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A Permaculture Primer

by Adrian Buckley, Permaculture Designer, B. of Community Design, Calgary, Canada

Permaculture is a shortened form of permanent culture. While it evades any single definition, permaculture can be defined as a system of design – assembling conceptual, material and strategic components into a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. Permaculture design is concerned with the design of natural and human systems so that they can sustain themselves by their own means, permanently. I am writing about permanent culture because it doesn’t only apply to creating permanent agriculture, but also to creating self-sufficient human settlements.

My Bias

As I go about making sense of the world and the relationships between things around me, I hold a certain bias: that the most important investment of our personal energies and resources is about getting our houses and gardens in order so that they feed and shelter us, and provide all of our needs. I think that we as individuals are capable of becoming producers instead of consumers, if we choose to. My bias follows that we do not need to wait for elected politicians to solve the world’s problems. There are accessible and solutions-based strategies we can adopt right away that will immediately benefit us and our ecologies at the same time.

My bias includes what has already been defined in ecology – that living things behave as a forest ecology where a whole diversity of plants and animals each have a function, and together these functions lead to a climax state where the forest reaches maturity. We can arrange living and non-living things into cooperative relationships to achieve a resource-producing climax state in our communities, lessening our need for external resources and industries. Cooperation, not competition, is the key.

We have the capacity to put our cultural sentiments aside (such as the modern ideas of “progress”) and make simple design choices to meet 100% of our food, freshwater, clean energy and shelter needs through mutual cooperation. I do not intent to change anyone through permaculture ethics. Instead I wish to provide everything I know about permaculture to interested persons so they can apply and teach it while getting their houses and gardens in order to meet all their needs locally.

I feel that for any choice to be a sustainable one, we need to follow an ethic of earth care, people care and return of surplus.

Care of Earth

This is a “life ethic.” All living things are not only means, but ends. In addition to their instrumental value to other creatures (including us), they all have intrinsic worth. We are not apart from ecology. Our health is directly related to the health of our environment. When we think about past famines and crises, it can become clear that all of these are a result of a disturbed environment. This ethic involves the widening of “human survival” to include the idea of “the survival of natural systems.”

Care of People

Care of People means ensuring that human needs are met, because if they are not, we engage in destructive activities that harm our planet. Through Care of People we make the choices to ensure that we have food, shelter and all the things we need to do our jobs.

Return of Surplus

This ethic involves the contribution of surplus resources and activities toward the aim of Care of Earth and Care of People. Once our own needs are met, then our surpluses can be contributed to provide the resources and influence for others to do the same.


Perhaps you have heard about the “Three Sisters” – corn, beans and squash. When planted together, each of these plants do better than if they were planted alone. The corn provides a living trellis for the bean plant to grow on and reach full sun. The squash, with its big leaves, shades the system and prevents evaporation. Finally, the bean, a leguminous plant, fixes nitrogen into the soil, benefiting the corn and squash. This is an example of a guild – an arrangement of living things that together benefit from its association with each other. In the human sense, what is the equivalent of a guild? A community.

In permaculture, our job is simple: to exercise our power of arrangement. Building productive communities means arranging the things that make up that community so that they are connected to each other by relationships that provide benefit that otherwise would not be there without that relationship.

Diversity of Connections

As more beneficial connections are made between people and organizations in a community (and living and non-living things in an ecology), there are more chances for useful exchanges of resources and energy between elements in the community. As a result, these resources are constantly recycled in the community and take a long time before they finally leave. A diverse community containing a number of cooperating organizations connected to each other beneficially can, by design, keep money recirculating within it. These beneficial connections also mean the higher likelihood that the needs of one element can be fulfilled by another component’s yield. As an example, think again about the Three Sisters. The corn has an important yield – a living trellis for the bean to climb on. The bean has an important need – the need for something to climb on, which is fulfilled by the corn. The corn’s need is nitrogen for growth, which the bean provides in exchange for trellis services.

In human communities, we can design in a diversity of people and organizations that benefit from each others’ services in the exact same way – removing the need for destructive and external industries for economic survival. As diversity increases, so does local productivity.

