.

    Making compost: Making compost has never been simpler with this step-by-step method to creating humus-rich soil.

    What is soil made of? Discover more about this incredible natural resource.

    Return from Permaculture Design Principles to Permaculture Gardening

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