WTF is Permaculture??

This is a question (although not always so colorfully phrased) comes up to practicing permaculturists often enough as to be a running gag; that awkward moment at any given dinner party when the permies look at each other with raised eyebrow to silently ask: who’s gonna answer that question this time?

Googling (yes that’s a word) ‘what is permaculture’ at the time of this writing yielded 5,222,000 or so results – you may have even heard of permaculture, described as anything from an idealist-hippie-lifestyle, to a survivalist-response-to-peak-oil-and-the-impending-collapse-of-industrial-civilization-as-we-know-it, to “Revolution Disguised as Gardening”.


Photo: from ‘The Lexicon of Sustainability’ PBS series & traveling art show.

Permaculturists themselves have described permaculture varyingly as:

  • an international social movement (and its regional extensions),
  • a worldview and theory of human-environment relations,
  • a design framework,
  • and/or a bundle of practices.


Very simply put:  Permaculture is a framework for sustainable design.

Bill Mollison, who coined the word permaculture, defines it on page one of ‘Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual’ (his 576-page treatsie on the subject) thus:

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.

Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material and strategic components in a pettern which functions to benefit life in all its forms.

    – Bill Mollison –

Because permaculture offers a framework for the this type of design, may I suggest that this  framework can be adapted and applied towards designing resilient human systems of any kind. 

While permaculture was initially conceived of as a tool to design & redesign our agricultural & food production systems, permaculture practicioners quickly realized that you cannot address food systems without addressesing waste management, water, energy prodction, social & economic systems, conservation, cultural diversity, and many other areas affecting human & ecological well-being. 

We discovered that permaculture design can be a useful tool to help us design solutions for the challenges we face in sorts of different contexts, whether we be building tools or working to create healthy, resilient communities.

In over 30 years of putting permaculture design principles into action & practice – in practically every possible bioregional & cultural context around the world – at some point in their practice, permaculturists everywhere stumble into the same blinding flash of the obvious: that everything in the natural world is interconnected.


The calling card of permaculture is good design – aka ‘Uncommon common sense’.  Placing elements where they will create mutually beneficial relationships with other elements in your system, backing up your major functions, and patterning after natural systems are some of the design principles the permaculture designer will utilise to create a robust & effective design.

However, it is the ethical foundation which underpins the permaculture design approach that makes it so powerful as a design science.  In crafting a permaculture design, decisions are made through the ethical filter of: Care of Earth, Care of People, and Fair Share of Resources.

Every design decision made through a permacultural lens must pass through this filter : how does this decision take care of earth / people / steward our resources?  Utilizing this ethical filter acknowledges that the resources we have access to are nested within the biophysical limits of the ecosystems we live within, and that without respecting this fact, there are no people to care for, nor are there resources available to share.

It is perhaps this ethical filter which is the cause of so much confusion when it comes to defining permaculture; the power of these 3 simple ethical principles to frame & shape our decision-making (and therefore our worldview) can be deeply personal.

But that, my friends, is a topic for another post at another time.



Matthew Lynch
Essays on permaculture
Honolulu, Hawaii

February 2013


PS  For further reading, Toby Hemmenway (Field Director of the Permaculture Institute (USA) and best-selling author of Gaia’s Garden) has posted a very well articulated essay exploring what exactly permaculture is, by starting with the question: ‘What permaculture isn’t’.




Photo: VDoA Extension Officer leads the class through demonstration garden showing rotational cropping, companion planting of marigolds for integrated pest management, and Gliricidia sepium living fence in the background planted as windbreak / chop & drop green manure.

Gliricidia sepium, aka Madre de Cacao, is a very handy species to have around.  It fixes nitrogen, strikes easily from cuttings, grows in a wide range of soils, is fast-growing, tolerates coppicing and is fast-growing. 

Gliricidia is used effectively throughout the tropics and sub-tropics as a living fence, animal fodder, shade-providing overstory (hence the name Madre de Cacao), firewood, green manure, and pioneer species for erosion control. In some places, it is even used as an insect repellent and medicinal salve for livestock.