Yield and Functional Design

Yield is the sum total of useful energy storages in a system. It is more than just product per acre etc.. The reason that much of our agricultural and economic systems fail is because we ask only one yield of resources in these systems. For example, water. When we turn on the tap to wash our hands, that water then flows directly to the municipal sewage system. In other words, it flows directly from source (the tap) to sink (the water treatment plant). That’s only one use. However, we can use design to place components differently in a system so that every drop of water is used more than once as it flows through our system. For example, we can connect our sink to our toilet reservoir, so that we can only flush the toilet if we wash our hands (2 uses). Better yet, we could install a rain collection system onto the highest point on our property and provide our tap with a gravity-pressured water source. Now we’re at 3 uses. If our property size permits, we can even go a step further: we can use our blackwater from the toilet to filter through a constructed micro-wetland or greywater reed bed system on our property to provide nutrients and water to our food-producing garden (blackwater is not pollution, just an underutilized resource). That’s 4 uses of the water. To look at this in another way, it’s like having every litre of water you use come with three more litres. This “extra water” comes entirely from the placement of components (rain barrel, tap, toilet reservoir and wetland) so that they are usefully connected.

When planning our relationships with other people and organizations in a community, money plays the same role as water – it transports trades and businesses. I think it is essential in any local economic development effort that for every dollar entering that community, the community must be ready to use each dollar three or four times before it leaves. This can be achieved through a diverse network of ethical businesses working in cooperation.

Ethical Business

All truly sustainable systems produce all their energy and resource needs from within that system. This is quite opposite from today’s realities. Our industrial, agriculture, and financial systems are all examples of systems that we are intimately involved in for our own survival and which draw on resources and energies that come from some other part of the world. If those don’t come in tomorrow, then these systems can no longer support us. Drawing lessons from ecology, we can transform our communities into self-regulating systems, or guilds, that provide all of its needs (and for everyone in it) from within. You can start this process tomorrow by starting an ethical business.

An ethical business is an organization that invests and contributes to the benefit of the system that supports it while at the same time ensuring that your needs are met. It is an organization (even a for-profit one) that follows the ethics I described earlier – care of earth (conducting a type of business that makes little or no impact on natural systems or even improves them), care of people (being a entity that provides other organizations and people in the community with the things they need locally so that they do not depend on resources and energies from outside, or worse yet, have to harm the environment out of necessity of meeting their needs), and finally return of surplus (re-investing time, profits, influence and energy back into the system and community so that others can use them for the aims of earth care and people care. In other words, this means that we as community members meet our own needs without destroying the planet, and re-invest our profits back into the community to ensure that it guarantees the right conditions for our living.

Ethical Investment

There are generally five kinds of resources in our world:

  1. Those that increase with modest use (such as human expertise)
  2. Those unaffected by use (such as solar and wind energy)
  3. Those that disappear or degrade if not used (such as food)
  4. Those that are reduced by use (such as fossil fuels)
  5. Those that destroy or degrade other resources if used (such as chemical pesticides)

If we choose that we as individuals and organizations want to build sustainability into our industries and communities, we must concentrate on using those resources described by 1 to 3. It is okay to use resource described by 4 if they are used as investments to enable the proliferation of the first three. Resources described by 5 are nothing more than destructive and should be avoided.

Today’s debt-based money system values debt. When we make financial investments, we are investing in debt, which has obvious consequences, and is responsible for the economic instability we are all familiar with. Ethical organization needs to make ethical investments – investments toward things that give life, such as healthy soil, healthy ecosystems, and local food production. If a community has a local currency that is based on the very things that enable that community to survive, then that currency will actually have value. You can start by making the following investment priorities:

  • elements that produce a yield (such as local soil building and food production projects, education and skill-building, making an ethical business that follows the ethic of earth care, people care and return of surplus)
  • elements that save resources and energy (such as energy saving appliances)
  • elements that consume energy (cars, houses)

Investing in consumptive elements is not always bad. I am in the process of buying a new overhead projector because I currently do not have access to one, and such a good will help me teach permaculture courses, of which will result in empowered people who move on to restore landscapes and make sustainable economies.

Here I would like to acquaint you with Willie Smits, who spoke at a TED conference. This has been one of the most influential accounts of community empowerment I have ever seen. The video is 30 minutes long, so read on and then watch it when you’re ready.

