my version of the
12 PRINCIPLES of permaculture 

In this article on the twelve design principles of permaculture, my main sources ares online and own experience. In addition I add in bits I've learned in the workshops and talks of permaculture experts, and well as in my studies on fine art, horticulture and garden design, and a wine diploma.

Permaculture is not a set of tips and tricks for gardening, it’s a way of thinking, a design process taking diversity into account in which each project is adapted to its specific context. It is based on three ethical principles, earth care, people care and fair share.

1st principle of permaculture
observe and interact

To be able to adapt most appropriately to a space, it is necessary to know as much as possible about its particular characteristics. It is good to observe the land for a year in all seasons, but you can also learn by trial and error. In any case, before planting, do the best possible investigation of the place within your means, and here I acquired the criteria from my experience and how it supported what I learned studying horticulture and design through Tech South Africa, as well as a wine diploma through the Cape Wine Academy. Wind direction and orientation of slopes towards prevailing sunshine are very important for wine, as are the usual factors like soil. Think about the use that will be made of the garden by your family, your animals and any animals which visit or inhabit the garden. Consider the microclimates, the wet patches, the dry patches and the drainage, the general wind direction and the windy and sheltered spots, the soil’s structure, the soil’s nutrients, and its general condition in terms of humic content. In my garden the sunlit and the dark patches are my biggest consideration, and they change completely through the progression of the seasons, except for one perennially dark area. In the southern hemisphere (the opposite being true for the northern), most should be made of the southern walls, and the tall trees should be on the south side in order to maximize sunlight reaching the garden (workshop by Karen Parkin and Saskia Schelling).

catch and store energy

I’d rephrase this more simply as don’t waste any resources. For example, use a greenhouse that is passively warmed by the sun, to grow the plants and warm the house. Of more relevance in sunny but dry South Africa: harvest gray water and rain water. Preserve the bountiful excess from the harvest for another season. Apparently lactic fermentation is one of the oldest ways, bar salting, and drying of preserving food, and also very healthy if done right. Its not that complicated as a process, because you basically chop up the vegetable, salt it to the point where botulism is impossible, and compact it and let it sit in containers, covered by its own juice. But I myself had many failures (brown rot) due to poor temperature management and stopped trying. In Korea they have special ‘Kimchi fridges’ for making the national must-have pickle Kimchi. These are very green fridges actually, built like a box, like a deep freeze, but with a low degree of cooling and being top loading, keeping the heavier cool air in the fridge. It pours out of the bottom of your fridge every time you open the door. I wish they had ‘Kimchi fridges’ in SA so I could do more lactic preservation. If there were a way of making a Kimchi fridge cold without using fossil fuel produced electricity that would be perfect.

obtain a yield

Maximize the yield not only from crops grown in the garden, but from the added value it represents, for educational purposes, communal working together, exercise and inter cultural exchange on growing techniques and plant types, food preservation techniques and cooking.

apply self regulation and respond to feedback

Think of the generations to come, and how our actions will affect them, and think of the past generations, and the time tested way they did things, and selecting from the good ways of the past, plant for the future. Respond to the garden by correcting for mistakes you have made, or correct previous owners actions. It may be necessary to revitalize the soil with humus, or to do more appropriate planting for example.

use renewable resources

Use renewable materials such as plants, and use them in a multitude of ways, for example trees produce oxygen, provide shade, wind shelter, fruits, fuel and building materials. Here I once again differ from permaculture perhaps in that I believe recycled materials are also OK, while they are in abundance, as it isn’t really green NOT to use the available material waiting to go to the landfills. I feature some articles on the successful use of concrete shatter and bricks from the local dump. Its not sustainable for millenia, but it is a solution for a time span that way exceeds the lifetime of most plants, so in plant terms it isn’t a quick fix. Furthermore, the high but slow release lime in the concrete shatter is loved by both succulents and the typical Mediterranean herbs. However, don't use recycled concrete containing asbestos, you will pollute your garden with the tiny fibres. 

produce no waste

Through composting you can re-use the leftovers of your other projects, vermiculture is a good example. Earth worms like Eisenia fetida convert organic waste like paper, kitchen scraps and dog poop into vermicast and worm tea for the garden. Hot composting of leaf debris and garden clippings to results in a compost that gives the soil high organic content, which is necessary for soil enhancement, and optimum water and nutrient utilization.

