Plant SystemsPlants

How Plant-based Permaculture Is Possible

I get laughed at a lot. It’s frequent enough that, when I tell people of my intention to build a permaculture system without using domesticated animals, I sort of give a preemptive grin. While I believe most permies mean well in advising me, most seem pretty dead-set on the idea that a vegan permaculture garden just can’t work. In a lot of ways, I won’t lie, the proposition scares me, too. I’ve only built systems for other people, all of whom had animals in some form or another, so there are a lot of theories and techniques that I’ll have to test myself for the first time. But, I have to try.

Truth be known, in my experience of being vegan, most people—not permaculturalists in particular, just people—seem to relish expounding on just how much my diet choice lacks. For whatever reputation vegans—as a people—have, I am not one for confrontational public declarations but rather someone simply going about life with the choices I’ve made. Being a vegan this way can be hard. Everyone seems to turn into a nutritionist, namely one with an expertise in plant-based diets. I used to try to argue nutritional facts, but that’s usually not really the point of people’s objection to my lifestyle. I’ve not yet quite figured out what is.

If Vegans Said the Stuff Meat-Eaters Say (Just for Grins)

Anyway, this little dietary aside was only to say that, like with my diet, this is not something I’m necessarily trying to convince any permaculturalist to do. Rather, like in the old days, when I was keen to talk about my sources of protein and calcium, I’ve come to the point in considering plant-based permaculture where I need to somehow establish (if only for myself and/or other practitioners of similar character and challenges) that the whole thing isn’t a hopelessly crazy downward spiral into an unavoidably unhealthy system design. These are some of things I’ve learned and thought about.

What Do Animals Have That Plants Don’t?

Just to be clear, despite my digression about veganism as a diet, I don’t want to focus on the nutritional aspects of being plant-based, but more to the point, I would like to address design aspects. In doing so, it seems imperative to identify just what it is that domesticated animals provide an ecosystem that plants don’t. Obviously, this design is not one opposed to wild animals, so I must stress the distinction between animals on the whole and those which we domesticate. There will be no domesticated animals in my system.

Top 10 Domesticated Animals and Their Origins

As a result, the biggest obstacle seems to be manure. Where domesticated animals really make a massive impact is in their ability to quickly convert plants into powerful, nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Most of my experience with animals has been dealing with chickens, which have insanely powerful excrement, the likes of which has to be aged well and diluted before being applied. But, I’ve also used my share of horse and cow brands, and I’ve recently been privy to ducks, turkeys, rabbits, sheep, and pigs. All of this is to say that something else must fill this niche, and that could possibly be a hard thing to do.

Products are another thing animals supply in abundance. A cow (or goat) milked every day gives a lot of calories, as do eggs collected from layers. This, of course, doesn’t even get into the amount of meat the slaughtered animals provide. Then, there are the other little products that can be really useful: feathers, hides, wool, possibly crushed bones, blood, and so on. Undoubtedly, animals within the systems that use them play a major role in providing things, and of course, to be sure, they also have some fairly major necessities to be filled as well: houses, feed, healthcare, companions, etc. Nevertheless, a lot of food comes from animals.

Follow the Leader – Rotational Grazing Scheme

Then, to be fully realized, one cannot negate the functional roles that animals can play. Appropriate land management systems, rotating animals to maintain and fertilize garden areas, is an amazing attribute, saving energy for humans, benefiting the animals, and continually revitalizing the soil. The heat off of animals can be utilized in structures. The ability of ducks, turkeys, chickens and other domestic fowl to control pests is a huge help. Dogs and cats can assist with controlling pest animals. What is a better garbage disposal than a pig? Animals do a lot of work, without even being work animals, in a permaculture design. So it is.

Designing without Domesticated Animals

First things first, designing without domesticated animals does not equate to an animal-free garden. Free-running worms are still at our disposal, in the garden, likely attracted by in-situ composting buckets. Birds can certainly have some perches and houses around, with special thought as to the manure dropped thereby. Frogs, toads, and fish will have ponds to swim in (the water cycled through the system), lizards and snakes will have rockeries, and bats will have bat houses (again with manure harvesting). Bees and butterflies will have plenty to pollinate. Insects will have insect hotels and plenty of mulch to provide shelter. Then, there must be some give-and-take with the rest of the wildlife that lives in the area. In short, there are plenty of design approaches that take advantage of what can happen naturally with wild animals, and in that way, animals will be part of the plant-based system.

