Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture – a Review

by Harry Byrne Wykman

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture is the work of a man of unique sensitivity and imagination. Holzer has combined a lifetime of practical experience with clarity of expression and intellect to produce a book which will satisfy a practically-minded farmer or gardener as well as the student of agroecological design. With gentle strength, Holzer would make designers and practitioners of us all and entrust to us neither task unless we join him in the school of nature.

He makes us want to join him in that school. He describes the techniques of what he calls "Holzer Permaculture" with surety born of concrete success and the observation of ecological health but without the urgency of someone trying to convince us that he is right. Any urgency the work possesses beckons us to join with the author in the "joy of cultivation" which comes from working together with nature.

The Krameterhof, the Holzer family’s land and home, is one of the most compelling examples of the application of permaculture principles. Holzer writes that:

With a little ingenuity it is possible to apply permaculture principles anywhere.

The Krameterhof is a fine example of the application of these principles to an alpine climate.
My principle criticism of the book (and let it be drowned in a clamour of praise) is the potential for some of the techniques described to be transferred to inappropriate contexts. Though I am sure that the author intends to describe the techniques which have worked for him — techniques which must be altered or abandoned in other climates — the tone sometimes makes this easy to forget. The author sometimes appears to refer to ‘Holzer Permaculture’ as a set of techniques rather than as the set of design principles which he sets out early in the book.

The techniques Holzer describes are impressive examples of what can come of long observation of natural systems and continuous and sensitive experimentation. Some of these techniques include:

  • terraces, paths and humus storage ditches
  • raised beds (like none you’ve likely to have heard of before)
  • ponds and ‘waterscapes’
  • plant polycultures and green manuring
  • keeping livestock
  • earth building
  • intensive kitchen and vegetable gardens, fruit trees mushroom cultivation.

Each of these is described clearly, with reference to other parts of the system and as a part of an evolving process which begins with sensitive earthworks and broadscale soil improvement. If you recognise some of the techniques in the above list you may be misled to think that this book is not worth reading. You almost certainly do not know about them as Sepp Holzer practices them.

As I came to the close of the book, I was struck by the picture which had grown up of Holzer’s imaginative power. He begins the work with a story of his first garden experiments on a marginal piece of rocky land inhabited by snakes, too far away to irrigate by hand. Some of the things he learns from working with this piece of land are impressive even to his mother, a very experienced gardener. She says, however, that she is unable to use Sepp’s methods because of what the neighbours will think — her garden will appear ‘untidy’. From this time until now, Sepp Holzer has had not only the sensitivity to develop new methods, he has had the imagination and force of character to integrate them into a viable economic method of farming in the midst of long traditions of ‘how things ought to be done’ and in an area of Austria thought to be good only for low-value forestry.

This same imaginative power is displayed in Holzer’s vision for urban spaces. He elegantly describes very small but scalable systems for small yards and balcony gardens in apartment blocks. The beautiful illustrations of these systems capture an imagination which appears to see how we together might assist nature to do what it would do given hundreds or thousands of years and just the right conditions. Here is the spirit of design — the application of intellect to the ends of people and nature.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in producing food and designing for productive and beautiful places. Holzer has not only produced a working model of the application of permaculture principles, he is himself a model of the elements of character required for working with nature and not against it. Even if, like me, you’re from a vastly different climate such as south west Western Australia’s mediterranean climate, you will find this book worth reading for its integrity of vision and practice. All it takes is "a little ingenuity" to apply the principles of ‘Holzer Permaculture’ to other places.

You can buy the book at Permaculture Magazine UK’s online shop, Green Shopping, Chelsea Green in the USA or ask your local library or bookshop to order it for you.


  1. I think I have to temper this a bit.

    Holzer is a very entrepreneureally minded person, and knows how to produce an income from a variety of streams. While this certainly is a good thing, some of the work he has done – in particular when it comes to his consultancy work – has given a number of people quite some headache.

    This in particular seems to hold for some earthworks he planned for clients which – as far as the available documentation seems to indicate – failed quite catastrophically.

    Indeed, some former clients of Holzer founded the “Verein Pro Perm” (Roughly Society Pro Permaculture) whose mission statement (https://www.jena-hof.at/neu/content.php?op=news&id=65&kz=65&m1=1&m2=11&modul=news&name=Verein PRO PERM&menue=65&lg1=) roughly translates as:

    This society’s objective is to further permaculture as an environmentally friendly form of agriculture. The society considers its major obligations to be protection of the environment as well as protection of customers as various persons, such as in particular Josef Holzer, both in person as well as through publications mis-represent permaculture and hence create dangers for persons concerned. The society will hence also provide consultancy and assistance to people who suffered or are in danger of suffering damages from Josef Holzer’s Methods.

    Actually, this case made me think quite a bit about the problem that in order for Permaculture to become mainstream, it is important that there is a way for permaculture designers to take out insurance against faulty work – anyone know the English term for “Berufshaftpflichtversicherung”? Every bureau of engineers has to have one, and so has every practicing physician. It is hard to see why other consultancy work that is about a lot of capital and may cause major risks for the client should go without such insurance.

    1. That’s slander. If that were true, he wouldn’t have 200 hundred projects all over the world. I think some people did not listen to his instructions and advice and failed and want to blame him for their failure.
      Opposite, he is right now the person with probably the most extensive experience in constructing ponds on even very steep slopes. He has done that since he was a few years’ old.

