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Lilac housing from the air

Built environment

The built environment is a material, spatial and cultural product of human labour that combines physical elements and energy to create spaces for living, working and playing. It has been defined as “the human-made space in which people live, work and recreate on a day-to-day basis” (1), (2).

The definition of a sustainable built environment is changing rapidly. While aiming for neutral or reduced environmental impacts in terms of energy, water, carbon and waste, it is becoming clear that the built environment must go beyond this, to actually have net-positive environmental benefits for the living world. (3)

This potential implies that the built environment can be regenerative, producing more than it consumes, as well as remedy pollution and damage. It is a departure from the idea of being sustainable - that the best the built environment can be is ‘neutral’ in relation to the living world.

regenerative built environment may employ buildings, processes and systems that restore, renew or revitalise sources of energy and materials in a way that integrates the needs of society with that of natural systems and nature (4).

Green building, low-impact, 'green infrastructure' and 'ecosystem services' are contemporary phrases among emergent terminology, describing approaches being used in the design and implementation of ecological built environments that possess a low embedded energy, as well as being ecologically, and/or environmentally regenerative.

Straw bale house

Green building methods

Green building methods describe a series of processes that minimize the environmental impact that a building has throughout its life; from initial design through to eventual dereliction or demolition.

Key focuses of green building methods are the use of natural, recycled and sustainable building materials; efficient design and use of water and power systems; reduction in pollution and waste; and minimizing damage to the local ecosystem during and after construction.

This subject area focuses on construction and design techniques; energy technologies; water and sewage; and natural disaster resistance. Self-build and tools are dealt with in other sections of the Knowledge Base.

The 52 Climate Actions website also has a useful practical action page on this subject: Build with green materials


Adobe is a building material made from sand, clay, water and either straw or sticks.

The walls are either made of baked mud bricks or of mud directly applied to a framework (known as cob in the UK), or a mixture of the two. Cob, a close cousin to adobe contains proportioned amounts of soil, clay, water, manure and straw, however this is blended, but not formed in the same way as adobe. Whereas cob is spread and piled over the home's frame and allowed to air dry over several months, adobe is in effect dried bricks of cob that are stacked and mortared together to create a wall or roof. Adobe structures are extremely durable, and account for some of the oldest existing buildings in the world. They are particularly suitable to hot climates as they remain cool, however they are known to be susceptible to earthquake damage.

Earth sheltered construction

Earth sheltered construction, or earth sheltering, is the practice of heaping earth over and/or around a building.

This increases the insulation of the building against extremes of both hot and cold. It is an ancient building technique, but has recently returned to popularity as one aspect of passive solar construction. In its most basic form an earth shelter could be a cave in a hillside, however building design has evolved so that designs now incorporate modern sustainable architecture into an efficient, earth-covered shell.

Brighton Earthship


An earthship is a low impact cutting edge building that is constructed using waste car tyres and other recycled materials.

Originally developed by Michael Reynolds, the earthship design incorporates a solar window in the entire south wall, and the north side is dug into the ground, giving it an almost earth-sheltered design. Using the planets natural systems to provide all utilities,  earthship buildings heat and cool themselves, harvest their own water, and use plants to treat sewage. Earthships can accommodate the weather regardless of the season and they employ extensive energy efficiency. By working with the landscape to build an earthship you can end up with a structure that blends comfortably into the surrounding area, with a smaller ecological footprint.


Energy Efficiency

Over the last two hundred years we have constructed an infrastructure and a way of life that is dependent on our use of fossil fuels. The challenges of peak oil and climate change have created a diverse array of common goals in how we can reduce our fossil consumption.

Wherever we live, our top priority must be to reduce the amount of energy we use. Energy efficiency can be defined as using less energy to provide the same service. Combining microgeneration technologies (generated from solar, wind and other renewable sources on a domestic scale) with energy-saving ideas such as saving and collecting water, and creating a well-designed garden can dramatically change our reliance and consumption of fossil fuels.  

For more advice on this subject, visit the 52 Climate Actions website action: Use Efficient Appliances

Lime plaster

Lime plaster is type of plaster composed of hydrated lime, sand and water.

Lime plaster is similar to Lime mortar, the main difference is based on use rather than composition. Lime plaster is applied to the inside, and/or the outside of building walls to give a smooth finish before painting. Because it has toxic properties it also protects the walls from decay. Traditional lime plaster also contains horse hair for reinforcement.

Passive house (Passivhaus)

'Passivhaus' is a German standard for extremely energy efficient building construction.

To meet the standard, a house must be extremely well insulated and have very low energy use for heating and cooling. The passive house uses the sun, its occupants, household appliances and the extracted air - passive heat sources - to cover much of the heat demand. The remaining heat is provided by the supplied air, and is sufficient as a heat source because the house has such reduced heat losses. A passive house will save you money on heating bills. A 75% reduction in space heating requirements compared to standard UK new build is achieved, according to the Passivhaus Trust. However, the building will cost more to create in the first place - estimated at between 3 and 8% more by the International Passive House Association.


Passive solar construction

Passive solar buildings are constructed to gather and store heat through their walls, windows and roofs during the winter and to repel heat during the summer. They are developed around the local climate. Key elements are heat storage in the materials used, window placement, insulation, shading and use of natural shelter belts or slopes.

image by Kate Greenhalf

Straw bale building

Straw bales are a unique building product because you can create any structure even if you lack experience or are unfamiliar with conventional building techniques.

Straw bales can be used in principle to build anything from a two-storey home to a small house extension. Straw is in essence a waste product from grain crops such as; what, barley, rye or oats, and can be locally sourced. The bales should be well compressed and due to their density bales are non-flammable when built. The thermal insulation properties of straw bales create a low impact building that remains well insulated and also has the added benefit of sound-proofing qualities. However straw bales can rot if not maintained, but damp can be avoided by raising the bales above ground level, and incorporating an outer skin of wooden cladding.

Timber framed

Timber framing is also known as half-timbering or post-and-beam construction. It was widely used in pre-industrial times for houses and barns. The basic structure comes from the natural shape of the wood, which is cut and joined into a framework using wooden pegs. The spaces in this basic timber framework are then filled in with bricks, cob (clay) or plaster.

This is just a stone

Using stone

Stone is the most durable and timeless of materials that has been used for thousands of years.

Building stone, also called dimension stone, derives from one of three naturally occurring rock types: igneous (e.g granite), sedimentary (e.g. sandstone and limestone) and metamorphic (e.g marble and slate).  Granite, sandstone and limestone can all be used for building walls, but slate is only suitable for roofs and floors. Some types of granite can contain mineral salts that cause spalling, where the outer face of stone falls off; slate can contain harmful minerals that break down on exposure to the atmosphere causing stone damage; and sandstone can be too porous and fragile for load-bearing structures.

An understanding of how the rock material was formed will reveal how it can be used in a building, what its limitations are, and how it will weather over time. Dry stacking or dry stone construction does not require any special tools, only skill in choosing and positioning the stones to create walls, bridges and buildings. However, buying stones from a salvage yard or supplier is not cheap, and it makes sense to only build dry-stone walls if you have plenty of stones on your land. South facing walls and a water butt act as secondary heat sinks, and stones can be incorporated into herb spiral designs and stone hedges.

Walter Segal

Walter Segal was an architect who developed a simple system of self-build housing using a timber frame. Segal houses have minimal foundations and usually have flat roofs. They require few tools or building skills, making them especially suitable for self-builders.

Group of people in a field discussing disaster planning

Natural disaster resistance

Resilience to the effects of natural disasters, in extreme forms of drought; water (flooding, tsunami); wild fires; earthquakes (and volcanic activity); and destructive wind speeds (typhoon, hurricane) can be designed and implemented.

Approaches are diverse: from prediction and mitigation, to resilient and appropriate design and management. This includes sustainable land management (SLM) and coastal management in the non-built environment and appropriate building materials, methods and architectural design in built environments.

Prediction can be meterological observation: weather and climate modelling; identifying high risk zones; forecasting; early warning systems; and geological observation e.g. monitoring seismic activity, water levels and flows. It can also include identifying natural geographic features and phenomena such as plate tectonics and volcanic activity. 

Mitigation can be evacuation plans and provision of emergency services; aid relief methodologies; relief programs and organisations; as well as designing flood catchment and flood defenses such as barriers and coastal defences.

Many prediction and mitigation approaches are large-scale and undertaken at national government level, whilst aid relief is carried out at a range of scales, from small and specialist NGOs and charities, to international NGOs and refugee aid, relief and rehabilitation programs.

52 Climate Actions has several practical actions: Design for wildfires; Design for high winds; Design for floods; and Learn to survive an emergency.

Dry, cracked earth


Drought is a critical lack of water supply or availability. Causes include deficiency in precipitation, dry seasons and El Niño, and human activities which degrade and exhaust the natural systems such as deforestation, over-farming and excessive water extraction. In extreme cases, soil can degrade so much it results in desertification - excessive or total vegetation loss and complete exhaustion of the soil.

Many plants have a high degree of natural drought resistance, most easily identified by physical features such as a waxy cuticle (thick leathery leaves), a reduced number of leaf pores (stomata) succulent leaves, or none at all.

Drought resistant species can be employed to facilitate restorative agriculture techniques which include: re-vegetation using specific plant assemblages and rotational and zonal grazing strategies. This can help restore land to a state where it can be agriculturally productive and maintain the resilience, stability and diversity of a natural ecosystem. 

Perennial food-producing plants and trees with drought resistant properties are increasingly used to increase community resilence and sustainability in affected areas. Working with natural ecosystems creates greater diversity of food crops, compared to more industrial approaches (such as greenhouses, irrigation and chemical fertilisation) which can have long-term negative effects and much higher water consumption.

Water retention techniques such as swales can reduce surface runoff, whilst increasing absorption of water into the soil. This increases the water levels and subsequently allows for a greater range of vegetation to propser. Building soil and soil cover, through mulching and vegetalisation, acts to (re)establish natural ecosystemic resilience to the causes and effects of drought.

52 Climate Actions has practical action pages on this topic: Manage water in the landscape and Use climate tolerant plants.


A range of construction techniques have been developed to help buildings resist the effects of earthquakes.

Among the most effective are dry stone construction, adobe, sand and earth bag constructions, base isolation, careful placing of buildings, seismic reinforcement, high quality construction, timber framing and consideration of local geology.


Choosing fire-resistant building materials, good building design, and the maintenance of a zone clear of shrubs, trees and other combustible materials around the home can protect against wildfire damage.

Visit 52 Climate Actions for more advice: Design for wildfires.

Houses surrounded by flood waters


Water catchment systems and water flow patterns can be protected and modified to improve flood prevention.

For example, banning upland clear-felling and deforestation ensures that water does not simply rush down hills into valleys and settlements below, washing away soil and houses.

Through the application of on-contour swales and afforestation to retain water in upslope and agricultural areas, the velocity and volume of water entering the system down-slope is restricted, reduced, moderated and more gradual, at the same time as increasing production of timber and tree crops for fodder, fuel, housing and food.

The creation of dams, self-closing flood barriers, river and coastal defences, and temporary perimeter barriers are generally more recognised forms of flood defence systems. Flood ponds receive peak volumes of water during inundation and are increasingly employed in and around towns and cities, in addition to a network of channels, canals, trenches and ditches to collect, drain and divert water away from crucial areas such as population centres back into natural fluvial networks, seas and oceans.

Individual buildings can be made more resilent by adding flood barriers to the doors, building them above groundlevel, or creating deep reinforced foundations to reduce the likelihood of the structure being swept away. In areas particularly suceptible to regular flooding some buildings, sections of roads and barriers have been designed specifically to float in the event of a flood.

52 Climate Actions has a practical action page on this topic: Design for floods.

House raised off the ground

Owner building

Owner-builder work is any which involves the construction of (or supervision of work on) a dwelling; or alterations, repairs or additions to it. This includes a house, garage, swimming pool and certain other structures and improvements.

House build in progress


Self-build is a term used in the UK, when someone acquires a piece of land and then builds their own house on it, or modernises an old building themselves.

The designing and much of the more highly skilled work may be contracted out. Self-builders have pioneered many environmentally conscious building techniques and self-build remains highly attractive to those with strong environmental concerns.

A range of potential self-build techniques are described in the Green Building methods subject area.

Retrofitted house viewed from the garden


Retrofitting refers to the process of improving the environmental performance of an existing building.

Typical techniques include improving insulation; adding solar panels; introducing passive solar features such as wind breaks; and improving the heating system.

This subject area focuses on the particular challenges of retrofitting these techniques, while a broader description of the techniques themselves can be found in the Energy Technologies subject area.

Rod Nicolson [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Extending a property

You can increase the amount of space you have available at your current property, instead of relocating.


The house is an important energy system and permaculture addresses ways in which the home can utilise the sun and other renewable energy.

Incorporating solar energy efficiency design into new builds can cost up to 5% more than conventional designs, however the cost is recouped over a number of years with much lower heating bills. In either a rural or suburban area using a wood burning stove can be feasible to heat the home, however it is advisable to check local authority regulations if you live in a suburban area.

Another method requires all solid materials such as stone or brick and other heat sources to be kept at the centre of a structure. This enables the structure to maximise on high solar gain, allowing the inner core to act as a large heat stone. In passive solar heating systems the aperture or collector is a large window through which sunlight enters the building. Typically the aperture(s) should be located within 30°of the true south and should not be shaded by other buildings or trues during peak sunlight hours.  Underground building also provides a high degree of temperature stability.

Other very simple recitatives to enhance heating in the home include using curtains, installing reflectors behind radiators and turning heating down by one degree to reduce energy bills.



Insulation is a key component to harnessing the potential of your home.

A well insulated home reduces the amount of energy consumption and cuts down on carbon emissions linked to global climate change. There are two main areas: insulation with the minimum amount of thermal bridging, and improved air tightness by reducing lost heat caused by draughts. Insulation  slows down the movement of heat and the higher the conductivity of a material the quicker heat can move through it. Materials have different thermal conductivities and heat will flow at different rates e.g. through a wall, or a loft hatch. Poorly insulated areas are known as thermal bridges. The first layer of insulation is regarded as the most effective. Thus thermal bridges and draughts need to be made airtight to improve a home's infrastructure. Recycled materials such as: newspapers, plastic bottles, denim and sheep's coarse wool can be turned into a very efficient DIY insulation. Timber frame homes require wall insulation in the form of batts (pre-cut sections that are designed to fit between stud walls), rolls or boards. It can be easier and cheaper to install insulation in the walls and floors of a new build than to retrofit an existing home. Solid wall structures cannot be insulated, however they can have a good thermal mass to compensate.



A building's location and surroundings play a key role in regulating it's illumination, for example; designing northern hemisphere buildings with south facing windows increases the amount of sun (and heat energy) entering the building.

Correct placement of windows and skylights that reflect light can reduce the need for artificial lighting. Lighting accounts for 7 per cent of a typical household's energy bill (energy saving trust, 2013). Getting into the habit of switching things off when they're not in use is part of energy awareness. Simple initiatives such as changing to low energy light bulbs save money in the long run and they pay for the initial cost in energy terms in approximately two years. Careful lighting designs can incorporate choosing the minimum wattage and the lighting of a specific work area only in any room. Effective energy-efficient building design can include the use of low cost Passive Infra Reds (PIRs) to switch-off lighting when areas are unnoccupied such as toilets, corridors or even office areas out-of-hours. In addition, lux levels can be monitored using daylight sensors linked to the building's lighting scheme to switch on/off or dim the lighting to pre-defined levels to take into account the natural light and thus reduce consumption.


Micro-generation refers to the small scale generation of low carbon heat and/or electricity power by individuals, small scale businesses and communities.