Vegan Permaculture Graham Burnett

Manure as the large issue, I hope, is one that can be addressed on multiple fronts. If manure is free and I’m not contributing financially to animal exploitation (my vegan version of that), and in fact actually helping the environment by putting manure into a healthy cycle rather than a contaminating problem, then I believe I can justify obtaining it that way. However, even if it is not regular or ever there, I don’t necessarily think imported manure is required. There will be harvesting from the wild animal sources (namely, worms and bats, hopefully black soldier flies), as mentioned above, and humanure composting toilets to eventually provide a large source of fertility. There will also be soil-enriching plants, the nitrogen-fixers and dynamic accumulators, which can work directly and immediately in the garden (unlike many manures), as well as be the supercharged nitrogen element for well-rounded composts. So, what’s missing?

As for the products animals provide, I think it is just a matter of recognizing how to meet those needs another way, a plant-based way. If milk and eggs aren’t on the table, then sprouts and seeds can be. The space used to house animals and maintain those systems go to provide more calories in a different way: nuts trees and seed production can match up calorie-wise and nutritionally. If meat production isn’t there, I can design in a healthy assortment of leafy greens, bulk crop grains, and legumes, feed for the family rather than the animals. Feathers could be replaced with cotton or straw. We already buy second-hand clothes (something that has long way to go before being obsolete), so the need for hides and wool isn’t so high. Honestly, the trade off for taking care of animals sometimes seems demanding to me, requiring a constant presence and the extra effort of raising food for them. I envision a system without domesticated animals as the middle player, the labor used to care for them instead going to the garden.

Permaculture, Self Sufficiency and Vegan Fertilizers

Then, there are functions. Animal rotation does a tremendous service, but something similar can be accomplished with green manure crops and soil de-compacting plants like daikon and mustard, as well as they aforementioned dynamic accumulators. In this way, the soil is constantly revitalized with organic material. Once established, this way will work, just as it does in a forest system. Companion planting and wild animals can service pest control issues. Composting directly is the garbage disposal, which admittedly isn’t as bacterially exciting as manure, but it gets the job done and gets more diverse over time. Compost can also be used for heat in greenhouses or for hot water. Wild birds can be attracted to an area with a bit of seed for their scratching services. And, maybe a little more human labor is needed for the gardens, but that’s a trade off for it being used for tending animals.

If We Are Really Looking to Nature

I must admit that many, many people know a lot more about permaculture, growing food, and raising animals than I do. However, as I have further delved into these things, with vegan practices on my mind, it has occurred to me that nature—the ultimate guide to sustainable production—doesn’t have domesticated animals. The natural forests we look to for guidance as to how to build healthy eco-systems are not, and most have never been, reliant on domesticated animals for their foundation nor their maintenance. Why, in the case of vegan permaculture, do so many believers of natural systems begin to doubt?

Vegan Permaculture Design Course @ Wild Earth Farm and Sanctuary

Again, this is not some attempt to get people to stop using animals in their own systems, but merely a means by which I can look at a plant-based version of permaculture and feel confident. Has the inclusion of domesticated animals become such a convention within our unconventional designs that most established practitioners are incapable of imagining systems without them? The knee-jerk reaction of those with animals in their systems (every permaculturalist I’ve ever spoken to) seems a tad derivative and premature to me, somewhat like those of people who can’t envision a healthy diet without animal products.

No judgment, guys. Just delving into something. I’d love to hear any honest, constructive insights more experienced, knowledgeable permaculturalists (or otherwise) could offer. And, of course, as some of the above videos have shown, there are many folks working on plant-based permaculture systems as we speak, and I’m sure you guys would have the greatest intuitions of all, as well as fantastic sources to share. Please do.

Feature Image: Eggplant (Courtesy of writenq)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Hello Jonathan
    I have enjoyed your articles over the last few months and commend you on your journey. I have no issues with a vegan diet as many plant foods can and do fill in nicely to meet our needs.

