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[The following is a transcription of material presented by David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture Design, on the advanced design course he led at Tir Penrhos Isaf in august 1994. I produced the transcript from a recording of the course made by a course student, George Blair and much thanks goes to him for that valuable piece of work.]

[ I have tried to keep as closely as I can to David's words but in some cases have replaced purely Australian examples of the principles in action with temperate climate ones. I have also added occasional notes where I felt temperate climate explanations were necessary. All my additions are enclosed between square brackets, like this, [Chris's bits].

[I have made this transcript available because I consider David's long experience of applying the permaculture principles provides a valuable resource for designers in Britain, (and abroad). Please note that copyright for this material is held by David Holmgren and Chris Dixon 1995. Please contact either of us for details regarding publication rights.]


The Ethics and Principles of Permaculture.

David Holmgren

transcribed by Chris Dixon

6/7 August 1994





Integrated Systems

Small scale, self replicating systems

Energy Storage

Recycling of Materials (no waste) and Feedback of Information

Energy Efficient Site and Landscape Planning

Attitudinal Principles


Integrated Systems

Everything is relative.

When we look at a site we should try to think in a system way, about interconnections rather than bits. In particular, we should be looking at the ways pieces are connected together to form a whole system which satisfies several conditions.

When we look at elements within that system, we view each element relatively; that is, we look at what else it relates to, what is its concept, function.

In permaculture, everything is relative, context dependent; there are no absolutes. This is very different from the absolutist view, that this element is good or bad.

In traditional peasant attitudes towards food, carbohydrates and sugars were good things and might be consumed at harvest times, festival days etc. Now we see them as too much of a good thing.

[David told a story of arguing with vegan caterers on one of his courses, about eggs. To David the quantities were significant; only a few home produced eggs were to be cooked whereas if it had involved loads of eggs with consequent factory farms to produce them, it would not be permaculture. The Vegans on the other hand, were absolutists; eating eggs was bad and the quantity was immaterial. It can be difficult to describe a relative view to an absolutist. Absolutism is attractive in that it provides an apparently safe, secure world view.]


Cooperation not competition.

Try where possible to arrange elements in cooperation not competition. In nature they work in balance, a dynamic tension. Natural systems tend to internalise cooperation and externalise the competition.

Elements should support one another, reinforce mutual benefits. For example companion planting, guilds.

Each element serves many functions, each important function is supported by many elements. This is natural, common sense and is common in traditional agricultures.

[David gives the example of the sugar palm which supplies many different yields]

Although our needs are diverse, the market mentality focuses on one yield.

We should look for a direct yield plus passive functions. So we may have a direct yield of say nuts from a plant and a whole range of passive functions like shelter, shade, wildlife, nutrient recycling, soil conditioning, water pumping, fertilizing, vegetation control.

Be aware of where the main aim is. What is the most valuable use? Sometimes we can't have all the uses. So a tree grown for nuts will need an open site for maximum canopy whereas grown for straight timber it will be close planted, so less nuts.

The simplest reason for serving essential functions by many elements is that of "don't put all your eggs in one basket". So with water, food, don't depend on just one element. This is called redundancy in engineering design; backup systems are employed because the main way may occasionally fail. In traditional agricultures there are usually a variety of ways of growing the main crop, (eg "grandfather's seed which isn't that productive") but these become the fall back when other methods fail, for example, through being drought resistant.

On the surface it appears to be inefficient so modern technology therefore scraps it, (and thus puts all the eggs in one basket).


Small scale self replicating systems

Wherever possible work at the smallest workable scale; this has least environmental impact and is most amenable to incremental evolution and change.

If we invest a lot of energy in how to do something in a big way then find its not appropriate, its very hard to get out of. eg nuclear power.

Self replicating so that when successful they produce their own resources to generate more of themselves, rather than just keep making the same thing bigger. So for example, with a garden, if successful, you don't do a whole mountain, you use the resources to set up other gardens.


Maximum use of local resources

In general they will have particular unique characteristics which we are in the best position to make use of. Often, if not used, they'll be wasted.

If we use locally, if the use is bad or unwise the consequences are much more likely to feed back to us. For example, uncomposted human waste into gardens, we get sick; its a fast feedback loop. We do something about it. Felling tropical forest, the feedback is very slow and may be a long time in coming. You can't just walk away from problems so easily in a local community.


Optimal size

There are optimal limits to the size of any system beyond which it begins to break up.


Energy Storage

In natural systems, energy is stored in water, soil humus and perennial plant systems. That's what happens in nature and its a good reason to grow forests, perennials and always be looking at soil building processes.

If we could pass on prime agricultural land in temperate climates with 10% humus in the soil that would be a huge inheritance, fantastically valuable, an enormous storage of energy in the landscape, that every generation that's been around has known what to do with it. If we pass on concrete buildings, multi storage car parks, that may not be that useful.

