Book Notes: Introduction to Permaculture : : Intro and Chapter One

These are my notes for the introduction and Chapter One of Introduction to Permaculture (1991/2009) by Bill Mollison. I must have borrowed the book from the library or a friend, so I am relying mainly on my sketchy notes here, without a book in hand to check quotes, accuracy, etc. (there is a version of the book online). Any misrepresentations of Mollison’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on the following chapters will be linked here as published.
Chapter 2: Broadscale Site Design
Chapter 3: Pattern Understanding
Chapter 4: Structures
Chapter 5: Home Garden Design
Chapter 6: Orchards, Farm Forestry and Grain Crops
Chapter 7: Animal Forage Systems and Aquaculture
Chapter 8: Urban & Community Strategies

Mollison, one of the permaculture founders, was born in 1928 and grew up in Tasmania, where he “left school at age 15 to help run the family bakery. In the following ten years he worked as a shark fisherman, seaman, forester, mill worker, trapper, snarer, tractor-driver and naturalist.” (He died in Sept. 2016, 88 years old.) He writes in Intro to Permaculture that when he was 28 (in 1956), he saw that parts of the ecosystem were disappearing. He withdrew from society in disgust for a couple of years, then came back with the desire to be for something, not just against it. He got a bachelors degree in biogeography, taught at the University of Tasmania, and in 1974 met David Holmgren there; they’re the founders of permaculture as such.

Permaculture combines architecture with biology with agriculture with forestry with animal husbandry.


Permaculture “is a design system for creating sustainable human environments.” It’s not primarily about the elements — plants, animals, infrastructure — but about the relationships among them.

Permaculture creates a cultivated ecology, designed to produce more food than is found in nature given the same space, climate, etc.

Harmony with nature is “possible only if we abandon the idea of superiority over the natural world.” All living things are an expression of life, and what we do to other life forms, we do to ourselves.

Conventional farming doesn’t recognise and pay its true costs.

Permaculture Ethics:

  • Care of the Earth – all living and non-living things
  • Care of People – education, food, shelter, employment, and human contact are basic needs
  • Contribution of surplus time, money, energy to achieve these aims

Also, basic life ethic, which recognises intrinsic (non-commercial) worth of every living thing.

Ways to Implement These Ethics: 

  • Think about long-term consequences of actions.
  • Native species.
  • Cultivate smallest possible land area – intensive, not extensive.
  • Diversity, polycultures (not monocultures).
  • Look at total yield of the system: annuals, perennials, crops, trees, animals, saved energy, etc.
  • Use low-energy environmental and biological systems.
  • Grow food in cities and towns.
  • Promote community responsibility.
  • Reforest.
  • Recycle all wastes – use all things at optimal levels.
  • See solutions.
  • Work where it counts.

CHAPTER ONE: Permaculture Principles

1.1 Good design

Relative location of each element to assist each other
Multifunctionality of each element
Uses biological resources over fossil fuel resources
Mimic natural patterns

1.2 Core of permaculture is design, i.e., connections between things

Some elements of a small farm: house, greenhouse, garden, compost pile, beehives, potting shed, woodlot, dam, aquaculture pond, windbreak, barn, tool shed, woodpile, guest house, pasture, hedgerow, worm beds, water storage, chicken pens, etc.

1.3 Multifunctionality of each element

For example, a pond: irrigation, livestock water, aquatic crops, fire control, habitat for birds and other animals, light reflection. Also discusses multifunctionality of a chicken.

With plants, consider: deciduous or evergreen; does it have invasive roots; how high will it grow; speed of growth; dense or light canopy; disease resistance; can it be cut or will overpruning kill it; what form (vine, shrub, perennial, etc); tolerance to USDA zone, sun/shade, water/drought, soil pH; what are its possible uses (soil improving, use for animals, erosion control, edibility, protection, nectar, etc.)and so on.

Start a species index.

1.4 Have back-up systems

1.5 Efficient Energy Planning: Key is zone and sector placement of plants, animal areas, structures.

Zone Planning: elements places according to how often they are used: Zone 0 (house) = high intensity to zone 5 = low intensity (unmanaged). Develop areas in house and closest to house first, get that under control, then expand at the edges.
Zone 1 = garden, workshops, greenhouse, small animals, wood, mulch/compost, clothesline
Zone 2 = larger shrubs, small fruit/orchard, wind breaks, terraces, hedges, trellis, pond
Zone 3 = unpruned and unmulched orchards, pastures, larger animals, windbreaks, thickets, large trees
Zone 4 = semi-wild
Zone 5 = unmanaged wild

[I noted that my current property has only zones 0 (house), 1, 2, and 4.]

Sector Planning: Sectors are mostly energies. Sector planning is a way to work with wild energies, e.g., sun heat/sunlight, wind, precipitation, water flow, fire, views.
Specifically, mitigating cold or damaging winds; screening unwanted views; working with winter and summer sun angles; dealing with flood-prone areas.

Slope: Note relative elevations to decide placement of dams, water tanks or wells, access roads, drains, plants with high/low water needs.

1.6 Using Biological Resources (humans, plus other animals and insects, plants) to save energy, e.g., to provide fuel, fertiliser, insect control, weed control, nutrient recycling, habitat enhancement, soil aeration, erosion control. But we can hire earthmovers to build roads, dams, swales, etc., and tractors to plow hard unproductive land.