    However:) the statement above that natural systems have never relied on domesticated animals is correct the inference that animals are not absolutely integral is incorrect.
    Plants and animals have evolved together, they are absolutely essential for the survival of the other. Before humans domesticated animals, fenced and segregated large tracts of land wildlife was in abundance. Large herds, flocks or solitarily the animals moved through the landscape providing the many essential requirements that plants can not do themselves.
    The impact of humans in decimating these species is being felt in the decline of the ecosystems. We can not simply build a garden and expect the wildlife to fill the niches left vacant as they are no longer in sufficient numbers and often prevented from the free movement over landscapes they once experienced.
    Domesticated animals can and perhaps should be invited into these systems to provide the many functions plants can not, whether we choose to eat them or keep them as pets they are required for healthy ecosystem function.

  2. I’m no authority on permaculture, but I say go for it!

    I agree with you and I second all your arguments.

    You don’t need domestic animals to cycle nutrients – just look at wild systems. You can, of course, test this out by asking the question: “Are there any gardens, or could there possibly be any, in the world that exclude domestic animals from the garden and don’t use manure?”

    The answer is absolutely yes.

    If you have wild animals, humanure, worms, and soldier fly larvae, this should be a no-brainer. If you wanted to put the theory to the test and do without all cultivated animals (which your soldier-fly larvae and worms are), I believe you could even do away with ALL of those, because you can simply throw plant material (including those of nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators) on a compost pile. Sure, animals may be more efficient cyclers of nutrients but I’m sure it is still possible to cycle nutrients without them, just leave it to the microbes and the rest of the soil food web.

    All the best

  3. Why can’t a vegan have animals in a system?
    Sounds strange…
    Is there something wrong with having animals cruising round munching on grass & creating manure ?

    1. Since it would be impossible to exclude wildlife, there will be animals in a system. Perhaps this poster simply doesn’t wish for the care and responsibility of raising domestic animals.

  4. Humans evolved eating seafood on the East African rift… u could feed a dolphin soy burgers but it’s not ideal… same for us. Our biology requires dha in the sn2 position to get into the cns for proper cell function. Read Michael Crawford

    1. sombody need animal food sombody not, dont forget it is all in our head because peple can normaly live without eating meat that is fact, so that statement human must eat meat is wrong

    2. And since then humans have evolved to live on heaps of other places then East Africa. Evolution is an ongoing thing, and we can live perfectly without both seafood and soy burgers.

  5. Well forests do it, although one could argue there are animals in it, but at what density? Compost is compost, isn’t it? And then there is also, well, humanure. Compost it and let it sit for a year, apparently. Although I’d be ready to wager that a worm farm, that feeds on bacteria, would make it much shorter. Or are those not part if the plan?

  6. There are plenty of urban Permaculture gardens that do not use domesticated farm animals and they do just fine. A fundamental principle of Permaculture is understanding nature and how biological systems interact. There were no farm animals in Australia before the time of the first boat people and did not stop the native ecosystems from thriving. Now we are armed with vastly more tools, knowledge and understanding than we ever had so who knows what we can achieve. There are no domesticated farm animals in my garden (except for bees) but plenty of native and not so native wildlife.

    1. You had better read Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu, before you make such statements. Just because the boat people thing is so out of line! But also, animals have pretty much always been part of farm systems! either in small home systems or larger ones. That’s fine, go for it but don’t preach, especially if you are thin on the facts.

    2. You are preaching Peter Brush. In a relentless way in the thread. We get the point. Vegans have their way, we have ours. They are allowed to question systems as well and see if their approach is feasible. The proper reaction would be: “hey, give it a try! Come back and tell us how it goes after a year or two”.

    3. Peter Brush its actually the microbiology under the surface that determines how healthy plants are. Permaculture is about embracing the entire body of knowledge and not just sticking to one traditionally dogmatic position on how food should be grown. Sounds like your mind needs to grow as much as your plants do.. this video might help

      1. i would have to say that its called microbiology

        “permaculture” really means nothing

        its just “biology” and we get technical by saying micro biology, because macrobiology is much more observable

        micr and macro.. alchemy, the secret religion

        lol that was a real thing, turns out they were just worshing microbiology back in the 1200s like cool weirdos

    4. Leo Hood the point that you missed (and entire point of that talk) is that there is enough life within the soil and within the ecosystem to build up a healthy food web without the need for introducing domesticated animals. It is the bacteria, fungus and nematodes which already exist in the soil that do almost all of the work not higher order animals which really only serve to keep things in balance.. A balance which can also be maintained by the presence of humans which of course every Permaculture system has. So do you really need to shovel pig and cow shit around your garden to make it grow? absolutely not.. does it help? sure it does.. but that does not mean that it is absolutely necessary… Green manure and composting are just as effective as animal digestion, so anyone claiming that you cannot have a healthy ecosystem without domesticated animals is just flat out lying and pushing their own agenda because the world is full of ecosystems (both man made and natural) that do not use domesticated animals.

