Why Permaculture?

33 Books That Have Enriched My Permaculture Life

There was a time, some years ago, in which I aspired to be a fiction writer, and in those years, I found inspiration in the words of authors who wrote fiction (Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins are two that feel prominent). From there, I entered the world of travel writing, and I studied the works of people (Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux, Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson) prominent in that field. I was getting familiar with the greats to better understand how to write like them.

Now, I write and, thus, read a lot about permaculture: gardening, greenness, self-sufficiency, renewable energy, natural building, design, and the like. Unlike with fiction and travel, I’m no longer reading so much to develop my writing chops (not to say some of the following writers aren’t great) as I am to better understand my subject. But, much of what we know—in the beginning years—as individuals practicing permaculture is via vicarious experience: research.

It’s an amazing thing to discover authors and books that inspire you, whatever craft it is you are looking to develop. Some of the following books and/or authors will be purely about permaculture, others about topics somehow related, but all of them will have played some vital role into forming my views. They have help me better grasp what, how, and why we are doing what we are doing as people who want to make a positive change.

Eight Permaculture Classics

Courtesy of Nicolás Boullosa

As with any subject, it helps to get our feet planted in where it began, so it’s impossible to read about permaculture without delving into Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Together they wrote Permaculture One, and separately they each went on two write more. Mollison wrote Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, upon which many courses are still based. Many years later David Holmgren wrote Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. In truth, these books are full of insightful and inspiring information, but they are often very heady and read more like textbooks. They are labors of love.

For those looking for permaculture books that are more reader friendly, ones that I often enjoyed as much for the writing as I did the information, there are other suggestions. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway is amazing, both accessible and enlightening. The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (Ben Falk) is also thick with practical information and first-hand experience that seems relatable, and the same is true, on a smaller scale, for Paradise Lost: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of a Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier. Restoration Agriculture: Perennial Permaculture for the Farm (Mark Shepard) was a great read for thinking of food forests (and permaculture) on a commercial scale. The Vegan Book of Permaculture by Graham Burnett struck a real chord as well.

Eight Other Gardening Yarns

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Though it is far from what defines permaculture, gardening is what brings most people to the practice, and I was no different. For me, it all began with wanting to understand how to grow food to feed myself. Though permaculture books offer a lot in the way of accomplishing this, I’ve definitely been inspired by other sources, as have most of the current and past central figures within the movement. After all, permaculture isn’t about exclusivity but rather adopting that which works for both people and the planet, regardless of where it originates.

John Seymour, author of The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers and The Self-Sufficient Gardener, is an endless wealth of information, inspiration, and realization. Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution is a part of many permaculture-related reading lists, and it is a surprisingly easy read about low-impact gardening. Recently, I discovered Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and, having just moved to the temperate climate, got a lot out reading it. Lasagna Gardening (Patricia Lanza) is a kindly grandma’s take on no-dig gardening via the lasagna method—a good beginner’s book. On the other hand, Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests is a much deeper look at how to work within existing forests.

• Eric Toensmeier (from above) was also involved in some helpful, list-like reference books: Edible Forest Gardens (with Dave Jacke) and Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles, which come highly recommended but that I’ve yet to read.

17 More Books in Keeping

Courtesy of MAHFUZ AHMED

Once we move past the garden, permaculture delves into efficient house designs and looks into our lifestyle choices. Admittedly, I’ve not weeded through nearly as many design books yet, but The Cob Builders Handbook: You Can Hand-Sculpt Your Own Home (Becky Bee) was hugely inspirational. Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tricks and Techniques (Kaki Hunter, Donald Kiffmeyer) is another specialized text, while The Art of Natural Building: Design, Construction, Resources gives a great overview of ecological construction. The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, the work of Joseph Jenkins, forever changed the toilet for me. Additionally, books like Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own and Bill Bryson’s At Home, a Short History of Private Life have added a lot of thought to my conception of home and building.

Lifestyle choices—adopting new ways of living with an eye towards sustainability—are also integral to permaculture, and I’ve read some things to that tune. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World (amongst many others) by Sandor Katz is incredible. Also related to eating, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals was the overview of modern food systems that converted me from vegetarian to vegan, with some extended thoughts inspired by the aforementioned Michael Pollan’s works, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

Other books have helped to refine my thinking while at the same time been informative and/or entertaining. Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future (Greg Melville) gives a digestible look at actual social efforts towards greenness. No Logo by Naomi Klein is a stark look at the economic system. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is Barbara Kingsolver’s account of eating locally in the modern world. The Mosquito Coast by the legendary Paul Theroux has also put into perspective the notion of “sharing” ideas with other cultures. Ishmael: A Novel and The Story of B (Daniel Quinn) are both well written mind-openers on the history of civilization.