Although this 'stand alone' term is mainly used for environmental conscience approaches that aspire to zero or low-carbon footprints and cost reduction, more and more people may consider this option in the future to ensure reliable energy supplies to the homes and in the reduction of damaging emissions to the environment.

Water Conservation

Water is a precious resource and water conservation encompasses strategies and activities to manage freshwater as a sustainable resource.

Over recent years droughts and inefficient capture and distribution systems have presented challenges in how we conserve water to meet current and future demand. Initiatives to address water conservation within the home include using less water e.g. taking showers and not baths, aerated taps and shower heads, using dishwater  economy/full load settings, dual flush toilets and reusing grey water.

For more information visit the 52 Climate Actions website action: Get Water Wise.

Water harvesting systems in operation

Water and sewage

Abundant, clean drinking water is essential for good health and allows human, animal and plant life to prosper. Dealing effectively with biological waste is vital for maintaining sanitary conditions and a constant flow of clean water.

In the more technologically developed world, large investments of energy are dedicated to collecting, moving and cleaning water. While in less developed areas, access to drinking water requires far more investment and improvement, along with better sanitation and irrigation for rearing livestock and crops.

Human-caused environmental degradation, such as deforestation, adds to the extremes of flooding and drought, putting greater pressures on populations around the globe. Respect for water conservation, and preservation of clean water supplies, is fundamental.

It's important to have cost effective, easily implemented ways to make sure water gets to where it is needed, using minimal energy. Employing natural ecosystem services and processes to reduce pollution; improve distribution; filter, manage and make use of waste water and sewage; are among the key permaculture design approaches to achieve this.

The 52 Climate Actions website has a practical action on this subject: Manage water in the landscape.

Compost toilets

Compost toilets are a low tech, low cost, chemical free method for dealing with solid waste.

A compost toilet is waterless or dry (one that doesn't use water to take the waste elsewhere) and as a rule, they only receieve fecal deposits - that is to say, ideally, don't pee in them unless they are designed to accommodate this.

There are often two chambers; one in use, and one 'resting'. A classic compost toilet will use one chamber for a year, then change to the second chamber to allow the first to decompose for a year before emptying.

As long as there is good ventilation, such as via a vent pipe, and a drain for excess liquid, compost toilets do not smell. A handful of carbon material such as sawdust or rice straw is dropped into the toilet after use. The type of compost produced is suitable for fruit trees, trees and bushes, it is not recommended that it is used directly on the vegetable patch.


Water is a very important element in Permaculture design. Water systems can achieve greater overall protein production per square metre of water surface than the same area in land systems. Ponds are freshwater ecosystems that can be tremendously useful in permaculture practice.

They can provide food, medicine, water storage, sun reflection (heat and light), filtration for waste, recreation and aesthetic value. A variety of edible species of plants can be grown in and around the margins of a pond, depending on the local climate. Even small ponds can produce a steady supply of edible foods such as watercress, water chestnuts, taro and water spinach (kang kong). However parasites and pathogens also have part of their life cycle in water, so plant stocks must be healthy, and disease free. Ponds attracting wildlife such as frogs are often a good indicator of the quality of a waterway. Many different edible fish species can be raised in a pond. If properly managed, a pond can also produce a great deal of food and materials which can be sold or bartered to create income. An alternative to ponds is the bog garden where a wet area can be developed.

Rainwater harvesting

Rainwater harvesting is the collection of rainwater before it flows into the general water system which is then reused for domestic, commercial or industrial purposes.

Although there is no real water shortage in the UK, rain does not fall consistently and in recent years there have been droughts and hosepipe bans. Before designing a system you need to decide how much water you need to store by calculating how much you use in a day. Rainwater is best used for supplying household appliances and in the garden. A complex filtration and purification system is needed in order to ensure drinking water is safe. Rainwater is most commonly harvested by collecting rainwater from the roof guttering into barrels or tanks, and from areas of paving or tarmac. In the UK rainwater harvesting can reduce mains water usage by up to 50%.  Rainwater harvesting offers many advantages. There is no need to use mains water for laundry/ car washing or flushing the toilet and in addition to it being free, rainwater is free from harmful chemical free which is better for plant health and soil conditions.

Sustainable Urban Drainage

Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) can be used in all types of development and provide a natural approach to managing drainage.

SUDS use natural, low energy methods to clean and release water back into the environment.  SUDS prevent water pollution and flooding in urban areas, and also create green spaces and habitat for wildlife in towns and cities. Reed beds are one example of cleaning water and providing a valuable habitat, using minimum energy and no toxic chemicals. SUDS are a legal requirement for all new developments, except for surface water drainage from single dwellings and developments that drain to coastal waters.

Water tanks

Although water butts are the simplest way to collect rainwater, a larger underground tank system can store enough water to meet your needs and prevents the false economy of using mains water as a back up.

The process is simple. Rain usually falls onto your roof, is channelled through the down pipes and then into the drain. Instead the rainwater is diverted into either a gully filter or an underground water filter. These remove large pieces of debris before the water falls into the underground water tank.

Wetland sewage systems

Natural wetland systems perform many functions that are beneficial to both humans and wildlife. One of their most important functions is water filtration.

As water flows through a wetland it is slowed down and suspended solids become trapped by vegetation and settle out. Other pollutants are transformed to less soluble forms taken up by plants or become inactive. Wetland plants also foster the necessary conditions for microorganisms to live there. Through a series of biological processes these microorganisms process, transform and filter  pollutants from the water.

Constructed wetlands are an ecological low-cost solution for effective sewage and water waste treatment that mimic a natural wetland. They can treat both blackwater (water containing fecal matter with or without urine) and/or greywater (laundry, dishwashing and bathing water). Wetlands are constructed by excavating, backfilling, grading, diking and installing water control structures to establish hydraulic flow patterns. Wetland vegetation is planted and also allowed to establish naturally.

Culture and education

The diversity of human culture is remarkable and every culture has its own unique patterns of internal thinking and external behaviours. The systems we have for managing Earth's resources depend vastly upon our culture, our beliefs and traditions, and the ways in which we organise ourselves.

There is no point having a 'sustainable environment' but ending up living in a land of oppression, dullness and uniformity. A vigorous, creative and vibrant culture is also needed if humans are to live fullfilled lives. Understanding the world around us and making best of our skills and capacities are key to this process .To facilitate the kind of cultural shift that it needed to move us towards a sustainable and ecologically sound future that is underpinned by cooperation and equality, we need to re-evaluate and re-learn different ways of how we work within the world and how we interact and relate to it and each other. Education has to be the central method of ensuring that useful and beneficial knowledge and skills are acquired by people to make the Transition into the future.

A street parade

Community initiatives

Communities around the world face common pressing issues in addressing economic conditions and revitalizing neighbourhoods. Developing innovative solutions can address the complex challenges of poverty, unhealthy lifestyles, cultivate sustainable food systems and empower the building of relationships.

It is at community level that we have the greatest opportunity to establish patterns of caring, implement policy changes and create conditions that enhance our health and well-being.


Electric car club. Photo: Car2Go Electric Car Sharing by pwkrueger CC BY-NC 2.0

Car sharing/lift sharing

Many people find it difficult to manage modern life without access to a car. However, that doesn't mean having to own one yourself; car sharing and lift sharing schemes give people the opportunity to make use of a car while sharing the financial and environmental cost with others. Car sharing means having community ownership of one or more vehicles. Lift sharing means using one car for a journey instead of two or three, and having company!


South Dunedin community art project Photo: paulusthebrit on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Community art

Community Art is a way of creating art characterized by interaction or dialogue with the community.

The art activity takes place in a community setting. It often, though not always, involves deprived communities who would not usually get involved in the production of art. Community art can be in any art form including theatre.

Community Transport

Creativity has led to a plethora of diverse local solutions, such as lift share, cycling cooperatives, 'walking school buses' and bio fuel production (made from the discarded vegetable oil from restaurants and cafes). If we have localised economies and work within the community that we live in, we can have a huge impact on the need to travel long distances.

At Glenthorne Allotments, Ellen works on her and Andrew's plot, netting brassicas. Photo: philip_talmage on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Local food networks

Local food networks seek to ensure that food is grown and processed as close as possible to those who are going to eat it.

It is linked to the rejection of food production by large corporations in favour of diverse small-scale producers. Local food networks seek to create communities of producers and consumers of local food and to support local food initiatives. Such initiatives include farmers' markets, local bakeries and butchers, CSA and box schemes, city farms and allotments, and the encouraging of local sourcing of food in pubs and restaurants.

Crystal Palace Transition Town group shot

Transition towns

Transition towns are towns, cities and villages that are moving away from fossil fuel towards long-lasting and ecologically sustainable alternatives situated within a local community setting.

Transition Communities seek to develop new ideas and implement existing methods for reducing energy usage and their current reliance long supply chains that are totally dependent on fossil fuels for the creation, production and distribution of essential items. There are over one thousand registered transition towns across the world and each one is following a different path to transition, but common areas of work include transport networks, local food networks, micro-power generation, waste reduction and community gardening.

Education approaches

Without education the development of a Permanent Culture would be impossible.

Permaculture teaching has a number of key characteristics. It strives to be: participatory (to engage and include), creative (with a fun element), to encourage questions more than answers, is practical, and is based on the latest understanding on how learners learn. Learning is one of the most important skills anyone can have, and that is especially true for permaculture designers. In permaculture we are often having to adapt to alternative methods in new situations. Being able to learn quickly, make connections and adapt new skills to help move our design or project forward is crucial.


Home schooling

Home schooling (or home education) is an alternative to attending formal school.

Usually children are taught by their parents at home, but learning in small groups or the use of paid tutors may also be included. Parents may choose this option because they do not trust the ethos of the formal schooling system, don't believe their children will thrive academically in that system, or for moral, philosophical or religious reasons. Curricula and teaching styles vary very widely.

© Rigel Klingman

Participatory arts and music

Participatory arts and music see the audience as part of the creative process, allowing them to contribute to the development of the artistic work.

Theatre of the Oppressed is one of the most famous participatory art forms, where the audience is invited to act in the play, ad lib lines, or to direct the actors. Music workshops where the audience bring their own instruments or are given them and asked to join in are examples of participatory music making.

Social Ecology

Social ecology is a critical social theory founded by Murray Bookchin. Social ecology sets out the argument that almost all ecological problems are rooted in social problems; the fundamental misunderstanding of human relationships with other human beings and therefore with nature.

Social Ecology states that a hierarchically ordered society will always produce conflict and ecological problems. Only though accepting principles of radical democracy, true human equality, and the complex nature of relationships between humans, and between humans and ecology can environmental issues be resolved in the long term. As a body of ideas, social ecology envisions a moral economy that moves beyond scarcity and hierarchy, toward a world that reharmonizes human communities with the natural world, while celebrating diversity, creativity and freedom.

State Education

There is a growing awareness of the educational value of offering children in both rural and urban environments the opportunity to learn from nature and to grow their own food.

Initiatives including assistance for schools with funding and planning are helping to transform former 'grey and barren playgrounds' into more productive green spaces. Schoolchildren are increasingly being encouraged to grow plants, fruit and vegetables, thus making the garden an extension of the classroom. The climate for an intergrated permaculture approach to transforming school grounds is promising. Schools have responded enthusiastically to garden design that intergrates all areas of the curriculum (using as example maths and design technology, incorporating renewable and recyclable materials, food technology,problem solving and working with others) thus creating the outdoor permaculture classroom. Constructing a low carbon site can be relatively straight forward and teachers can be supported in accessing materials, and designs to create a permaculture space.

Montessori preschool classroom. "Preschool classroom" by montessori toolkit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Steiner and Montessori

Both Steiner and Montessori education use formal schooling but with a curriculum that differs considerably from that offered in mainstream schools.

Both models have a particular philosophy of the natural physical and intellectual development of the child which underpin their educational practices. Steiner (Waldorf) education uses creative arts to build up the spiritual and moral aspects of children. Montessori education focuses on the independence and freedom of the children, with self-directed 'discovery' learning.

Transition culture

In this context 'transition' refers to the coming transition communities must make due to the dual challenges of climate change and declining oil availability (peak oil). Transition culture therefore refers both to preparing ourselves to meet these challenges and the transition.

Learning approaches

Learning is a crucial part of permaculture; anyone who practices permaculture will be constantly learning.

By consciously applying learning tools, including reflection techniques, the quality and speed of that learning can be improved. Often learning will take place in a more formal context as part of a group or class. Here, too, the quality of both the learning experience and the learning itself can be greatly enhanced by the use of the tried and tested techniques described in this section.

Accelerated learning

Accelerated learning is based on learning styles, the idea that different people learn in different ways. By finding out what a learner's preferred learning style is and then teaching in that way, learning takes place more quickly than using traditional learning methods

Action learning

Action learning is a process in which the learner studies their own actions and experiences to improve their performance.

Instead of of formal teaching, learners learn by doing and then reflecting on their doing in small groups called action learning sets. It was originally developed for individual learners but today is also widely used for organisations who wish to improve their performance.

Appreciative inquiry

Appreciative inquiry means enquiring into subjects or organisations with a focus on what can be appreciated (i.e. valued) in them; 'accentuate the positive'.

The key question of appreciative enquiry is 'what is working well?' rather than 'what are the problems?'. Having identified these strengths, the appreciative enquiry then seeks to build and magnify them, a process which in turn will reduce or eliminate the negative.

Edward de Bono's six thinking hats

De Bono thinking tools

Edward de Bono advocates the deliberate and explicit teaching of thinking techniques, especially in schools.

He created the concept of 'lateral thinking' (i.e. sideways thinking) which he argued would produce more creative solutions than tradition linear thinking. In his more recent work, he has argued that the language we use may often be a barrier rather than a help to communication, and has proposed new forms of language based on numerical codes.

How to mind map

Mind maps

A mind map, also called a spider gram, is a diagram representing ideas, words or processes related to a central idea.

The central idea is placed in the centre, secondary ideas are then placed around it, and tertiary ideas are then placed around the secondary ideas. Mind maps are often used in group sessions to promote brain-storming and to capture as many of the groups' ideas as possible in a non-hierarchical way.

Living in place

21st century life can require us to move home often, not just around the corner but sometimes around the globe. Today, few people live in the place where they grew up. Moreover, our education system gives us few tools for understanding landscape, be it urban or rural. Permaculture calls us to make a deeper connection with the physical places in which we live.

A range of techniques can be used to help us deepen our roots and connect with the landscape we inhabit. These techniques are also a crucial element for designing effective systems that form a seamless part of the landscape in which they are set.


An ecoregion is a large area of land that shares similar climatic and environmental characteristics.

Flora and fauna are similar across the ecoregion, and it has natural rather than artificial borders. For example, southern and eastern England are classed as 'Southern English beech forest', western England, northern England, Wales and southern Scotland as 'Celtic broadleaf forest', and northern Scotland as 'Caledonian conifer forest'.

Parish maps

A parish map is made by a local community to capture the things that matter to them in their local area. The parish map conveys meaning to visitors, but can also play an important role in creating a sense of community and place amongst those who create it.

Reading the landscape

Learning to ‘read’ and understand the landscape is both an important part of permaculture design and a fascinating pastime. It enables you to understand what makes a particular landscape the way it is, how it works and how it changes through time.

Spirit of place

Spirit of place describes the unique aspects of a place.

These may have been described by writers, captured by artists, elaborated in folk tales or embellished through local traditions or festivals. It covers the physical distinctiveness of a place, the history that has shaped it, and the local culture which surrounds it. It also includes the current residents of that place and their relationship to it and their feelings about it.

Finance and economics - a pile of the Brixton Pound, featuring David Bowie

Finance and economics

Many environmentalists are suspicious of the whole idea of 'economics', seeing free market capitalism as a key cause of many of current environmental problems. However, the original meaning of the word shares it root with ecology, and means 'household management'; management of all the resources at our disposal to deliver the outcomes we seek, whether it is at a personal, local, regional or global level.