There will also be appropriate human storages of buildings and infrastructure, the non-biological stuff. There is probably still more capacity to do this than in the past. Future generations will have to live with what we build. In Britain, [as opposed to Australia] a lot of stuff has been passed on (due to a longer and more stable past), and a lot of work has been done on adapting existing buildings. This should make us more aware of the need to build the best type of structures which will store the most energy.


Recycling of materials and feedback of information.


There are lots of opportunities to re-use things because of the type of society we've got. Normally we think of recycling broken stuff. In a really efficient system you don't get that sort of inefficiency; everything is re-used such as in poorer countries.

We should cultivate a frugal, no waste society.

We can end up swamped by more than we can use, junk collectors; it decays faster than we can use it. So there are limits to how much we can reuse.


Feedback of information

What we learn from the system can be fed back in to improve that system. In everything we do we should be concerned with information feedback, especially when we are doing something that hasn't been done before.

[David described how with some new designs for fodder systems, he had to put them in himself first, on the tractor with the client. This meant there was a very short feedback loop between the designer and the implementation; he could see/hear what was easy/difficult etc. He was thus able to learn how to advise others.]

When we separate these functions, those of making the decisions and carrying them out, we lose the information feedback. For example, architects designing buildings they never live in. The do it yourself/self reliant ethic, plus the commitment to getting your hands dirty, can close up that gap and get more efficient information cycling.

With processes requiring specialist knowledge, consultants, we need to be more conscious of building ways to get more feedback. The small scale, doing it yourself, feedback closed, is more natural.


Energy efficient site and landscape planning

This is very important, especially with the Australian perspective where sites are often developing from scratch.



This originates from a central activity node which we normally think of as the dwelling but could be anything. It describes concentric zones of decreasing intensity of use.

[This approach came from observations of towns in central Germany last century. David and Bill recognised this as a useful model.]

Zoning allows the rough sorting with regards to the placement of things. There are various degrees by which this can be applied in particular landscapes and cultures. Remember that its not a site plan, its a concept.

As you become familiar with a particular design tool you no longer need to think about it, you just use it quite naturally.

Zoning is effected by topography and other factors like culture. Some people keep animals really close to their house or in their house.



Orientation to sun and exact sunset and sunrise points are probably the single most important factor in cool climates; like a mandala you carry in your head. Access to sunlight determines so many things in this climate, for example the energy efficiency of passive solar design, the productivity of gardens, the comfort of outside living conditions.

Fixed things like hills affect this. Sun exposure provides a focus for the site. The flat site model is very clear [draws diagram] but it is very complex in uneven landscapes.

[On the flat site the clearing in front of the dwelling draws out into horns to the southwest and southeast where the sun rises and sets and where evergreens need to be further away. Directly in front of the dwelling the sun is higher so stuff can come in closer.]

This is very relevant to a cool climate. For food gardens, summer sun, spring and autumn sun are crucial. Its often even more crucial in urban situations.

Sectors show flows of external energy that come in and influence the site. If we work to design with them and channel them usefully and use them, it improves the productivity. If we ignore them then they can be destructive such as wind, flood sectors, fire. Note that flood is not just destructive but carries debris, shapes the land. On a hillside we might find cross ground floods, run off floods; we should try to divert these to useful purpose, not just deflecting.

In this climate [British] wind is important, fire more so in Australia.

For any particular bio-region, a generalised pattern can be developed, (eventually integrated at a cultural level, taken on as obvious common sense, like in traditional societies), and each site has a specific pattern.

The wildlife, the wild energy of the system, like deer, we may need to channel, but we might not want to exclude them completely.



Slope is a way of measuring the degree to which gravity acts downwards, across the surface. Its so obvious we don't even think of it; gravity is a huge force pushing everything down. On a flat surface its not really apparent but on a slope we have a force acting down the slope, always operating. If we can design to make use of this, we're at a considerable advantage; if we don't, it damages what we try to do, water, erosion etc.

So for example, having access at the top of a slope is a lot easier than one at the bottom, (we don't have to move stuff uphill). Also, gravity fed water systems, flat hills for storage of materials.



Potentially the most productive land is at the dwelling [easiest place to give attention] but a road generates two sides with easy access. A whole lot of things develop as a result of that infrastructure. The same thing applies in landscapes where we depend critically on irrigation; once the irrigation line is in place we can develop on either side.

Access is especially relevant in very wet land where its hard to move around without causing damage. A walking track, vehicle road, ribbon development between towns; urban planners understand this but its not in the culture at the small biological level.

In our society, land tenure is a very powerful factor in how landscapes are organised. For example, fear that your animals might be nicked might mean you keep them by or in your house. So there are real reasons for doing things but often they are to do with exploitation, warfare etc.

