Permaculture in Theory – Week One

“Permaculture is saving the planet and living to be a hundred years old while throwing impressive dinner parties and organizing other creatures to do most of the work.”

This is Jenny Pell’s favorite definition of permaculture. Others she gave us are “the conscious design and maintence of agricultural systems that are diverse and stable,” “the harmonious integration of land and people,” “perennial polyculture,” and “the philosophy of working with instead of against nature.” My personal favorite is “how to maximize hammock time.”

But let’s get into specifics.

This week at Haiku Aina Permaculture Initiative (HAPI) on the north side of Maui, we started by exploring the ethics and principles of permaculture.


1) Care for the land: This is about planting natural plants, minding use of resources, and being humble in our relationship with the earth.

2) Care for the people: Interconnectivity, as opposed to isolationism, is crucial to the ideas of permaculture. It is only through community that we build resilience.

3) Care for the future and share the abundance: The first step to sharing the abundance is having a surplus, and the next step is to “meet the need, not the greed.” That is, giving to your community and those who have less instead of hoarding the wealth.

Ultimately, the deepest problem our society is facing is fear, and the solution is love.


1) Observe and interact: Evan recommends doing nothing to your land for a whole year besides observing in order to gain an understanding of it. This way you will learn the microclimates, rain, wind and sun patterns, wildlife presence, and existing plant life.

2) Catch and store energy: e.g.: rainwater catchment, passive solar, dams and ponds, fermentation, canning, compost

3) Obtain a yield: Fairly self-explanatory – all the hard work and energy you put into your farm or garden will go to waste if you do not obtain a yield. Having a surplus (not an official principle of permaculture but a central idea) goes along with this: with a surplus you can not only have extra food to store for the future, but you can give to friends, family, and your community as well.

4) Apply self-regulation: This is about finding ways to not be part of the problem and make sure that you are in balance with your environment. Most importantly, it is about regulating your choices and keeping yourself in check.

5) Use and apply renewable resources and supplies: e.g.: pollination, rainwater catchment, solar energy, wind energy

6) Produce no waste: e.g.: compost, humanure, returning packaging to the store, minimizing wasteful communication

7) Stack functions: Always stack functions in design. Plants that provide food are often also medicinal and some can be used for dyes, fiber, timber, or shade as well.

8) Multiple elements for single function: Redundancy provides a safety net in case one feature fails.

9) Multiple functions for single element: e.g.: living roof underneath solar panels, a windbreak that also provides lumber or soil retention

10) Patterns to details: Start with the big picture and then work your way down to the details. Look at the patterns of the land and people.

11) Integrate rather than segregate: Bring plants and people together. Also the idea of many hands make light work and designing for the whole system.

12) Small and slow solutions: e.g.: erosion control plants, seed saving, building soil up, planting trees, starting with a small garden and then expanding, diving into one aspect until you become an expert.

13) Diversity: Diversity creates stability, balance, and resilience. There is such a thing as too much diversity, as in when you cannot obtain a yield from any one crop, but polyculture is more effective and safer than monoculture.

14) Use edges: There is more diversity in edge space because it is the meeting place of two systems (called the Edge Effect). An example of this is the keyhole space of chinampas.

15) Use and respond to change: Permaculture is anything but static, and when the only constant is change we can view this as opportunities to reinvent the space in a better way.

16) When in doubt, do nothing: If it is not a yes, it is a no.

17) Least change for the greatest effect: The idea of working smarter, not harder.

18) Give and receive feedback: By doing this we can better respond to change.

19) The problem is the solution: e.g.: humanure, compost, using pests like rabbit or deer for food

Many of these principles go hand in hand and build off of one another. They combine to form a foundation of permaculture.

To demonstrate our learning of these principles we have created and performed skits, went out on the land and drew sketches that embodied the principles, and collaborated on rough permaculture designs (with about 15 minutes per activity).

The principle we most focused on during lecture this week was (10) Patterns to details. In designing, we can mimic the patterns of nature. The key patterns we discussed are expansion, spheres, branching, spirals, waves, and netting. Examples of these in design work are branching irrigation and pathways, herb spirals, swales, and plant guilds and triangulation.

Jenny also led a lecture on climate change this week. We are entering into a human crisis change, and essentially have the next hundred years to heal and rebuild the earth, or succumb to climate change and all that will bring (famine, war, refugees, infertile land, extreme weather events, a greater divide between rich and poor). Permaculture is becoming more relevant than ever because we need to adapt and respond to the change in order to make a difference. We are losing top soil at a rate that rivals the Dust Bowl and this combined with the heating of the earth leaves the food we grow with less calories. Vulnerable areas of the world are being pressured into chemical agriculture for export. We need to teach farmers how to transition from chemical agriculture to,organic or beyond organic farming, which ultimately comes down to policy work and funding.

In the evenings, we participated in various community activities. On Tuesday night we watched Seeds of Permaculture, a movie from the Reading and Watching List about two permaculture educational centers in Thailand. On Wednesday Jenny presented a slideshow about her journey with permaculture and solutions in this climate.

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