Your Library

Courtesy of AnveshPandra

I hope some of these were familiar, others of interest. Sometimes it’s just nice to have someone fill up the reading list for you or to remind you of a great read. Trying to buy all of these books at once would be insanely expensive, so I just wanted to remind everyone that libraries are fantastic places. I was recently lucky enough to be forced into a situation in which I worked (writing) in the library daily, and I rediscovered the joy of having so much at my fingertips for free. While it’s lovely to support the authors who write these books, not all of us are in the position to do so. Dust off the library card or get a new one. Then, if a book really wows you, spend the cash to add it to your personal bookshelf.

Please feel free to extend this list in the comments below. I’m particularly interested in finding some good, both practical and stimulating, books about natural building techniques and small-scale DIY renewable energy. But, that’s not to say others won’t be after something else. If there have been books that have really moved you along into a better way of living, particularly in practical terms, let us know.

Feature Header: Courtesy of Les Chatfield

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. “How to Grow More Vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine” Great because can be adapted to other growing zones.

  2. “The Runaway Dandelion; Adventures In Sustainability” by Jill Regensburg with illustrations by Leticia Plate
    is an adventure story based on Permaculture. It describes life on a small sustainable family farm through the eyes of a dandelion. Who knew that something as common, unassuming and often despised as a dandelion would have so many lessons to teach as well as being a role model for students of all ages?

  3. Thanks for your list, it has so many of my favorites on it. I will add these, on the topic of direct communication with nature: • “The Secret Teachings of Plants” , Stephen Harrod Buhner—Establishes the premise that opening our hearts to their full capacity as thinking organs, hormonal organs, and sensing organs can allow us to communicate with plants, as indigenous people around the world have done for many centuries. This is also a beautiful compendium of literature on the subject, with contributors throughout the ages. Thorough description of how to navigate the territory of plant-human relations.

    • “Living as if the God in All Life Matters”, Machaelle Small Wright—one of the modern pioneers of plant communication. Wonderful success stories of communicating with the “devas” (energy essences) of plants for a truly collaborative gardening experience.

    • “Perelandra Workbook”—“How To” from Machaelle Small Wright, and many other smaller books have followed on microbial balancing, flower essences, etc.

    • “Plant Spirit Medicine”, Eliot Cowan–Reports of exceptional experiences working with shamanic traditions to access healing power of plants as energy medicine.

    • “Flower Essence Repertory A Comprehensive Guide to North American and English Flower Essences for Emotional and Spiritual Well-Being”, Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz. Published by the Flower Essence Society, this Rudolf Steiner influenced volume provides categorization by plant name as well as by physical symptoms. It also covers theoretical basis of the use of flower essences as well as it’s history. It describes how to develop relationship with plants as well as guidelines for making flower essences.

    • “Intelligence in Nature”, Jeremy Narby Overviews scientific studies into intelligence in nature which are brought into relationship with Narby’s personal experiences with Amazonian wisdom about the Nature’s ways of knowing. Probes the question of what humanity can learn from nature’s economy and knowingness in its own search for a saner and more sustainable way of life.

    • “The Spell of the Sensuous”, David Abrahms For a thousand generations, human beings viewed themselves as part of the wider community of nature, and they carried on active relationships not only with other people but with other animals, plants, and natural objects (including mountains, rivers, winds, and weather patterns) that we have only lately come to think of as “inanimate”. Weaving together deep experiences with the shamanic elders of Indonesia and Nepal, Abrahms skillfully queries, what will it take for us to recover a sustaining relation with the breathing earth?

    • “Plant Spirit Shamanism”, Ross Heaven and Howard Charing Draws parallels between shamanic practices in South America, the Caribean, and Europe in regard to going beyond understanding plants for their bio-chemical properties to recognizing and learning how relate to their spiritual/energetic healing capacities.

    • “Visionary Plant Consciousness”, Edited by J.P. Harpignies An anthology of discussions between Andrew Weil, Jeremy Narby, Alex Grey, Kat Harrison, Terrence McKenna, Dale Pendell and others. Many of these are taken from Bioneers conferences over many years. Discussions include psychotrophic plants and others.

