Open Source Tools for Permaculturists

In permaculture world we are bound by the 12 principles. Every decision we make need to fit into principles so that we know the validity of our decisions. Using a computer is one of those decisions and choosing what operating system, as well as the software, can be done sustainably. If you are charging your device with a solar panel, it is even better.

First of all, list the things you do or want to do with your computer. My list is below:

· Updating my blogs
· Writing books
· Editing video and pictures
· Giving presentations
· Mind mapping
· Keeping up with social media
· Designing my projects in 3D
· Keeping my important files safe
· Emails (this was on the list before but since I am using online email, there is no need for an application now)

My operating system of choice is Linux particularly Ubuntu these days though I bought a cheap tablet and it came with MS Windows which I am not inclined to tear it and install Ubuntu on it as I don’t want to spend the time. I will just use whatever it came with it to save a bit of a time.

Linux is born as an answer to proprietary licensed operating systems. You can read the history of Linux here. There is copyright and there is copyleft. The idea behind the Linux is to provide an open source, free operating system so that people can have an alternative to paid operating systems. Open Source means its source code is available to browse, contribute etc. so nothing is hidden.

On Linux, upgrades happen without paying whether a new version or a fix. Apps repositories are full of useful productivity tools for free. Open Source applications are so mature that many corporations are actually using them these days. A number of viruses are also significantly lower in Linux world, most not causing a headache.

Linux is the only truly sustainable operating system which is developed by the funs of this ecosystem. It is free, you don’t have to pay for it. This ecosystem run by volunteers and some expenses paid by the donations from the users. The installation is evolved so much that you don’t have to fiddle with settings which you don’t understand. Some Linux versions don’t even require installation, they work from a USB stick image.

I think the most unsustainable operating system is Apple’s cats. It runs on specific hardware, you have to pay for new versions and credit card is required to use simple things.

MS Windows is still requiring you to pay for the license. New versions come with a license fee or worse monthly subscription fees (like Office 360). The viruses and other malware are always a headache. Every new update slows down the machine.

As my new tablet came with MS Windows, I kept it and installed all free, open source software for my needs. Most of these software has either a Linux version available or an equivalent that does the same job. Let’s have a look at these free software options now.

Updating my blogs: I use free blogging sites like Wordpress and Blogspot; both of these also provide you with a browser interface to update your blogs. I use Notepad++ or Open Office Writer to keep my rumblings in their infancy stage and once they are ready to publish they go on Blogspot or Wordpress. I am also using; an online application to grade my writings so that it can be read and understood by my target audience. It tells you sentences that are hard to read, adverb usage, and provides simpler alternatives to your sophisticated words. It’s a sanity check especially for people whose second language is English like me.

Writing books: I am using Sigil, a powerful ePub writer software. Also using Open Office Writer for PDF creations. Sigil supports ePub3 format too. I take text notes with Notepad++ as well.

Organising my ebooks: Calibre is my choice of organiser for all types of eBooks (supports kindle, Mobi, epub, pdf etc.). It can even download the book info and the cover from Amazon or Google and upload your books to various devices.

Editing video: ShotCut is the easiest to use for simple operations.

Editing pictures: GIMP on Linux or Paint.NET for Windows. GIMP is actually very powerful, racing with Photoshop. Paint.NET is slightly better than Paint in Windows.

Giving presentations: Open Office Impress. It is the equivalent of Power Point. I’ve converted my pptx files to Open Office format and fixed some text here and there. There are online applications as well but I am not always online and don’t want to pay a monthly fee for the online apps.

Mind Mapping: I am using FreeMind. This little application written in Java creates beautiful diagrams of mind maps. I’ve also used online browser applications like or but I didn’t like the idea of having my creations sitting up on the web.

Crop Rotation: I keep some records of crops in Open Office Calc. This is just like Excel but free.

Keeping up with social media: No need a software other than a browser. I am with FireFox but also use Google Chrome too. Both free and powerful browsers as you might already know. I also sync my bookmarks across my devices with a free Firefox account.

Designing my projects in 3D: SketchUp. There are even libraries for SketchUp for certain plants and trees. I’ve never had an experience with any sort of 3D drawing applications before and after couple of hours on SketchUp, I’ve created a Topbar Beehive model. Also when I was building my aquaponics system, I’ve used many free SketchUp models as an example.