  7. Just don’t try to convince other people to become one, and people will be ok with it. Because its false to say its healthier or better for the planet. It’s also not as energy efficient as including animals.

    1. Cowspiracy is AstroTurf rubbish. You know the ‘statistical advisior’ to the film has a business selling vegan ‘food’ products with palm oil in them. It’s produced by a Goldman Sachs shill. You see big agribusiness can’t nickel and dime grass fed and finished meat. :)

    2. I am not a ‘dumb ass’ if that is what you are implying phil hamilton. The point i am bringing as mentioned in Cowspiracy up is the environmental footprint of the corporate meat and diary industry which can be denied or ignored. Obviously a different environmental footprint to small human scale organic animal farms. And FYI, the vegans i know, dont eat corporate crap food, like meat from the supermarket or sold in restaurants!!!

    3. Luke Hancock rubbish, there are many debunkings of that film. As he said, do your own thing and stay away from ideology and dogma and attempts at conversion of others. If you are successful then that should be reward enough.

    4. Yes Luke, but the film didn’t just mention the environmental footprint of the corporate meat and dairy industry. It also tried to spin nonsense about Holistic Grazing and small scale producers. And suggested if you are still going to eat meat, you’re better off eatting it from the industrial systems. Talk about hedging your bets hey Luke. And just because your vegan mates don’t eat corporate crap food, doesn’t mean that others don’t. If you give up animal produce that’s a lot of calories you have to make up from other sources. And most just have to reach for the corporate crap. Old mate ‘statistical adviser’ would not have a business if that wasn’t the case now would he Luke? ;)

    5. Actually Phil, people get pretty defensive without any help from vegans or vegetarians. They seem to take the practice itself as a condemnation of their own eating habits. You are right about leaving them alone. Eventually they relax and feel safe asking it. Sometimes they start asking for recipes.
      I think it’s important to remember that food is not only nutrition – it’s tradition, closely tied to emotion, all kinds of sense memories. For nursing babies, food is love, and we still have that link as adults.

    6. How is that so? Plants get energy just by sitting in the sun. Animals can’t derive energy from the sun and don’t convert that energy to useful work for us (for example, we don’t need oxen to plow our fields anymore). They eat the plants that could have fed humans instead and take up space that could have been used to grow more plants.

      We don’t need them for compost, either. Manure based compost can be a bad thing. Makes sense…forests aren’t covered in a thick layer of animal poop. They are covered in forest duff.

  8. Remember though there are areas were vegan systems just won’t cut it. And tree cover alone does not stop things like erosion. You need grass and it has to be managed by using animals. Here is an example.
    Herd impact trial transforms gully
    A severely eroded gully has been transformed within two years thanks to an ultra high-density grazing technique used on Barry and Leanne O’Sullivan’s 23,000ha Glenalpine grazing property near Bowen.

  9. What’s the problem with domestic animals? Would the author argue that domestic animals are inhumane? I would argue that there is nothing more inhumane than an animal in the wild. Domestic animals have much better life and death than wild animals. If a wild animal is lucky it will die a relatively quick death and be killed and eaten by a predator. Other wise for herbivores their teeth go bad and they slowly starve to death and die of exposure. Nothing humane about that. I think vegans are hopelessly disconnected from the way this planet works.

    1. I don’t know what intuition or using lot of emphasis has to do with your diet choices but one could argue that it is more compassionate to raise domestic animals then to allow them to die a wild death. See my point above.

      1. Raising animals means bringing them into existence for your use. It is is not a matter of choice for them and without your raising them they wouldn’t be here in the first place to (partly) suffer at the hands of humans, and they wouldn’t be wild animals either. Additionally, using domesticated animals hasn’t always happened. With a very large population of humans and the greater area of land required to get the same amount of calories (when used in an extractive manner), in many instances and the methane imbalance due to sheer numbers and resulting lack of original forest as best carbon sink, then it doesn’t look like the best choice on resource grounds alone.