My Story

I’ll talk about my own story here, as it is the one I know best. I started Big Sky Permaculture in the fall of 2009 with one primary mandate: to teach permaculture to other people, so that they, if they choose to, can make simple design choices for meeting 100% of their food and energy needs within their communities and households. It all started when I took an introductory weekend permaculture course last year in Canmore from Ravis Sustainable which supercharged me; I was learning about things that deeply resonated with my value system.

Working at the time as a community and land use planner in a consulting firm, I found that I couldn’t easily apply the principles and ethics of permaculture into the planning projects I was working on; there was never scope nor budget. Feeling that these most important steps were not being undertaken, I went deeper into permaculture and attended a two-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC) taught by Jesse Lemieux. Shortly after, I invested myself completely into moving away from the professional planning world and founded Big Sky Permaculture.

But it doesn’t stop there. My first imperative is to first meet my own needs while doing education and consulting in permaculture design (care of earth through restoring landscapes to meet human needs locally and through the process protect wilderness from otherwise destructive industries). My second imperative is to teach introductory permaculture courses (and by next year full-length PDCs) so that individuals and communities can learn the design steps and strategies to meet all their energy and food needs themselves (care of people). I charge $250 for an Introduction To Permaculture course, and provide permaculture design consulting for $100 per hour. Where does that money go? It first goes to getting my own house and garden in order to meet my immediate food and shelter needs. Second, it goes to investing in equipment and skills to teach. After that, all profits go in a pot which will be used to start and sustain aid projects that actually empower people and communities, such as larger scale food forestry and earthworks that are designed and implemented by community members, who learn about creating local food and energy security every step of the way so they can do it themselves and teach others (return of surplus).

My secret business strategy is to make myself a cooperative interdependent member of the community by following this ethic. What’s in it for me? Well, I’m guaranteeing myself a job while empowering others, and restoring earth’s life support systems at the same time. And this all began from someone else’s surplus that was passed on to me.


  1. Your article weaved lovely threads which are dear to my heart. Good luck in your efforts from a little permaculture attempt in Leitrim Ireland.

  2. adrian,

    i super appreciate your tactical approach to seeking an effective articulation of the intricacies of the permacultural way.

    keep up the play of awesomeness in amidst the calgary craziness.


  3. Adrian tells his story here. Now I want to tell a story from Christopher Alexander, the giant, and the inventor and creator of “A Pattern Language”, the origin of the use of pattern languages in the modern world (they have of course always been used in traditional societies). Here is Alexanders story:

    “One would imagine that at least the goal of bringing life to larger wholes would be understood and respected. In America of the 1980s I discovered, with something of a shock, that even this is not always so. In 1988, Dan Solomon and I were appointed by the City of Pasadena, California, to write a new zoning ordinance guiding and controlling the design of new apartment buildings throughout the city. In an early draft of the ordinance, as one of the major processes in a new set of rules to be following by any applicant for a new apartment building project, I included a draft rule which stated: “Any proposed new apartment building must help the life of the street and the neighborhood in some tangible way.”

    This is the most obvious common sense. Almost any non-professional person who hears this, would have a reaction something like, “Well, yes, … of course… what is new about this? It is the obvious thing to do. A good idea.”

    But that is not what happened in Pasadena. The chairman of the Planning Commission was outraged by this proposal and asked me, at the very first public hearing where I presented it, what I meant by introducing it. I told him that what I wanted to do was to create a positive impetus, so that from the very outset, each developer would be required to think about helping the street a building was to be built, to think of making positive contribution to the street, and would know, in advance, that he was required to do something which would make the street better in a form that could be explained and understood. My rule did not require that it be probably effective, nor did I try to specify detailed guidelines as to the meaning of the proposed rule. It was (to make a start on such things) merely a process requiring demonstration that that attention had been given to this issue, that a developer had asked himself sincerely what he could do to make any given new building project help the city block where it was to be built.

    The chairman of the commission, when he heard my explanation, leaned forward from the dais of the hearing room, and first asked me in heavily ironic but angry tones if I was a Communist, and then requested that I remove this item from the draft without further discussion.