Finance and economics includes ensuring that future generations have what they need to manage their 'household' too. A key part of household management is ensuring sound finances, which means building alternatives to the current debt-based monetary system and rediscovering the enabling power of money, based on abundance rather than scarcity. The third permaculture ethic of 'fair shares' also has major implications in this area, challenging us to work towards equitable financial systems and a balanced distribution of monetary resources.

Alternative trading systems

The modern economy excludes many from prosperity, and enslaves many more with huge burdens of debt. Alternative trading systems allow alternative means of access to local markets and economic systems, and to create a sustainable local economy.

food swapping round a table full of produce

Barter markets

Barter markets are swap meets which work without any monetary exchange.

Those attending the market simply swap products, either things they no longer need or things they have produced or grown themselves. Because they encourage people to swap unwanted items rather than throw them away, barter markets have great potential to reduce waste, and they can also help home growers deal with gluts.

Gift economy

A gift economy is an economy based on giving in the context of relationship rather than making transactions for profit or personal material gain.

This is in contrast to barter or commercial economies which rely on exchange of goods or labor for money - or for goods and labour of equal monetary value. Altruism is sometimes viewed as the basis for spreading wealth throughout a gift economy. However, the individual giver actually benefits indirectly. For example, social status and support in times of need may be obtained by those who give to others in the group or community. Most economies rely on both commercial aspects such as paid work and gift aspects such as volunteer or unpaid work.

Local currencies

A local currency is a currency which exists only in a small local area.

It is not backed by a national government and is therefore not legal tender. The main aim of a local currency is to boost the local economy and to make people more aware of it and their contribution to it. Local currencies have been used in economically depressed areas to boost the economy, and in areas of high unemployment to create jobs. Time banks are another form of local currency.

Local exchange trading systems

Local exchange trading systems (LETS) are similar to time banks but differ in the way they are rewarded. Instead of simply earning credit hours for their contribution, LETS members earn units of a named currency, such as 'bobbins' or 'nuts'.

These are not necessarily earned on the basis of one unit for one hour's work, members with valued skills or experience may claim a higher rate of reward for their work. Moreover, the currency units can be exchanged for material goods such as vegetables, as well as for other members labour. LETSystems, however, can reveal the gross difference between various types of work and skills. People who are short in trade skills may accrue debts;requiring a management system so that these situations can be easily identified, and in turn, offering trade skills training. LETS also require careful management of the administration system, although packages now exist for micro-computers.

Open access resources

An open access resource is an online source of information for which no charge is made.

Wikipedia is an example of a open access resource. Although most academic research findings are currently protected by copyright and have to be purchased, there is increasing pressure to make all research findings freely available online.

Offer, time swap, giving, skill share

Time banks

Time banks are a form of local currency. They use hours as the medium of exchange rather than money.

A member of the time bank does work for another member, thereby earning hours of credit, which they can claim back in the form of work done for them by other members. In most time banks, everyone's contribution is valued equally, with one hour's work earning one credit.


WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Volunteers offer their time and labour in exchange for food, accommodation and training on an organic farm or garden.

This may be for a weekend, a week or a much longer period. WWOOF has national organisations across the world and there are opportunities in over 130 countries worldwide, these can be found at Conservation holidays are similar, but the volunteers pay something for being on the holiday.

Ethical shopping

Permaculture is rooted in the idea of that individuals can reduce their environmental impact by producing things themselves, be that food, homes, or power. However, very few people are able to achieve self-sufficiency and so their shopping choices will have a significant impact on the planet and its people.

By thinking carefully about how and where they shop and what they buy, people can ensure their money has a positive social and environmental impact rather than a negative one.

La Poubelle Vintage - Inhabitat on Flickr, shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license

Buying clothes

Cotton is the world's most polluting crop, while many western fashion houses use sweat shop labour in the developing world to manufacture their clothes.

Organic cotton and fairly traded clothing can counteract these problems, while buying second hand ensures that clothes have no negative impact on the planet or its people. Ideally, clothes should be bought and then worn regularly until they fall apart rather than be left forgotten in a wardrobe and then sent to landfill when they go out of fashion.

Buying DIY

Avoiding toxic products is becoming much easier with alternative green options widely available to buy. Particular hazards to be aware of include: PVC which is a toxic potential carcinogen and a source of hormone-disrupting chemicals (including wallpapers, shower curtains, water pipes and packaging), Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) which contains urea formaldehyde, and fibreglass or fibreglass-type products which include toxic resin. Other toxic products include: tanalised wood, wood preservatives, paint strippers, thinners and brush cleaners and paint.

The WEEE Man. Photo: Catlouise on Flickr. Shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

Buying Electricals

The manufacture of electrical goods consumes large amounts of energy and raw materials. They can also use a lot of energy when in use. Buying items which will last for a long time, ensuring they have a good environmental rating, looking after them properly, using them correctly, and not leaving them on standby can greatly reduce their environmental impact.

"Over six million electrical items are thrown away every year in the UK. It is estimated that over half of them are still working or could easily be repaired." (ITDG, 2003).

Supermarket checkout Image: Terry Freedman, Flickr, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license

Buying food

The current global system of producing and transporting food uses huge amounts of energy, is highly polluting to land, destroys biodiversity, and exploits growers and producers. Food consumption is one of the greatest areas of impact people have on the planet.

If you can't grow your own, then choose locally grown, seasonal, and if possible organic or fair trade produce. Debate continues as to whether it is environmentally better to buy imported organic tomatoes or those grown locally in artificial heat, and whether veganism is preferable to limited high standard meat consumption.

Jose cuts cacao pods from the tree Photo: USAID_images on Flickr, shared under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Fair trade

Fair trade products offer a higher price to developing world producers of commodity crops than what is available to them on the world market. Producers are encouraged to invest the extra money they earn in health, housing or educational programmes, usually on a cooperative basis.

Fair trade's traditional strengths have been in coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate, but a wide range of fair trade products are now available, including clothing and handicrafts.

Farmer's markets

Farmer's markets use traditional market stalls and market days to sell locally produced foodstuffs direct to the public. The name is rather a misnomer, as any small-scale local producers are able to sell at the market whether or not they live on a farm. Typically, stalls sell pies, meat, jams, pickles, cheese, cakes, fruit and vegetables.

Farm financial strategies

In the current global food system, the price consumers pay for food bears little relation to the real costs of production due to subsidies and market distortions. Moreover, most commercial food growers have huge debts. Small producers using agro-ecological methods need to get a fair price for the food they grow while avoiding excessive debt. A range of techniques can be adopted to ensure this happens. Often these rely on building strong personal connections between the grower and the consumer.  

Organiclea veg box Photo: Nicola Tree

Box schemes

In a box scheme, customers buy a box of produce - usually veg or fruit - at a fixed price, either from the producer directly or via a local retailer. The contents of the box depends on what is in season. Usually, though not always, customers make a commitment to buy a box regularly throughout the growing season.

Box schemes support local producers who are unable to guarantee the continuity of supply demanded by supermarkets. They also reconnect consumers with the seasonal availability of local vegetables.

Photo: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Network UK and Canalside Community Food

Community supported agriculture

Over the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. A farmer offers a certain number of "shares" (aka "memberships" or "subscriptions") to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables. Interested consumers purchase a share and in return receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

Market garden

Market gardening

A market garden is a small farm (up to a few acres), which sells vegetables, salad or fruit directly to consumers and/or restaurants. A variety of different plants are grown, with the emphasis on continual production throughout the year.

Labour inputs are usually high - horticultural techniques, rather than agricultural, generally predominate. Modern market gardens usually use glass or polytunnels to extend their growing season.

Financial mechanisms

Since permaculture focuses on the connections between things more than the parts, the design of resilient economies relies on each contributor to build a strong network.

Many small businesses and contributors are valued over a few larger corporations. Decentralization of money flow allows money exchange a chance to slow, spread, and infiltrate into the local community. Strong economies are built from empowered individuals who supply needs of the local community, while meeting many of their own needs in the same community. Local business alliances and alternative currencies are sometimes used to facilitate this web weaving.

Ethical investment

Ethical investment

Ethical investments are those financial investments which are chosen with regard to ethics as well as financial return.

Ethical considerations can be:

  • negative (e.g. not investing in companies which sell arms or use child labour)
  • or positive (e.g. investing in companies which promote fair trade or build green energy).

Most ethical investors still wish to see a good return on their investment, but some are prepared to sacrifice any financial return in order to support positive business practices or a specific environmental or social outcome.

Tradeable energy quotas

Tradeable energy quotas are schemes by which governments give individual carbon allowances to companies, individuals or institutions. These credits are then given in when buying fuel or electricity. Those wanting to emit at a level above that permitted by their initial allocation would be able to purchase additional credits from those using less, creating a strong incentive to reduce energy usage.

Health and well-being

When we think of health and well-being, it is common to immediately think of hospitals, doctors and specialists. In order to encourage a nation of healthy people we must broaden our understanding of how all aspects of life impact on our health and happiness.

Health and well-being from a holistic perspective, can be positively defined as 'the result of a combination of physical, social, intellectual and emotional factors'. Ideas about health and well-being change over time and vary between cultures. We can begin to better comprehend health care through a 'whole-systems perspective'. By consciously living and creating a culture that sustains and promotes health, we can transform our general understanding of health care. 

Healthy living can reduce any dependency we may feel upon companies that we may consider profit from illness, and choosing to live healthily can also stop the idea that a health service is a provider of health. By choosing to live healthier lifestyles, and taking into account the physical, social, intellectual and emotional factors that contribute to our state of well being, we can begin to reduce the immense pressures on national health services.

In permaculture, we can create spirals of health within our societies that promote self responsibility and awareness for maintaining our own health. Our bodies are integrated systems that are part of the physical and social environment we live in. The health of our bodies may reveal the balance or imbalance of the bigger systems in which we live.

You can also read the 52 Climate Actions page: Look After Your Mental Health


People care is central to permaculture. This should begin from the very first moments of life. Helping to create a happy birth experience and fostering a strong early bond between mother and baby will bring benefits for the whole of life.

Home birth and breast feeding

Only 2% of babies born in the UK are delivered at home. Yet for many women giving birth at home is a more pleasant and relaxed experience than giving birth in hospital. Research also suggests that in low-risk pregnancies it may be safer than hospital birth. Breast milk is the best start in life a mother can give her baby. It has zero environmental impact, a range of health benefits, and its free!


How we die is a profoundly personal journey and considering what we want  for ourselves or for others can be difficult to discuss. A wide range of resources are available to help people engage in conversations about death, dying and bereavement.

image by Anna Browne

Green Burials

Green burials (or natural burials) seek to ensure that the burial site remains as natural as possible with minimal environmental impact on the natural ecosystem.

A green burial typically avoids, or looks for alternatives to the use of artificial preservatives such as embalming fluid, and conventional metal caskets. Green burial sites can be created in specially designated sections of cemeteries or on private land. Green burial sites are often located in meadows and wooded areas that do not require constant maintenance, and a range of permaculture techniques may be employed to landscape the site and to speed up a very natural decomposition. Green burials are less expensive than a traditional burial and can be more meaningful, and comforting to family members.


Natural Dying

How we die is a profoundly personal journey and considering what we want for ourselves or for others can be difficult to discuss. A wide range of resources are available to help people engage in conversations about death, dying and bereavement.


Staying well

In permaculture, we can create spirals of health within our societies that promote self responsibility and awareness for maintaining health. Our bodies are integrated systems that are part of the physical and social environment we live in.


Image: Earthworm shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Complementary medicine

Complementary (or alternative) medicines are those which are rooted in alternative approaches to human health than those offered by mainstream (or allopathic) Western medicine.

Complementary techniques include homoeopathy, acupuncture, herbalism, chiropractic, kinesiology and various forms of energy healing like reiki and reflexology.

Emotional Well-being

Emotional Well-Being can be defined as our ability to look after our emotional needs or how developed our emotional skills to deal with challenges, are. It is our ability to understand the value of our emotions and use them to move our life forward in positive directions. Working on our emotional health consists in focusing on our strengths and not our weaknesses, increasing our capability of enjoying everyday life, focusing on important personal priorities and improving your resilience.

Exercise and movement

Together with a healthy diet, regular exercise is vital to human health, both physical and mental. Over-reliance on the internal combustion engine means that most people in developed countries now get less exercise than they need to maintain optimum health. Gardening and cycling are both great ways to exercise, but many permaculture practitioners also practice therapeutic forms of movement such as yoga or tai-chi.


Alongside the many benefits to the environment, a diet high in locally grown, pesticide free fruit and vegetables has many health benefits. The over-consumption of high carbohydrate processed food has led to epidemics of obesity and diabetes in developed countries and most people would benefit greatly from a diet containing more fruit and vegetables, and less carbohydrates, meat and dairy products There are also many concerns about the effects of consuming foods containing pesticide and antibiotic residues on human health.

Land and nature stewardship

Although permaculture is now defined as 'permanent culture', incorporating all areas of human life, it was originally defined as 'permanent agriculture', and was firmly focused on land stewardship and living in harmony with nature. Land stewardship remains a central part of most people's permaculture experience.

This section covers a range of land stewardship techniques which maximise yields and environmental benefits, while reducing inputs, costs and labour.


Aquaculture is the growing of human food, both plant and animal, in water. It may also refer to the conscious creation of aquatic environments.

Current fish farming has much in common with battery chicken egg production, and intensive salmon farms create ecological damage with the use of chemicals to control parasites, and pellet food sourced from species taken from wider seas. In terms of ecological and energy efficiency, greater productivity can be achieved in a sustainable way by creating beneficial relationships between aquaculture and other elements in the landscape, eating lower down the food chain (e.g plants or omnivorous fish), and using polyculture to 'fill as many niches' as possible.

Ecological aquaculture

In agriculture it is normal practice for regular soil tests to be conducted in order to modify and improve the soil medium. It is logical that a similar system should apply to freshwater systems.

Central to ecological aquaculture are the living plants and organisms that inhabit freshwater habitat, and the cleanliness of the water. Ecological aquaculture is the implementation of aquaculture ecosystems which produce not only economic, but also social and ecological profit.

Integrated aquaculture

Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) provides the by-products, including waste, from one aquatic species as inputs (fertilisers, food) for another.

Farmers combine fed aquaculture (e.g., fish, shrimp) with inorganic extractive (e.g., seaweed) and organic extractive (e.g., shellfish) aquaculture to create balanced systems for environment remediation (biomitigation), economic stability (improved output, lower cost, product diversification and risk reduction) and social acceptability (better management practices). (Source: Wikipedia)

Food for free

UK woodland has plenty to offer with exciting ingredients for soups, sauces, desserts and tipples found in abundance. With rising prices in the supermarkets and wider awareness of wild food health benefits, you might just like to give foraging a try.

52 Climate Actions has advice on how to keep your food as local as possible in its Eat Local, Seasonal Food action.

Abundance projects

A growing movement that aims to make better use of neglected local fruit trees such as apples, pears and plums by organising volunteers to harvest the fruit.

While people have been picking for centuries, the current idea, under the umbrella name of Abundance, seems to have begun to coalesce around 2007. By 2010 there were many grassroots projects, mostly called Abundance (eg. Abundance London, Abundance Manchester, West Ealing Abundance) or Urban Harvest (eg. Leeds Urban Harvest, Haringey). Other groups have slightly different names (eg. Local Fruit Harvesters: Kensal to Kilburn, St John’s Villas Pears) but all have broadly the same aims: to harvest surplus fruit and prevent waste. The precise nature of each local project depends on the strengths and interests of local organisers. For instance Abundance London has strong links with local schools, organising class picking trips. West Ealing Abundance has an expertise in jam-making; Haringey Urban Harvest in foraging, etc.