    2. It does not have to bee about inhumanity. Life is what nature does under the right conditions, it is weird to think that those conditions have to involve domestication.
      Life in nature will always create diversity, and while we are living during the 6th mass extinction I think we have to preserve the wildlife as well as the forests. And if we will keep using up space with domestic animals the wildlife gets less.
      We also have the thing with taking care of animal can be more input expensive then letting animal taking care of themselves.

    3. I’m not arguing against wild animals here. I love wild animals as much as the next person. I am also not advocating for factory farms. CAFOs are horrible, I think we can agree on that. Animals that are managed holistically do not take space from wild animals. In fact it restores grasslands increasing biodiversity and habitat for all animals.

  10. From my own personal perspective, do it. With a project like this you need to balance the craft approach against the knowledge approach. Listen to those with practical experience, & question those whose knowledge is from secondary sources. As long as you work with nature you will be surprised how it responds.

    I’ve grown plants that the books & the experts tell me will not grow where I lived.

    But then plants don’t read books, that’s what we turn them in too. ;)

  11. Thanks for writing and sharing. I was taught in my first PDC that if you are going to have animals you must be prepared to kill them if required (e.g. sickness, injury etc). Upon reflection I agree. As i am not prepared to kill animals myself and as I am not prepared to parm this task off to someone else I am creating a Permaculture Education and Demonstration site without animals. I will teach the use and benefits of animals during the PDC courses as per the manual but without any domesticated farm yard animals! Of course there will be wildlife, worms and predator habitats.

    1. As i said guys, i will follow the curriculum of the manual, teach the theory of animals but will not deliver any practicals related to farm yard animals. I will deliver practicals on other subjects such as swales, natural building, composting etc. Does that answer your question?

  12. It’s short sided to not include animals. Traditional sustainable systems were and still are intrinsically linked to animals. After all we are animals…. also kind of ironic that the author claims he isn’t one of the “preachy” vegan types but somehow they had enough motivation to write and publish their opinion online

    1. That’s not preaching. Preaching is actually trying to convert people. Most of the comments I’ve seen on here are people attacking him! Not the other way around.

    1. It is pretty funny. I guess it’s good to be pretty funny though. Maybe thats what you associate deeply with permaculture, however its not the only way. Diversity applies to system thinking also. Im all for creating lush systems to feed the wildlife, but they can come and go as they wish. No harm, still permaculture.

  13. Just as it is less efficient to feed plants to animals and then eat animal products rather than eat plants directly, perhaps it is less efficient to feed plants to animals for the resulting manure?

  14. I am not vegan, not even vegetarian, but in my opinion vegan permaculture is very well possible. As you say, there are animals, but no domesticated animals. Some indigenous people are living that way (vegan, yes!) for ages, they show it works. And of course nature shows it too.

    1. why do people who have no clue about veganism always feel the need to share their opinion?

      you really have nothing useful to add.
      its like asking a christian what they think about science

      1. You have it backwards. In your Christianity vs. science scenario, vegans are literally the zealots who believe in pseudoscience, especially about nutrition. By the way, many good scientists were theologians or had some type of faith.

  15. I love the rush to judgment in the comments section here. Your article clearly states your reasons for not wanting to include domestic animals and not once did you suggest that others should do this because of it’s environmental or moral impact. I guess once you use the word “vegan” everyone expects you have an agenda and stops listening. I’m not a vegan or even vegetarian but I understand wanting to put all of your energy into the plants and land and not maintaining domestic stock. Hope you find the right balance t make it work for you. Blessed Be.

  16. We don’t live on our farm so keeping chickens, etc…is difficult. We just co op with other local farms we like for manure once in a while, extend it through composting

  17. Great, thought provoking article. I am half way, in between. A vegan, but I do have ducks, but they came in because I had such a thriving population of snails, nothing grew. I was at a loss to know what else to do, humanely. But I would find it hard to be without cats and dogs. Yes, I agree it shows how far we are from where we should be, that we should be able to get our ‘nature-fix’ from wild animals or the earth. But we are on a journey and if we recognise our imperfections, then we can be less reliant on them as we grow.

