Sophisticated ecological understanding blended with
common sense design creates productive landscapes

One of the articles in Living With The Land (IC#8)
Originally published in Winter 1984 on page 40
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Sego Jackson is a farmer, permaculture designer, and director of the Permaculture Institute of North America, located in Clinton, Washington.

ANY HOPE for the emergence of sustainable cultures must be based upon the development of sustainable agricultural systems. No matter how just our relationships with each other, regardless of the quality of our educational experiences, despite our spiritual pursuits and freedoms, the sustainability of our culture is at its root fundamentally dependent on our relationship to the land, and especially on the sustainability of our production of food.

One approach to creating a sustainable system of agriculture has been developed by Australian ecologist, Bill Mollison. Influenced by Aboriginal ethics towards the land, painfully aware of the global environmental crisis, and knowledgeable about natural ecologies, Mollison and colleagues began to work out a process by which responsible people could purposefully design their own productive eco- systems in which to live. Mollison termed this process "permanent agriculture" or permaculture.

The overall goal of permaculture design is to establish resource and energy conserving (including human energy) landscapes that are agriculturally productive, that take into account and mimic, as much as possible, relationships and processes found in the natural environment, and that approach the diversity, stability and resilience found in natural ecosystems. The underlying philosophy is that we are a part of the natural environment and not separate from it, and that we must work with nature and its processes, rather than against it. To achieve this, Mollison suggests that permaculture needs to be a process "of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions rather than treating any area as a single product system."

Permaculture design was originally proposed to assist Australia’s "back to the land" movement. The design principles can be applied in varying degrees, however, to window sill herb gardens, urban and suburban lots, and rural properties, and have application to overall neighborhood and subdivision design.

The basic permaculture principles and guidelines are as follows:

Let nature do it. For any activity that needs to be accomplished, first consider if there are any biological or other natural ways to accomplish the goal before considering mechanical and chemical means. This doesn’t mean that, in the final analysis, you will always choose the biological resource, but you should at least be aware of the natural alternatives. Do you need to fertilize an orchard? Consider a nitrogen fixing cover crop like clover. Do you need a lawn mowed? Consider sheep or weeder geese, or eliminate the whole problem in the first place by using a low growing ground cover.

In like manner, consider natural ways to trap and utilize sunshine and other renewable energies, water, and nutrients, keeping in mind that any resource, not utilized, becomes pollution.

Integrate your functions. When considering the different elements of a landscape, consider not only their products, but their functions. There should be multiple functions for single elements. For instance, the chicken is not only an egg, meat, and feather producer, but it can function as a tractor, herbicide, pesticide, and a bag of fertilizer. If well placed and managed, chickens can be used to prepare soil during planting with their scratching. They will eat weeds and weed seeds, as well as numerous insects and small slugs, all while spreading their nitrogen-rich manure. From this multi-functional perspective, hedges, ponds, chicken yards, walls, fences – all elements of the design – take on new meaning and purpose.

A related guideline is to establish multiple elements for single functions. If you are in a high fire risk area, it would be wise to design your driveway so that it passed across the direction from which fire is often a threat, thereby acting as a fire break. It would be wiser still to also locate the chicken yard, which will be fairly devoid of highly combustible grasses, in this sector, as well as a pond or fire-resistant vegetation. Likewise, if you have livestock to feed, include trees and shrubs as sources of fodder, as well as grasses, so that you will be less affected by drought or disease. Mimic nature by designing for resilience.

Plan the physical layout. The three main concepts here are zonation, sector planning, and relative location. Zonation locates the various components of the landscape based upon labor needs: those that require frequent visiting and are labor intensive are located nearest to the area of greatest activity – usually the house. Those that require less labor are placed farther away. Imagine your house with a number of concentric circles drawn around it, much like the rings of an onion. The house is zone 0, followed then by zones 1,2,3, and 4. Ideally (the actual topography of the property must be taken into account) the herb garden, salad garden with edible flowers, and the like, are located in zone 1 – close to the kitchen door. Zone 2 is a good location for the annual garden, greenhouse, chicken coop, and other landscape components that require daily or frequent attention. Zone 3 serves well for the orchard, perennial garden, and large stock housing. Zone 4 is good placement for the wood lot and animal pastures – places that only need to be visited several times per year.

Though zonation may sound simplistic and unimportant – it is not. The result of poor placement of landscape components in relationship to labor needs has been demonstrated over and over in the form of abandoned gardens, failed homesteads, and home cooked meals devoid of fresh herbs and greens.

In sector planning, the landscape is divided up into wedge shaped sectors, each radiating from a particular point or points (again, usually the house). From these points, sectors are identified such as wind, sunshine, fire risk, view, and noise. This information is then used in design decisions to locate structures, plantings and use areas in such a way to be protected from or benefit from these external inputs.

