The principles of permaculture provide a foundation of concepts that are applicable to a broad range of locations and goals. As reference points, these principles help us start somewhere and also evaluate where we are and what we have achieved. There is no absolute set of principles, rather a living collective drawn from many different sources including landscape design, ecology, energy conservation, sustainable agriculture, etc.
Observe and interact.
To learn about nature we must observe it, not only passively from a distance, but actively from within it, as a participating part of it. It is by observation that the rest of the principles can be deduced. Developing our perceptive ability is vital in order to read a landscape in all its complexity. When we perceive nature, we may first just let it wash over as a whole, but in time will begin to pick out individual elements within it.
Elements and functions
Each 'element' or object, tree, animal, plant has unique characteristics. First we acquaint ourselves with the individual elements that are present, and then start gathering external elements that we want to include. For example a dam to catch the water that we see running through a valley. The water is an existing element, the dam is a potential element. Understanding the characteristics or functions of an element is key to using it wisely and to its full potential. Thus when including an element we make sure that it can perform many functions and so maximize its usefulness and productivity in our design. Water is a good example, we can easily see the many different functions it can perform.
Often our design goals revolve around a function rather than an element, for example storing or providing water. Functions such as this that are vital to the success of our design are best provided in multiple ways, or with backup. Considering the example of providing water, in addition to natural rainfall we could use dams, tanks, plants, and the ground itself for storage. Relying on the function of rain alone to provide water is sure to cause people in most climates some apprehension. We can see how for utmost efficiency and reliability each element provides many functions and each function is supported by many elements. The inter-connectivity of elements and functions leads us to the next principle.
Value diversity and make connections.
Nature operates as a web of inter-connected and diverse elements. In systems that we design, a large collection of disconnected elements, while being diverse, does not fulfill the kind of diversity we wish to create: inter-connected diversity. By making connections between elements and increasing the diversity of support of important functions we start to weave together a system that is more stable and adaptive to change. The term 'guild' is often used to describe an assembly of plants that help each other. However when we make connections it is not only about plants, we also make connections between non-living elements. For example, a green-house attached to the house, or chicken yard boarding on the orchard to allow the chickens free range. Making connections between elements leads naturally to the next principle.
Placing things in relationship.
Here we begin to evaluate multiple elements and systems and attempt to place them in relationships that benefit each other and increase efficiency. Some placements are experimental and some are common sense. For example the chicken coop next to the compost pile which boarders the garden on one side, and bordering the orchard on the other side. Placing trees on the north, east and west of a house to provide wind shelter, but not on the south to block solar gain is another simple example. Unless you are in a tropical climate and want to block as much solar gain as possible, while opening the house to cooling wind.
Edges are rich in potential.
When different elements or systems come in contact, inevitably an edge is created. Rich in influence from what lies on either side, edges can be wild and exploding with life. All life on earth happens in the thin edge between solid ground and space. Cracks in the sidewalk burst with weeds, fence lines and road sides appear richer and greener. The forest edge has more sunlight thicker vegetation and species from forest and meadow pass through. The cracks in a rock wall or edge of a garden bed all seem to be places where life is vibrant. We can use this principle to our advantage and extend edges or use existing ones more productively.
Cycle energy - recycle.
Natural systems are stable because the outputs from one thing are the inputs for the next. Nutrients and water are suspended in a constant cycle of life and death. There is no waste. As a design principle we can start by identifying where energy is leaving our system: are we losing soil to erosion, what happens to solid or liquid waste? Kitchen scraps can go to the trash and leave the system, or to compost and then garden, or to chickens then compost then garden. Composting toilets can turn our manure into a useful fertilizer for a bed of comfrey, which captures the nutrients in the leaves and we can use in compost or mulch. This principle can also apply to financial resources, money spent and circulated in a local economy benefits community. As soon as it is transferred away, its benefit is reduced.
Stay open to feedback and allow for change, let the system demonstrate its own evolution.
No matter how well we are able to design, it is nature that makes the designs work. Unexpected results can demonstrate new directions. If the crop we are trying to grow is struggling, while a useful weed is flourishing, it may be a sign to try and make something useful from the weed. A lot of energy is often spent trying to maintain systems in an unbalanced state. We must return to observe and learn from what we have tried.
"The principles are inherent in any permaculture design, in any climate and at any scale." - Bill Mollison