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“Perma-what?” is the common response I get when referencing “permaculture” in a casual conversation. While the majority of the population is unfamiliar with this term, some may be practicing it everyday. To others, the ideas surrounding Permaculture may seem like foreign concepts. Through my own personal experiences in the field of permaculture, as well as an interview with a local permaculture advocate, Kate Heiber-Cobb, I hope to paint a clear picture of what permaculture really is and offer it as a systems-thinking approach toward solving our current energy, economic and climate crises.

So, what is permaculture? Well, according to one of my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) instructors, it is something that can only begin to be explained in a four page single-spaced document; the tip of the iceberg. But I will spare you the run-on sentence of this document and sum it up in the words of Kate Heiber-Cobb:

“Permaculture is a systems framework aimed to mimic naturally occurring cycles with a do-no-harm approach. The objective is to create systems for human needs yielding the most production while using the least amount of input and resources. This method also takes human as well as plant and animal communities into consideration.”

To paraphrase, permaculture is an ideology that takes all systems and cycles into consideration whilst trying to produce the highest yield for all, causing the least harm and being as efficient as possible.

Like any philosophy, there are principles and ethics that make it unique.

Twelve principles
Permaculture is based on 12 principles and three ethics. Below is the list that forms the backbone of the permaculture philosophy:

Principle 1: Observe and Interact
By takingtime to engage with nature, we can design solutions that suit our particular situation. Take a look around at your property, do you know where the sun rises? Where it sets? Do you know how much rainfall you get in one month? Do you know what plants and animals that reside there?

Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy
By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need. Do you own a rain barrel? Do you know what a swale and berm are? Do you know how to save seeds? Do you compost?

Principle 3: Obtain a Yield
Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing. Do you have a vegetable garden? Are you maximizing its efficiency by companion planting? Are you building your soils so that your plants can have access to the most nutrients possible?

Principle 4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
“The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation,” the Bible says. Are you taking more than you are giving back? What is your ecological footprint?

Principle 5: Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources. How can you reduce your fossil fuel consumption? Do you use resources that are locally available? Do you know how to sustain yourself without using modern technology?

Principle 6: Produce No Waste
By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste. Do you know how to fix your bike? Do you reuse items, giving them a second life, before recycling them? Do you pour gently used water down the drain or use it to water your plants? Do you buy items in bulk instead of in packages?

Principle 7: Design from Patterns to Details
By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbones of our designs, with the details filled in as we go. Do you look at the big-picture or focus on the tiny details of day-to-day life? Do you observe similar patterns in nature that are applicable to our society? How does a spider’s web mimic our relationship with one another?

Principle 8: Integrate Rather than Segregate
By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other. “The whole being greater than the sum of it parts,” or “many hands make light work.” Do you know your neighbors? Do you have skills to share with others/learn from others? Do you participate in a day-care trade or other sort of bartering? Do you know about the Dane County TimeBank?

Principle 9: Use Small and Slow Solutions
Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes. Do you know what slow food is? Do you choose a high-technology solution for quick results or a low-technology solution that may take longer but use fewer resources? Do you use appropriate technology?

Principle 10: Use and Value Diversity
Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Do you have a good mix of drought-tolerant and water-loving species growing in your environment? Do you depend on one resource more than others? Do you modify your environment to support more indigenous, diverse species?

Principle 11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal
The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place, these are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system. The fringe, or edge, is often where themost progress and changes are occurring. “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path.” An application in society would be the social fringe, where new thoughts and ideas challenge the mainstream approach to world issues.

Principle 12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change
We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time. “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!” What are you doing to prepare for climate change? How can you convert something you possess now into something that will be useful in the future, like your gas-powered vehicle?

Three Ethics
Permaculture ethics are distilled from research into community ethics, learning from cultures that have existed in relative balance with their environment for much longer than more recent civilizations. Permaculture is based on three ethics: earth care, people care, and fair share.

Earth Care
The earth is a living, breathing entity. Without ongoing care and nurturing of it there will be consequences too big to ignore. We must do our best to support the existing life here rather than consuming more of it. For example, the earth’s trees serve a much greater purpose than supplying humans with product; they help maintain the precious balance of life on earth by carbon-sequestration, wildlife habitat, preventing erosion and keeping the soils healthy. Building soils and protecting our natural environment are key ingredients to maintaining a well-balanced and functioning system locally and more greatly, on this planet we call home.

People Care
If people’s needs are met in compassionate and simple ways, the environment surrounding them will prosper. By accepting personal responsibility for our situation as far as possible, rather than blaming others, we empower ourselves. By recognizing that the wisdom lies within the group, we can work with others to bring about the best outcomes for all involved.

Fair Share
We are provided with times of abundance, whichencourages us to share with others. The icon of the pie for this ethic illustrates that we should take what we need and share the rest. However, the pie also represents that there are limits to what we can give and what we can take. We live in an age of unprecedented population growth where finite resources are disappearing quickly, extinction of species is on the rise, and wars are being fought over the simplest of necessities like food and water. Continuous growth has created a myriad of issues for the world. Focusing on what we can do personally to resolve these issues sets a good example for others, so that they can find their own balance rather than telling people how they “should” live their lives.

Hopefully a couple of these principles or ethics resonated with you. If you would like to read more about the principles and ethics of permaculture, please visit

Permaculture in Madison
An Interview with Kate Heiber-Cobb, administrator of the Madison Area Permaculture Guild ( and owner of Sustainability on Stilts (, a permaculture consultation and education business.

