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What is Permaculture?

Jul 11, 2023

Permaculture is a portmanteau of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” which points to creating lasting and productive systems that yield food, fiber, and fuel year after year. It is an ethical design science and methodology integrating human activity with natural surroundings to create highly efficient, self-regenerating ecosystems. 

History & Theory

Bill Mollison, a professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Tasmania , was teaching a seminar in the 1970s about how land ownership adversely affects the balance of an ecosystem. In the audience sat David Holmgren, a graduate student studying environmental design interested in the link between ecology, landscape design, and agriculture. Holmgren was struck by Mollison’s insights, and soon, he would become Holmgren’s mentor, guiding him towards learning from nature’s biodiversity and design, understanding that permanent design and agriculture are everywhere. They observed that conventional agriculture and urban development practices often lead to environmental degradation, social inequity, and economic instability and envisioned permaculture as a solution to these interconnected challenges.

These concepts have been at the core of Indigenous people’s relationship with the land for thousands of years. These practices are as ancient as human existence. We cannot focus only on Holmgren and Mollison, who undoubtedly helped amplify this message – coining the term and bringing infrastructure to how we practice permaculture in the modern setting. Instead, we acknowledge and honor that permaculture is an Indigenous practice, one that Mollison himself has attributed his learnings. 

“Permanens – to persist through time and culture – an activity that supports human existence. Put those together: it’s a persistent system that supports human existence.” – Bill Mollison.

Guiding Principles

The Permaculture principles are guidelines for creative design and action, allowing us to change our minds and behavior to change our environment. The principles are often displayed in a circle, suggesting that we might continually start again and that the end is the beginning and vice versa. 

  • Observe & interact. Every design, every change, and every relationship starts with observation. We must sit with what is and learn from any existing imbalance. Furthermore, we interact with the people who steward the land to obtain knowledge about what is true in the present moment.
  • Capture & store energy. This principle honors energy by capturing the land’s efforts and storing it where possible rather than letting it go to waste. An ecosystem is a continuous producer, and we are called to be responsible stewards of that energy. A cistern captures rainfall and supplies water to the family. Jarring or pickling allows for the storage of foods through winter. 
  • Unlimited yields. How is your system providing benefits? “The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited,” said Bill Mollison. Once we learn to observe how nature works, we open to the endless yield a garden can bring. Compost yields healthy soil, but also provides a regenerative outlet to waste in the home. Mollison suggests that yield is possibly only limited to our imagination. A shady patch in your garden might yield damp earth to insects or a cool spot for the family dog to lie. Reframing our minds to see unlimited yields will encourage us to protect that sacred productivity and invite us into a closer relationship with the land.
  • Design from patterns to details. As permaculturalists, we must avoid getting bogged down in the details. Instead, zoom out to the patterns of the natural world. Learn from the seasonality of nature or from the path that water flows. When we work like nature, we will begin to see the intelligence of its patterns and how they can be applied in the details. 
  • Optimize edge. Where two ecosystems meet at their edges, abundance and richness exist. As designers, we know that working with the edges can create more diversity in the whole system. Where a grassland meets a forest and overlaps, for example, a greater diversity of life can flourish. 
  • Functional interconnection. The connection between things is as important as the things themselves. In practice, we honor the complexity and resilience of relationships. We bring communities of plants and animals together, and their interconnections bring about greater balance and health.
  • Work with nature, not against it. The understanding that nature works in patterns and arrangements with ecological intelligence informs our designs. The first step is learning how to spot this intelligence, and the next is to use it. Working with nature is the only way to ensure sustainability.
  • Everything gardens. Everything has an accumulative effect on the ecosystem as it ‘gardens’ within the web of life. This principle is the understanding that everything must fit into the ecosystem, giving as much as it takes. When each member of an ecosystem is trying to survive, it evolves with unique characteristics to meet its needs to thrive.
  • The problem is the solution. Problems that we find in any landscape are resources and opportunities for solutions. Only our perspective works out whether something is a problem or a solution. We must overcome our blocks to design by implementing small and slow solutions.
  • Work where it counts. Permaculture design invites us to make the most significant changes with the least effort possible. In this way, we invite the gift of ease into our lives when we work efficiently, intentionally, and economically in the garden and on our land.
  • Stack functions. Any element in our natural environment serves multiple functions. When we tune in to the ecological intelligence of our land, we open to the multiplicity of the natural world and see an inherent value in all things.
  • Create redundancy. This is the idea that multiple elements support each function. To have a diverse way of meeting your needs and protecting your design against failure, we must create resilience within the ecosystem by thinking big and imagining solutions before problems arise. Create safety nets so that the ecosystem builds buoyancy. 
  • Relative location. Part of permaculture is creating innovative designs that consider location an element in an ecosystem’s great balance and sustainability. The needs of any given plant or animal can be fulfilled by the surplus yields of their near neighbors. 