    I tell this story partly because it is important, I think, for readers of this book to understand well in advance, to be prepared, perhaps, for a lack of sympathy even on such a deep and obvious matter concerning the living structure of the world. It does not mean that structure-preserving processes are impossible to achieve. It just means that in many circles, it may be necessary to prepare the ground rather carefully, so that people understand the point of what one is trying to do.

    But I also tell this story for another more important reason. I wish to draw attention to the individual difficulty that each one of us must face when we try to keep hold on the concept of living process. The president of the Pasadena Planning Commission was antagonistic, certainly. But unfortunately there is some negative voice like this sitting inside most of us, sometimes even inside our own heads, discouraging us from really and truly making every process structure-preserving to the larger whole. This is a kind of mental inhibition (sometimes fueled by ego, sometimes by greed) which continually makes us focus on the local, and forget, or ignore, the extent to which we must make something living or beautiful happen in the large – or forget that it is our responsibility, at every turn, to heal and make more whole, the nature of the world.”

    The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 250-251.

    I highly admire Adrian, leaving a safe and well paid job, for starting his own firm with the purpose to heal and make more whole the nature of our world, by the use of Permaculture. I’m sure he’ll face the same kind of ignorance and selfishness as Alexander did, as we all do in our attempts to make the world more whole. But I now see a glimpse of hope, because Permaculture is gaining its way throughout the world, and more and more people understand that the mechanistic idea of order in the end will destroy us all. Read the fifth comment here:

  4. I simply must share with you this parcel from Christopher Alexander about the making of “THE WHOLE”. Because, as I see it, the essence of Permaculture is making our world whole, and I think we have much to learn from Alexander:

    “Let us say, then, that extension, enhancement, and deepening of the whole is the crux and target of all living process. Living process have to do with the creation of wholes. Artistically, the essence of the builder’s art, is always to create a whole. When a building succeeds, it is because we perceive it, feel it, to be a magnificent whole, whole through and through, one thing.

    It is not common to find this today. We may even say that the ugliness we see all around us, comes largely from the fact that builders – architects, contractors, developers – no longer know, or only rarely achieve, the making of a building which is truly one with its surroundings.

    Thus, whatever a living process has to say about architecture, whatever it can teach us, and whatever it can give us, above all it must give us this: the ability to make a living whole.

    This is problematic, of course. It is an enigmatic subject. We cannot make something whole, for example, unless we make it united with its surroundings. So, to be whole, it has to be “lost,” that is, not separate from its surroundings, part and parcel of them. And the pieces within a living whole, they must also have this special quality. So, the thing which is to be whole, and extends out into the world around it, must also contain wholes within it, and these smaller wholes must be part of the larger whole in feeling. So each is to be distinct, to be an entity. Yet it is to be invisible in order to be lost and not separate from the larger whole. Making a building whole, is an immensely complicated task. But, in any case, making the whole is the essence, the beginning and the end of our work as artists. And (according to chapter 8) this is to be done going step by step.

    Let us then start articulating the way that a living process can help us to create a whole. It is possibly helpful to remind ourselves that although this may tax our creative powers, nature manages it more easily. When a crashing waves breaks, it is whole. When a mountain rises up from the landscape over the eons, it becomes a whole. All this is achieved, apparently, by structure-preserving transformations. So if we hope to live like nature (and we can hardly aspire to anything stronger) we should, in principle, be able to extract the whole in what we make, derive the whole – the shape and substance of our work – always going step by step, and concentrating, at every stage, on the emergence of a new, living, breathing, feeling, whole.”

    The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 251-255.

  5. “And, along with this, living structure must be created worldwide. That, too, is something that must have attention. And we, the permaculturists of the world, are uniquely placed to take on the job of safeguarding and creating the living structure on the Earth’s surface.”

    The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 561.

    I made myself the freedom to change the word architects in the text, with permaculturists. Because too few architects follow Alexanders example, instead they follow their own ego. But when Permaculture spreads its network throughout the world, like the mycel of the mushroom in the forests floors, again the living structures will araise on the Earth’s surface. And a new vision of the world will arise and manifest, like when the sun arises in the East. Se the fifth comment at bottom of this article:

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