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Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Principles

Chickens are a perfect example of an element that performs many functions. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

The concept of permaculture can be difficult to define. Often people have a basic understanding but find it hard to really grasp the concepts behind it that make it different from just organic gardening or sustainable living. What sets permaculture apart is that it is based on design, permaculture principles and the three ethics of earth care, people care and fair share.

The permaculture concept was created by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren at the University of Tasmania in the 1970s. David was Bill’s student and together they published the groundbreaking Permaculture One, (Corgi, 1978) which offered the first description of what permaculture was.

After this book was published, David and Bill went their separate ways. Bill travelled the world, spreading the word of permaculture. David set about gaining skills and putting what he had come up with into practice.

Both David and Bill have come up with their own sets of principles. In Pip, we have mostly focused on David’s 12 permaculture principles. In this article, however we would like to share Bill’s with you, focusing on 14 of the principles that feature in his book Introduction to Permaculture created with Reny Mia Slay (Tagari Publications, 1991).


1. The problem is the solution

A well-known quote of Bill Mollison’s was, ‘You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency’. If you have an abundance of pests, turn the problem into a solution and use them as a biological resource for either composting or feeding to chickens or ducks. Whether it’s bugs in the orchard (great food for chickens and ducks), an intractable weed like lantana (an excellent soil builder) or boulders sitting on the perfect house site (which could be incorporated into the house itself for heat storage), every resource can have an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how we see things.

2. Least change for the greatest effect

Permaculture is about working with rather than against nature. It’s about thoughtful observation and design rather than protracted and thoughtless labour. For example, when building a dam, spend time choosing a site where the least amount of earth will be moved for the most amount of water storage. Assist rather than impede natural elements. Create a swale (a long, level drain) that allows surface water to soak into the soil, giving the opportunity for gardens to be created in roadside niche environments. Let your intuition guide your design so energy is not wasted.

3. The yield is theoretically unlimited

It’s the quality of thought and information we use that determines the yield, not the size or the quality of the site. Permaculture is not energy or capital intensive, but information intensive. Information is the most portable and flexible investment we can make in our lives. It represents the knowledge, experience, ideas and experimentation of thousands of people before us. If we take the time to read, observe, discuss and contemplate, we can design systems that save energy and give us higher yields.

4. Everything gardens

Every plant and creature modifies its environment so it can thrive. Even weeds can be a great source of minerals by mining the subsoil. Chickens love to scratch around in the garden, turning the soil, picking at bugs and greens. This is how they thrive. Whether it’s good or bad depends on whether we have utilised this behaviour for our own means, to obtain a yield.

Creating diversity is key in a permaculture system. By Kathleen McCann


The core of permaculture is design. Design is a connection between things. It’s not water, or a chicken, or the tree—it is how the water, the chicken and the tree are connected.

5. Relative location

To enable a design component (pond, house, woodlot, garden or windbreak, etc) to function efficiently, we must put it in the right place. We set up a working relationship with each element so that the needs of one element are filled by the yields of another.

For example, dams and water tanks are located above the house and garden, so that gravity rather than a pump is used to direct flow. Home windbreaks are placed so that they deflect wind but do not shade the house from the winter sun. The garden is placed between the house and the chicken pen, so that garden refuse is collected on the way to the pen and chicken manure is easily shovelled into the garden.

6. Each element performs many functions

A pond can be used for irrigation, watering livestock, aquatic crop and fire control. It is also a habitat for waterfowl, a fish farm and a light reflector. A windbreak can be made up of trees that provide fodder for cows (i.e. willow, tagasaste, carob), coppice for kindling or firewood, give nectar and pollen for bees, and provide their own nitrogen requirements. Selecting appropriate species requires thorough knowledge of the animal or plant cultivar under consideration, and its tolerances, needs and products.

7. Each important function is supported by many elements

Essential needs of food, water, energy and fire protection should be served in two or more ways. A thoughtful farm design, for example, will include both annual and perennial pasture and fodder trees, which can be cut and fed to stock. A house with a solar hot water system may also contain a back-up wood-burning stove with a water jacket to supply hot water when the sun is not shining. In fire control, many elements (the pond, driveway, slow-burning windbreak trees and swales) are incorporated in the homestead or village design to reduce damage should fire occur.

8. Efficient energy planning

The key to efficient energy planning is using zones, placing elements according to how much we use them or how often we need to service them. Areas that must be visited every day (e.g. the glasshouse, chicken pen, garden) are located nearby, while places visited less frequently (orchard, grazing areas, woodlot) are located further away.