  18. Excellent topic. I am passionate about living as a blessing on this planet, & this is a topic I am deeply fascinated with. I have worked closely with the world’s top Permaculture & Regenerative Farming experts; & I was vegan, a vegan chef & a vegetarian for 8 years, until I woke up to my needs. As I hear so many vegans & meat eaters in heated debates, I have asked and learned: there is no such thing as a vegan or vegetarian ecosystem. There are many examples of humans manipulating nature for their own curiosity, profits, greed and confusion. I see many cattle as victims of abuse, torture and the genocide on nature, extending to all our relations and humans as well. I see 26,000 cows in Orkney thriving. May there be a time, now would be great, where we unite to respect all life, allow all diversity to come into play, take responsibility for our own needs and as a global family, and stop the advice, demands and perpetuation of violence against meat-eaters and animals. Animals can sequester carbon in a Regrarian Platform system like nothing else. The profound service we each bring to the earth is needed, not the suppression of humans, animals or optimal nutrition for those who need complex amino acids as found only in animal food sources. I have worked with a nutritionist for years. Some people need meat. Some may need less. Some need a little meat to heal, for a short time. We certainly will all be better off when all our relations are blessed by being participants in building rich, fertile soil, clean water, and air for generations to come.

  19. Hate to tell you this but unless you stick this in a glasshouse or a wire cage you WILL get animals interfering with your unnatural plans unless you sit outside with a gun… so why not exclude insects too if you’re that weird? LOL

  20. All systems have animals, it’s just a Permaculture Vegan Based System enhances the links between wildlife and the human created zones.

    The more aspects to the system, the deeper the thinking and that’s when the solutions become exciting.

    I use domestic animals, that’s my choice, but I fully believe and from observing many systems, natural and people made, a non domestic, wildlife permaculture system is totally doable, and would be very successful, as long as the design concepts are well thought out, like any Permaculture Design.

  21. I am experimenting with using wild wallabies to eat green manure plants and replace them with their manure. I fence off my food forest which has annual, perennial and tree legumes growing, with gates to be able to allow the wallabies in when appropriate. It is still a bit too early to talk about results as many trees aren’t yet big enough to handle their grazing. The idea is that the trees provide shade and hiding places for the wallabies, while the wallabies provide the labour to cut and drop the legumes and spread their manure in the process. Tagasaste is my main tree legume. The first problem was that the wallabies sometimes panic and run into the fence because there often isn’t a gate in the direction they run. One even broke it’s neck. So my next fence will enclose a triangular area with a gate in each of the three corners. Hopefully the fence will guide the wallabies out one of the gates when they want to run. Other problems are fresh wallaby poo between the toes and the place start’s to smell like a zoo. :o)

  22. If you want another reason to go vegan or even to cut down on your meat consumption, consider that most deforestation on the planet is to run food animals or to grow feed for them. The Amazon is being cut down because Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of beef. In Australia most deforestation is also for beef production.

  23. I love you and this and support you! I will follow in your footsteps on my 40 acre (soon to be) permaculture food forest teaching facility (and Fellow Vegan). Those who naysay, in any way, only prove that following a previous system (that was successful, more or less) is the ONLY way, are SO ignorant! Mankind believed that we could NOT WALK on the MOON. So it is true of VEGAN Permaculture. It CAN be done, It can be done WELL. We just haven’t figured it all out yet! YET…

    1. Ive found the real beauty in a vegan system is the inclusion of native wild species (they come naturally) doing the nature services, and looking after themselves. In many ways nicer than occupying land with non native species. :)

  24. I have been organic farming since 1971. At first I used manure but I found out that cover crops (green manure) worked even better. After my cash crop was harvested, I would plant vetch, fava beans, peas, and small grains. I disced the cover crop into the soil to feed the microorganisms, earthworms, etc.. They made the manure right there in the soil.
    Now I’m semi retired and growing a food forest in Hawaii. I feed the microorganisms and earthworms mulch. Their excrement feed the trees. In others words, you can have rich fertile soil without domesticated animals. I’ve been doing it for decades.

  25. I’m interested in the logic that all domestic animals are slaves and therefore bad. Does that extend to dogs? And if people treat chickens as well as dogs is that so bad said chickens should not get the chance to live at all? I would have thought permaculture would provide the best outcomes for livestock. I can understand why people hate factory farming but home raised has to be different right?

    1. Just because it is different it does take away the mean it is problematic. One could say that is it not better to let a chicken live their way then the humans way?
      And another thing is that wild life will create much more diversity then domestic systems.

  26. I like the idea of animal services without animal ownership. As a vegetarian, without meat as a yield, keeping livestock seems like more work than benefit. On the other hand, I live in the woods, and there are plenty of animals to observe. A groundhog lives nearby, and I used to stress about defending my garden. Then I observed him dig out and eat two yellow jacket nests. I will happily pay him for this service in sunflowers, fruit leftovers, parsley, and whatever else he cares to eat.

