Permaculture started as a radical rethinking of plants and agriculture, developed by observing nature to create more effective and productive systems of growing food. The design ideas were created by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren over four years and published by Corgi in Permaculture One in 1978.

Last week we looked at the history of the movement, its origins and history, the way in which the two authors went separate ways after the publication, and we concentrated on the teaching of the of Bill Mollison, the ebullient, and sometime difficult, proselytiser, promulgating the ideas worldwide.

This week we look at some of the tenets of Permaculture itself through the work of David Holmgren, who developed the ideas through practical experimentation, firstly on his mother's property in southern NSW and since 1986 on his own home small acreage of Melliodora, near Hepburn Springs in central Victoria.

From the early 80s he had a consultancy business, Holmgren Design Services, designing and advising on a wide range of projects. His assiduous experimentation led in several directions. The first and most obvious was the major work, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, published in 2002. This book expanded and detailed the ideas of permaculture that had been laid out in Mollison's Permaculture, a Designer's Manual of 1988.

Holmgren’s book went further in laying out a detailed ethical and philosophical framework, far beyond the idea of companion planting and forest development. The book laid out three central tenets or ethics of permaculture, being

  • Care for the planet
  • Care for people and
  • Fair share, the circularity of returning surplus to the system.

These then gave rise to the 12 principles of Permaculture:

1. Observe and Interact

Being observant and responding to what we see in moving towards a more ethical and sustainable way of life by learning from nature, as well as other people.

2. Catch and Store Energy.

The ideas that are now redolent in sustainability: renewable energy, particularly looking at passive solar design and growing your own food.

3. Obtain a Yield

Working with nature to obtain a yield from organic gardening techniques to provide food for families, but also a non-tangible yield of happiness, health and mental wellbeing.

4. Apply Self-regulation and Feedback

By understanding where there are successes and failures is vitally important to create real and lasting change.

5. Use and Value Renewables

By looking to the sun, wind and water we can power buildings, generate food and regenerate the environment, to avoid the use of polluting fossil fuels.

6. Produce No Waste

Moving towards a zero-waste lifestyle means looking at all the rubbish that is tipped and trying to eliminate it by the three R’s: recycle, reuse and repair.

7. Design from Patterns to Details

Whether designing a new vegetable garden or a new way of life we have to look at the big picture before getting down to details. ‘Patterns’ as used by Christopher Alexander were not directly referenced but formed a part of the idea of holistic design.

8. Integrate don't segregate

Plants work well with diverse systems. And the same is true for people. The idea in permaculture is to plant ‘polycultures’, guilds of plants which work together, often drawn from nature and the natural world.

9. Use Small Slow Solutions

Taking the idea of a journey beginning with a single step the idea is not to be over ambitious, but to take small steps at first, eventually bringing big changes and benefits.

10. Use and Value Diversity

Eco systems work best when filled with variety, which can include plants, animals and humans, and a variety of different people is important in developing society.

11 Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Sustainability requires a relooking at leftover spaces in the physical world, as well as the parts which are metaphorically at the edge in the society,

12 Creatively Use and Respond to Change

The final principle looks at inevitable change. It's important to remember that permaculture will change over time and that we must design for change, understanding changing seasons, in attitudes, in climate and the responses that we must make.

These ideas took a wider view of Permaculture, developing a philosophy that ventured into unusual regions. Holmgren challenged orthodoxies, such as the possibilities of exotic plants at a time when only native plants were promoted; this interest in recombinant ecosystems or weedscapes prompted by a visit with Haikai Tane in NZ.

Much of his work centred around rural or regional villages, such as ‘Fryers Forest Ecovillage’ near Castlemaine in central Victoria; the ‘Commonground Co-operative’ in Seymour in Victoria; Millpost farm in NSW’s Bungendore; and CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne’s Brunswick.

Out of these studies came his most interesting and revolutionary contribution: Retrofitting the Suburbs for Sustainability published by the CSIRO in 2005. He continued to work on this idea and in 2018 he self-published Retro Suburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future. It presents a manifesto about the need to repair the suburbs, and a manual on how to go about it.

The work is divided into three areas, the Built, the Biological and the Behavioural, and contains real-life case studies together with a fictional story ‘On Aussie St’. All directed to transform suburbs to become more productive and resilient in a low energy carbon-neutral future.

Permaculture was an extraordinary invention, and in the two originators’ hands it has gone into very productive directions: One to spread the word so that close half a million people have learned its principles. The other to develop a philosophical basis for it, much wider than the original natural systems observations. One that leads to a rethinking of what Australian suburbs might be like in a low-carbon future.

plus 1 / / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting both Sustainability and Australian design. We don’t support social media in any form, rather you can contact +one at [email protected].