In traditional systems the focus was on what is the main limiting factor and developing often very sophisticated ways of handling that limitation but often they don't look at more minor factors. Often only one or two factors are really well designed for and may be dysfunctional in the longer term; for example, have loads of kids, its then not so important how far you have to walk to get something.

The single node development provides one focus of activity. A barn some distance away creates a completely different dynamic. Linkages between nodes becomes crucial like tracks, water, paths.

Looking at communities and village design, linkages between activity nodes, houses or village centre, become very important.

Identifying underlying natural land types reveals different qualities. For example, what looks like just a field may have well drained and poorly drained areas. These differences form a basis for land division into basic units. The boundaries between land types then become lines for infrastructure such as access, shelter belt etc. It also makes it much harder to do stupid things, (like a tractor bogging in a wet corner).

Landscape laid out according to natural land forms has an underlying sense to it that makes it more likely that people will manage it sensibly.

Broadacre landscapes that have lost hedgerows offer incredible opportunities not only to put those features back in but to put them back in a different place, that is, according to the underlying structure, soil types etc. With infrastructure like shelter, access, water etc. we should try to reinforce those natural boundaries; when we do, we create a landscape that has a natural harmony.

When you only have one product or crop, the logic is to try to turn all that land into a place for that crop. When you have multiple land uses like forestry, aquaculture, grazing, horticulture, you can find a place for everything in that landscape.

Tenure has very strong effect on this. [eg. farm boundaries running across natural features.]


Use of biological resources

In general, using renewables where possible and making creative use of non-renewables. Often in our society we've got into the habit of using non-renewables where a renewable will do the job just as well.

So plants can be used as fertilisers or fences by using nitrogen fixers and planting hedges. Fertilizers and fences usually come from non-renewables or energy intensive processes.

Animals can be used as mowers, fertilising agents, rotary hoes, pest controls. There's generally a biological solution to different problems. Good design and management is the key to them working effectively; so sheep don't go in gardens or with young trees. Without good design and management, the potential solution becomes a problem.

The technological solution can appear easier; we don't have to think much about it, just fit it up. Biological solutions can work well but can take a lot to work out. With animals it might come down to a specific breed; with plants, timing, species etc.

We need to manage the biological solutions; for example, an unpruned legume in the garden will shade out food.


Use of diversity

There are very ordinary reasons for why we need diversity; humans have diverse needs so we need diverse yield. This is the most obvious reason that has been forgotten. Modern economy dominates thinking; sell it all to get money to get those diverse needs. The real economy, which is basis of human society, is the household (the money economy is just a little thing on top).

[David draws a pyramid.]

It begins from the economy of nature, [the base of the pyramid] then the household (the basic economic unit of society) only then the money/formal economy. We [Permaculture designers etc.] are concerned with the bottom layers, which at the moment are being drained by the top layer, because that's where it all comes from.

Even in affluent economies, the household economy is still quite substantial. The unpaid work of women if paid would break western capitalism. This is what we look at rebuilding. Here the needs are diverse.

There is the diversity of yields over time, with different varieties, microclimate, species, self store foods (nuts), preservation of food, diversity of diet at different times of year and also bio-regional trade for things we find difficult to produce

We are concerned here with the greatest total yield rather than of just one product. The system occupies all the niches and uses all the energy.

Nature is always turning big accumulations of energy into different things, spreading it about; if you're not in a position to make use of all of those different things you end up loosing.

For example, sustainable settlements may be able to support a 10% vegan poulation. If it was 100% we'd have a very miserable existence and spend all our time killing animals because inevitably everything we grow is food for animals. Unless we are diverse enough to be making use of those animals we will find ourselves fighting a plague of animals.

Just because something is a good idea, it is not necessarily true that its a good idea for everyone to do it. (eg reintroducing wild pigs in Israel). Complimentarity is necessary because otherwise you are not occupying all the niches and something else will occupy them.

Complimentarity leads to cultural diversity, .

The strong argument that diversity leads to stability is a bit over simple. Stability comes from a good functioning system with complimentary interconnections, a lot of cooperation between elements; it doesn't come form just throwing a lot of stuff in together, we don't get a stable system from that.

There's informed observation from nature that a lot of ecosystems with great diversity of plants and animal are relatively stable and self-regulating; its a lot easier if there's a great diversity but that's not the main reason for diversity.

One of great reasons for diverse system, mixed chaos, is that that's how we start to find out what works. If we don't have a sophisticated traditional, sustainable, garden culture in our area, how do we find out what grows? One way is to start trying things; some things work, some don't. Nature does this when free energy is available. When energy drops, there's heavy culling. If you didn't have the diversity, how could you cull back to a refined system?

Modern stuff has concentrated on the culling, right back to one crop.