Some examples: Using animal tractors (chicken tractors that are moved around the yard to provide fertilizer and weed control); pest control using certain plants to attract predator insects, ponds to attract frogs, boxes or shrubs as habitat for insectivore birds; creating fertilisers from human waste, other animal waste, earthworms, compost, comfrey cutting, beans (nitrogen fixers). Also mentions about bees, allelopathic plants to suppress weed growth, and dogs to guard animals.

1.7 Energy Cycling:

Now, nutrition and a varied diet are provided by world-wide transportation, storage, and marketing network and is more expensive than local agricultural diversity, possible only due to fossil fuel subsidies.

Permaculture systems want to stop the flow of nutrients and energy off the site and instead turn them into cycles on-site. The goal is to catch, store, and use all resources — sun, wind, water, wastes and manures, etc. — before they’ve degraded to their lowest energy use and are lost to us.

For example: It’s not the amount of rainfall that counts but the number of cycles we can set up to use the water. Regenerative processes.

1.8 Small-Scale Intensive Systems

Permaculture system is scaled to hand tools on small sites and modest fuel uses on larger sites. Don’t spread out too quickly – be in control of the site.

If we can’t manage or improve a system, we should leave it alone, minimising damage and preserving natural complexity. We frequently see “delinquent landscapes” in the western world — suburban plots under lawn and cosmetic flowers, urban blight around cities. It’s “clear that planning for highly intensive biologically-based food production at the doorstep” is the only way out of future crises.

Stay close to the house. In the Philippines, they have 12 square meters (14 square yards) around their houses, with animals underneath, trellises to grow vertically, etc.  Ten trees and 4 square meters of garden will start zones 1 and 2.  Fully develop the nucleus first.

Plant Stacking (heights, light needs, etc.)

The root zone of allelopathic black walnut trees can be 80  feet from tree –chemical juglone toxic to nearby tomato, potato, peppers, blueberry, blackberry, azalea, mountain laurel, rhododendron, apple, red pine, columbine, baptisia, hydrangea, alfalfa, peonies, rhubarb, lilies, asparagus, lilacs, yew, cabbage, et al. OK for squash, melon, beans, carrots, corn. (More on juglone). Can hurt horses.

Cool-climate designs require fairly open systems to allow light to lower levels to overcome lack of heat for ripening.

1.9 Accelerating Succession and Evolution: Pioneer plants can fix nitrogen, loosen heavy soil, reduce soil salt, etc.

1.10 Diversity

Garden/orchard plantings in Central America: 20 square meters (24 square yards or .005 acres) close to house, compact fruit trees, coffee bushes, banana, corn, beans, flowers and useful weeds. More productive polyculture than segmented, linear European way of planting.

Tidiness separates species and creates work, functional disorder, low yield. Creativity is seldom tidy. Tidiness is compulsive.

Importance of diversity is not so much in the number of elements in a system but in the number of functional connections among the elements.

Guilds: Comprised of a close association of species clustered around a central element (plant or animal).

  • Reduce root competition from invasive grasses
  • Provide physical shelter.
  • Provide nutrients (beans)
  • Assist in pest control (marigolds, dill, fennel, et al.)

Fruit trees like herbal ground covers, comfrey, spring bulbs.

Guild Plants:

  • insectary — host predatory insects)
  • sacrificial — pests attack it preferentially
  • all-season host — pests overwinter in – bad
  • predator or pollinator attractor plant — flowers to feed adult predators or pollinators
  • trap crops — attract and kill pests

1.11 Edge Effects: Borders

Edges are the interface between two media, e.g., water and air, water and land, forest and grassland, and so on; it can be a boundary between two biological communities or between different landscape elements. Edges are places of varied ecology, and more productive than other places. You can create them with structures, accessibility changes, lines of vegetation. Examples: along fence lines and pond shores, between house and driveway, a path around a garden, terraces.

Edge Patterns include curvy, crenellated (lobes, square indentations, wavy), spirals, zigzags, elevated levels (ditch and bank, e.g.), etc.

An undulating circle circumference doubles the circle’s edge:


The diversity and productivity of edges and margins is of my favourite take-aways about permaculture thinking, and there is much more about it, with illustrations, at Deep Green Permaculture (from which the above illustration is taken, and where a form of this book is presented from pamphlets).

1.12 Attitudinal Principals

  • everything works both ways (aka the problem is the solution) — what seems to be a disadvantage can often be made into an advantage by changing how it’s used. An example: Wind can harm crops but can fuel a wind generator as a power source.
  • the yield is theoretically unlimited — the number of uses of a resource within a system depends on our imagination and knowledge. Permaculture is information and imagination intensive.
  • work with nature, not against — understand and mimic nature’s patterns and relationships
  • everything gardens — every creature sets up conditions to thrive.
  • exert the least effort and make the least change for the greatest effect — we can work with our inherent regenerative qualities so energy isn’t wasted.

Next up: Chapter Two: Broadscale Site Design.

(* Featured photo is my fruit guild when I first created it in May 2013. You can see peach trees, chives, yarrow, baptisia, fennel, winterberry shrubs, and an annual crop of peas.)