Designing a sustainable future with permaculture principles

Designing a sustainable future with permaculture principles

When the idea of Runamuk first began to form in my mind, I envisioned a future for my family that revolved around living in harmony with the land.  I imagined that we would cultivate, nurture and protect the land, and the land in turn would support and nurture our family for generations to come.  I pictured a farm where the natural ecosystems were intertwined with the working and functioning of a sustainable enterprise that, while not making us wealthy people, supports our needs and provides us with a satisfying life.

Some would say (and have) that it is a dream–a figment of my imagination–the land cannot possibly support a family in that way.  But I’ve learned otherwise.  People all over the world are moving away from large scale commercial agriculture and finding ways to support themselves and their families in organic agriculture.  In America alone there are some 30,000 farmers using alternative methods.  Around the world the green movement is gaining momentum, while many Americans are still in denial.  We’ve achieved incredible productivity with our American style of agriculture–but at the expense of the land and the natural ecology of our country.  We face a cross-roads.  America must learn to understand Nature–to work with it, rather than against it.

Developed in the late 1970’s in Australia by Boll Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture teaches us how to observe the natural dynamics of the ecological systems that surround us.  We can then apply that knowledge in constructing ecosystems that serve the needs of the human population without degrading the natural environment.  Using a unique blend of traditional practices and scientific knowledge, ageless wisdom, innovative new ideas and technology, time-tested strategies and useful information from around the world–we can design a perennial agricultural system.

That’s what I want to do at Runamuk.

Since we’re essentially starting at square-one there, we have the opportunity to design the farm however we like.  Like I do with every new project, I’ve been doing a lot of research into designing the sustainable farm.  I’ve been studying alternative agriculture for years now, but now that we actually have a home to move Runamuk to,  my research has escalated, and it’s come time to put plans on paper.  I’ve been relying heavily on the key design principles of permaculture to lay out the Runamuk farm.

Permaculture design principles

permaculture design principles
Here is my personal interpretation of the permaculture design principles and what they mean to me and and my vision for Runamuk.

By observing natural ecosystems, we can learn to imitate Nature and can create constructed ecosystems that are productive and non-polluting.

Visions & Ethics – By developing specific goals, values, and intentions, from the basic permaculture ethics, which state that Nature is perpetually caring for the Earth and all of it’s creatures, reinvesting in it’s future–we can imitate Nature in establishing a clear vision of the systems we want to create.

Site Observation & Analysis – To make best use of the land, the principles of permaculture dictate that we observe the slope, orientation and sectors affecting the property.  The slope defines the flow of energy and nutrients through the area, while the site’s orientation to the sun creates various  conditions on each slope.  The sectors of sun, rain, native animals, etc. are defined by energies and nutrients moving across the site.  We can maximize use of these sectors by collecting the resources they offer.

Relative Placement – The principles of permaculture state that in nature creatures form beneficial relationships, so that the needs of one meets the needs of another.  By placing elements so that they care for each other, and in turn reduce external outputs, work, unused outputs, and such.  We can encourage similar relationships between the elements of our farm.

Multiple Elements for Each Function – Functions in Nature are typically supported by more than one component.  At Runamuk we can give our system the resiliency to survive even when one element fails by providing alternate systems for each necessary function.

Multiple Functions for Each Element – Relationships in Nature are formed with other elements when each component of the system performs several functions.  We can support the web of life, creating stability on our property by incorporating elements with multiple relationships.

Using Biological Resources – In Nature life in a system increases over time as the sun’s energy is captured and stored in living tissues, while inert materials are converted into organic compounds that feed more life.  The use of biological resources increases the health and yield of a system when used in place of inorganic materials, and decreases the need for external inputs.

Recycling Energy & Nutrients – Energy and nutrients cycle through a system over and over again until they eventually leave it–the trick is slowing  them down enough to capture those resources in the first place so that the system has time to absorb them.

Mimicking Natural Succession – When a forest is disturbed, Nature will begin to heal itself.  Hardy plants we sometimes call “weeds” are often the first to return to the site.  They have many benefits and healing characteristics for the landscape.  We can speed up the process of natural succession by planting a variety of useful species all at once, and then let them play out their natural evolution, guiding the system to maturity through careful observation of their natural progression.

Maximizing Diversity – In Nature the diversity of a system is not indicated by the number of components, but by the number of symbiotic relationships among them.  We can increase the stability of the system at Runamuk by increasing it’s diversity, thus minimizing pest problems and competition for nutrients.  By creating microclimates we can encourage species diversification, and maximize the edge between these ecosystems to encourage interaction.  “Edges” are where two different ecosystems over-lap, and are especially diverse areas.

Stacking In Space & Time – Life in a vibrant ecosystem abounds, making use of every possible niche, stacking living creatures in time, too, creating a perpetual system so that some creatures are just beginning their lives, while others are reaching maturity or decomposing.  Permaculture encourages us to make use of all opportunities to stack elements in order to utilize the full potential of an area, thus yielding an array of useful products over the course of the year.

Using Appropriate Technology – To imitate Nature, avoid using human technology, which can actually cause your system to loose energy, and force you to work harder.  The principles of permaculture instruct the farmer to use simple and clean technologies that rely on gravity, radiant and renewable energies, and easily available materials, since in Nature natural systems function just fine without human technology.

In conclusion

It’s fairly involved, but once established the permaculture system can be maintained using a minimum amount of materials, energy and labor.  The system has enough stability and resilience to thrive even in the event that one element fails, which offers a greater potential for long term economic stability compared to that of the conventional agricultural system.

But I am by no means an expert on this subject, I have only offered you a taste of what I have been learning as we move forward with our plans for Runamuk, and a glimpse of what our future holds.  Please check out the resources below for more information if you are at all interested in the concept of permanent agriculture–aka-permaculture.  And by all means, feel free to share your insight and experiences by leaving a comment below!  😀

Recommended reading:

Permaculture Design for Small Farms and Homesteads – a general overview from Mother Earth News.

Permaculture Design Principles and Guidelines -Tropical Permaculture (but don’t let the name fool you–these guidelines are the same no matter if you’re in the tropics or New England).

What is Permaculture – a great informative PDF from the Central Rocky Mtn. Permaculture Institute.

Sepp Holster’s Permaculture; A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening; by Sepp Holster.

Introduction to Permaculture; by Bill Mollison.

The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town & Country; by Peter Bane and David Holmgren.


  1. luke vigneault

    You probably have seen this site but it has a large discussion forum and lots of information. A lot of things have been figured out and discussed

    I cannot wait to see what you guys do with your land I am trying to transform mine myself adding here and there trying to work with what is available.

    good luck!

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