Keeping my important files safe: My files are on Google Drive and also copied to 3 other locations using RSync a free syncing software that runs on command line. It is hard to setup but very easy to use after that, you basically don’t have to do anything, when there is a change on files, it copies the change over to your backup location. Using Google Drive is also like a backup. I edit my Google Drive files offline on my tablet and once I am connected to the internet, my files copied to online Google Drive.

The other aspect of Open Source mentality is the tools to manage your farm that is created for us to use for free. One of these tools is FarmOS. It is an online web application where you can map your entire farm on it (to be installed into a web server) with your assets and manage the events as you like it. I don’t have much experience with it but soon I will install it into my virtual servers to have a deeper look.

If you are a DIY person, a thinker and doer, check out the FarmHACK. You will find the plans of many tools to build yourself.

3D printing is also a good technology if you have access to one of those printers. There are farming tools printed and used here. And who wouldn’t want this 3D sun dial that shows the time in digital format. The 3D models for printing usually available for free on the net with an open source license, you can download and print them.

There is also an electronic circuit developed as an open source circuit board called Arduino. With the attached sensors and a bit of programming, you can control the irrigation, glass house windows, egg incubator, chicken feeder, aquaponics’ oxygen level or control any device according to some other events; the possibilities are endless. Here is a link to an explanatory blog and another one about 5 specific projects related to growing produce with Arduino. All the coding that is required for these projects are available online.

As you see dear reader, technology usage can be sustainable and on top of that, if you are contributing to Wikipedia, you are even creating more abundance right there. Every blog entry you write is an abundance of information too, every share of that blog entry you make gets that information to masses. It’s just never ending.

Please share your favourite free software or the blogs you read about permaculture or farming and/or growing below the comments for everyone to benefit.


  1. I am troubled by the analysis you are presenting here, and without wanting to descend into a religious discussion of platforms and ethics, it is very important imho to call out some assumptions that you are making.

    You appear to jump between a number of versions of “free” Just because you have not paid money for a product or access, does not make it free from encumbrance or cost.

    Ask yourself what the funding model is for google drive and the other free google products, and in contrast to Google’s own mantra of “Do No Evil” there are countless examples of Google monetising you as the product. Surely you need to consider the total cost of ownership here, whether it be the loss of privacy, or in some cases assumption of ownership of your hard work. (Facebook, flickr, instagram etc)

    As far as ethical consideration of any computer you have skipped over the most important item being the source of the hardware. You mention buying a “cheap” as in money tablet. What care have you taken to ensure the supply chain of that hardware is slavery free, that the item does not contain toxic chemicals that cannot be recycled easily, or are so performance limited that the life cycle of use for the product is exceedingly short. I would rather pay a few more dollars for my (1500 hens per hectare) free range eggs than buy battery chicken eggs thanks.

    You have written off Apple in your discussion wth baseless claims of costed upgrades and not being able to do simple things without using a credit card.
    The last costed upgrade was Lion, and the fee was $20 ( it would have been free but for accounting rules that state a free upgrade would have had tax implications in the original sale of the item

    Again mindful of descending into “religious fervour” here I suspect a large number of permies do use and love their Macs precisely because out of the box they do most of your listed tasks, including video editing and have as much access to open source products like gimp, open office etc, without the steep learning curve of buying Linux (not everyone can do IT stuff themselves without paid assistance) OSX also gives you unix if you choose to use it with no additional cost or installation required.

    It has been my experience that Apple has a full return to base recycling program for their products, an open declaration of their supply chain, and an ethical basis for delivering products without additional encumberances (you as the product) precisely because you do pay a reasonable fee up front for the right to own and use these tools.

    Taking it back a step to the need for newer faster better tools, I suggest there would need to be a very good reason to develop a permaculture plan in 3D rather than an automatic assumption of need. What actual benefit do you gain from a 3D model of a top bar hive? At the end of the day it will be cut out if wood, save yourself the $1-$3k investment in software and hardware and use a pencil.

    Technology can be addictive. I am tightly coupled to it with my current day job. My role is to find more efficient ways to perform daily work. This means we are investing in the latest iPad Pros, but it means we are replacing a need for a laptop or desktop machine with an iPad. We must all be mindful not to get sucked into the bigger tractor is better situation that plagues modern farmers.

    The laptops and desktops we use have a work life cycle of 5 years, after which time they are resold to staff who then usefully re- use them for another 5 years.

    For me the ethical sourcing, the long usable lifecycle and the back to manufacturer recycling program is ethically more sound.

