Permaculture – What is it?


I don’t remember when I first heard about permaculture.  I want to say it’s been about 4 years, but don’t hold me to that.  Nearly 20 years ago when my husband and I started dreaming about moving out the country we began some research into what we wanted to do with whatever land we’d have.  We subscribed to Mother Earth News and Countryside.  Then the internet grew and we were able to learn even more.  When I first read the word, permaculture, I thought this was a new concept.

From the little bit I saw it looked like it might be a way to eventually reduce the amount of physical labor we’d have to put into our homesteading and still have enough to feed ourselves.  Since I was in my mid-40’s and starting to get tired of all the work, I needed to know more.  Is there a way to do this easier?  So I found what I could on the internet.  I bought a couple of books at the Mid-America Homesteading Conference that my friend, Deborah, had started putting on a year or two earlier.  I discovered there is a small permaculture community not too far from my house and I was following their activities online.  But at that point I was only looking at techniques – mulch, companion planting, using chickens to till your garden, etc.

IMG_4348Finally the name, Geoff Lawton, arrived in my world.  I started watching some of his videos.  He worked around the world helping regenerate depleted farms and the results were impressive.  At the end of 2014 I got the announcement for the online Permaculture Design Course he was doing in 2015.  I was excited, because the other PDCs I saw required you to go a permaculture farm and live for a week or two while taking classes and doing projects.  And they’re not cheap.  That’s not to diminish their value, but it wasn’t an option for us at that time – leaving our children with someone for a week to go a couple of counties away, or for two weeks to go to Australia to study under Geoff.  So this was right up my alley.  I could study at home in the mornings before the children got up and I’d never have to leave.  And the course was a little less costly since they wouldn’t be providing room and board for that time.  Still it was an investment.  I got Keith’s approval and signed up.  And now I’m starting week four of my second PDC with Geoff to deepen my understanding.  There is a lot to learn.  The course is 20 weeks long this year and takes a minimum of 2-3 hours per week to just watch the videos once.  Then there is online discussion, a Facebook page just for students for more discussion, and of course, you can always dig in even deeper.  I am SO glad I’ve taken this class because I get the “why” behind the “how” and you find out the “how” is much more complex yet flexible than I thought.

So – what IS permaculture?  The term was coined by Bill Mollison (recently deceased), a lecturer at Hobart University, and one of his students, David Holmgren, in the early 1970s.  Bill’s book Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual was published in 1988.  The PDCs that are currently being taught are built on what is contained in that book.  Geoff Lawton learned about permaculture directly from Bill Mollison and they worked together for a long time.

The concept and techniques that are permaculture were created to address the worldwide soil degradation that was occurring as a result of modern industrial-level agriculture.  It looks to natural sustainable ecosystems as an example of how to rebuild soil and grow crops.  It uses diverse landscapes involving plants, animals, and humans to accomplish this.  Let me share a little of what I’ve learned so far in this PDC.

Lesson 1 is an Introduction, and I’ve actually already shared some from that lesson.  THE most important thing about permaculture are the 3 Ethics.  These are the basis for design, as the design should always refer back to the ethics.  Earth Care is the first.  The designer must insure that all living and non-living things in the environment we are working with are carefully considered.  The goal is to enhance and preserve, not degrade or deplete.  People Care reminds us to look out for each other.  We need to promote self-reliance as well as take on some responsibility for our community by not exploiting or abandoning.  Return of Surplus is the result of good design – so much abundance that we are able to return it to the earth in such ways as composting, feeding animals, or shared with people.  Keeping the 3 Ethics in mind gives a solid foundation allowing us to help the environment AND the well-being of people. We look to the “old” ways – how traditional people lived off the land sustainably, and we merge that knowledge with newer methods and technology to achieve the desired end.  We use nature as a model, not a thing to control.

Permaculture can be used anywhere and on any scale.  35,000 square kilometers in the Loess Plateau of China have been completely regenerated.  If you go to Geoff Lawton’s website ( and click on “Videos”, look for “Greening the Desert”.  It can also be applied in farms of many acres, in rural, suburban, and urban backyards – or front yards, rooftops, abandoned lots, and so on.  The design is customized to the property’s size, location, climate, and inhabitants.

One of the main goals is to maximize the use of water on the property before it leaves the property by directing through multiple places so it is conserved and retained in the soil, thereby increasing production.

Guilds can be formed, which is kind of like companion planting on steroids.  Instead of just ‘carrots love tomatoes’, you can create a small community of plants that all help each other, with permanence as the goal.  For example:  A highbush cranberry, surrounded by 4 fruit trees and 4 hazelnut trees, planted alternately.  Then in between and around these you put spring bulbs to hold nutrient that spring rains would wash away.  Horseradish, comfrey, evening primrose, and milk vetch help bring up minerals from deep in the soil making them available to the fruit trees.  Garlic and chives are used in cooking and can be used to make sprays to ward off pests.  You can also add strawberries in the sunny places, and wild ginger in the shady places.  Asparagus goes around the edges with lemon balm and even lettuce interplanted to be used when the asparagus retires for the summer.  Other flowering herbs like dill, coriander, fennel, and yarrow can be placed around edges to attract beneficial insects – pollinators and predators.  This guild will take up from 20′ – 60′ in diameter, depending on whether you use standard or semi-dwarf fruit trees.  Look at the beauty of this system.  You have multiple crop plants that all help each other in a beautiful set up that won’t need a lot of care once established.  They are all perennials that will keep on giving year after year.  Eventually you will probably have to dig up some of the extra herbs and bulbs to keep the system from being chaotic.  You could give these to friends to plant in their yards, or sell the plants at a farmer’s market in the spring for people to do the same.  This is much more beautiful, and much less work than keeping your herbs in one place, your fruit trees in another (with grass that needs to be mowed), your other perennial food plants in another – generally taking up more space.

Lesson 2 is on Concepts and Themes.  It starts to put a little meat on the bones of the introductory ideas.  Permaculture is based on science – laboratory and life sciences.  We learn here that we need to use scientific tools such as soil testing, finding out the slope and contour of the land, discovering the micro-climate details of the property being designed (sun placement, wind speed and directions throughout the year, how much precipitation the property gets, temperatures throughout the year), and more.  But we also need to spend a lot of time walking the property and observing.  What animals are there?  How does the water flow through?  What is adjoining the property?  Talking to neighbors and other people in the area gives an idea of the long-term picture of the area.  This is especially important when someone is moving to a new place.  If you are redesigning a place you’ve lived for several years, you may already know a lot of this.  Or not.  Maybe you never paid attention before.  Now’s the time to start!

The most surprising thing is that there are no exact rules, unlike so many other gardening/homesteading things you’ve learned about.  Permaculture is very flexible.  The goal is to keep putting back the excess into the system to improve the soil and conditions of the plants and animals and people living there.  If you have too much of anything, eat it, store it, feed it to livestock, sell it, or if there’s nothing else, then compost it.  Often you can just compost in place.  Just cut the extra down and lay it on the ground for mulch.  As it breaks down it feeds the soil and everything in it.

I think that’s enough for now.  In a week or so I’ll post on Lesson 3, which is so rich in information that it’s taking two weeks to get through!


100_4432Cheryl Zacek is a homeschooling mother of 8 (and grandmother to one) who has been married to her high school sweetheart, Keith, for over 30 years.  They live on 1.65 acres in central Illinois where they seek to grow as much food as possible with the space they have, while raising dairy goats, heritage hogs, ducks, and chickens – not to mention making goat milk soap and other personal care products.  Cheryl is also available on a limited basis for permaculture consulting.  You can read more about them at, find Farmer in Odell on Facebook, or email at