The only way to find out what is appropriate to some new set of circumstances is to try a lot of stuff. Its unrealistic to expect much experimentation from a peasant farmer where food is vital. In affluent society, its the ideal opportunity to experiment; that's our responsibility, to be diverse, to cope with the costs of what doesn't work and learn from it so others can learn from what we do and be a little bit more refined.

Its the balance between productivity (culling) and diversity which gives foundations from which to cull.

If we just plant a load of stuff, say how lovely it is, don't really eat it, don't grow very well, don't learn from lessons, dogmatic reverence for diversity per se, we are not really gaining from it.


Use of succession and evolution

we know that systems always grow and change. We know that pioneer elements provide conditions for succeeding things which take over from them. So as well as complimentarity and cooperation, there's also succession where one thing replaces another and its the previous thing that provides the right conditions for the next; this is not a static picture.

We can identify a starting point and direction but may not know what the final stage is. A lot of design professions are the other way around, looking at the final stage.

In sustainable systems all design is incremental and ongoing (only the final state is death, for humans).

The obvious ones are natural forest succession. In garden agriculture we can accelerate the succession. This is the way varieties evolve. The genetic material we work with are not static, they change, we can develop and select new varieties. though its as important to hang on to old genetic resources (like apple varieties) but the process is always ongoing (self seeding apples) and we need to to take advantage of that and accelerate or channel it.

We can also think of accelerating development of sustainable communities and culture before the conditions that require it come into being. That is essentially what we are trying to do. In affluent societies some of what we talk about doesn't make practical sense or is not the obvious thing to do, its against the tide of social direction but if there's only change when an event occurs it can be too late. We can speed this process up, as in the garden.

We can introduce seed sources (that may be lacking in a particular area) of more advanced stages once we understand the sucessional processes. We can accelerate the build up of biological matter (ie slash before burns, or thin to allow dominate trees room).

There's an order of priority [Australian]; local native species, Australian native species and only then an exotic.

Unless we're using all the available genetic diversity we probably can't build systems that are any better than traditional ones; the sustainable systems of the past. Probably because of population and damage to environments, we don't really have any choice but to use all the genetic resource that's available to us. Most of it is already in the bio-region or on the continent. We must be much more cautious when using exotics, especially animal species and aquatic animal espically. Mostly we are introducing things to a site which are just down the road and will get here anywhere.

Very good observation is required. If what happens is not what is desired we need to have strategies to stop that happening that are viable. Like Rhodedenron, we must consider carefully that we're not just pouring resources down a drain. [referring to expensive attempts to clear Rhodedenron]

Culling back is a similar process.


Use of Edges and Margins

It is fairly well understood from the science of ecology that margins are more biologically productive and often more diverse; for example, water edge, forest edge. By increasing edge we can increase yield and diversity. Also, beautiful landscapes as opposed to dense forest or all fields. The hedge is an European example, and is very sophisticated, combined with access, water management etc.



In the home garden we can have lots of edge and variety etc. and it still can be harvested. A market garden with the same edge is too complex to manage so a scale of operations is important. Different scales can cope with different degrees of edge geometry. They can be complex, spiral, lobulate with keyholes etc. Doing things by hand we can cope with a lot more complexity of edge; a walk-behind slaher can cope with more edge than a tractor.


marginal systems

In a system, the main gain is say the crop in the field. The hedge supplies fruit, nut, rabbits etc. a bit of poor land that can't grow the main crop. This is like famine food. If we get rid of all margins, we lose the safety net. This also operates at a conceptual level; modern society has very little margin for errors, economic thinking cuts them out.

Traditional society focused attention on the main stuff but you didn't need to think about the marginal systems, they looked after themselves. So there's very little documentation.

Some of what Permaculture is about is rebuilding these marginal systems. On a broadscale, how do we put them back in a better, more productive way, rather than just reconfigure around a main crop?


Attitudinal Principles

learn from nature

learn from nature doesn't mean we do exactly what nature does but we learn from it.


the problem is the solution

The very worst pests are often a warning sign from nature. like the rhodedendron. As long as cutting is not just part of a closed loop, ie just cutting for ever, and moves the system on to next stage, there's nothing wrong with cutting.


sense of limits and sense of abundance (limits/surplus)

In society generally there's an enormous sense of scarcity (whether real or apparent) like clean air. The process of growing up and becoming an adult is a process of pouring a lot of stuff into your head or you won't grow up. In sustainable societies, growing up is everywhere, you don't have to make it happen, it happens by itself; fresh air is an abundance, produced by trees all the time. Once seen as scarce it becomes a commodity, like bottled water. There's a sense of loosing everything. "Every tree is sacred because the planet is dying!" The farm landscape where you don't have anything to cut down is a dying landscape. Whereas there should be an abundance, a gift not an indulgence. Its the difference between a sense of abundance and one of gluttony which leads to power over nature and people.

Especially in the western world, there is huge abundance but the sense of poverty.

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