Each year hundreds of fruit trees go unpicked, on both public and private land, either because people don’t notice them, may not be physically able to harvest them or there are just too many fruits at one time. Abundance counters this waste by picking the fruit and redistributing the surplus to the community on a non-profit basis - to community cafes, nurseries, Surestarts and individuals. Fruit can also be juiced to make jams, chutneys and preserves, some of which can be sold on as part of a social enterprise. Abundance continues through the seasonal cycle with planting and pruning workshops. Volunteers who take part have the pleasure of eating fresh, ripe fruit from the tree, finding out more about urban food growing and working alongside enthusiastic people of all ages. Most activity obviously takes place when the fruit is ready to harvest, generally between August and the end of October. Collectively, Abundance groups in the UK won the Observer Ethical Award for Best Grassroots Project in 2010.

- Text from Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens website

"Hunting Elk" by Alfred Jacob Miller


"Many herbivorous animals reproduce and proliferate to a degree that can damage the environment that supports them. Sensible harvesting by humane methods may both provide a useful yield and keep the population and its environment healthy.

"Hunting should avoid macho trophy killing of the largest males as these represent the selected genetics, knowledge and learned behaviour that can be passed on to younger animals. For the health and vigour of the herd, young, barely mature males should be culled. These animals yield the tenderest meat and are also the ones most likely to succumb to stress, competition or predation."

- from David Holmgren (2002) Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Permanent Publications. p101.

Axel Minet Shared under CC BY 2.0 UK

Wild food foraging

Foraging commonly refers to the act of gathering or harvesting wild foods.

A revival in raiding 'nature's larder' has led to an increased interest in the health and holistic benefits of harvesting locally sourced wildfoods such as: dandelions, nettles, hawthorn, berries, nuts, mallow, wild garlic, seaweed and mushrooms. Foraging gets us out into the countryside and woodland areas; cultivating an intimate appreciation and reconnection with nature.

Before heading out into the wilderness sensible precautions should be heeded when picking unfamiliar plants and mushrooms. Get expert advice from experienced foragers, and before you head out into the wilderness, remember to check whether the land you are foraging on is protected, and/or privately owned. Always get permission if it isn't and never overharvest - birds and animals depend on a variety of foods for their survival.

Bluebells 7, by catimages on Flickr, shared under CC BY 2.0

Forestry / woodlands

It is hard to envisage any system of sustainable land management that does not involve extensive use of trees.

At a landscape scale, trees provide vital habitats for wildlife, timber for construction and fuel, aid soil and water management, and have high aesthetic and recreational value.

"Trees are central to ecosystems, not just because they are large, but rather because they affect the larger climate. Water flows differently due to trees. The wind is blocked, deflected, slowed or funneled depending on how trees are arranged. Light can be blocked, or its heat can be concentrated into specific areas. Soil is built, enriched and sheltered by trees. Animals, insects and other life forms all rely on trees to thrive. They are the go-between for the energy entering, absorbed, and dispersed within natural systems."

Geoff Lawton


Here, trees are included in cultivation systems.  Silvopastoral systems integrate trees and livestock.   Silvoarable systems are where crops are grown with trees.   


Potential benefits include:

  • Shelter and support livestock and animals
  • Higher biodiversity
  • Stabilise slopes and reduce erosion
  • Land use efficiency
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Diversification and additional products
  • Contribute to climate resilience and food security


Forests are the most productive and diverse of terrestrial ecosystems and agroforestry draws on these benefits.  Many countries in Europe have successful commercial agroforestry, and more have smaller-scale uptake.  It is also popular in the tropics.


The trees used can be productive in the medium term (e.g. fruit and nuts), or longer term (e.g. for timber or wood products), or simply for wildlife and ecosystem enhancement.  Many different crops can be grown beneath them.  Careful planning is required to adapt to the growth of trees and avoid competition for light and water with the lower layers.  Trees must be regularly pruned to allow lateral light penetration.  Trees are not immediately productive but are a longer-term investment.  They require different skills, tools and understanding of different markets at a commercial level. 


Integration with most livestock requires that trees are protected from grazing until canopies are well out of reach.  Fencing can be expensive to install. 


Agroforestry can be practiced in many different locations and at varying scales from back garden to landscape.  Forest gardens are a popular form of agroforestry.


You can read more here - links to a review of the academic literature and includes sources of evidence.


Permaculture Association logo

This text is based on an academic literature review by Naomi van der Velden as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.


European flagThe GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.


Analogue forestry

Analogue forestry is similar to forest gardening but is done on a grander scale, with more concern for local ecology and less for food production, and is generally employed in tropical or sub-tropical areas areas.

The forests are designed to restore the original ecology and biodiversity of deforested areas by mimicking the function and ecology of the climax vegetation for the area. They are also designed to provide economic benefits, and by including many species of crops in one area Analogue Forestry helps spread the risk of market failure by a single crop.

Continuous cover forestry

“Continuous cover forestry involves the maintenance of a forest canopy during the regeneration phase with a consequent presumption against clearfelling in favour of alternative silvicultural systems.

"Although there are likely to be cost penalties from the use of continuous over systems these can be more than offset by the provision of enhanced non-market benefits. The main constraints are the risks of windthrow and of regeneration failure through browsing or vegetation competition., plus the lack of experience of alternative silvicultural systems in British forestry, However, despite these limitations, there is potential for greater use of continuos cover forestry on selected sites throughout Britain as one means of providing more diverse forests for multi-purpose benefits” (Forestry Commission).

Nature based forestry

Declining health and lack of stability in 'age-class' forests have led to an increasing interest in the dynamics and structures of more 'nature orientated' forests.

Nature-oriented forest management is based on continuous forest cover, mixed stands, uneven-aged stand structures, selective harvest and excessive use of natural regeneration. Natural forests spontaneously generate themselves on the location and consist of naturally immigrant tree species and strains. They can be influenced by culture, for example, by the logging or regeneration techniques used.

Gardens and orchards

Using a permaculture approach to design and grow a garden or orchard can realise a functioning ecological system, composed of many parts, each contributing to the overall stablility, health and resilience of the whole. This results in a community of plants and fauna in dynamic equilibrium.

Growing food is a great way to interact with the earth and share the return with others. There are many techniques for gardening, but permaculture is clear about using organic approaches and increasing biological diversity. By building soil diversity and fertility naturally, the results are increased natural stability, improved productivity and resilience. By taking this approach any dependency on synthetic, and often toxic regulators or additives is removed.

The role of fruit and nut trees in offering early bee fodder is an important reason for their inclusion in wildlife corridors and green infrastructure for they are multiple providers of ecosystem services valuable to us all.

Fruit and nut trees have become popular again for garden and landscape designers, not only for their beautiful blossoms and pollen, but also for the delicious local food they provide. Renewed concern for the environment, combined with the effects of economic recession have also resulted in people, groups and communities growing food in wildlife friendly ways. The rise of community gardening has seen many orchards being planted in public spaces, including in vacant plots, parks, on allotment sites and in school grounds.

Bio-intensive gardening

Bio-intensive gardening uses no-dig raised beds, organic and biodynamic growing techniques and successional cropping to produce the maximum crop yield from the smallest space.

Plant feed, water and human labour are all concentrated in a small space. Traditional rows are abandoned in favour of equidistant planting. Each bed produces two crops a year.

Dense green undergrowth in a forest garden

Forest gardens

Forest gardens are food-producing and seek to emulate natural woodland ecosystems as closely as possible.

A forest garden is made-up of mainly perennial plants which are productive or useful and - as its name suggests - plants are stacked or assembled as they may be found in a forest or woodland. There is a universal recognised system of forest planting, but each forest or woodland is uniquely composed of species specific to climate and location.

Most temperate forests consist of seven layers of plants, whilst some successionally-advanced tropical forests may feature up to thirteen layers.

The most common seven plant layers are as follows (with an example for forest gardens in temperate climates):

  1. Upper Canopy (Sweet Chestnut)
  2. Lower Canopy or Sub-Canopy (Crab Apple)
  3. Vines and Climbers (Grape)
  4. Shrubs, and understorey bushes (Blackcurrant)
  5. Herbaceous perennials and annuals (Mint)
  6. Ground Cover (Strawberries)
  7. Roots and Rhizosphere (Ground Nut)<

A well-managed garden will yield nuts, fruits, herbs and annual crops. Once a forest garden becomes established, it requires little or no extra energy input and minimal labour, whilst continuing to produce harvestable yields. It is essentially a multi-layered foraging garden, sometimes referred to as a wild or outdoor pantry.  

Forest gardens also create a natural habitat for animals and insects and plants with greater pest resilience, producing continual food without annual tilling, pesticides, fertilisers or other high inputs of chemicals or energy.  

Forest gardens are part of the wider approach of agroforestry.

The 52 Climate Actions website has more advice for anyone wanting to Plant an Edible Forest Garden.

Hugel mounds

Derived from the German word 'hügelkultur', the literal translation for a hügel mound is "hill culture". The design was originally pioneered by Sepp Holzer and involves developing what is effectively a raised bed, filled with rotten wood and materials that would otherwise go to waste to create a highly fertile soil.

A shallow pit is dug and layers of logs, brushwood or straw, wet leaves, compost, sod and soil are added to make a mound. As time passes the the layers slowly rot down, creating heat and nutrients that develop a rich soil for planting, and as the wood shrinks down more tiny air pockets appear, which in turn become self tilling.  The mounds can be built between 2-7 ft tall (according to the zone you are working in), holding water and catching the sun, and  providing fertility over many years with little maintenance.

Organic gardening

Organic gardening is the growing of food without the use of refined chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

Good organic growing practice does not just mean the absence of these things, it also includes a range of techniques such as companion planting, crop rotation, composting, encouragement of natural predators, physical control of pests, and high standards of animal welfare.

Corn, beans and squash growing together


Polycultures are two or more useful plants grown on the same plot, usually at the same time. From an ecological perspective, they try to mimic natural cycles. Like natural systems, they offer benefits, including reduced pest damage and soil conservation, even increasing crop yields per area compared to monocultures.

It’s a traditional way of growing food still widely used in the tropics, temperate market gardens, home gardens and allotments. Growing several crops together offers a diverse nutritional range, greater security of production and income, and efficient use of space. Forest gardens are perhaps the most diverse form of polyculture, where extensive use is made of vertical as well as horizontal growing space.

Increased use of machinery and economies of scale have led to widespread use of monocultures (large fields of a single crop) but polycultures offer significant advantages over this approach by enhancing:

  • biodiversity
  • nutrient cycling
  • soil and water conservation
  • and carbon sequestration

They can also help control pests and diseases and be more productive per land area than growing each crop alone.

There are several ways to grow polycultures. The crop plants can be mixed (mixed cropping) or grown in single or multiple rows of each crop (row, or strip intercropping). A second crop can also be planted amongst a first just before it is harvested (relay intercropping).

Row intercropping is popular in smaller gardens where many crop types are grown. At a farm scale, there are usually just two alternating crops.

Alley cropping, a type of agroforestry, is a form of polyculture where an annual crop is planted between rows of perennials like trees.

There's a free GROW factsheet: Key practices for growing polycultures for more advice on which plants to try and how to begin experimenting with polycultures.



Permaculture Association logo 

This text is based on an academic literature review by Naomi van der Velden at the Permaculture Association as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.

EU flag

The GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.


Raised beds

In small scale horticulture, a highly effective technique is the creation of permanent growing beds separated by access paths. Raised garden beds are great for growing small plots of vegetables and flowers. Gardeners can build their own beds or buy them as a kit.

Raised beds have numerous benefits. They allow compost/ plant feed to be concentrated in a smaller area. They deepen the soil, provide improved drainage and serve as a barrier to pests. They also keep soil from washing away during heavy rain, keep weeds out of the soil and prevent soil compaction. Finally, high beds reduce back strain from bending over and are ideal for wheelchair using gardeners.

How to set up raised beds

Work out the dimensions of your beds. Make sure you can reach into the middle of the beds; maximum of 48” (120cms) wide. There is no real limit on length.

Lay out the beds east to west. This assures equal light exposure to all the plants in the bed.

Double-dig the bed area, if the ground has never been used for gardening, to a depth of 16””. Keep an eye out for any roots which may be growing beneath your beds and cut through them. Leave soil piled up in the center so you can set the bed in place without obstructions. Instead of digging, you can mow the growing area and then lay down newspaper or card.

Build/ assemble the beds. Use good quality timber and reinforce the corners.

Spread soil out evenly, add any planned soil amendments and water the bed. Rake the bed to even out the soil and you’’re ready to plant. An ideal soil mix is 50% garden soil with 50% compost.

Create pathways between the beds; about 24”/ 60 cms wide. Cover the pathways between beds with a weed barrier topped with a 2-3” layer of bark, sawdust or gravel. Or lay turf.

Avoid stepping on the bed. Once the soil is added and the bed is planted, make it a policy to never step on the bed. Stepping on the bed will compact the soil, reduce aeration and impact root growth.

Image removed.This text was written by Chris Warburton Brown of the Permaculture Association (Britain) as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.

Image removed.The GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

Seed saving

Farmers need to have many skills to manage both the soil and the homestead. Out of those skills, seed saving is probably one of the most important. By giving more attention to seed saving, farmers can improve the quality of their seed each year. This can then improve crop production. This can be done without having to increase inputs of fertilizer, irrigation or cultivation. So with a little extra care in seed production, farmers can easily increase their farm production. 

Chris Evans - Farmers' Handbook

Managing animals

Animals have a key role to play in truly sustainable food systems.

They can provide pest and weed control, motive power, manure, soil cultivation and companionship. They produce eggs, milk, honey and wool and, depending on your ethical position, they can also provide meat. However, bad  animal care can lead to over-grazing, ill health, aggression, soil erosion, pollution, even death, and breaches the 'earth care' ethic. Adopting the right management programme and knowing how to care for animals properly are both crucially important.  


Keeping bees has numerous benefits; they are vital pollinators for food crops and flowers, they provide honey, bee products have significant health benefits to humans and can be used in soap, cosmetics and candles, and they are a source of joy and fascination. Bees are currently in decline around the world, and this poses a serious threat to human food production, so keeping bees also makes a significant contribution to protecting the planet.


In modern times horses are mainly used for leisure riding. However, before the dominance of the internal combustion engine they were the main source of power for transport and agriculture.

Faced with the huge financial and environmental expense of tractors and their fuel, horses may regain their ancient role. There are many contemporary examples of working horses being used for ploughing, dragging timber, pulling wheeled vehicles and providing personal transport.


Unlike sheep and cattle, pigs lend themselves easily to inclusion in large forest garden systems. They can be raised on household waste (please note, in the EU, including the UK, feeding pigs household waste is banned), they are relatively easy to keep, a great source of manure, and produce a lot of meat. Overall, pigs have the potential to be a significant part of a forest garden system.

Sheep and cattle

Over-grazing is a key cause of soil degradation and the decline of grassland ecology, while the introduction of intensive stock razing often leads to deforestation, so managing livestock in a way that protects local ecology is very important.

Livestock production may also be a more successful way of producing food from upland and marginal land than vegetable or fruit cultivation. Permaculture techniques can be applied to stock raising to minimise environmental impact, improve animal welfare, and maximise food production.

Small livestock

Small livestock such as chickens, ducks, and rabbits can play an important role in permaculture design, providing free-range food, controlling pests, and creating manure.

For most permaculture practitioners, such small animals can be easily fitted into food production systems, and they can be successfully kept without any great expertise or hard work. One much cheaper but very ethical investment can be made in acquiring ex-battery hens. Ex-commercial chickens can very quickly rediscover their natural instincts and once recovered, can become very productive for a few more years.