    • “Talking with Nature”, “Journeying into Nature”, Michael Roads—Bold pioneering reports on refined communications with nature. Michael Roads also wrote the first book to be published in Australia on organic gardening.

    • “Daughters of Copper Woman”, Anne Cameron—Playful poetic ancient indigenous wisdom invites reader to enter the pre-industrial world.

    • “Of Water and Spirit”, Malidoma Patrice Some Western scholar and African shaman’s account of the important role of water in bridging wide spans of consciousness. Releases the reader from the confines of industrial culture.

    • “Living Water”, Olof Alexandersson—An accounting of the work of Austrian naturalist and inventor, Victor Schaupenaur, on the essential characteristics of water relative to current environmental and energy issues in our technological age. Born to a family of nobles, Alexandersson rejects formal European education, following his instinct to keep his mind free of restrictive cultural limitations. HIs inventions, based on observations of nature, astounded scientists and engineers of his time.

    • Living Energies, Callum Coats –Victor Schauberger’s Brilliant Work with Natural Energy Explained. This is an indepth examination of the life and work of the brilliant forester, scientist and pioneering inventor, Viktor Schauberger. Callum Coats spent 23 years translating, collating and editing Viktor Schauberger’s books, articles and letters. The result is Living Energies.

  4. Krishnamurti-You are The World [600 talks on you tube],Doughnut Economics Kate Raworth
    The Bankers New Cloths Anet Admanti Martin Hellwig, Jump Time by Jean Houston,doughnut economics Kate Raworth, The Nearly Happy Family Catherine McKinnon,Eat to Live Joel Fuhrman[6 weeks and your off a lot of medication including 90% of asthma and diabetes patients]

  5. Radical Nature by Christian De Quincey
    The Earth’s Blanket by Nancy J Turner
    Holistic Management by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield
    Water for Every Farm by P A Yeomans
    What Makes Love Last? by John Gottman – the closest thing to a pattern language for relational integrity and resilience
    The Paleo Approach by Sarah Ballantyne ( a synthesis of evolutionary based on the anthropological record and modern scientific health studies, also The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson)

  6. Apologies, last one for now…
    The permaculture book of ferment and human nutrition by Bill Mollison was way ahead of its time, anticipating the need for food processing and storage and culinary recipes compatible with the ethics embedded in permaculture, almost as a way to establish Market pull for those ethics. a fabulous practical ethnographic work in and of itself.

  7. I have read, and now re-reading again, a marvellous book by Charles Massey, an Australian farmer:- Call of the Reed Warbler – a New Agriculture, a New Earth.

  8. I would add Charles Dowding books about No Dig gardening method and JM Fortier’s book about bio-intensive gardening. I would mention also the book The Methods Of Jean Pain about using compost method to generate heat, energy and biogas.

  9. Thank you this list and for people’s comments. I’m glad my list of books to read already miles long have gotten bigger again :)
    I’ll put in my contribution in quoting Sepp Holzer’s books which were a real pleasure to read.
    Some others pop in mind but are in French and lack English translation to my knowledge..

  10. Thank you everyone for great book suggestions! I would like to add Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster. It is packed with stories, practical information and inspiration!
    Sep Holtzer’s Permaculture is amazing resource for unlikely useful steep lands in temperate climates but gives great tips for water harvesting as well.
    Water for every farm Yeomans skyline plan is highly respected and practical.

  11. I find your writing well thought out, unbiased, balanced, and, most importantly, helpful! That being said, I will certainly be reading the books on your list that I haven’t yet. Keep up the good work!

  12. Thank you everyone for sharing such an impressive array of good books! Two I wish to add are Toby Hemenway’s final masterpiece “The Permaculture City” which dramatically expands the scope of Permaculture theory and practice beyond backyards and agrarian homesteads to embrace city planning and urban development as a whole. It is a detailed, pragmatic, and visionary guide to a whole new way of thinking about communities and cities alike from a holistic, systems-based, ecological perspective.

    The other is a slim volume you can give to friends who have never heard of Permaculture. It is “The Permaculture Promise” by Jono Neiger—that provides a brief overview of the myriad ways that Permaculture can create a better, more resilient, and more fulfilling future for all of us.

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