Permaculture through Design Elements

the gabions at terra alta, a feature for water quality improvement
the gabions at terra alta, a feature for water quality improvement

For a greater look at Permaculture, please visit our Educational website that gives in depth accounts of the 14 Chapters of The Designers Manual and more: TreeYo EDU

Systems integration requiring minimal inputs while producing an guildabundant yield is the design goal of permaculture.  Designing these dynamic systems has incredible potential for restoring a total ecology that includes social and financial dimensions. When we mimic how nature works, we can build soil, restore hydrological cycles, mitigate local climate change, provide food security, and better social dimensions. In essence local economies are rebuilt, rural development is possible, and interdependence is created as we re-examine all facets of culture and how to positively impact them.

Water Harvesting and Soil Microbes

When trees are cut, grasses overgrazed, and chemicals used, the soil microbes die and the land becomes a hard pan, a vast swath of dead dirt.  Thus humans must intervene and reverse the damage through appropriate management techniques such as rainwater harvesting.  Harvesting runoff rainwater is a primary action for restoring land quickly.

Permaculture swale section view with trees

Figure 1: A swale, ditch and mound on contour, capturing runoff and passively irrigating emerging trees

After initiating rainwater infiltration, methods of composting organic material (such as animal manure, dried hay, and weeds) can be used to produce healthy soil by introducing soil microbes.  This inoculation of the soil with beneficial microbes can be applied directly to gardens and food production systems to activate growth and later to improve yield.  Simple techniques like mulching and swale building, can be used to easily and quickly return food security to villages and communities.

Nitrogen-Fixing Plants

Certain plant species fix nitrogen into the soil from atmospheric nitrogen sources in association with soil bacteria.  This means that these particular plants extract nitrogen out of the air and with the help of special soil bacteria, convert it into a form of nitrogen that other plants can use to grow.  Understanding the importance of this symbiotic relationship is a powerful tool in the establishment and maintenance of not only home-scale gardens but broad-acre reforestation projects as well.  Cover-cropping programs act as green manures but also help maintain soil structure by protecting it from the compacting properties of water.

Figure 2: This diagram represents the amazing gift of Nitrogen fixation.

Animal Systems:

Ruminants and Other Animals

Furthermore, appropriate management of animals by way of holistic systems has an extremely beneficial effect on the land. Mimicking the behavior of migratory ruminant herds is the genius behind Holistic Management (HM) and the subsequent technique of rotational grazing.  Note the following photographs.  The top photograph shows dusty, cracked, degraded land that has been grazed under the conventional approach.  The lower photograph, however, shows the same piece of land but now under the management principles of HM.  The change is dramatic and required minimal inputs to achieve.

There are integrated systems that utilize animals other than ruminants as well.  Poultry, for example can help to provide ecosystem functions such as pest control and nutrient dispersal.  When combined with tree systems or other animal systems, poultry can break parasite cycles for cattle or fruit pest problems.  Making sure crops are pollinated effectively is yet another factor to consider.  Through the creation of habitat for beneficial insects, we as designers can ensure a vibrant and abundant yield.  Beehives are particularly effective in this way as well as providing valuable calories through honey production.


Aquaculture is another integrated system that can provide a high quality protein for the local villages.  Tilapia can be grown in combination with a predator fish, freshwater crayfish, and ducks.  The shorelines can grow edible aquatic plants such as water convolvulus or taro.  The open part of the water can be used to grow biomass crops such as water hyacinth or azolla.  This can be used as mulch for trees and gardens or composted in times when green material is low.  The duck and fish manure feed aquatic plant growth, which in turn, provides nutrients to propagate the fish and ducks, resulting in a mutually beneficial closed loop system.

THE DESIGN PRINCIPLES (Click here for more on EDU site)

In the Book Introduction to Permaculture, the author, Bill Mollison lays out 11 design principles as a guide for our design work.  These principles are essentially reflections of patterns in nature displayed in time and space.  Put simply, they are basics behind how ecosystems like a forest or a pond function.  By mimicking nature, we can achieve energy efficiency because the system runs strictly on a solar economy.
The following paragraphs introduce two design features, the food forest and the banana circle, that are included in most tropical Permaculture sites.  Our hope is that through explanations of these two elements, you will see how the principles manifest into functional designs.