Un-used assets are all around us!

Waste minimisation

The permaculture principle 'produce no waste' stands in marked contrast to our throw-away society in which millions of tons of 'rubbish' are simply dumped in huge holes in the ground each year.

This section suggests ways in which this 'rubbish' can be recognised for what it actually is; a highly valuable resource, whether as something that another household could make great use of, as the basic ingredients for an entirely new product or craft item, or as the raw materials for compost or recycling.

Three wooden compost bins


Compost is decomposed organic matter and provides nutrients for plant growth, similar to what a artificial fertiliser does. But unlike artificial fertiliser, compost also helps to feed soil fauna, like earthworms and microorganisms (bacteria and fungi), which improve soil structure and fertility.

Improved soil structure means roots can better penetrate the soil, improving water drainage and infiltration, as well as soil aeration. In sandy soils, compost provides a substrate to enhance water and nutrient retention. In degraded soils, compost can help mitigate the problems of reduced organic matter and fertility, erosion, or compaction.

Overall, compost helps to increase the quantity and quality of plant yields while regenerating and protecting soils.

Different types of composting

At its simplest, composting can be done by accumulating a pile of wet garden and food waste and allowing the micro-organisms and worms to do their work of breaking it down.

  • Cold - the easiest as material is simply added to the heap as it become available, mixing 'brown' and 'green' matter to create a good carbon: nitrogen ratio.
  • Hot - quickest and best compost, but more exacring as it needs to be a minimum 1m cubed and everything added in one go
  • Vericomposting (worm) - a mini-compost bin filled with brandling worms, who produce solid compost known to gardeners as 'black gold' and concentrated liquid feed
  • Uncomposted mulch - adding green matter to the soils surface is a good alternative to making compost, although care needs to be taken when deciding what materials to use

The 52 Climate Actions website has more on composting and how to Make Compost. 

You can also find out more about how to improve your soil in this GROW PDF.

Europe flagThe GROW Observatory received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.


“Reduce, refuse, re-use, repair and recycle” is a useful hierarchy of strategies for waste minimisation.

“Re-use means either put to the same purpose or put to the next best use” (Holmgren p112). By taking useful products and exchanging them, without reprocessing, reuse help save time, money, energy, and resources. In broader economic terms, reuse offers quality products to people and organizations with limited means, while generating jobs and business activity that contribute to the economy. The ideas of re-use can be extended from simply re-using containers such as glass milk bottles, to offering no-longer-needed furniture for use by another household, to distributing surplus food from restaurants and supermarkets to people in need, to re-using bathwater for laundering clothes and the irrigating the garden.

Advantages of re-use:

  • the next best use catches energy at each step of degradation before it degrades to the point of being unusable
  • reduces energy and material use as one reusable object may replace the need for several single use products
  • reduced costs and energy use associated with product disposal.

Disadvantages of re-use:

  • reuse may have associated costs in cleaning or transport and also takes time
  • some products such as fridges or car seats are not suitable for long term reuse as they may become unsafe over time
  • it is possible to collect so many things for potential reuse that that they start to degrade before they are reused.


Recycling is the processing of used materials into new products usually by using energy inputs to reduce the material to its more basic constituents for the same or another use. e.g. to melt and remould a used glass bottle into a new one.

Ideally the recycled product would produce a fresh supply of the same material, however in practice this is rarely the case. e.g. office paper is more likely to become cardboard than more office paper. The benefits of recycling may have been overemphasised as it is unclear whether the net economic and environmental benefits outweigh the costs in terms of energy and other resource use. The composting of food and garden waste is another form of recycling, as decomposer organisms such as earthworms, recycle organic matter to make it available for plant growth and health.

Wildlands and biodiversity

Biodiversity is fundamental to our survival. Every living thing has a place in what we call the 'balance of nature', and upsetting that balance can have untold effects. Biodiversity is the source of many ecosystem goods (such as food and genetic resources), and changes in biodiversity can influence the supply of ecosystem services.

A vast array of definitions exists to define UK wildlands, however many definitions remain anchored by more indepth definitions from North America, which inarguably has some of the wilder landscapes in the world (see The Wilderness Act - 1964, USA for a comprehensive definition). Permaculturists recognise care for surviving natural assemblies as an essential for supporting and renewing the cultivated ecology of human use. There is also a commitment to rehabilitate degraded land using multifunctional pioneer species and long term-plant assemblies, and to create around them a complex environment that includes elements of land gifted back to wild nature.

Many local UK projects and initiatives have taken on wild land values. The Wildlife Network proposes that in order for new major areas of wildlands to grow wildland needs to: be free of human interference (and managed with minmal intervention), be free of economic exploitation such as grazing or forestry ( but can support sensitive eco-tourist facilities at the boundary), have natural processes restored on a sufficient scale as to be meaningful (including wild herbivores and predators) and it must have a sense of remoteness and risk.

Permaculture Zone 5

The principle of zoning in permaculture is that whatever is in most need of human attention should be placed closest to the centre of human activity. The furthest zone is ‘zone 5’. It is the wilderness... ie. the place where the needs of wild plants and animals take top priority. Yields of produce for human use are only taken when do so benefits the wild species, as when a flower meadow is mown for hay. Every permaculture design, however small, should have a zone 5.

Wildlife strategies

Sustainable systems should incorporate features that create a range of benefits, including for wildlife.

Nature conservation in the UK has traditionally focused on the preservation of specific sites. But outside these few places, natural habitats have been lost on an unprecedented scale and many species, both common and rare, are in long-term decline. As the demand for land for agriculture, housing and development has increased, so the room for wildlife and natural processes has decreased. This has resulted in small oases of wildlife-rich protected land, such as nature reserves, becoming surrounded by an otherwise inhospitable landscape for many plants and animals. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), is the UK Government's response to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and 1,149 species and 65 habitats in the UK were identified as in need of conservation and greater protection.

Broadscale Agriculture

Broadscale agriculture refers to field management techniques at the landscape scale. Here the term is used to describe the underlying methods for managing the agricultural landscape, whether the landscape is being managed specifically for animals, crops, biomass or biodiversity.

Permaculture design enables the realisation of ecologically rich landscapes that produce food with reduced inputs and reduced dependency upon refined chemicals and other external and artificial compounds, whilst creating diversified and increased total yields. To achieve this, permaculture farm designers incorporate new and old sustainable and restorative agricultural practices, land management techniques and strategies from around the world.


Biodynamic techniques draw on the work of Austrian spiritual teacher Rudolf Steiner in the early years of the last century. He felt it was vital to reconnect growers to the spiritual aspects of growing as a counter balance to the increasing dominance of mechanistic models of food production. Biodynamic growers build up the spiritual strength of their land, crops, animals and themselves through the use of special kinds of compost and organic sprays and through working with the phases of the moon and the planets. They see every farm or garden as a holistic organism with it own spiritual identity.

Holistic rangeland management

Holistic land management was developed as a response to the degradation of soils caused by cattle ranching in the American mid-west. It supports farmers to get the most from their land by harnessing four key principles; financial planning, grazing planning, land planning and biological monitoring

Swales and contours

Keylines are enhanced contours which collect and direct water on sloping land without the need for terracing. The water collected by the keylines is directed into dammed ponds and is then drip-fed by gravity irrigation for crops and animals.

The key lines are carefully chosen to ensure maximum water collection potential. As well as collecting water, key line design reduces soil erosion and flooding and gathers nutrients which build up soil fertility over time.

The key line principle was developed in Australia in the 1950s by P.A. Yeomans and had strong influence on permaculture pioneer David Holmgren.

Masanobu Fukuoka

Natural farming

Natural farming was developed in Japan by Masanobu Fukuoka but has been used all over the world, especially in developing countries with peasant populations.

Fukoaka felt that farming should be a spiritual philosophy for life, bringing humans into harmony with themselves and with nature. Natural farming is based on minimal disturbance of nature, and so chemical inputs, tillage, mechanisation and even weeding are rejected. Local ecosystems are observed in great detail and then copied by the farmer, who sows crop seed among existing ground cover plants. Hens, ducks and fish are present in crop fields. As in forest gardens, creation of a climax ecosystem is seen as the ideal goal of the farmer

Natural sequence farming

Natural sequence farming is a way of restoring degraded, deforested, eroded or salinated land to full fertility. It uses major earth works to copy natural water courses, thereby controlling floods, restoring ground cover, preventing soil erosion, and restoring fertility. It was developed in Australia by Peter Andrews in the 1970s and is chiefly suited to desert environments.

Organic agriculture

Organic farming is a form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotationgreen manurecompost, and biological pest control. Depending on whose definition is used, organic farming uses fertilisers and pesticides (which include herbicidesinsecticides and fungicides) if they are considered natural (such as bone meal from animals or pyrethrin from flowers), but it excludes or strictly limits the use of various methods (including synthetic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticidesplant growth regulators such as hormonesantibiotic use in livestockgenetically modified organisms;[1] human sewage sludge; and nanomaterials.[2]) for reasons including sustainabilityopennessindependencehealth, and safety.

Organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and legally enforced by many nations, based in large part on the standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an international umbrella organization for organic farming organizations established in 1972.[3] The USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition as of April 1995 is:

“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."[4]

Since 1990 the market for organic food and other products has grown rapidly, reaching $63 billion worldwide in 2012.[5]:25This demand has driven a similar increase in organically managed farmland which has grown over the years 2001-2011 at a compounding rate of 8.9% per annum.[6] As of 2011, approximately 37,000,000 hectares (91,000,000 acres) worldwide were farmed organically, representing approximately 0.9 percent of total world farmland.[5]:1

source :

Land tenure and community governance

Land tenure and community governance is an aspect of permaculture which is vitally important, but generally remains unseen. For this reason it is often referred to as part of 'invisible structures'. We need to ensure that the physical systems we create are able to be maintained and developed long into the future.

Approaches to eradicating poverty and sustainable use of the environment depend in large on how people, communities and others gain access to land, fisheries and forest. How people gain access to land is defined and regulated by societies through systems of tenure, which determine who can use  which resources for how long, and under what conditions. Systems may be based on written laws and policies as well as traditional unwritten customs and practices. Tenure systems face increasing stress as the world's populations grow; creating challenges to addressing food security, environmental degradation and climate change. Permaculture seeks to address the challenges ahead by creating physical systems that can be maintained and developed for many years to come. Focus areas include: group work (e.g. transition initiates, meeting methods and techniques,facilitation,  conflict resolution and consensus making), legal structures (e.g. cooperatives and development trusts), housing (e.g. housing trusts, co-housing and eco-villages) and land holding & land access (e.g. land trusts, Usufruct and land share schemes).

Group work

For most of us, our best experiences of permaculture have been enjoyed with other people, whether as a members of a cooperative, class, convergence, business, online group, local association, or casual get together. This section suggests some techniques to further improve our group working and learning.

Conflict resolution

Conflict resolution is the art and science of finding creative ways away from the pain and distress caused by differences arising from insults, criticism or complaining.

Conflict persists where at least one person involved perceives a threat to their well being and survival. Typically, people's responses to conflict are based on their perception of the situation, and not necessarily on an objective review of the facts. Whilst conflict is often draining of energy, destructive to relationships and damaging to the earth, it can also offer opportunities for growth.

There are many creative approaches being developed which enable people to reap the benefits arising from conflict (such as ultimately bringing deeper understanding of another point of view) and to reach conclusions in which all parties feel heard and included. These include non-violent communication, mediation, and negotiation.

Consensus decision-making

Consensus decision making is a way of reaching group decisions which everyone can at least consent to even if it is not their preferred approach.

The aim is to harness the diversity within the group in order to make space for the range of creativity, energy and concerns held by group members. It has been used widely in political activist groups, intentional communities, worker co-operatives, Jewish and Quaker communities and others.

The form used varies but the core characteristics of the process are that it is:

  • inclusive and participatory- the voices of everyone affected by a decision are heard;
  • agreement-seeking- the hope is to achieve the full agreement of all participants. Different standards of agreement will be applied by different groups, but each will have a method for reaching a decision. Commonly participants have three responses available to them at the moment of decision-making: ‘agreement’, 'stand aside' and 'blocking'. Standards for action may include unanimity, unanimity-1, unanimity-2 i.e. one or two people can not block the will of the whole group alone…;
  • process-oriented- consensus decision-making values the whole process of how a decision is reached, not just the outcomes of the meeting. Tactics which seek to manipulate the process such as power leveraging are discouraged both by the structure of the process and by the facilitator;
  • collaborative- seeking to include all voices in the meeting and to seek the 'sense of the meeting'. It is not an adversarial process but one which sees dissent as a pointer to a piece of the truth which needs to be heard;
  • relationship-building- a process of consensus decision making seeks to build group relationship through discussion and deep listening, building future trust and co-operation; characterised by whole group thinking- group members have in mind the needs and interests of the group as a whole. What is earnestly sought is to converge on the essence of that the group agrees on, it's shared understanding and desires.


  • tends to favour the status quo- it takes courage to dissent from what appears to be a consensus;
  • minorities may use their right to 'block' a decision in such a way as to uphold personal interests rather than those of the whole group;
  • the process can become overly long and tedious, generating 'more heat than light’.

Facilitation skills

Facilitation is about helping the group to have an efficient and inclusive meeting. It's also about making sure everyone can be involved in discussions and making decisions.

Facilitation combines a series of roles and tasks. Although this role is usually taken by one person, there is no reason why the roles of facilitator may not be shared among those present. A good facilitator harnesses the group creativity- encouraging participation, and balancing challenge and conviviality. They take care of the logistics of the meeting, preparing the room and creating a convivial environment. They focus the group on the discussion in hand and the decision making process. They pay attention not only to the obvious, but are tuned in to what else might be going on that isn't quite so apparent. They are skilled in interpreting the difficulties, resolving conflict, cutting through time wasting and diversionary tactics and, most importantly, enabling people to reach agreements and develop new practices that will work.

Meeting methods

Permaculture meeting methods draw on the permaculture principles to create ways of working which are inclusive, diverse and productive.

Structures are sought which encourage participation from everyone, so that the best yield of ideas and productivity can be harvested from the group. In designing a meeting process, strategies are used which are intended to concentrate or maximise the flow of attention, thought or consciousness. Permaculture concepts such as flexibility, stacking and edge have obvious relevance. Designing patterns for meetings generates stability within groups- while individuals may come and go, the patterns remain recognisably the same. There are a myriad ways of doing this and permaculturists are happy to try new ideas.

Open space

Open Space Technology is a methodology, developed by Harrison Owen, for meetings in which there is (1) complexity, in term of the tasks to be done or outcomes achieved; (2) diversity, in terms of the people involved and/or needed to make any solution work; (3) real or potential conflict, meaning people really care about the central issue or purpose; and (4) urgency, meaning that the time to act was "yesterday".

A big sheet of paper is put up on the wall, or drawn on a whiteboard, divided according to the available times for meeting and spaces available. People are encouraged to put up the topics they would like to meet around or present, choosing a particular time and place. They each make a short announcement, describing their session (10 words or less.) Participants are free to go where they wish. Each session has a notetaker, who types notes onto a computer after the session is over, allowing the entire group to easily and quickly produce a report that can be circulated to participants, and beyond.

Open Space Technology has Five Rules and One Law:

  • Whoever comes is the right people ...reminds participants that they don't need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time ...reminds participants that "spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.
  • Wherever it happens is the right place ...reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be conscious and aware.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have ...reminds participants that once something has happened, it's done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on.
  • When it's over, it's over ...reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don't keep rehashing just because there's 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.

Owen explains his one "Law," called the "Law of two feet" or "the law of mobility", as follows: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.