Q: How did you get looped into permaculture?

A: I am a fan of Starhawk, an author of many works celebrating the Goddess movement and Earth-based, feminist spirituality. She introduced permaculture to me in the perspective of spirituality and it resonated with my beliefs and views of the world.

Q: What specific aspects of permaculture interest you?

A: Phytoremediation, the treatment of polluted soil, air and water using plants that are able to mitigate pollutant concentrations by containing, degrading or eliminating harmful metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, crude oil etc. Mycoremediation, same concept of phytoremediation only using fungus instead of plants to mitigate pollutants.

I enjoy the fact that permaculture reaches beyond our natural environment and can be applied to other parts of life, including how we interact with one another. And of course, I have a general love for the earth, treating it with respect and honor.

Q: How is permaculture different than sustainability?

A: Permaculture embodies sustainability and goes beyond it, taking a systems approach, including all systems and their interrelationships. Permaculture is much more holistic in its approach to problem solving. It also contains an important community component that “sustainability” often overlooks. The name of my business is named after this difference; permaculture is “sustainability on stilts” or sustainability to the next power!

Q: What was your experience prior to getting your Permaculture Design Certificate?

A: I have 35 years of organic gardening experience and have always been into things alternative, out of the mainstream, like cooperatives, including being the General Manager of the Willy Street Co-op at one point. Cooperatives put less emphasis on competition and more emphasis on cooperation. I love the community organization and skill-sharing that permaculture supports.

I have experience in acupuncture and massage therapies.

I am very interested in water, the foundation of life, and the crucial bottom line. Permaculture addresses water in the respectful way that it should be treated—as a precious resource.

I love that it is solutions-oriented and that the solutions are so accessible! It makes it something that everyone can relate to no matter where they live.

Q: Where can we see permaculture in action around Madison?

A: St. Stephens Community Garden: Swales and Berms. A swale is a low tract of land that when used in congruence with a berm (a mound of earth) can hold water on a piece of land rather than contributing to surface run-off and save on external water use.

Midvale Community Garden: Orchard installed by Madison Fruits and Nuts group. Access to local fruit and nuts is key to our self-reliance as northern dwellers.

Token Creek Inn: a bed and breakfast working with the Madison Area Permaculture Guild to integrate permaculture on their land.
Forest Product Labs: a model home with swale and berms, plant guilds and an edible landscape, modeling permaculture from a home perspective.

Edgewood College: mycoremediation project involving oyster mushrooms and salt absorption from storm water run-off.
Orchard Elementary school/Black Hawk Middle School Community Gardens: community gardens, fruit trees, plant guilds and herb spiral.

Q: What can an individual expect from one of your consultations?

A: I first ask my client to observe the sun, wildlife, and water flow on the intended site. I ask them what they want to obtain. Is it: healthy soil? Holding water on the land? Building habitat for wildlife? Plant guilds?

Then I offer them a sketch of how they can design their property to best suit their needs, while taking all communities into consideration.

Now that you know about all the amazing benefits of permaculture are you itching to get your hands dirty?
Lucky for you there is a plethora of resources!

General Permaculture Publications
Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren, Permaculture Activist (available at Willy Street Co-op!), Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison.

General Permaculture Websites
Permaculture Principles:
Permaculture Institute:
Madison Area Permaculture Guild:
Midwest Permaculture:

Local organizations affiliated with the goals of permaculture
Community Action Coalition
Community GroundWorks
Dane County TimeBank
Madcity Chickens
Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition
Madison Fruits and Nuts
Madison Free Skool
Madison Infoshop
Transition Madison Area
Sustain Dane
Willy Street Co-op Classes

For specific permaculture information, some of these “buzzwords” may be helpful in your search: humanure, bioremediation, biomimicry, water catchment, self-reliance, community action, skill trading, appropriate technology, natural building, transition towns, peak oil, climate change, solar ovens, homesteading, organic gardening, holistic herbs, compost, animal husbandry, food foraging, and alternative money systems.

Of course, we are each other’s greatest resources. The knowledge within the community as well as physical tools are the foundations of community sustainability. Get to know your neighbors and start sharing!

Permaculture Design Certificate Courses
The certificate for permaculture design can be obtained through a variety of courses, some longer than others, many now catering to a working person’s availability. The basic permaculture principles are taught and applied in either an urban or rural setting and participants are given the knowledge and tools necessary for successful permaculture design. Check in with Midwest Permaculture or the Madison Area Permaculture Guild to find out more about classes dates and times.

My Experience
I was fortunate enough to be able to take a Permaculture Design Course in New Zealand two years ago. Since then I have started slow, just like principle 9 suggests. I have created two gardens, have had a worker share at a community farm for two seasons, have volunteered with a food pantry garden, have worked on a couple of natural building projects, and now have backyard chickens. Permaculture opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about my surroundings. How I choose to shape my environment relies heavily on permaculture’s biological influence. I feel more self-reliant today than I ever have and it feels great!

Solution for Energy, Economic and Climate Change
Some people believe that by weaving permaculture principles into the way we design and build our environments, humans can work toward solving the current energy, economic and climate change problems. By living more efficiently and from local resources, communities can be more self-reliant and resilient when change occurs.