    1. Yes, and the weasels and owls help with the mice and are so cool to have around. In a vegan vegetarian system part of the real beauty of permaculture is wildlife in the system :)

  27. Man humans can be real judge mental jerks, just look at the comments. Social permaculture has a long way to go. Go for it with out animals, and report what works and what doesn’t please. There are those of us who live in the city and because of city ordinances, and small lots living close to a busy road who can’t keep chickens or livestock, but still want to implement permaculture as much as our very small bit of land allows. I see applications of what you learn being very helpful for city folks with small lots. Permaculture needs to be applied everywhere and not everyone’s bit of land is big enough to support livestock. Also for chickens in my city they have to be 500 ft from any house or neighbor, that is not possible on my small lot. Good for you for being willing to experiment and share your experience. Ignore the judge mental people who can think outside the box or who forget not everyone lives on enough land to support livestock, and would limit the expansion of permaculture.

  28. Very interested to see a follow up on this! While I am not vegan, I do have family who are and this would be a boon to help them in their life style. Thanks for sharing your objective and good luck!

  29. The comments so clearly demonstrate what you just said. So true. If all these folks (not using animals in their system) are wrong, then should we just give up on urban permaculture? Are they all saying urban permaculture is doomed? My urban system is in year 5 without animal input and it’s just getting better and better. I’m tired of hearing the animal permis berate me too. Saying things like its vegans/vegetarians fault the rain forests are being clear cut for soy.

  30. Couldn’t vegans at least use certain animals in permaculture, such as dwarf cattle, pygmy goats, guinea fowl, chickens, bees, earthworms, etc. While vegans may not eat some of these animals or their products these are good workers for a farm and these animals can live happily on the farm for many, many years. I have been reading ‘Back to the Land… for Self-Preservation’ by Norman W. Walker D.Sc. and he is promoting an almost totally raw vegan diet for health.

  31. Alternative ways to design a vegan permaculture system could be to allow wildlife access to the system or to incorporate rescued domestic animals as a farm animal sanctuary. There are many ways to veganize permaculture design.

  32. Of course it can work (with wildlife inputs) which naturally flock to a well designed system. Many suburban and urban permaculture gardens are already operating without domesticated animals, including my own. It’s just that the people doing this don’t talk about it because they aren’t asked or feel it’s just a natural choice they’re entitled to :) I do have worm farms – I’m vegetarian not vegan – each to their own! If permaculture is to go truly mainstream the ‘judgy-judge’ has to stop. Despite many of the comments here, Jonathan did not say once he was having an animal free system – surely he doesn’t have to spell that out to anyone versed in permaculture. Keep putting the questions out there Jonathan, great article.

  33. This might be because you cant build a system based on the ecosystem without including animals. So many parts missing in terms of nutrient cycling and plant health

  34. We know that Veganic Permaculture is possible because plant-based agriculture is older than animal-based agriculture. The ‘Three sisters’ (actually 4 sisters, if you add pollinator ‘Monarda’) is a perfect example of a totally functional, balanced diet veganic farming. We can guess that much of pre-Columbian American farming was ‘veganic’ in this way. From what I understand, apart from hunted game, the Hopi were mostly vegetarian via their agricultural excellence, it was the Europeans who brought the sheep, the pigs, the cattle… To replace the function of the animal mowers in a field, people should look into the scythe, a wonderful tool which can be used to cut down any grass or light brush as a ti-chi taoist meditation, and thus highly adaptable to healthy living. For fertility there are, of course, the ‘cover crops’, but also, perhaps less well discussed, the ‘purins de plantes’ of the French traditional gardeners, partially fermented ‘teas’ made of comfrey, nettle, and other plants, that have high concentrations of nitrogen, minerals, growth hormones, anti-fungal attributes, etc… One could see the viability of growing a low hedgerow of comfrey alonside a garden, and to use it as a cut-and-drop fertilization system. Same goes for Nettles, which are also a fine pot herb, as they say. Growing mushrooms is also a must of veganic permaculture, since they pretty much replace the functional amino-acids we might be missing from a very ‘grassy’ diet. Very easy to integrate mushies into the partially-shaded food forest…. Most people, driven by space and time constraints, will still depend on veganic farmers for grains, but even grains can be grown by the small gardener, and potatoes and other starchy root crops will do just fine as well. So: ‘Vegan Permaculture?” Um, Yes Ve Gan!