  2. Interesting point Thomas,most Permaculture designers and consultants suffer catastrophic mistakes.Holzer,Lawton,Mollison included. https://milkwood.net/2011/03/16/the-saga-of-the-middle-dam/
    Designers should have the necessary qualifications to conduct such earthworks and the insurance to cover it should it fail.These are usually gained at university and through thorough on the job training like any professional.
    Perhaps permaculture in it’s zeal some times puts the cart before the horse and it is especially the case with earthworks.
    In all fairness the courses are brief overviews of of techniques,rather than solid groundings in the discipline.
    Maybe more care is needed and a little more respect for the first ethic care for the earth,before people get excited and rush into this type of long term re-engeneering.
    It’s great that Permaculture allows this type of open and frank discussion.
    Thanks Tom

  3. Hi Tom and Thomas,

    Thanks for both of your contributions. Thomas, I also like the idea of some kind of insurance for permaculturalists. In Australia, the kind of insurance I think you mean is called professional indemnity insurance.

    I would like to see insurance as a function of a permaculture workers cooperative as envisioned by Nicholas Roberts of permaculture.tv. Worker coops would of course have to be local to provide this kind of insurance within the appropriate legal jurisiction.

    Thomas, having spent a few days with Sepp Holzer recently, I can see that the man is not without weaknesses. Thank you for sharing the link. I had a good look at it thanks to google translate. It certainly sounds like this woman was deeply hurt and suffered economic harm. What I saw in Tamera in the Alentejo region of Portugal was deeply impressive, however. Tom, as you say, we must maintain these complex pictures of our fellow designers and share (and compensate for) our mistakes honestly.


  4. Harry,

    ah – professional indemnity/liability insurance. That’s it. Thanks. In some situations, professionals who do have such insurance will add another insurance contract on top of that to especially hairy projects. I know lawyers sometimes to this if more is at stake than what their insurance would cover. But how expensive insurance is will of course depend on the risk, and hence certainly on the education of the professional. You would not want a poorly educated engineer to plan your earthworks – and neither would you want a permaculture designer with little education in civil engineering.

    Concerning Holzer, I get the impression that he really has a knack for finding creative ways to generate income. If only half of what he writes in his book is true, this talent already showed from early age on. In a certain sense, it is a problem of permaculture that not more people are as good at this as Holzer. However, I also get the impression that quite often, his ego is in the way. This seems to certainly concern his attitude towards earthworks where he seems to think he has miraculous low effort soil assessment and testing methods that could be a substitute for more appropriate tests – which is very worrying. I think I have seen pictures on his own web page documenting failed earthworks at clients’ sites where he blamed failure on the use of biocides in a permaculture system — claiming that damaging the web of life would have caused soil instabilities. Doesn’t sound convincing to me at all — if a dam fails should depend only on the mechanical properties of the material used to build it and the water situation; if safety margins are so small that a dam depends on plant roots for sufficient stability, something has gone very wrong early on.

    What I also find dangerous is that he seems to have no objections against making money from telling people nice stories which would not in themselves be viable models. I do believe him that he has a number of enemies who tried to play dirty tricks at him — but also, I wonder how much truth is in some of the many not-so-nice stories about Holzer. In particular, I really would like to know whether he really — as some neighbours claim — had 5000 cubic meters of sewage sludge applied to his soils, which may have resulted in serious heavy metal contamination.

    All in all, while Holzer certainly is one of the most well known people associated with Permaculture, especially in Austria and Bavaria, my impression is that he also is one of the most controversial figures around.

  5. Editor’s Note: This comment has been removed, as the person attempting to slander has used a false name and email address. I tried to contact the person for clarification on his concerns, but the message bounced as ‘no such user’. People wanting to make slanderous statements and innuendos should deal directly with the person they have a problem with. Anonymous slander is not ethical, and will not be tolerated.

  6. Thank-you Thomas and Harry. I was just wondering what to do about getting insurance for creating urban micro-gardens, which I’d like to start doing here in Sydney.

    As an illustrator, I know that you cant get something beautiful and creative (=that solves a new problem) without a lot going wrong in early drafts. I advise my Permaculture students to have enough money in the bank to pay their way out of their mistakes. How much does a 3 year Uni degree cost? Have about that much at hand, and see yourself as getting a good education. Otherwise your only optons are being an uncreative or unsafe Permaculturist.

    But still, I would be appreciative of any advice, via my email would be perfect, asI don’t usually visit Permacutlure comments sections – You can get mugged in places like this! My email address is on my blog or website: http://www.ceciliamacaulay.com.au

    Big thankyou in advance. And thanks for the story the other day, Thomas.

  7. Cecilia,

    how to get such insurance — that’s a good question. Basically, there is a need for some such insurance products that to some extent is not addressed right now.

    Concerning earthworks, well, you are going to rent the excavator, right? Would it then not be just consequential to also pay an engineering bureau (they are experts and have insurance cover) to do the soil mechanics? Experienced permaculture designers who know how to do the relevant calculations and have good relations to an engineering bureau may be able to save quite some money by just having their theory work checked, rather than done, by professional engineers.

    What equally would help a lot would be to have a more well established mentoring system; basically, once you finish your PDC, it would be nice to get a list of experienced designers to approach who might be willing to be your mentor, provided they think they get something out of such mentoring, i.e. transferring some sub-tasks to you will, all things considered, reduce their workload a bit.

  8. What a good idea, having a mentoring system. How has Permaculture in Australia gone so long without one? I usually live with ‘mentorees’ just wwoofers, but only rarely PDC graduates. Is this ‘sharing surplus knowledge’ network something you might take on? If so, I might be able to help a bit with ideas and guidelines.

    Back to insurance, I won’t ever be doing big projects requiring earthworks, Im going to stick to tiny inner-city gardens, diggable by hand.
    But it looks like sensible advice for any about to get into big, blokey earthworking.
    Many thanks Thomas.


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