Zone and sector analysis map of a Bellingen property. Image by Goodlife Permaculture

Zone 1: Closest to the house. Influences the micro climate we grow our vegetables and herbs in that we use every day. Complete sheet mulch is used to increase the organic matter in soil, which over time increases yields and decreases water consumption. Intensive crop planning, trellises and selected grafted dwarf trees are used to optimise the yields of this zone. Watering is done with rainwater tanks, wells, bores or drip irrigation to ensure stable production.

Zone 2: Still intensely maintained but contains larger shrubs, small fruit trees, chickens and more perennial species that require less care. Trees are drip irrigated over the summer months to ensure they establish. Spot mulch is used to make sure straw and cardboard goes as far as possible. Earth tanks, larger ponds and tank water supply is used in this zone intermittently. Greenhouses, barns and poultry sheds are located in this zone.

Zone 3: Where mixed main crops occur. This zone is commonly used by market gardeners. Includes green manure legume crops for soil conditioning, beneficial insect attractant plants and water storage in soil. In drier climates, appropriate irrigation can be used sparingly to established perennial and annual crop mixes. On larger properties, mixed grain and pasture can also occur in this zone.

Zone 4: Foraging, forestry and open pasture. Not appropriate for all scales of design but is included in both urban and rural permaculture designs. This zone includes natural creeks and rivers, which we might rehabilitate with endemic and native species. Trees are selectively thinned so they can grow and develop without competing with each other. Here, natural ecosystems are extended, established or enhanced.

Zone 5: The end goal being unmanaged ‘wild’ ecosystems. Here we come to learn, observe nature and meditate. We come as visitors, not managers.

9. Using biological resources

In a permaculture system we use biological resources (plants and animals) wherever possible to save energy and to do the work of the farm. Plants and animals are used to provide fuel, fertiliser, tillage, insect control, weed control, nutrient recycling, habitat enhancement, soil aeration, fire control, erosion control and so on.

Careful and appropriate use of non-biological resources (fossil-fuel based machinery, artificial fertilisers, technical equipment) in the beginning stages of permaculture is okay if they are used to create long-term sustainable biological systems. For example, technological equipment such as solar hot water heaters and plastic pipes have used non-renewable resources in their manufacture, but we can use them to produce our own energy on site.

10. Energy cycling

Permaculture systems seek to stop the flow of nutrients and energy off the site and instead turn them into cycles so that, for instance, kitchen wastes are recycled to compost, animal manures are directed to biogas production or to the soil, household greywater flows to the garden, green manures are turned into the earth and leaves are raked up around trees as mulch. Good design uses incoming natural energies with those generated on-site to ensure a complete energy cycle.

11. Small-scale intensive systems

Although permaculture may seem to be labour-intensive to start with, it is not a return to peasant systems of annual crops, endless drudgery and total dependence on human labour. Rather it focuses on designing the farm (or garden, or town) to best advantage, using a certain amount of human labour, a gradual build-up of productive perennial plants, mulching for weed control, the use of biological resources, alternative technologies that generate and save energy, and a moderate use of machinery as appropriate.

Small-scale intensive systems mean that a site is under control. If we cannot maintain or improve a system, we should leave it alone. Plant stacking is an example of an intensive system where plants of various heights are planted and we can obtain a yield from more than one layer.

12. Accelerate succession and evolution

Natural ecosystems develop and change over time, with different plant and animal species continually succeeding one another. We can direct and speed up this process and build our own climax rather than fighting it.

Use what is already growing (such as a ‘weed’ layer) to build soil fertility. Soft weeds can be sheet mulched with cardboard and old carpet, or slashed and used as mulch around other plants before seed heads develop. Woody perennial shrubs such as lantana and gorse make excellent soils when they break down after being slashed and are eventually shaded out by forest trees.

13. Diversity

The more diverse an ecosystem is, the more stable and resilient it becomes over time and easier to care for. Niche micro- climates are formed by complex and diverse gardens, and the yield is greater in a mixed system than in a monoculture. Growing a wide variety of apple trees, citrus, nuts and stone fruits mixed with natives and perennials can yield not only a diverse and abundant harvest, but also provides nectar for bees and habitat for native insects and birds.

14. Edge effects

An edge is an interface between two mediums. It is the surface between the water and the air, the zone around a soil particle to which water bonds, the shoreline between land and water, the area between forest and grassland. Edges are places of varied ecology. Productivity increases at the boundary between two ecologies because the resources from both systems can be used.

Edges define areas and break them up into manageable sections. An edge could be a fence line, driveway or the path around the garden. Only by defining the edge can we begin to control it. We can increase the yield of the system by planning to use the edge and manipulating the shape of the edge.

Bill’s principles explain how permaculture design can improve ecosystem design on a range of levels from the humble backyard, apartment balcony and street garden to broadacre farming. Bill taught us that the aim of permaculture is to create systems that are ecologically-sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute and are therefore sustainable.



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