What is Permaculture?

It’s in our name, our course titles, and we use it often: permaculture. Sure you’ve heard of it, but what do we mean when we use that term here at Santa Cruz Permaculture?

In this article, we cover some leading definitions of permaculture, as well as the ethics, principles, and key topics of the permaculture flower. 

Defining Permaculture

Permanent Agriculture

Although numerous definitions exist for this concept, the term “permaculture” itself is a combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture” and was first used in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, both from Australia.

In Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison describes permaculture as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

He goes on to say, “Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order. Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”

Through their writings and teachings, Mollison and Holmgren shared their observations and design system with people around the world. Learn more about the history of permaculture on this website.

Santa Cruz Permaculture’s Definition

At Santa Cruz Permaculture, we typically define permaculture as an ethically based whole-systems design approach that uses concepts, principles, and methods derived from ecosystems, nature connected communities, and other time-tested systems to create human settlements and institutions. It’s also been called “saving the planet while throwing a better party.”

It’s important to recognize that Mollison and Holmgren didn’t invent permaculture and its many methods. Instead, they identified patterns, principles, and methods that already existed and created a design framework based upon what they observed. 

“The art of designing beneficial relationships”

A simple and succinct definition of permaculture created by Patrick Whitefield is that permaculture is “the art of designing beneficial relationships.” This includes beneficial relationships such as those between:

  • Human-created systems and natural ecosystems
  • Human-created systems and humans who interact with them
  • Natural ecosystems and humans
  • Humans and other humans
  • The inter-dependent web created by the many points at which all of these relationships intersect

With permaculture and permaculture design, we are observing existing systems and natural processes in order to artfully, conscientiously, and strategically maximize or optimize how the various parts of a system work together to create abundance. We do this to meet not only our own needs, but also the needs of the natural world, other people, and future generations, recognizing that these needs are all inter-related and inter-dependent. 

Rafter Sass Ferguson’s Definition

In addition, Rafter Sass Ferguson, scientist and political agroecologist, has created a flowchart to describe permaculture. His simple definition is that “Permaculture is meeting human needs while increasing ecosystem health” (Ferguson). The more detailed flow chart is below.

He explains this definition in detail in this article.

Prime Directive & Ethics

In addition to the definition shared above, Bill Mollison also included a prime directive in his Designer’s Manual: “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.”

As mentioned above, permaculture is ethically based. Along with this prime directive focused on taking responsibility for ourselves and our children, permaculture has three ethics, which are sometimes given the nicknames Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.

“Earth Care” refers to making design choices that meet the needs of the natural environment and non-human world. Beyond simply sustaining natural systems, permaculture creates systems that regenerate our watersheds, soils, forests, oceans, and other ecosystems that are directly affected by human settlements. 

“People Care” is about making design choices that meet the needs of present-day people and future generations. This includes ourselves, our family, our local community, and the broader regional, national, and global communities of people whose lives inter-related with our own. 

“Fair Share” is about equity, redistribution of resources, limits to accumulation and overproduction, and more. It has been described in many different ways, as explained in this article by Heather Jo Flores, author of Food Not Lawns. She writes, “In his monumental Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (1988) Bill Mollison taught the third ethic as “limits to population and consumption.” Rosemary Morrow used “redistribute surplus to one’s needs” in Earth Users Guide to Permaculture. In Gaia’s Garden (2001) Toby Hemenway used “return the surplus.” I used “recycle all resources towards the first two ethics“ in my book, Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community (2006.) Jessi Bloom used “careful process” in her book Practical Permaculture (2016.) In David Holmgren’s work these days, the third ethic is usually distilled to just “fair shares.” And so on.”

As we practice permaculture, we can revisit these ethics to ensure that our decisions and design choices are abiding by and uplifting these ethics. They can serve as guides when we are trying to decide between various design choices or decisions regarding how we move forward on projects. 

Permaculture Ethics (Photo credit: Knoxville Permaculture)


In addition to the ethics, there are also ~12 principles that guide permaculture design. These inform not only the various techniques associated with permaculture, but also the choices we make in each particular design context that identify a project as a “permaculture” project. These can apply to any kind of human-created system, from your home garden to how you manage a business or organization to how a city is designed.

Holmgren and Mollision each have different ways of describing them, but here is how they are articulated by David Holmgren:

  1. Observe & interact
  2. Catch & store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation & accept feedback
  5. Use & value renewable resources & services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small & slow solutions
  10. Use & value diversity
  11. Use edges & value the marginal
  12. Creatively use & respond to change

You can read more about the principles at this Permaculture Principles website.

Permaculture Flower

The Permaculture Flower (Photo credit: PermaculturePrinciples.com)

To conceptualize the many sectors of our lives that can be influenced by permaculture, we like to refer to this permaculture flower. It identifies seven key areas, represented by petals on the flower. These include 

  1. Land & nature stewardship
  2. Building
  3. Tools & technology
  4. Education & culture
  5. Health & spiritual well-being
  6. Finances & economics
  7. Land tenure & community governance

Spiraling throughout the entire flower are the ethics and principles. Within each petal, there are numerous examples of what permaculture in action looks like in that area. 

Join us for our next Permaculture Design Certificate course!

Ready to learn more about permaculture? The Santa Cruz Permaculture Design Certificate course includes the internationally recognized 72-hour curriculum, augmented by an additional 38-hours of hands on practice and field trips. Plus, folks have the option to camp on site each weekend, and build community around the fire! It takes place every six months, starting in April and October each year.

Our course brings in leading designers and teachers from around the region, each experts in different areas of permaculture. The Santa Cruz Permaculture network of instructors, alumni, community partners, and resources continues to grow each season, and by participating in our course, you become part of this network! 

Additionally, course participants work in teams throughout the six month program to design a holistic permaculture plan for a real-life property in the community. The hands-on learning, workshops, and readings throughout the course prepare students with knowledge and whole systems thinking strategies that allow them to create detailed and thoughtful design projects.

Grounded in the context of Permaculture & Whole Systems Design, this course covers a wide range of topics, including: 

  • Food Forests 
  • Fruit Tree Pruning and Care 
  • Agroforestry 
  • Nature Awareness 
  • Rehydrating the Earth 
  • Creating Water Retention Landscapes 
  • Rainwater Catchment 
  • Gabions 
  • Berms and Swales 
  • Greywater 
  • No-Till Agriculture & Carbon Farming 
  • Preparing Garden Beds for Planting 
  • Cover Cropping 
  • Mycorrhizal Network & Fungi 
  • Soil Ecology 
  • Composting 
  • Natural Building & Cob Construction 
  • Plant Guilds 
  • Crop Planning 
  • School Gardens 
  • Urban Gardens & Orchards 
  • Sudden Oak Life 
  • Integrated Animal Husbandry 
  • Holistic Management & Rotational Grazing 
  • Local Food Systems 
  • Designing to Mitigate Disaster 
  • Bioregional Networks 
  • The World Café 
  • The Work That Reconnects 
  • Nonviolent Communication 
  • Financial Permaculture 
  • Alternative Currencies 
  • Economic Permaculture 
  • Public Banking 
  • Community Development 
  • City Repair 
  • Transition Towns 
  • Social Permaculture 
  • Intentional Communities & Ecovillages 
  • Neighborhood Resilience

Learn more and join us for our next Permaculture Design Certificate Course

Explore other permaculture courses we are offering here.

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