design from pattern to details

Mimic successful patterns found in nature, such as the spiral, found in snail shells and DNA, says my source. Here I would like to be contentious and comment on the design recommendation of using spirals wherever possible in a permaculture garden. There are other patterns prevalent in nature which can be used as design features and which may lend themselves more to a garden, that I don't see so often, patterns that are wonderful and profound. There is the network. It is found in the veins in a leaf, in the blood vessels in your body, in the man-made arteries of main roads and side streets across a country, in the branching of a cauliflower, and much much more. Even the nature of memory and the Lexicon is a network. The purpose of a network is to distribute efficiently, to as many areas as possible, life giving forces, or to retrieve complex information from a large complex storage place very fast. Using the metaphor of a road system, it would be fast big straight main arteries covering the major distances, and small slow crooked roads getting to all the people. Thus it is in most country's roads, except South Africa where all roads are straight, dehumanizing the burbs and informal settlements.  Then there is another geometric form, the honeycomb. Its purpose is to get as many separate units as possible onto a two dimensional surface, or to place separate but similar entities in a space and fill it up completely, using every inch. This hexagonal structure which optimally fills space can be found in the honeycomb, the densely packed fruit in a pomegranate, in the fruit heads in a pine-apple or a pine cone… and more. My mom experimented for years with knitting other straight sided patterns which filled space, mainly using a combination of diamonds and pentagons, in a sort of organic, seemingly random scatter of patchwork colours, inspired by someone she read about called Penrose, the designer of the geodesic dome. These would work in planting as well as they do in knitting. In one layout they form spherical surfaces, so they must be found in nature in spherical cellular structures. Back to the spiral. In “nature” the spiral of the snail shell also has a purpose. There are spiral forms of different kinds. Most people have heard of the Fibonacci sequence and its embodiment in sunflower hearts and nautilus shells, it’s a wonderful thing, but “nature” is full of mathematics. The purpose of the growing spiral is to accommodate an increase in size of the units. The snail shell thus seamlessly accommodates the same snail with ever increasing body size, without it having to abandon the shell and build a new bigger house, exposing it to danger. Similarly in the sunflower heart, we’re dealing with the projection onto one plane of a helical growth pattern seen in the buds on a stem, and then ever increasing size from flower buds at the centre, to ripe nuts on the edge, and the increase in size from centre outward, in a spiral growth pattern can lead to Fibonacci sequences. Like a honeycomb, its all about the most efficient use of space. If you really want to mimic nature, don’t adopt the surface, but the purpose. If your garden layout is about another space dynamic, such as maximum use of a horizontal plane, then plant your bushes in a honeycomb pattern. If its about getting to all areas of the garden quickly, use a network pattern. Look closely at a sunflower heart, the seeds are not just arranged in a helix, but are packed together in a honeycomb pattern too. Permaculture in imitating nature, sources a divinely inspired set of design tools. The profundity of what this entails, is that every beautiful thing has a purpose which is perhaps not at first apparent.

integrate rather than segregate

Make the whole project’s ‘ecosystem’ work to be more than the sum of its parts, so that all parts work to support each other in multiple ways, each having multiple purposes. Accomplish this through observation, integration, companion planting, or botanical or other forms of symbiosis.