The relative location of each element to each other is next considered to conserve energy (including labor) and resources. If the chickens, greenhouse, and garden all require the installation of a water line, clustering these three elements can reduce the amount of pipe required, installation labor and money. A tool shed placed between the garden and the kitchen door encourages the proper care of tools more so than one placed on the far side of the garden. Each element should be placed relative to other elements, rather than be viewed in isolation.

These principles and guidelines are used as you proceed through the design process, which involves a clear defining of goals, a resource inventory and site analysis, a functional analysis of the site, species selection, design time-line and budgeting, and the final reality check against the original goals. Though this may all sound like a lot of work, if you think about how much time in your life has already been wasted, due to poor initial planning and lack of design, the time spent designing will be very rewarding. There is much for those of us who work in the area of sustainable culture emergence to do, and our time and resources are too valuable to waste on landscapes that are frustrating, minimally productive, and doomed to failure. We would do better to design for success.

It is a good idea, if undertaking a design on the land you live on, to involve a good friend or neighbor who does not live on the site. Often our preconceived ideas get in the way of a design process and someone not so emotionally involved can see additional relationships and design possibilities. If desired, in some areas, certified permaculture designers are available for consultation or actual design work. Also, there are rare permaculture design courses that can give you a good background to work on your design.

Though the word permaculture was first coined in 1975, it described an ideal that many had been working toward for a long time. As a result, it has established a rapidly growing and committed group of practitioners and followers world wide. There are permaculture institutes, associations, or trained designers in England, France, Germany, Algeria, Canada, United States, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, and India. It is time for more of us to get involved with practicing and demonstrating sustainability, through our lifestyles and our landscapes. Permaculture can help us along this path.


The Permaculture Quarterly, c/o Terry White, 37 Goldsmith St., Maryborough, Victoria 3465, Australia. The international permaculture journal, with in-depth articles on various permaculture techniques and activities around the world.

The Permaculture Observer, 6488 Maxwelton Rd., Clinton, Washington, 98236. This is the newsletter of the newly formed Permaculture Institute of North America – reporting on permaculture design and methods in North America. Starting publication date is March, 1985.

Mollison, Bill and David Holmgren, Permaculture One (Corgi Books, 1978, $12.50).

Mollison, Bill, Permaculture Two (Tagari Books, 1979, $10.95). These books are responsible for the expanding permaculture movement. Philosophy, principles, and specific design information are detailed in both. Written in Australia, many of the species recommendations are relevant only for the southern hemisphere, yet the books are important reading for all. Both are available from the International Tree Crops Institute, PO Box 666, Winters, CA 95694.

Fukuoka, Masanobu, The One Straw Revolution (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1978, $9.95). A Japanese natural farmer tells of his philosophies and techniques – perhaps the most important philosophical work on agriculture ever written.

Smister, Carol, Nature’s Design (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1982). This is the ideal guide book for those interested in developing site analysis prior to creating a landscape design. Though not addressing permaculture design, per se, the step by step site analysis procedure described is invaluable.

Alexander, Christopher et al., A Pattern Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). This pudgy, expensive book (about $35) is worth every penny to those remodeling or landscaping, and is a must for those working in the fields of architecture, landscape design, and community design. Human and environmental needs are laid out simply, such as "Southeast sun in the kitchen" with an explanation and design suggestions. This is followed by linkages to other patterns such as kitchen garden, and breakfast nook.

Korn, Larry, Barbara Snyder, and Mark Musick, eds., The Future Is Abundant (Tilth Assn., 4649 Sunnyside North, Seattle, WA 98103, 1982, $12.95). A resource guide for sustainable agriculture. The numerous addresses and references can save hours of library research and an extensive species index will be of great use to those in the Pacific Northwest (USA).

Altieri, Miguel, Agroecology: The Scientific Basis Of Alternative Agriculture (self-published, 1983, $11.00, order from 1050 San Pablo Ave., Albany, Ca. 94706). A textbook that describes the science behind ecological agriculture.

Quinney, John, "Designing Sustainable Small Farms And Homesteads" in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, July/August 1984, p. 54. Covers the design principles, guidelines, as well as the design process.


THE PERMACULTURE INSTITUTE OF NORTH AMERICA (PINA), 6488 Maxwelton Rd., Clinton, WA 98236. PINA is in the process of developing a 23-acre permaculture demonstration site and an educational and interpretive center on Whidbey Island in Washington state. PINA serves as the networking center for the numerous bioregional permaculture groups, a link to other international permaculture institutes, and can make referrals for those wishing to hire certified permaculture designers and trainees. Membership information is available upon request.

THE NEW ALCHEMY INSTITUTE, 237 Hatchville Rd., E. Falmouth, Mass., 02536. Conducts research, educational and outreach programs. Integrated greenhouse and aquaculture systems of note. Now focusing on permaculture work.