Permaculture isn't just about creating good food, it is also about creating a good place to live.

Rising house prices makes access to affordable housing a critical issue in much of the global north, while rapid urbanisation means housing quality is a key issue in the global south. Freedom to choose where to live and who to live with are also important issues. For many people, getting good quality, affordable housing with a garden or land and in a strong community remains a distant dream. This section suggests some solutions that can turn that dream into reality.


Co-housing arrangements offer independent living in a loose community setting.

Each individual has their own front door and independent living space. There are also shared spaces and residents may choose to eat together and share facilities such as laundry, garden equipment, children's play areas, internet access and guest rooms. The design and structure of the choosing enterprise aims to facilitate social connection and encourages a sense of community to develop. This brings social, practical, economic and environmental benefits.

Cohousing projects are designed and run by their residents at every stage from inception, through building, to maintenance in a way which is inclusive and participatory. Most co housing projects exist in urban settings and residents are engaged members of the wider community in which they live. The co housing model was developed in Denmark in the 1960s and is now very popular in Denmark and in the Netherlands. There are a number of schemes already built and lived in the UK and a good number of groups at the planning stage too. It is especially appropriate for older people who want the sharing and support that comes with living with others, but maintaining independent space too.


Robert Gillman first defined an ecovillage as being a settlement which is:

  • human-scale i.e. operating at a scale in which all the people involved can know and be known by others in the community- typically up to 500 people;
  • a full-featured settlement- in which all the functions of normal living (a place to live, make things, enjoy leisure and social connection, the provision of food and commerce) are present in balance and proportion. The ecovillage is not seeking to be entirely self sufficient. It will offer employment to many residents, but many will also work in other towns. There is good connection both with other ecovillages and with the surrounding area;
  • a place human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world. One defining feature of ecovillages is a profound care for the earth. Humans are seems as taking their place with other forms of life. They do not seek to dominate nature but to find a place within it;
  • supportive of healthy human development- seeking balance and integration of physical, emotional and spiritual needs both for the individuals and for the community as a whole;
  • able to be continued into the indefinite future- making conscious decisions to support the community as sustainably as possible in the context of the local bioregion including the use of renewable forms of energy, careful water and waste management systems, energy efficient buildings, producing much of it's own organic food, often using consensus decision making processes and respecting diversity. Many are designed and maintained using permaculture principles eg Crystal Waters in Queensland Australia, and Institute of Permaculture and Ecovillage of the Cerrado in Brazil.

Sheffield Student Housing Coop property

Housing co-operatives

A housing co-operative is a group of people who collectively own and manage the place where they live.

They operate like a housing association run by the tenants. The co-op members arrange repairs and improvements, decide about rent and who joins or leaves the co-op. When someone joins the co-op, they buy a share in the whole property, which does not imply individual ownership of their particular home, but rather a share in the whole co-operative enterprise. I.e. the right to live in their own abode, to access common areas, and to vote for a board that manages the co-op.

The legal structure for a housing co-op involves registration as an Industrial and Provident Society - this enables the group to advertise and to issue loan stock to the public. Loan stock allows sympathetic individuals and organisations to offer financial support to the co-op without giving them control in the co-op management.

Land holding

Before you can create the farm, garden, woodland or house of your dreams, you need to get some land. Perhaps you will buy it yourself, rent it, borrow it, or share ownership with others. Here, some routes to land ownership, or land access, are explored.

On Wimbledon common. Phoro: cathredfern CC BY-NC 2.0

Commoner's rights

Rights of common are rights to take the natural products (e.g. grass, turf, or wood) from another person's land.

Commoner’s Rights are historically specific to the place where they exist but may include:

  • depasturage - the right to graze sheep, cattle, and ponies;
  • tubary - the right to take turf for fuel for domestic use;
  • estovers - the right to take underwood or branches for fuel or repairs;
  • piscary - the right to take fish;
  • pannage - the right to allow pigs to eat acorns and beech mast;
  • swaling - the right to burn heather, grass, and gorse;
  • the right to take sand, gravel or stone for use on their holding.

Any number of people may share rights of common over a single piece of land. Because of this, no single person is entitled to enjoy the whole of the produce of the common and limits on exploitation of rights will be applied in each case. Typically, individuals have rights of common because of the house or farm they occupy, to which these rights will have been attached for centuries.

Very occasionally, a person will have rights of common because of their status e.g. freemen and women may have grazing rights on the town's pastures. All common land is owned by someone and that person still has rights over that land, although these will be subject to, or concurrent with, the registered rights of the commoners. The owner's rights will also be governed by statutory restrictions placed on the land. The owner may use the land and exploit its products like any landowner, provided the rights of common are not interfered with.

Community land trusts

"A Community Land Trust is a non-profit, community-based organisation run by volunteers that develops housing or other assets at permanently affordable levels for long-term community benefit" - National CLT Network.

Community Land Trusts range in size, can be rural or urban, and provide a variety of housing tenures as well as other community facilities, such as workspaces, energy generation, community food and farming.

Despite the diversity in the sector, there are five key features of a Community Land Trust:

  • Community-controlled and community-owned;
  • Open democratic structure;
  • Permanently affordable housing or other assets;
  • Not for profit;
  • Long-term stewardship.

Landshare schemes

Landshare schemes put people who have land they are not using in touch with people nearby who are wanting to cultivate their own fruit and vegetables.

The landowner does not charge any money for sharing their land but often will receive something like 20% share of the produce. Land offered for growing space for others can be a part of garden, or a larger more public space, such as the area around a church or village hall which can support several growers.

The largest of these schemes in the UK was Landshare which was started by River Cottage and launched through the TV show in 2009. It grew into a large and thriving community of growers, sharers and helpers, but the scheme was ended in 2016. There are also some Garden Share schemes across the UK, many of which have arisen through the Transition Town Movement. These schemes are local initiatives which link up people who have unused areas of their garden with people living nearby who are committed to growing their own food but otherwise lack access to growing spaces.

Legal structures

A host of legal structures are available to permaculture practitioners who want to formalise their relationship with their work, their property and/or each other. This section explains some of the most useful and widely adopted.


Co-operatives run on a business model that exists to serve the people who use their services (a consumer co-operative), who work there (a worker cooperative), or by the people who live there (a housing co-operative). The members are the owners, each with an equal say in what the co-operative does.

Co-operatives are based on seven principles:

  1. Voluntary and open membership:
  2. Democratic member control;
  3. Member economic participation. Members allocate surpluses for any of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership;
  4. Autonomy and independence. If a co-op enters into an agreement with another organisation, including a government, they do so in such a way as to preserve their autonomy and the member's democratic control;
  5. Education, training and information. Co-operatives provide education and training for all who contribute to the development of the co-operative. They inform the general public about the nature and benefits of co-operation;
  6. Co-operation among co-operatives;
  7. Concern for community.

Community Interest Companies

A community interest company is a legal structure for social enterprises.

A community interest company is a normal company which has a community purpose at its heart. This purpose must meet the 'community interest test' which can include anything from climate change awareness and recycling to healthcare, childcare and local transport initiatives. It should not be primarily political in motivation.

A community interest company has an 'asset lock' which restricts the disposal of its assets. This means that all assets must be used for the community purpose or, if they are sold, open market value must be obtained for them and the proceeds used for the community purpose. It also has a 'dividend cap' which limits dividend payments to shareholders to ensure profits are applied to benefit the community. If the company is wound up, its assets must be transferred to another, similarly asset-locked body.

Constituted community groups

A community group which forms to address issues or meet needs arising within the local community will usually draw up a written agreement, a constitution, between the organisation and its members.

In basic terms, a constitution is simply a set of written rules or an agreement governing the aims of the organisation, how it will be run and how the members will work together. The constitution is effectively the ‘instruction manual’ for how the group functions internally and provided evidence of its purposes and structure for people external to the organisation. It can often be the first step on the ladder towards a group becoming commissioned or contracted to provide services, and is usually a prerequisite for application for grants or loans. By adopting a constitution, a group will become an ‘unincorporated association’ by law. This will prevent individual members being exposed to potential risk if, for example, a group runs into financial problems or ceases to exist, by spreading the risk between members.

Development Trusts

Development trusts are enterprises created by communities to enable sustainable development in their area. They are engaged in the economic, environmental and social regeneration of a local area or a community with a shared interest.

The Development Trust Association says that a development trust:

  • aims for financial viable independent, sustainability and not-for-private-profit;
  • generates an income through enterprise and delivery of services and trading;
  • is community based, owned and managed;
  • is actively involved in partnerships and alliances between the community, voluntary, private and public sectors;
  • promotes sustainable development and building sustainable communities.

There is no one-size-fits-all development trust. They come in many different shapes and sizes and are involved in a wide range of activities, services and facilities to the communities they serve. These may include running a local shop, managing a housing development, developing renewable energy projects such as wind farms, setting up training programmes.

There is no set form of legal structure, and a development trust may be registered as a company limited by guarantee, a community interest company or an industrial and provident society. Many register as charities.

Tools and technology - axes, knives, help chopping wood, pruning and many other tasks

Tools and technology

To shape our world, humans have always used tools. Today, the range of possibilities is vast, from screwdrivers to tractors to the world wide web. But how do you know what tools and technologies are the right ones for the task you wish to undertake? How can you select the ones which will deliver the greatest benefit for the least cost and labour? And how can you ensure you choose tools and techs which avoid environmental damage? This section will help you answer all these questions.

Energy technologies

Current energy technologies are almost entirely dependent on the burning of fossil fuels in the form of coal, gas and oil. As global demand for these fossil fuels soars and supply reduces, we need to find alternative ways of generating the electricity and the heat that we need. This is made even more acute by the need to radically reduce the emission of the gases that cause global warming.


Biochar is a carbon-rich product, created by the slow burning of plant material with little or no oxygen.

Plant waste is heated to temperatures of several hundred degrees celsius in a pyroliser, a vessel from which oxygen is excluded so it does not burn. Instead, gases and liquids are driven off, which can potentially be used as fuel or agricultural treatments. The remainder turns into a dry, carbon-rich solid similar to charcoal.

Scattered on fields after being inoculated, biochar helps raise crop yields and reduces the need for fertilisers; and as it is a very stable substance, the carbon it contains is locked away for thousands of years. As that carbon had been absorbed from the atmosphere as the plants grew, what we have is a net removal of carbon from the atmosphere and storage in soil. The reduced need for fertilisers will have further benefits as both the production and use of fertilisers in industrial agriculture are associated with considerable greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the obvious benefits, some are urging caution, expressing concerns about inappropriate incentives rewarding logging, or burning of food surpluses, for biochar; or indiscriminately spreading biochar on crops that would not benefit. Nonetheless, small scale and locally appropriate use of biochar is hard to argue against. Biochar kilns are relatively inexpensive to buy, or DIY solutions can be constructed.

Biomass boilers

Wood heating systems – technically known as biomass systems – burn organic materials, typically wood pellets, chips or logs, in a boiler or stove to provide heat and hot water.

There are two types: stoves and boilers. Stoves are generally used as standalone room heaters, although they can be fitted with a back boiler to provide hot water. Batch log boilers and pellet boilers offer more convenient and efficient ways to heat with wood fuel than traditional stoves as they can be connected to an existing central heating and hot water system. Pellet boilers range in size from a few kilowatts, for houses or small commercial buildings, to megawatt units for district heating systems. Automatic hopper-fed fuel systems are usually used with these boilers and stoves. The hopper can be either built-in or a separate unit.

Of the biomass boilers, pellet systems are generally the most responsive to heat demands, have the simplest controls and are the closest to fossil fuelled boilers in terms of maintenance and operation.

Combined heat and power

‘Micro-CHP’ stands for micro combined heat and power. This technology generates heat and electricity simultaneously, from the same energy source, in individual homes or buildings.

The main output of a micro-CHP system is heat, with some additional electricity generation. A typical domestic system will generate up to 1kW of electricity once warmed up: the amount of electricity generated over a year depends on how long the system is able to run. Any electricity generated and not used can be sold back to the grid.

Domestic micro-CHP systems are currently powered by mains gas or LPG; in the future there may be models powered by oil or bio-liquids. Although gas and LPG are fossil fuels rather than renewable energy sources, the technology is still considered to be a ‘low carbon technology’ because it can be more efficient than just burning a fossil fuel for heat and getting electricity from the national grid. Micro-CHP systems are similar in size and shape to ordinary, domestic boilers and like them can be wall hung or floor standing. The only difference to a standard boiler is that they are able to generate electricity while they are heating water.

There are three main micro-CHP technologies. The difference is the way in which they generate electricity:

  • Stirling engine micro-CHP, the electrical output is small relative to the heat output (about 6:1) but this is not necessarily a problem for micro-CHP.
  • Internal combustion engine CHP, the most proven technology. These are essentially, and sometimes literally, truck diesel engines modified to run on natural gas or heating oil, connected directly to an electrical generator. Heat is then taken from the engine’s cooling water and exhaust manifold. They can have a higher electrical efficiency than a Stirling engine but are larger and noisier and are not currently available for the domestic market.
  • Fuel cell CHP technology, where fuel cells work by taking energy from fuel at a chemical level rather than burning it. The technology is still at developmental stage and not widely available to consumers.

Energy storage

Energy storage is accomplished by devices or physical media that store energy to perform useful work at a later time. In permaculture energy storage is defined broadly to include batteries but also water e.g. capturing flowing water and rainfall for use as needed, passive solar techniques, wood for the log pile and for construction, management to promote deep, healthy soils, using wind energy for pumping or power generation, food preservation, saving seeds for the next growing season and also deepening knowledge and understanding so that we have the insights we need to draw on when problems arise. Much of the thinking about energy storage for domestic situations focuses on the development of battery systems to allow householders to use the electricity they produce e.g. with solar pv, more directly and to provide a degree of energy security e.g. during power cuts. Lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion) is a promising energy storage technology- offering the potential for low maintenance, highly efficient energy storage- which is still in development. Early versions are beginning to become available. Permaculture design seeks to capture and store energy to increase growth of living systems. The strategy is to take energies flowing through a site and to divert them into ‘cycles’ to allow them to be utilised to increase the available energy on the site. In energy cycling, energies present on the site that would otherwise flow out of the system are recycled; and incoming energies are captured and stored. Examples of energy cycling, include capturing ‘wild’ energies such as wind and sun to generate electricity, gathering fallen leaves to be used for mulch or compost, composting from kitchen scraps, redirecting domestic grey water into the garden, using animal manure for compost or biogas, and capturing rain water in an elevated spot so gravity can carry it onto plants later.

Fuels from waste

Waste from fuel meets many permaculture principles including catch and store energy, obtain a yield and produce no waste.

There are a number of ways of producing fuel from waste, including:

Anaerobic Digestion, the use of bacteria to decompose organic matter in the absence of oxygen to produce gases. These gases are produced from organic wastes such as livestock manure or food processing waste. The end product is a medium heating value biogas mixture (usually 60% methane, 40% carbon dioxide) and a mixture of solid and liquid fertiliser. Because anaerobic digestion does not produce any more carbon dioxide than would normally be produced from the wastes natural decomposition, it is said to be ‘carbon neutral’.

Gasification involves heating organic waste with a reduced amount of oxygen and/or steam. It produces a synthetic gas, known as syngas, which can be burned independently in a boiler, engine or gas turbine to produce electricity.

Pyrolysis is carried out in the total absence of oxygen. It also produces an energy-rich gas and solid residue. These can then be burned separately to produce electricity. In some pyrolysis processes, the gases are condensed into a liquid fuel. e.g. pyrolysis of waste. Tyres can be used to produce an alternative to diesel fuel.