While specimens as tall as 60-70 feet tall were observed growing as an overstory for mature cacao plantings, the Vanuatu Department of Agriculture maintains alley cropping system demonstration plots with glyricidia coppiced to approximately 4′:



Although this community is dealing with the implications of the impending extinction of their native language, Araki Island appears to be doing many things right from a food security & community resilience standpoint.  While many people have moved to the nearest urban center of Luganville in search of work, much of the villages’ food is still grown on the island.  In addition to white rice, canned fish appears to be  a staple here – perhaps as a response to the seasonal fishing that is available on Araki.

While an integrated coconut/cacao understory cash crop plantation on the island has the potential to generate more local income through value-added processes (such as pressing their own coconut oil and creating artisan products such as soap & chocolate), care must be taken that any development projects geared towards increasing economic gain do not compromise food security.

This is one illustration of the opposing tensions of traditional vs. modern culture discussed in the previous section; it is unclear if people have left the island because of a lack of food security, or in pursuit of the perceived affluence offered by prospects of life in the city.

 – excerpt from ‘Kaikai fo Laef Project Report 2012’


A recent lecture by Anthropologist & Enthnobotanist Wade Davis at The University of Hawaii @ Manoa has me reflecting back to our time spent on Araki Island in Vanuatu.

Araki Island is noteworthy for its 3 distinct terraces rising from the sea, each level remnants of a coral reef bed thrust upwards in 3 distinct geographical ages:


Photo: Field notes, data source: ‘Sea level change’, by National Research Council (U.S.). Geophysics Study Committee.  National Academies, 1990.

We arrive by banana boat about an hour or so before nightfall, cautiously timing our leap from bobbing boat to rocky ledge that would be impossible in rough seas.  Then, in what has to be the quickest tour of the island ever given, we are whisked away to explore the slash-and-burn sustenance gardens perched on the second terrace above the village while there was still light.


We march uphill through the densely forested slopes which smell heavily of earthy fungi, to emerge blinking into a freshly burnt garden plot, its scorched earth jarring to all our senses.  Mountain taro (cocoyam), cassava, yams, varieties of Island cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot), and sweet potatoes were planted throughout, while sapprophytic fungi quickly colonized the dead & dying trees within the newly cleared plot.  


Photos: Freshly cleared garden plot on second terrace; Sapprophytic mushrooms colonizing dead wood; Newly planted cocoyams; newly planted cassava.

As the golden hour of sunset intensified, we decide to ascend to the upper terrace against all precautionary logic, risking being caught in the rapidly encroaching darkness of nightfall – but are told (with a sly wink) that the bioluminescent mushrooms will help light our way home if needed, and I am tempted to linger long enough to see what a forest full of glow-in-the-dark mushrooms looks like in the tropical night of a half moon.


Photos: Garden on Araki’s upper terrace; Wild chicken trap made from vines; Bioluminescent mushroom.

Later that evening, while waiting for the community to gather for a gardening Q&A session in the longhouse, we learn that the Araki language is only spoken by the Chief, his 2 brothers, and their sister.  In a village of only 200 people, the children attend school until the 6th grade on Araki, then commute to nearby Santo Island for their higher grade levels, until finally the majority of Araki youth head to the urban center of Luganville in search of more opportunity.

The leadership is strong here, the vibrant sense of community palpable in the longhouse that night, and the people of Araki a proud, resourceful & resilient bunch.  Yet despite this their living language is perched precariously on the edge of extinction, primarily as a result of the relentlessly irrestible pull of modern culture: What good to the market is a dying language spoken on a tiny island by less than 200 people?

To help answer this question I offer three quotes from Wade Davis:

“Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the ‘biosphere’.  You might think of this social web of life as an “ethnosphere”, a term best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness” 

“What could be more lonley than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of your ancestors or anticipate the promise of your descendants.”

“Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”

                        – Wade Davis, author of ‘The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World –


For further exploration of the enthosphere, see:



Photos (clockwise, from top left): Village Counsellor & neighboring plantation owner Nombert shows off a giant-sized-leaf variety of Island Cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot); Cocoyams (Xanthosoma sp.) growing in front of varieities of local Yam (Dioscorea sp.) trained up bamboo poles; Nombert showing us his cultivation technique for ’12 month yam’, an especially large and tasty variety prized by locals; ADRA Vanuatu Project Manager Noel Jacob stands in front of a patch of many different types of Banana (Musa sp.)