A Food Forest

Creating a food system that is based on perennial species, those that

The Serpent forest garden at Terra Alta, annuals and food forest mixed
The Serpent forest garden at Terra Alta, annuals and food forest mixed

come back year after year, is one of the underpinning values of Permaculture.  A key component in doing this is what we call a food forest or garden forest.  When designing these food forest systems, we strive to mimic the stacking potential that natural forests display.  This is especially true when working within tropical climates.Alternatively when we use techniques that are indigenous to the northern climates of Europe in dry climates or the tropics, we have disastrous affects, which can be seen in the southwest of the USA and across Australia and Africa.

The image below illustrates how a dry tropical area with a prolonged dry season would look.

As you can see the forest is extremely diverse which is one of the key principles of Permaculture.  For the sake of avoiding redundancy, each principle from this point on will be bolded instead of being directly referenced.  Diversity can be seen here through varying plant heights and the fact that even some produce yields underground.  Also the plants will produce at different times and a continued source of food and cover for

white sapote, a food forest tree
white sapote, a food forest tree

the soil is provided.  These ideas are summed up as plant stacking and time stacking, where we use the solar dollar to its maximum.  Biological resources are being used here as the legumes fix nitrogen as explained above.  This eliminates the need for expensive and destructive chemical fertilizers while also providing the shade below for the crops that thrive in tropical partial shade.  I could go on and on with all eleven principles but for the sake of space and time I will show one more example that is a staple of permaculture in the tropics.  But first, look at the photo below.  The forest on the left is natural while the one on the right is totally filled with medicinal, edible, or fuel-wood plants.  These images demonstrate the powerful biomimicry of Permaculture Design.

At present, many farmers are already being encouraged to diversify their crops because monoculture requires pesticides and fertilizers.  These chemicals are destructive to ecosystems as we all know but they are equally devastating to farmers’ profit potential.  By having multiple elements that support one function (food production), crops can thrive in symbiosis.

The Banana Circle (for more info click here on our EDU site on the topic)

This design feature in particular, illustrates clearly all of the 11 permaculture design principles.  It really offers the opportunity to get people to change their paradigm around numerous environmentally detrimental misconceptions.  The banana circle is a diverse planting that encapsulates the principle of small-scale intensive. Rather than spreading bananas out over a broad distance and then having to use a lot of chemicals and manpowered energy to maintain the monoculture and waste of space, the banana circle can pack in lots of food production in a small area.

The design is multifunctional as it is a place to grow banana and other food crops, a place to put detritus from the yard or household like fruit peels, and even a place where the kitchen sink water can be diverted for cleansing and plant reuse.  The depression in the middle is a place for organic matter to be piled and water to collect.   Bananas are heavy feeders on both water and nutrients so this “mulch basin” is essential.  The water and organic matter which turns into humus is thus in relative location to the bananas.  By placing elements next to each other they can create functional interrelationships just as forests do with ecological food webs.  The lemongrass is in relative location to the bananas as well, since they can be continually cut for mulch on the mound while also being a strong scent to deter pests.

A common practice in tropical areas is to burn organic matter.  Instead of burning, which destroys soil health, this organic matter can be used as food for the soil and thus play an integral part in the process of ecosystem restoration. Once a vibrant and diverse ecosystem is established, it will provide food in abundance for humans and animals alike.  Again we are always aiming for closed loops in design, as the waste of one thing is always the need of another thing in Nature.

In conclusion, we offer this final take on “what is Permaculture” by founder Bill Mollison.  It emphasizes the unique opportunity that we all have to redefine how humans inhabit this planet.  Permaculture Design and Holistic Management offer powerful models for how to proceed.

3 Comments on “Permaculture through Design Elements

  1. One question about the banana circle; What does it look like several years after it’s first planting? Does it get managed to stay small, or do you let it mushroom out in complementary circles formed by each original banana tree?

    • Unfortunately i dont have nay mature pictures of banana circles to show. now have i seen them due to the nature of my work because i travel so much. i love to dig them, plant them, and implement them but unfortunately i have to move on from there. So yeah i wish i could better answer your question. in theory though, the seven original bananas are managed to have a diverse age group so there is always some fruiting and you have that resource available. So in that way it stays small rather than mushrooming out by digging up the suckers, cutting them back after they fruit and then mulching with that in the compost pit in the middle. So basically the uncle stays the same but overtime with the growth and height they might merge to other nearby banana circle. thanks for the comment. i hope this helps and again apologies of not seeing mature systems.

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