    This comment is meant to open up discussion and to suggest that there are wider implications in our use of technology. Open source and shareware/freeware software (proprietary closed source software) can and does provide a valuable resource we should carefully and mindfully embrace. It is not a panacea

    1. Valid points Marcus, thanks for that.

      This is the beauty of putting my ideas on the net. I always get other angles on them from the wisdom of crowd. I hope your comment will be helpfull for dear readers.

      I used sketchup to design my topbar hive as I am not good with pencil and ruler. SketchUp gave me that precision I am missing. I didn’t pay $1-$3k for the SW.

    2. A friend of mine bought an Apple Macbook 4 years ago. He tried to get onto Slack but the App requested a newer OS, so he could only use Slack with his Backup-Laptop because the Apple Mackbook App needed him to upgrade his OS, which he can’t do because Apple is not serving his hardware anymore. Happend to him with several other apps & software. Basically end of life time for that hardware – after just 4 years.

      His backup laptop running Linux is even older but Linux (and Android as well) is able to run on old(er) hardware. Linux could extend the life time of hardware enormously. So, the best hardware is of no use if I’m bound to the companies decision to not serve any update anymore.

      At Apple products often get bad results because they can’t be easily fixed. In the Staates Apple is lobbying against laws that would allow 3rd parties repair their products. They owe a lot of money to the EU…

      If there is one company that doesn’t fit into Permaculture then it is Apple.

  2. What about the sustainability behind manufacturing all these tech devices? Or what about all the energy used to run the internet? Maybe this isn’t what this article was meant to talk about, but they are questions I’d like to see addressed.

    1. Hey Teggy, it is inevitable that we create some rubbish that we cannot recycle or reuse. Computers are just one of these things. What I do is, I measure my unrecyclable rubbish by eye and grow 2 trees per kilo of my rubbish from seed and donate them to gardens or empty spots. Hoping that this will offset the carbon I helped to produce. 1 for Bill, and 1 for the rubbish.
      A while ago I was so happy to buy a second hand prius hybrid car thinking that I have reduced my carbon foot print till my permaculture teacher pointed to the embodied costs of the car. The amount of cables, plastic, metals, fuel etc. used to produce this hybrid car is enormous. I am devastated. I need to grow about 1600 trees now.

  3. Good collection of software. Thanks

    The Chromium-browser is open source, Chrome which is built on Chromium is NOT, since it is owned by Google.

    OpenOffice, is a discontinued open-source office suite. LibreOffice is a better maintained open source alternative these days. It’s good for all your Office chores (Calc, Impress, Writer, Draw, Math). LibreOffice is more user friendly and updates are regular. NeoOffice if you cant leave your Apple.

    FileZilla to transfer your files around securely.

    1. “OpenOffice, is a discontinued open-source office suite. LibreOffice is a better maintained open source alternative these days …”

      Factual error. Open Office is now being carrier forward by Mozilla foundation. Libre Office is the current champion, but Open Office is not discontinued.

  4. Ditto with Marcus above on most points; I’ll go one further by noting your calling Apple “unsustainable” for charging for their software products [Editor edit]. I’m not an Apple fan, but that’s because I’m cheap and their software isn’t worth a premium.

    Sorry for the additional criticism, but I’d be appalled if I worked for/with the hemingwayapp software you praise; this blog has the grammatical flow and contextual errors of text sloppily run through a translate bot.

    It may be time to step up to a paid Grammarly account.

  5. In an otherwise excellent article there is one error.

    SketchUp is only available for Windows and Apple computer platforms. There is not a unix version. One could run the software in virtualbox or wine, but the stability is lackng. If you are investing in SketchUp Pro validate the hardware requirements for it to run. Plain vanilla won’t do I am afraid. See the requirements here — Additionally the latest version will not run on 32bit systems.

  6. Hi there, can you tell me do you use sketchup on your Linux operating system? And if so how? I’m a novice with this but I’ve only seen options on the sketch up site for Windows and Mac systems…..Thanks

  7. no mention of ‘appropriate technology’?which is vital in terms of human centeredness and not just automated ‘farming’

  8. You should definitely use free open source tools to apply permaculture principles in the web. Ideally you self host, and communicate directly from one user to another , but of course this can be kind of difficult for any non-techie. At IndieHosters we provide an easy alternative. We host our own applications such as cloud and e-mail and offer this service to others. Instead of installing free open source tools yourself, we install them for you. You can either use them on shared or private instances. Its all open source and whenever you want you can migrate your data. You stay free and independent, share skills and web will start to thrive again. No more monoculture web. :)

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