At Dixson’s Reef on Malekula Island, we were walked through extensive plantings of hardier long-term crops including wild yams, mountain taro, island cabbage, cocoyam, and different varieties of banana, in a good demonstration of what ‘Response diversity’ (refer to Fig X.X: Tropical Food Security) could look like on a village scale.

Crops such as banana, taro & cocoyam can withstand unseasonably high rainfall patterns, while the wild yams and island cabbage can tolerate unseasonable dry spells; thereby providing backup systems to backup crops.  Seeking out & selecting additional useful species which have tolerance to other risk factors can help increase the resilience of community food systems.

The slope behind the village at Dixson’s Reef offers more unique microclimates, and can be gradually planted out with useful agroforestry species, as an additional backup system and semi-wild harvest zone.


Photo: Designing for tropical Food Security, by Hunter Heaivilin.

Designing emergency food systems is a simple way to build resilience and respond to climate change.  Students successfully presented designs showing appropriate strategies for 3 different types of gardens:

  1. Household garden within the village boundaries which integrated domesticated animals productively & was cultivated intensively,
  2. Remote food garden that required less time spent to manage effectively & included strategies to provide for its own soil fertility needs, and
  3. Emergency garden designed to provide food in times of scarcity and/or disaster.

Having a wide diversity of different food sources for households reduces the risk of going hungry; crops such as Wild yams (Dioscorea sp.) and Giant swamp taro (Alocasia sp.) can last a long time in the ground without spoiling.  Over time, horticultural selection & plant breeding of local crops can develop hardier crops that are better-adjusted to local conditions and result in a diversification of varieties.

Bananas are well-adapted to wet conditions; in areas experiencing increasing rainfall, increase the diversity of banana varieties to hedge against loss of crops (such as sweet potato) that are susceptible to failure in times of extra rain. 

Conversely, in areas experiencing decreasing rainfall, increase the varieties of dry tolerant crops such as Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajun) or Cassava (Manihot esculenta); if an area is experiencing fluctuating & erratic shifts in weather patterns, increase the diversity of crops adapted to both ends of the spectrum.

This can be referred to as ‘response diversity’; in other words, selecting diversity of plants within cropping systems that can best respond to various threats (fire, salt, drought, wind, pests, climate change, etc). 


   – excerpts from ‘Kaikai fo Laef Project Report 2012’


Photo: Different varieties of Island Cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot) observed during site visits around Vanuatu.

The topography of this small island is unique in that it is comprised of 3 distinct terraces, made up of ancient reef beds that have been thrust up above sea level over time.  This means that a wide variety of microclimates are available in a very small space – walking around cultivation areas on all three terraces felt akin to what it must be like to walk around a giant-sized herb spiral.

By selecting for desirable traits (such as flavor, hardiness, time to harvest, etc) and saving seeds / propagules from the best plants, varieties specifically adapted to microclimates on Araki can be developed over time.  In this way, the remote location of this community can be leveraged to their advantage, providing a refuge of sorts to develop & protect the horticultural selection of biodiversity for the region.

   – excerpt from ‘Kaikai fo Laef Project Report 2012’


The Village Economy

“How can we be
Self-reliant with our needs
So that we can become
Interdependent with our wants?”
   -Hunter Heaivilin-


Photo: Hunter Heaivilin teaches Village Design on Ifira Island, Vanuatu.

The Village Economy Game was played in order to demonstrate and give a practical experience of how to connect the products & functions of one local enterprise to the needs of another.

  1. Students are asked to create an enterprise that could meet a currently un-met need that they would be interested in pursuing.
  2. A functional analysis is performed to determine the needs, characteristics, functions and products of each enterprise.
  3. Students are asked to find car many connections as they can with other students enterprises (this typically results in much laughter and shenanigans), and then report back to the class about the connections they managed to make.

Here’s a summary of the enterpises Vanuatu Villagers came up with, and the beginnings of the many connections that were made between enterprises (see if you can make connections of your own):


Photo: Village Economy Mindmap, 2012 Vanuatu PDC

A simple shift in focus towards making these localized connections, can reduce our reliance upon external inputs while we are contributing to the vibrancy of our community.  We can reduce our waste and cycle energy (in its many forms) within our community many times before it leaves.

Once we have met our needs as a community we find ourselves with a new challenge: what to do with the surplus?  Now we can look to neighboring communities to establish trades with our surplus, enriching our quality of life and that of our neighbors.