Incineration involves burning organic material such as waste to produce electricity and heat. Conventional waste incineration plants use the heat produced to generate electricity using a steam turbine. In some cases it is also possible to use the left-over heat. The government is encouraging the development of such combined heat and power (CHP) plants which may be able to provide businesses with a source of heat, where the necessary transmission infrastructure exists or can be installed at reasonable cost.

Biodiesel from waste cooking oils: used cooking oils can be filtered and treated on a domestic scale, and on a larger scale, to run converted diesel cars.

Some landfill sites recover methane which is produced naturally when biological waste breaks down in the absence of oxygen. It can be used to generate energy. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and contributes towards climate change if it is not captured.


Geothermal Heat pumps are energy efficient heating systems that utilize heat from the ground, rock, air or water where solar energy is stored.

The most common types of heat pumps used in the UK include:

  • Outdoor Air Source, which harness heat energy from the outdoor air and deliver heat via a wet heating system like underfloor heating, radiators or fan convectors;
  • Ground Source, where heat energy is collected from the ground or rock and delivers heat via a wet heating system;
  • Water Source Heat, using heat energy pumped from an underground water source and deliversed via a wet heating system;
  • Exhaust Air Damp, where stale air from the property's wet rooms is ducted to the heat pump and is the energy source for smaller, low energy dwellings;
  • Air to Air Heat, which harnesses heat energy from the outdoor air and delivers heating and cooling via a fan convector.

Running costs for a property using a heat pump are reduced to the electricity required to run the heat pump, which means a saving of up to 60% compared to oil, LPG or all-electric heating. However usually they will not provide savings when compared to a gas boiler. Any form of heat pump will provide a lower temperature of background heat than one would expect from a traditional boiler, so they are usually fitted with underfloor heating or larger radiators running for longer periods of time at a lower temperature, rather than a blast of heat morning and evening as many people do with a traditional gas or oil fueled boiler system. Supplementary heating e.g. from a solid fuel stove, may be required in very cold periods. The Energy Saving Trust conducted an extensive field trial of heat pumps in 2012, finding that many heat pumps in the UK were poorly installed and performing much less efficiently than they should. Many systems are complex and controls are not always user-friendly, further contributing to poor performance.

Insulation and conservation

The energy we consume in our homes makes up about 25% of UK CO2 emissions. A lot of this is energy is wasted, and insulation is one way to help avoid many tonnes of carbon emissions.

Energy saving measures will also save money on fuel bills, and making homes more comfortable and healthy - by reducing draughts, damp and condensation. Insulation of roof and loft spaces, walls, and floors together with draught proofing measures, energy efficient glazing for windows and insulating tanks, pipes and radiators can make a huge difference. Adding loft insulation and cavity wall insulation can reduce heat loss in a typical British house by 25% which translates to a 40% reduction in heating consumption (Mackay, 2009 p142).

Insulation materials work mainly by trapping small pockets of air – air is actually quite a good insulator in itself, but problems arise when the air moves, taking heat with it. This means that alongside installing insulation you should deal with draughts as far as possible. Although some materials give better insulation than others, a good general rule of thumb is “the thicker the better”.

There are a number of measures of insulation effectiveness. The most commonly quoted in manufacturer's literature are:

  • Thermal conductivity (sometimes called k or λ): the rate at which heat flows through a particular material – good insulators have low thermal conductivity.
  • Thermal resistance (sometimes called R): the capacity of a given thickness of a particular material to resist the flow of heat – good insulators have a high thermal resistance.
  • U-value: the rate at which heat flows through a building element (i.e. a U-value can apply to a sandwich of different materials, such as a wall or a window) – a good window or wall, roof or floor structure will have a low U-value.


Solar Photovoltaic (PV) systems allow the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity.

The PV cell which enables this reaction consists of one or two layers of semi conducting material, usually silicon. When sunlight shines on the cell it creates an electric field across the layers causing electricity to flow. The greater the intensity of light, the greater the flow of electricity. The amount of electricity generated is measured in kWp (kilowatt peak).

PV modules gather solar energy and convert it into direct current electricity. An inverter converts this DC current to alternating current (AC) for use in the home. Many PV systems are designed to sell surplus energy back to the grid rather than storing energy. This overcomes many the problems associated with batteries: i.e. high cost, storage, limited useful life span and environmentally unfriendly components.

Before installing Solar PV in a domestic setting, it is sensible to take more general energy conservation measures. This ensures the relatively expensive energy investment may be optimised. However, in the UK:

  1. you can benefit from the Government's feed in tariff which pays a set rate per kWh of electricity generated and an additional rate for any exported back to the national grid, guaranteed by the Government for 20 years.
  2. Panels generate power even on cloudy days, they simply need light.
  3. Clean energy means you reduce your carbon emissions by up to 1 tonne per annum.
  4. Producing your own power protects against rising energy prices.

Potential drawbacks are:

  1. large area of unshaded south facing roof is required to maximise payback. Smaller systems can be installed, but payback will be longer.
  2. Panels degrade over time by approximately 20% over 25 years, this however is taken into account in most reputable suppliers calculations.
  3. It may be beneficial to replace the inverter after 10 years to optimise power generation.

Small-scale hydro

Micro-hydro schemes generate renewable electricity from streams and small rivers. The power can be used to generate electricity, or to drive machinery.

The power available in a river or stream depends on the rate at which the water is flowing, and the height (head) which it falls down. The vertical fall of the water, known as the “head”, is essential for hydropower generation; fast-flowing water on its own does not contain sufficient energy for useful power production except on a very large scale, such as offshore marine currents.

Hydro schemes are classified by the output power which they produce: Large scale - 2 MW and above; Mini - 100 kW to 2 MW; Micro - 5 kW to 100 kW; Pico - less than 5 kW, but the basic approach is similar for all. The core of a micro-hydro scheme is the turbine, which is rotated by the moving water. Different types are used, depending on the head and flow at the site. The turbine rotates a shaft, which is often used to drive an electrical generator.

  • Pelton turbine (for high head, low flow) consists of a set of small buckets arranged around a wheel onto which one or more jets of water are arranged to impact.
  • Francis turbine (lower head and higher flow) has a spiral casing that directs the water flow through vanes on a rotor.
  • Cross-flow or Banki turbines (even lower head and higher flow) are made as a series of curved blades fixed between the perimeters of two disks to make a cylinder, and the water flows in at one side of the cylinder and out of the other, driving the blades around.
  • Propeller turbine (very low head and large flow) has fixed blades, like a boat propeller. A more complex version, the Kaplan turbine, has blades that can be adjusted in pitch relative to the flow.
  • River current turbine, which is like a wind-turbine immersed in water, can be used to extract power from with a large flow in a river, where there is virtually no head.

Most micro-hydro systems are ‘run-of-river’ which means that they don’t need large dams to store water. The turbine runs a generator which provides electricity to the local community. As no dams required for this type of scheme, run of the river systems are a low-cost way to [produce power. They have the added advantage that there are not the damaging environmental and social effects associated with larger hydro-electric power schemes. These schemes have been used very effectively in developing countries to provide electricity to villages.

Solar hot water

Solar water heating systems use free energy from the sun to heat domestic hot water.

A conventional boiler or immersion heater can be used to make the water hotter, or to provide hot water when solar energy is unavailable. Solar water heating panels should not be confused with photovoltaic panels which produce electricity from sunlight.

A solar water heating (SWH) system consists of three major components:

  • one or more solar collectors (tubes or panels, usually mounted on a roof),
  • a pump connected to a controller, and 
  • a hot water cylinder with two heating coils (twin coil cylinder).

​The collector uses the solar energy from sunlight to heat a thermal fluid (water with antifreeze). If the fluid in the collector is hotter than the water in the cylinder then the controller activates the pump, to pump the fluid through the coil in the cylinder, thus heating water in the cylinder for showers and hot water taps. The second heating coil in the cylinder is connected to a back-up boiler (e.g. gas boiler) to provide hot water when there isn’t enough sunshine.

Source - Which? Energy (link)

Regulations in the UK strongly discourage DIY solar water heating. It's a system that can utilise pressurised steam and is therefore potentially hazardous; only professionals are certified to install these. DIY also prohibits eligibility for incentive programmes such as the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI).

For detailed information and expert advice, consult the CAT information service page found here.


Hurricanes and cyclones can destroy buildings. Wind-proofing measures can include reinforced foundations, adding earth sheltering elements, utilisation of natural or artificial slopes and tree lines to give shelter, reinforcing of windows and doors and the shaping of buildings to provide minimum wind resistance.

Wood stoves

A wood burning stove is a closed heating appliance which is capable of burning wood fuel.

Some can be adapted with the addition of a grate to burn anthracite, semi-anthracite and low volatile steam coals or other fuels suitable for use in smokeless zones.

Wood stoves offer far greater efficiency than open fires as the combustion inside the fire chamber can be regulated through the air control and heat is not lost up the chimney as with unregulated open fires.

Heat is radiated into the room as the the stove's body becomes hot. Most solid fuel stoves are approximately 40-50% more efficient than an open fire and allow the user to have control over the rate of burn and heat output to the room.

A stove can be linked to a back boiler providing hot water and heat for up to seven radiators, or linked to the central heating system.

Information technology

Information technology (IT) is the application of computers and telecommunications equipment to store, retrieve, transmit and manipulate data and has been a key factor in contributing to economic and political change across the world.

Access to information has become both an equalizer and a mobilizer in the effort to meet the challenge of climate change and global sustainability. A new global platform for collaboration has been enabled by the creation of blogs and social networks, giving rise to virtual communities, and a global dialogue that has changed the flow of information gathering, innovation and political mobilization. Permaculture has now developed associations in many countries, linked together by regional institutes, with regular newsletters and meetings. By using the Internet as a communication and information tool it has become possible to share permaculture projects, the variables of experiments, and raw data can be evaluated (and shared) more efficiently.


Hardware is the term used for the physical devices used in information technology.

Examples of hardware are a Laptop, Scanner, Digital Camera, Mouse, Printer, Keyboard, CPU (Central Processing Unit), VDU (Visual Display Unit - often referred to as a 'screen' or 'monitor') a Hard Drive (Also known as data storage unit, or some people call it 'Storage Memory'), RAM (Random Access Memeory) and Processor. There are many more specific items, perhaps a digital sketching pen or sound equipment and so on.

Computer hardware is notorious for fast-paced development, particluarly during the preceeding decades 1990s-2000s, computers were renowned for being out of date within a few months.

This incredible pace of design and development caused a heightened consumption of computer related materials and technology, however it also means there is an abundance of cheap secondhand, perfectly good computer Hardware available at present.

Computer Hardware can be very expensive. Thank fully it is possible to find good quality hardware for very little money, second hand. Online auction sites can help you with this, or have a look and seek advice from our colleagues in the many independent PC/Mac repair shops. They will be very pleased to help, and can offer advice if you describe what you intend to use it for.

A good example of a second hand PC laptop that is low priced and has a good reputation as being robust and effective is the 'HP Compaq nc6400' with an Intel Core2 Duo processor - although it's best to seek expert advice. This model is particularly abundant as it was the standard issue business laptop for many large corporations, but these laptops have now been surpassed, making them surplus to requirements and in abundance, hence very cheap. 

Secondhand laptops can be bought as refurbished units, with a warranty, for as little as £50.00 in the UK. It is possible to find them being sold for as little as £3.00, but you may need to employ the services of a friend/shop who can help you refurbish the item.


Software are the programs used by computers to perform different tasks, they are often referred to as software 'packages.' Two examples are 'MSWord' for word processing such as typing letters and reports, and 'Adobe Photoshop' which, among many other uses, can be used for photo editing and creating, flyers, diagrams and photomontages.

Numerous software programs are available to purchase either in a shop, via an online store, or via download using the internet.

There are an increasing number of software programs which are free to download via official websites. Two examples are Sketchup and Google Earth Pro. Both these software packages can assist  the permaculture designer in creating base maps and designs.

On this page you can click links to videos and articles published by permaculturists using software packages for design.


Technology - overview

The range of technology available to us is extraordinary, ranging from a screwdriver to a tractor to the world wide web.

Technology has a key role to play in creating the better world that permaculture practitioners envisage. But how can we identify the right technology for the right situation? How can be sure we get the most out of the technologies we use? How do we minimise the environmental and social harms that technology can cause? And how do we make sure that technology is available to everyone who needs it at a price they can afford? This section gives some answers to these questions.

CAT lakeview classic. Photo: catimages on Flickr, shared under Attribution license.

Alternative technology

Alternative technology is a term used to refer to technologies that are more environmentally friendly than the functionally equivalent technologies dominant in current practice.

Some "alternative technologies" have in the past or may in the future become widely adopted, after which they might no longer be considered "alternative." For example the use of wind turbines to produce electricity (Source: Wikipedia). The term covers many of those technologies that have their own entries in this knowledge base, for generating power, disposing of waste, providing water, composting and recycling.

Appropriate technology

Appropriate technology is a philosophy, a way of thinking and seeing the world. It's a concept which was developed as 'intermediate technology' in EF Schumacher's groundbreaking (1973) work "Small is Beautiful".

The ways in which appropriate technologies are implemented are specific to the context of their use but they tend to be:

  • small-scale;
  • labor-intensive;
  • cheap enough to be accessible to anyone;
  • energy-efficient;
  • environmentally sound;
  • locally controlled;
  • has scope for human creativity, as opposed to alienation and dehumanisation.

Initially appropriate technology was seen as a way of transferring ideas for problem solving from the developed world to less developed countries. However permaculturists and the Transition Movement have been quick to see the relevance for appropriate technologies in western nations. Not only will this bring more resilience in a low carbon future but also brings social, economic and community benefits now. Examples of appropriate technology in action are:

  • ‘lifestraw’ The Lifestraw is a personal, low-cost water purification tool, with a service lifetime of 700 litres, or about one year of water consumption for a single person. Unlike other water purification products, Lifestraw is intuitive to use, can be worn around the neck, and requires no training, special tools or electricity to operate. The sucking action of the straw pulls the water through a filter that traps 99.999% of waterborne bacteria (such as Salmonella, Shigella, Enterococcus and Staphylococcus) and 98.7% of waterborne viruses;
  • ‘rocket stove’ A rocket stove is a super-efficient heater invented which reduces biomass fuel requirements for cooking and boiling water. It combines the stove’s air-intake with the fuel-feed slot in an opening terminated by a combustion chamber, which in turn leads to a chimney and heat exchanger. Rocket Stoves are commonly used today in Lesotho, Malawi, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia. The stoves are easy to build using local materials, and accept small diameter fuel such as twigs and branches;
  • ‘vermicomposting’ using worms to breakdown kitchen food waste into compost for growing vegetables.


Tools, whether hand or machine powered, are an essential element in all the ways that human's change their environment, from gardening to construction.

Timber framing tool table. Photo: smallape on Flickr, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Hand tools

Hand tools can be seen in use all over the world today. However, our reliance on fossil fuel powered machinery has led to a decrease in our knowledge and maintenance of small hand tools.

Permaculture seeks to empower people with 'tried and tested' educational approaches to the use of small hand tools (e.g. tool selection, maintenance and repair), and use of tools to learn to build basic infrastructure, irrigation, basic plumbing and fencing of animals.

Pedal powered smoothie maker Image: oneplanetsutton on Flickr, shared under CC Attribution license.

Pedal powered technology

Pedal power is the transfer of energy from a human source through the use of a foot pedal and crank system.

This technology is most commonly used for transportation and has been used to propel bicycles for over a hundred years. Less commonly pedal power is used to power agricultural and hand tools and even to generate electricity. Some applications include pedal powered laptops, pedal powered grinders and pedal powered water wells. Development projects in many countries currently transform used bicycles into pedal powered tools for sustainable development.

Transition engineering

Transition Engineering is a key part of smoothing the transition from a high speed, high energy, high impact economy to a slower, lower energy, low impact economy.