  35. I’m staggered that there is so much negative talk here from a movement which is as much on the edge as veganism is. Variety is important and if this guy doesn’t want to actively include domestic animals into his system, why should he? More to the point, why has he been driven to feel he needs to justify it? Whatever happened to keeping an open mind about something?

  36. Go for it mate, it will interesting to hear of your results. My only concern is the intensity of food growing required i.e. how much food is required over what time frame over how many square metres. Animal manures allow for a far greater intensity of production…or that could just be my ignorance. I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you again.

  37. While Permaculture is an apolitical design system, we must not forget that each site is individual and that we must take that into account when developing it. These factors include, slope, amount of rainfall, soil type, the list goes on etc… But each site design also has external factors contributing to it. Factors like Legal ownerships, Building codes, Cultural expectations and belief structures.
    If you are doing a consultancy and the owner wants or doesn’t want something in their system, you design to that requirement. If you design your own system, you have every right, subject to legal requirements, to include or exclude aspects as you see fit. It’s still Permaculture.

  38. The author’s use of the words “vegan permaculture” might confuse people. Avoiding domestic animals but using the services of wild animals and insects, is still natural, and should work.

    From a broader perspective, veganism is unlikely to save the planet. It is like keeping open the fridge door, to cool a room. Hot air from the compressor will more than offset any cooling from the open door. Even if it is cooler near the fridge door, overall temperature of the room will be higher. PETA claims to have popularized veganism. Say, we don’t have animal pets. What do we substitute with? Plastic toys, which usually provide a single type of entertainment. Animals can be pets, provide fertilizer, reduce pests, be a watch dog, provide transport, etc. Much worse, is PETA’s desire to replace meat with fake, synthetic meat. All the technology, energy, nutrients, and genetic manipulations used to create fake meat, will kill most life on the planet. Such technology will never be as efficient as nature, and can only be disastrous.

    The same thing goes for ivory, or wood, or silk, or honey. Claims that we have better substitutes, and people should be prevented from using the natural products, to protect nature, are not proven. Even if everyone believes that, it is not true. We might as well use the ivory to craft some beautiful object, that connects us with nature, rather than burning them. When people use ivory, there is an incentive to protect the source, the elephants. If they use a plastic substitute, then the only incentive people have, is to generate fake propaganda about protecting elephants.

  39. Huh. I had no idea people feel that domesticated animals are necessary. I know a couple people who have them, but for the most part, we live in suburbia and lead busy lives – it’s not in the lifestyle even for meat eaters. Comfrey and other bioaccumulators gives us plenty of nitrogen, or we can always just pee on the compost pile after dark. I don’t see domesticated animals as at all necessary to creating an edible permaculture garden.

  40. Thank you for this thought provoking article. I have never kept domesticated animals for food and we have great soil fertility.
    As you correctly point out, all systems include animal life and humans are an excellent source of manure.
    I’m surprised to see the depth of emotion about your choice to live a vegan life, including what people claim is scientific evidence that you can’t live well that way. There are plenty of Hindus and Buddhists on the planet that have thrived on an animal free diet, or with only minimal animal input.
    I am increasingly concerned that the permaculture principle of diversity is so routinely ignored. Your choices should be valued and respected and the outcomes of your efforts regarded with curiosity and wonder.
    What if we COULD survive without harming animals? Wouldn’t we want to do that?

  41. Thank you Jonathan for such a thought-provoking and gentle article. I’m looking at practicing Permaculture without domesticated animal inputs. I think it’s possible and feel it would be an abundant, kind and healthy system.

  42. Seems to me that as long you are keeping the principles of earth care, people care and return of surplus you ain’t doing anything wrong

  43. Kudos on this article and your willingness to go vegan or better yet, whole foods plant based and not depending upon animals for compost or manure. I’ve been gardening like this for 7 years with deep (2′) raised beds and they are extremely prolific. Much of my composting is from winter rye that I allow to grow to more than a metre in height before I cut it down and use it as mulch for new crops.

  44. I’d like to see a quantitative comparison of vegetable production with and without animals. I’m thinking of the total area required to feed a given human population in each case. Do you know any scientific study comparing these two methods?

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