If we are smart, we can live within the ecological limits of our lands, creating products & developing  skills shaped by our landscape – these will have enormous value in other communities but will be obsolete in others – we can seek to match these community products with communities where these are in need, and the web grows stronger.

In times of scarcity, we can meet most of our needs within our communities (and reach out to the relationships we have made with other communities if needed), while in times of plenty our collective joy can be multiplied by sharing & trading our surplus: self-reliant, and interdependent.


Photo: 2012 Oahu PDC Village Economy Mindmap Timelapse


Cornelia Wylie, a New Zealander living in Vanuatu for the last two decades has created one of the most beautiful patches of paradise within the beautiful patch of paradise that is Efate Island – and she is less than 10 minutes from Port Villa airport.


Photo: Rainbow Botanical Gardens’ dam is a productive & beautiful fishpond.

Amazingly enough, most of what we toured through was only planted 18 months ago – which gives you an idea of how quickly things can grow here.

Designing for aesthetics leads many landscape designers to create an unsustainable ecosystem which requires large inputs of chemical fertilizer and pest control to maintain the aesthetics of their design. 

Cornelia, however, has a passion for sustainable agriculture – her other 100+ acre site if focused on organic food production, and integrates animals & utilizes intercropping to create a cultivated ecosystem which can provide for most of its needs (we wish we could have toured that site; you’ll have to check it out for us).


Photos: Beautiful bananas; Fern shoot; Ginger & orchid; Ivory palm; Beautiful bamboo; Tropical cherry

Rainbow Botanical Gardens offers an interesting study in designing for a specific use pattern – in this case, she has designed for maximum human engagement to educate & inspire visitors to take action – namely, to make a purchase. 

In doing so, she has created a human-sized-venus-fly-trap for her landscape design & cut flower customers; when you visit, you can’t help but want to take a little piece of the place with you. 


Photo: Students examine the different textures of a ‘Teddy-bear Palm’, and a ‘Pokey Palm’ – visitors to Rainbow Botanical are encouraged to touch, smell, feel, the exhibits.

Our tour group left with tomato seedlings bred for the tropics, gleaned fruit, cuttings, and the purchase of a dwarf banana variety yielding a fruit she promised us would taste like vanilla ice cream (not to mention a yearning to return home to potter in our gardens). 

Paths meander through zones themed by species, each one carefully stacked with other plants to fill each niche. 


Photo: Bixa orellana seed pod; Hendon having fun with the oily red dye from the seedpods.

We wound through twisting path of palms with countless varieties of orchids underneath, passed through an avenue of exotic red bananas, stumbled across the always-engaging Bixa orellana (red lipstick tree), peeked down an alley to a collection of bamboo varieties, then looped back to where we started in a thatched roundhouse (made from mahogany posts that were harvested on-site), and ended up next to a tropical cheery tree (favorite of the birds) on the banks of large dam filled with freshwater eels, tilapia, water lilies and hyacinth.


Photo: Using lots of edge to create the illusion of space.

Different (& beautiful) ground covers were splashed throughout, purple textures with white flowers dancing like popcorn, and nooks planted out with ginger & heleconia varieties (92 varieties in all) beckoned from the sides – her collection is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.


Photo: Just 3 of the 92 varieites of heleconia at Rainbow Botanical Gardens in Port Villa.

By creating so much edge in her layout, she has not only managed to stack in an enormous amount of diversity very intensively, she has also created the illusion & feeling of wandering around in a much larger space.

Our group stumbled about like excited schoolchildren, laughing and pointing and (at Cornelia’s insistence) touching all the new plants we were being introduced and re-introduced to, while our gracious & knowledgable hostess smiled, told stories & answered questions throughout.


Photos: Touring Rainbow Botanical Gardens.

The education focus of her enterprise is significant; over the years Cornelia has helped many Ni-Van (local Vanuatu peoples) start their own nursery business, and procures many of her plants from them when she is wearing her Landscape Designer hat.  She’s also worked with the government to create what is now the only agricultural quarantine station in the Islands since the government lost their facility to fire years ago, and continues to work with Non-Governmental Organizations such as World Vision (and now ADRA) to support ongoing trainings & workshops in horticulture & micro enterprise development.

Thank you Cornelia.


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