Natural Succession

Natural systems constantly change, evolve and grow up. Permaculture designs need to allow for this expansion. This can simply mean being aware of giving enough room to grow a fruit tree at its initial planting. A mango, for example can grow into a very large tree, but is quite small when planted.

The tendency of systems to evolve through the Herb, Pioneer, Climax sequence can be exploited in other ways. We can SUBSTITUTE useful plants at each level. Instead of allowing broad leaf weeds to cover an area, we can deliberately plant useful herbs or nitrogen fixing legumes as ground covers. Other pioneers may be banana, papaya, wattles or pinto peanut. For the climax layer we can use large fruit trees, timber trees and a few long-lived legumes.

We can also STACK a system with useful plants for each of the succession levels, yet planted together at the same time. So we can plant the ground cover, papaya and a mango all at the same time. The ground cover will establish quickly, soon the papaya will commence production and will much later be shaded out by the maturing Mango.

Natural systems also have different levels within the climax system. A few long-lived legumes, many productive tall canopy trees, understorey plants which can tolerate the shady conditions, some shade tolerant ground covers and climbing and creeping plants. In combining plants we seek to create GUILDS – combinations that work together. These associations often involve a main tree or larger shrub, a legume climber (beans, peas) and ground cover layer (herbs or wilder vegetables – pepino, marjoram).

Energy Cycling

Energy flow from the sun through ecosystems is the basis of life on our planet. The organisms that hold their share of energy as long as possible and use it as efficiently as possible are the ones most likely to survive and prosper. In design terms this means we need to create tight energy cycles within every part of our system, wherever possible.

Composting is a simple example of Energy Cycling. The energy present in food scraps, garden prunings, etc, can, with the help of bacteria and fungi, be converted back into nutrients which can be used again by plants to produce food. The alternative is an Energy Sink, where this organic material is treated as ‘rubbish’ and taken off site.

Biological Resources

Nature is extremely efficient and has developed methods to handle most functions. Where possible we should use natural systems to do the work for us. For example, we could use human made chemicals to combat pest problems, or we can design our system so that ducks and/or chickens can be allowed into the orchard on a controlled basis to eat the pests for us. While grasshoppers can rapidly develop immunity to even the newest, strongest and most expensive pesticide, no grasshopper has ever developed immunity from being eaten by a chicken!

We can dig the soil for a vegetable garden, or we can feed the soil and ensure we have a large population of earth worms, who will perform the task of aerating the soil better than any spade (and much easier on backs!).

Chickens recycle nutrients, remove pests & provide eggs

Multiple Elements

Multiple Elements are a type of insurance policy. Think about the functions or services you want and then find as many ways as possible to fulfill them. For example, water is extremely important, so its collection should always be a high priority. The function of water collection can be supplied by roof catchments, diversion drains (feeding dams), a swale system (to trap water in the soil), pumping from wells and/or rivers, even greywater treatment is a form of water harvesting.

A dam can be multi-functional in that it can be stocked with fish, planted with moisture-loving plants, used for recreation and act as a fire break (if placed in the fire sector, ie: the main direction of the hot drying winds). It may also be only one of the elements in the fire control function – other elements in controlling fire may be an earth berm, a heavily grazed area, a wide roadway or a dense planting of fire retardant plants like carob trees.

Multiple Functions

There the idea is to ensure that everything that is included in a system has as many functions as possible. This enhances efficiency. For example, if building a small garden shed for storage of tools, we could place it so that it’s roof also catches rainwater into a tank, it could supply trellis support for climbing plants, it could form part of a barrier between parts of the garden, it could visually hide an ‘ugly’ view…

In planting a large shade tree we could choose jacaranda or icecream bean, which is leguminous and has edible seed pods.

Optimise Edge

In ecology, it is seen that the edges between different ecosystems are always more productive than either of the ecosystems themselves, since the edge area can support species from both ecosystems AND species which are unique to the overlap of the ecosystems.

A curved line (for a windbreak for example) is longer than a straight line – it has more ‘edge’ and can be planted with more useful plants – and is more effective as a windbreak anyway!

There are many types of edge. Try to maximise them wherever possible. The tyre pond design creates lots of water/garden edge (for growing water chestnuts or mints for example).


The concept of zones, is one of energy use. Place items which require lots of energy, especially in the form of human visits closer to the centre of activity, generally the house. An intense picking green garden bed (which is probably visited at least twice a day) should be closer to the back door, than the woodlot, which may only be visited twice a year.

In many Permaculture books, this concept is arbitrarily given numbers, such as Zone 1 (the vegetable garden area), Zone 2 (orchard, chicken run, etc.) through to Zone 5 (wild woodlot, native forest harvesting and hunting). The important point is the gradation of energy intensity of use.


This is the idea of energy flowing through a system, which generally happens from specific directions. It is these directions that create the sectors. For example in most areas rainfall will tend to come with wind from a certain direction, so slopes facing that direction will tend to receive more rainfall. The Andes range in Peru and Chile receive high rainfall on the ocean side of the mountains, whereas inland the rainfall is considerably less.

A busy highway on one side of a property can create a sector which is characterised by traffic noise and car pollution – earth berms (mounds) and dense plantings in this direction will minimise these impacts.

Elevational Planning

This Principle is simply about using any slope or height differences to advantage, especially where it involves flows. Water flows downhill, so we use this by placing collection and storage tanks above the house to have water without the need of a pump. By knowing that hot water rises, we can construct a hot water system which relies on this natural thermosiphon, rather than another pump.


By paying attention to the natural world around us, we start to observe the patterns of Nature. You will not find the straight lines or right angles so prevalent in human designs.

Use the complex and beautiful patterns and fractals of Nature as inspiration in your design work. In designing properties, try to see the natural patterns of that landscape, and use the patterns that most fit into the landscape. Many Permaculture designs have been inspired this way. For example the idea of the keyhole garden was inspired by the cross-section of a tamarillo fruit.

Relative Location

Each tree, each plant, each structure will have some areas where it will be beneficially placed and other areas not so suitable. Planting an Avocado in a location which is often damp and moist will probably kill the tree (due to root rot). Similarly planting a wind brittle plant like acacia decurrens as a windbreak does not make much sense.

This principle not only requires us to think about the requirements of each element (botanic, horticultural requirements in the case of plants), but also to think about the interactions from our placement. It is sensible, for example, to plant trees (eg: bamboo, pecan, blueberry) with high water requirements in close proximity to a pond.


Ecological systems have a dynamic stability due to the diversity of species and interactions they contain. Our designs should similarly try to build in as much variation and diversity as possible. Large areas of mono-crops create pest plagues and weed infestations, but a diverse, mixed garden means that neither pests nor weeds ever have a chance to get out of balance and into plague proportions. Use a variety of plant and animal species to create a complex web of interactions and a mixture of associations.

Different species, levels, layers & edges