use small and slow solutions

Avoid quick fixes, and instant gratifications says my source. Each part will contribute in time to the whole if you have designed well. Permaculture emphasizes perennial crops, avoiding replanting and disturbing the soil. Chicory, dandelion, rhubarb, and sorrel are some north European examples he gives. Here I must once again be contentious. These plants are perennial ‘herbs’ and greens. But gardeners and farmers in America, Australia and Africa, you have other possibilities. Rather than just planting European perennials, use indigenous alternatives. Take the trouble to find out what these could be. There are local wild ground-covers which double as food in the Cape. There are many advantages to using indigenous plants which embody this small and slow ethos. It is a small step to take an indigenous plant growing nearby and use it as a garden perennial. Perhaps it comes up as a ‘weed’ anyway… uses for “pernicious” ‘onion weed’ prevalent in the Cape, anyone ? The indigenous plant thrives without attention perhaps, it is accustomed to the local climate, cutting down on water wasting in a thirsty country (agriculture is the main water user), soil nutrients and labour. There is nothing slow or small about seed or plants coming thirteen thousand kilometers to an alien land and then in the worst case scenario becoming alien invaders. Anyone who is familiar with the lowland Fynbos and Strandveld on the West Coast and whose heart has broken at the sight of lupins and clovers all introduced by farmers and gardeners as green manure crops, sweeping like an advancing army across the land and replacing thousands of local flower species, will appreciate my point. Using European seed because the permaculture handbook is written for peole in another continent, because that is all the information available to you, is rather a sort of quick fix with a long slow after effect of destruction. The tenth permaculture principle is to appreciate and use diversity. We don't have to use all of the same plants for green manure and other purposes that a permaculture gardener in Germany or England would use, because we have alternatives which don't harm 'nature's ecosystems' like the Fynbos in any way. The 12th principle is adaption and the first that every situation is unique and the gardener should consider this uniqueness in his design. Then there is the foundational ethical principle of earth care. Our situation at the Cape is that our local flora, a very precious and unique one, is being destroyed by urbanization, escaped garden plants and farming. I rest my case, permaculture principles tell us what we should be doing.

use and value diversity

Each year, look through plant catalogues for new varieties to grow. Our major food crops are more difficult to translate into indigenous varieties, though the perennial greens and herbs and spices abound all around the earth, as discussed above. You can read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel which offers one theory on why our major food plants come from the middle east, and ponder. There are other paradigms. As in every other aspect of knowledge, local knowledge on the periphery is suppressed by the dominance of narratives at the centre. I only learned of the cornucopia of local food varieties this year at the age of 56, after living here most of my life. However, back to the genetic diversity in food plants. Planting different varieties of a single major food vegetable will reduce the chances of the lot being wiped out by a disease or pest as they would if they had nearly identical genetic material from one seed company. Try and get varieties from areas of origin, like the Andes, for potatoes. The history of the origin of food plants is fascinating in itself. Central and South America produced five major crops from the Solanaceae family: potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and chillis… but I digress. Ethiopia, until recently still farmed with a fantastic diversity of grains and coffee. Within the same species many plants have varieties that have adapted to different climates too, like varieties that need less warmth, less sunlight, or are resistant to drought. Keep the rare varieties of major vegetable plants from dying out by growing them and collecting seed according to the rich knowledge of the expert Karen Parkin.

a plan based on principles of permaculture, REDUCING THE PATH LENGTH, with  KEYHOLE, HONEYCOMB AND NETWORK, and wilder vigorous plants at edges, . 

use the edges

Make use of all possible space, planning your paths for easy access to all areas. My source recommends the keyhole pattern, and its combination in ‘mandalas’. The purpose in the keyhole is that, crouched at one point (the round circle in a keyhole) your arms length can reach all of the bed. The mandala arranges a circle of keyholes like the radiating petals of a blossom around a central point which has access from outside the ‘mandala’, like the stalk of the blossom. Don’t forget the network of branching routes, so common in nature. The ideal path layout may be a combination, a branching network of mandala blossoms radiating from the house, with the outer edge planted with vigorous plants that don’t need beds. The outer perimeter is the longest line in the garden. Use the edges to maximize plant space and minimize path space. If the marginal is not suitable for beds, turn it into grow space for more expansive and wildly growing things like heat loving vines: beans, grapes, kiwis, melons, passionfruit and squash, which will profit from the heat stored in a wall. The deciduous vines will shade in summer and let sun through in winter. Use dark nooks and crannies for mushrooms.

creatively use and respond to change

From season to season the productivity of certain plants will change. Temperature, rainfall and pests populations will fluctuate. Adapt rather than try to control the change. Find better solutions. Plant drought resistant varieties, introduce a form of integrated permacultural pest management. Abandon growing a certain kind of plant in a certain spot, study its growing needs and move it. There are no true mistakes, just pencil sketches erased in the design process.



home page for more green inspirations


vegetable gardening the natural low cost way


the greener garden


permaculture workshops


seed collecting in permaculture


my main online source on permaculture principles

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