If permaculture principles are the beams of light that radiate to inform our practice, ethics is the sun herself. The ethics of permaculture is the heart from which we go out into the world and get to work. 

Care of the Earth. This ethical truth is the basis for our work as permaculturists. Permaculture was created and recreated on the premise that we must care for the Earth. At Shades of Green, our highest honor is to empower people to participate in Earth’s return to health. This permeates all aspects of life, including what we eat or wear, how we move about the Earth, and how we treat all living things. 

Care of People. The first way to honor the ethics of ‘care of people’ is to tend to oneself. We are extensions of Earth and have inherent value, divine intelligence, and an undeniable belonging to the land and one another. If we do not care for ourselves first, we cannot care for others. People-care is about understanding and valuing community. This ethic of permaculture reminds us that we must serve one another from a space of abundance, taking cues from nature. If we have done the work to love ourselves, we can quickly love others and participate in community as healthy individuals. Self, family, and community operate cyclically – one feeds the other, and the other gives back freely – an authentic, permanent culture. 

Share the Abundance. Permaculture asks us to give when we have a surplus and give with an abundant spirit. Considering this, we must also reevaluate our relationship to enoughness. To practice permaculture ethically, we must become conscious consumers, sometimes making hard decisions and looking inward to find what we are truly searching for. Reframing our minds toward abundance will change the way we share. The wren bird does not hoard the fallen berries; instead, she allows the deer to graze the ground beneath. When our neighbor has enough, so too do we.

Assume inherent value. This is the belief that all things – the garden snake, the creeping ivy, the floods, the pesky mosquito, the rose’s thorn – have value simply because they exist in the larger context of life’s impeccable balance. When we operate from this assumption, all problems become understandable, even non-problematic. The ethic of assuming inherent value informs our ability to care for people and the Earth, which unites the ethics of permaculture to become the core of how we work, love, and live.

Permaculture & Shades of Green

We have identified three pillars of a regenerative landscape, and have implemented them on thousands of projects. 

  • Pillar # 1: Manage water as a resource to rehydrate soils, reduce irrigation, and restore the water cycle.
    • Conventional water management is an unsustainable system. With regenerative design, we work to restore the water cycle – slowing, sinking, and spreading it across a landscape. In this way, water can become a resource rather than an issue relating to flood or drought. We do this through earthworks like raingardens and contour swales, strategically planting, and watering deeply and infrequently.
  • Pillar #2: Integrate “waste” as a resource to build soil fertility and create resilience.
    • Soil is the foundation of a healthy landscape. In permaculture, we integrate “waste” as a resource to build soil fertility. We create a circular economy within your garden by keeping products and materials in use, designing out waste and pollution, and regenerating natural systems.
  • Pillar #3: Preserve and restore biodiversity by building plant communities.
    • Conventional landscapes and plantings can present problems like dependency on herbicides and pesticides as well as a high lawn maintenance cost with a negative impact on our Earth. We preserve and restore biodiversity through native and edible plant communities. Dynamic plant communities work to restore balance and grow resiliency in an ecosystem.

How we work with clients

  • Permaculture Consultation: Every client relationship begins with a consultation. We love listening to our client’s dreams and visions for their homes and working together to refine the project approach into a scope that suits your site, goals, and budget. This gives us a relational foundation and builds trust from the start.
  • Ecological Design: Our process begins with an extensive site assessment to understand the current conditions. From there, we design an ecologically-led system and help you envision the optimum possibilities for your land. Our designs are rooted in the unique language of each site, which we study through contemplative observation. This allows us to work with the innate intelligence of the site and develop planting plans and water strategies that are elegant, creative, and site-specific. 
  • Full-Service Landscape Installation: As a design and build firm, we have the team, expertise, and joyful exertion to bring your design to life. Our install team, who works closely with the design team to implement the plant, is a hard-working bunch who lives out the ethics of ‘caring for the Earth’ daily. 
  • Caretaking: Our caretaking team supports you in tending to your new garden for the long-term. Integrating love, stewardship, expertise, and hands-in-the-dirt physicality, they work with you to read and respond to your site for seasons to come.
  • EcoLawn Care: Our newest offering reimagines conventional lawn care services. We work with clients monthly to move away from toxic lawn care practices and embrace truly diverse and organic ecological lawns.
  • Education: We offer free resources, articles, workshops, events, permaculture design courses, and volunteer opportunities. 

In practice – Our mission is to empower people to participate in Earth’s return to health. That means that if we are doing our job right, our clients will continue practicing permaculture day to day. We do this through our offerings of caretaking and ecolawns, but also through our courses. As an education firm, we believe in equipping people with the knowledge to become permaculturists themselves. By cultivating this practice in our clients and students, they go into their gardens or backyards and continue impacting the greater environment and larger ecosystems. In this way, our mission transcends into the highest vision of what it means to have a truly permanent culture – one of empowerment, agency, and sustainability.

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Features, Permaculture 101