Transition engineering enables change from unsustainable existing systems to more sustainable ones. Sustainability is built into all stages of the engineering process. Transition engineering is a cross-disciplinary field that addresses the issues of future resource availability and identifies solutions which promote resilience and design simplicity.

Garden design

Redesigning a garden enables change from an unsustainable existing system to a more sustainable one. Sustainability is built into all stages of the design and implementation process from the orientation to the sun, the selection of materials and plants to the projected maintenance requirements. Permaculture garden design is a cross-disciplinary field that addresses the issues of future resource availability and environmental degradation and implements solutions on a local scale, which promote resilience and simplicity.

Garden design and implementation is a key part of smoothing the transition from a high speed, high energy, high impact economy to a slower, lower energy, low impact economy by creating spaces that consume less and create more. No matter how small, even a 1m2 patch can be converted, from possessing an adverse effect on nature, to possessing a beneficial effect for people and nature.

Gardens achieve this by combining small-scale solutions to seemingly overwhelming global issues. The garden is a microcosm of the world, and gardening is a creative activity that can bring people together of all ages and backgrounds. Culturally-caused issues, such as pollinator decline, resource depletion , carbon emissions, food scarcity, habitat decline, social frgamentation, environmental degradation, food miles, food additives, biodiversity loss, rising food and energy costs, chemical farming, water loss, deforestation are some of the issues that can be addressed by creating a small patch of sanctuary.

(Re)Designing and creating a garden space is a hugely beneficial process whether it's individually or as a team, for your family and a school or local community, and it also benfits the wider environment. Transitioning from a low-yield, monocultural, high fossil fuel input scenario to a high yield, biodiverse low fossil fuel input scenario can happen at all scales, from a tiny garden to large community and school gardens. 

The time, money and energy used maintaining an area of lawn can be translated into a range of social activities and yields. The lawn has benefits such as for playing sports and simple maintainence, but if an area of lawn or concrete for that matter, is not used regularly enough, transforming it into a productive creative space, reduces the maintanence costs and opens the site up to whole range of opportunities - from social events and group activities to food growing and wildlife spotting. It can be of huge value to oneself, a family, a school or community - and to the natural environment!

Global village construction set

As described by Open Source Ecology "the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) is an open technological platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts."

The aim of the GVCS is to lower the barriers to entry into farming, building, and manufacturing. Its a life-size lego set that can create entire economies, whether in rural Missouri, where the project was founded, or in the developing world. It is the work of Open Source Ecology which is a network of farmers, engineers and supporters. It is an open source platform that is free for anybody to use, replicate, and improve. It is a community based solution for bringing wealth back to local communities. It can be used to start local food systems, renewable energy production, a construction business, parts manufacturing, or many others. Because all the plans are open source, they can be used to start small enterprise and reduce barriers to entry. Founded on the principle that it should take no more than a couple of hours per day of work to create wealth and to provide modern day comforts. The goal is to tame machines to full service of humans, not humans in service to the Machine. If artificial material scarcity is eliminated by using wisdom and modern technology, then people have a good chance to focus their energies not on 'making a living', but on pursuing their true interests and creativity. This can unleash massive amounts of human potential, and can address many pressing world issues. Open Source Ecology are interested in distributive production - an economic system which tends to distribute wealth to the largest possible number of stakeholders for everybody's benefit.

Open source technology

"Open licensing allows others to replicate, reuse, adapt, improve, adopt, bring to scale, write about, talk about, remix, translate, digitize, redistribute and build upon what we have done." - Shuttleworth Foundation.

Open source means that the goods and knowledge for reproducing the technology (the "source") is freely accessible (open). This is very natural to permaculture practitioners who like to share ideas and experience in practical ways.

The term 'open source' is commonly applied to software which holds a shared community approach to the development, extension, and patching of software. Most open source projects have a dedicated group that moderates and directs the core software development and ensures that needed new features are being developed, bugs are being fixed, and the supporting documentation remains current.

Open source is also a development method for appropriate technology. Appropedia is an example of open-source appropriate technology. There anyone can both learn how to make and use appropriate technology free of concerns about patents. At the same time anyone can add to the collective open-source knowledge base by contributing ideas, observations, experimental data, deployment logs. The built in continuous peer-review can result in better quality, higher reliability, and more flexibility than conventional design/patenting of technologies. The free nature of the knowledge also obviously provides lower costs, particularly for those technologies that do not benefit to a large degree from scale of manufacture.

Open source also enables the end to predatory intellectual property lock-in. This is particularly important in the context of technology focused on relieving suffering in the developing world. Open sourcing allows a horizontal transfer of technology, gives greater autonomy for local communities to build the technology they need, and enables them to tap into a global knowledge base. It often gives rise to greater modularity in design (easier to fix, maintain and integrate), and thus in many cases better re-use of materials and components: leading to a cradle-to-cradle lifecycle.

There are a wide range of open source projects, from software such as Mozilla, operating systems such as Android and Linux, hardware such as Arduino, even some types of beer. There is also an increasing number of inspiring open source energy projects such as Onawi, an organisation that aims to make designs of wind turbines freely available and River Simple who have made their design for hydrogen cars open source. The open source energy monitoring project another example which empowers the user (rather than the Big Six energy providers) to be in full control of when, how and where energy data is logged.

A very exciting development is the advent of 3D printing e.g. RepRap 3D printer: a fabricator that can self replicate many of its component parts, thus the technology can be easily passed on to other communities. 3D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. Existing 3D printers can produce limb prosthetics, water system parts such as taps, tools like wrenches, pulleys and gears. Advances in the technology could allow circuit boards and other electrical items to be produced and bigger machines could in time produce items such as solar dehydrators, and pasteurisers and medical equipment.

Transport technologies

One of the greatest consumers of energy is transport, and personal transportation accounts for a big part of our fossil-fuel consumption.

Transport is not just about where you travel, it is also a system of moving commodities around the globe; and our management of supply and demand to the economy is reducing the Earth's capacity to repair the damage to the forests and the pollution of seas. Contrary to the trends in most other sectors, greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing, and are predicted to grow further in the coming years.

There is no simple solution to the challenge of achieving significant CO reductions in transport, however it is clear that a large range of efficient and effective reduction measures will have to be taken. Alternative appropriate energy transport such as electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles could play a significant role in the move towards sustainable transport, however electric/hybrid cars are expensive to buy and there is the obvious issue about the carbon footprint of investing in a new car as opposed to a used one.

One of the main aims of good permaculture design is to redesign our homes and community so that we have all our resources to hand, and without the need to travel to access them. In the short term, reducing the external cost of transport (e.g. land take for roads, noise pollution, global warming, road accidents and policing) can be addressed by saving energy (e.g using car alternatives such as switching to public transport, cycling and walking), reducing our purchasing power and transport energy consumption.

Animal powered

Throughout the world cattle, buffalo, horses, mules and camels continue to be used by farmers in all aspects of agriculture e.g. ploughing, planting, and water and produce transportation.

From a development perspective, the use of draught animals carries economic benefits well beyond the farm gate. Animal power requires little or no foreign exchange - money invested in animal power circulates within rural areas, helping to revitalise rural economies. Pack animals and carts facilitate the marketing of produce, stimulating local trade. Animals can also provide important local "feeder" transport between farms and roads, thus complementing motorised road transport systems. Heavy horses are better at logging steep slopes than tractors and the one advantage that 'living' vehicles have over metal ones is that they are self-reproducing. Animal tractor systems such at the chicken or pig tractor can be used to prepare soils and remove grasses or persistent weeds.


The human body is one source of energy that should not be overlooked, and bicycles are the most energy efficient way to travel.

Bicycles are extremely beneficial to our health and wellbeing, and there are no age or physical restrictions to adapting a bicycle to suit individual needs. Tricycles can easily replace the car to do school runs or shopping and are a fun way to spend quality recreation time with family and friends.

The amount of embodied energy required to produce a bicycle is tiny compared to other forms of transport, a cycle lane or path is less intensive to create, and can carry five times as many people as a road twice as wide. However, a bicycle's environmental sustainability is about more than the issue of low embodied energy... if enough people switch from polluting transport modes to a bicycle (a zero emission form when in use), there is potential for reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality in our towns and cities. The role of the bicycle is also of huge importance in reducing noise pollution levels in our communities and places of work.

Pedal power can also be harnessed to drive machinery and cycling systems have been used to power generators, water pumps, lawnmowers and musical instruments. Bicycles are easy to build, customize and maintain. Many town and cities have cycle hire schemes.


Biofuels are any kind of fuel made from living things, or from the waste they produce and include: wood (chippings and straw), pellets or liquids made from wood, biogas (methane) from animal excrement and ethanol and diesel, or other liquid fuels made from processed plant material or waste oil.

In recent years the term 'biofuel' has come to mean the last category - ethanol and diesel: made from crops such as corn, sugarcane and rapeseed. Bioethanol can replace petrol, but only a mix of about 5% bioethanol with petrol can be used in an existing car without any problems. A high proportion of bioethanol in petrol may damage parts of the engine, eg. rubber seals and aluminium parts. Some 'flex-fuel' vehicles have been designed, with hardened components, non-rubber seals and larger fuel lines to cope with the abrasiveness of the fuel. Wider use of bioethanol would also require modification of the fuel supply infrastructure: pumps, tankers and storage facilities.

However, the main problem is that carbon emissions from biofuels can be very high, due to land use changes such as deforestation and from the fuel and fertiliser needed to grow and process the crops. When all factors are included, it is unclear if biofuels have lower greenhouse gas emissions than the fuels they replace. There are also concerns about impacts on biodiversity and water availability, and competition for land needed to grow food. The Centre for Alternate Technology, in their 'Zero Carbon Britain 2030' report, advocate for the use of electric vehicles along with a reduction in private car use as the way to reduce carbon emissions from road transport. Making ‘second generation’ biofuels from wood or grasses causes fewer problems, but there will still be limits on the land available. If some biofuel can be produced sustainably, it’s best used where electricity cannot be – such as shipping, some heavy goods vehicles and farm machinery, and aviation.


Biological transport remains the ideal way to reduce our consumption of energy, however it is not possible for everyone to use this mode of transport. The priorities are not absolute, but the general picture remains that after biological methods, mechanical systems remain a better option than chemical ones. Electric vehicles offer a clean and green alternative to petrol and diesel powered transport.

Pure electric vehicles are powered solely by on-board batteries. The new generation of electric cars have a range typically of 80 to 100 miles on a full charge, sufficient for the commuting and daily driving patterns of many people. The vehicles must pass the stringent safety testing which applies to all cars and in terms of overall performance they will be suitable for normal use including motorway driving. The electric car finally seems to be on the verge of breaking through, offering significant environmental benefits, especially in urban areas. Innovative business models are on the way which should boost consumer acceptance and overcome the remaining barriers, such as high battery costs, green electricity supply and charging infrastructure. Electric bikes are a cheaper and more viable option for commuting and there are no driving license restrictions.

View of soil horizons in landscape showing top layer of peat mixing with lower layers of stone

Soil management

As permaculture designers we need to be designing rich, healthy, living soil. Geoff Lawton has described permaculture as "ethical design science", and we need to ethically and scientifically design our soil. A design for good soil should be a key part of all permaculture growing projects.

Soil is the most complicated living system we know of. As growers we do not need to fully understand it, but we do need to know how to support soil life, soil structure and soil nutrients. Just by looking at soil, smelling it and feeling it, you can see that living, healthy soil looks very different to dead soil.

On these pages we consider a number of different aspects of soil management, and explain the basics. As ever, plenty of good books, videos and sources of support are included so you can find the information and 'how to' guides that are right for you.


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This category, and the pages within it, were created as part of our collaborative work within the GROW Observatory, which received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.


Citizen science

Citizen science

Citizen science is a collective term for projects that engage non-scientists in gathering, evaluating and/or computing scientific data.

Citizen science covers a huge variety of projects; from the passive use of personal computers in distributed computing projects (SETI@home, Folding@Home}); through online-only analysis in the form of classification, annotation, or transcription of data (e.g. Zooniverse projects, InstantWild, Herbaria@home); to practical outdoor surveys and experiments e.g. Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) surveys, RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch; and even immersive expedition-style projects (e.g. Operation Wallacea, Earthwatch Institution Expeditions).

Ideally, citizen science benefits both the scientists and the other participants. Scientists benefit from the computational, intellectual or observational power of volunteers to generate much larger sample sizes and/or far broader geographical coverage than otherwise be possible. Non-scientists benefit by deepening their knowledge of the system being studied and their understanding of the scientific method.

Most citizen sciences are contributive - scientists decide the questions to be answered and design the protocols while participants collect data and pass it to the researchers for analysis. In collaborative citizen science projects, non-scientists not only collect data but are involved in other aspects of scientific discovery e.g. guiding questions, analysing and/or disseminating findings. Co-created citizen science projects go a step further than collaborative projects and involve volunteers in the whole scientific process.

Citizen science has a long history in ecological and environmental research but the majority of projects have focused on measuring biodiversity, for example garden birds, butterflies and earthworms. Relatively few citizen science projects involve experiments to answer questions/hypotheses - a review of citizen science projects in 2017 found just 15 hypothesis-led examples out of 509, or less than 3%.

While there is increasing evidence of the benefits of regenerative growing practices (for example, growing cover crops, no-till methods, or practicing intercropping) on a large scale, there have been very few scientific studies at the smaller, non-farm scale. Citizen science is an ideal method for small-scale growers to contribute to this research but also to join together to share knowledge, learn research skills, obtain evidence that can influence local policy makers, and investigate practices which interest them in co-created projects. Citizen science is also good value for money and is often more cost-effective than traditional scientific research.

Read about current and past Permaculture Association citizen science research. The Permaculture Research Handbook steps you through designing your own research projects.


Image removed.This text was written by Victoria Burton of the Permaculture Association (Britain) as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.

Image removed.The GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.


Perennial crops

Perennials flower and fruit more than once and are often productive over many years, requiring less cultivation after initial planting than annuals.

Perennial systems are inherently no-dig and a key component of agroforestry systems and forest gardens. The plants tend to have deeper, more extensive roots and longer growing seasons than annuals; intercept more rainfall; and access water and nutrients from deeper in the soil.


  • Reduced soil erosion
  • Improved soil fertility and help to create below-ground soil webs
  • Less effort and costs for farmers and growers
  • Contribute to climate resilience and food security


  • Some perennials are water-hungry and may require more consistent water-availability than annuals
  • Pest and disease control requires thoughtful planning since they are often grown for a long time in one place and usual crop rotation practices do not apply


Perennials include fruit and nut trees and shrubs like currants and gooseberries. Shrubs are easy to propogate from prunings and apples are usually grafted to create new trees of a favourite variety.

Commonly grown perennial vegetables include asparagus, rhubarb, yams (Dioscorea species) and Jerusalem artichoke. Many kitchen herbs are perennials, including oregano, bay, mints, wild garlic and chives. Several vegetables grown as annuals are also perennial in the right conditions e.g. brassicas (cabbage, kale), some beans and potatoes. 

Cereal crops derive from perennial grasses and there is an increased interest in finding perennial varieties of common grains: rice, rye and quinoa are readily available.

The Plants for a Future database lists over 1400 'tasty' perennials.

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This text is based on an academic literature review by Naomi van der Velden at the Permaculture Association (Britain) as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.

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The GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

Water for crops and animals

A big effect of climate change is unpredictable rainfall, causing both droughts and floods. This is an acute threat to crops and livelihoods. Adapt by improving how you collect and store water on your land. Slow it down and harvest it with ponds, tanks, wetlands, swales and trees.

Freshwater is essential for all forms of life on land. Not only does it provide drinking water and help to maintain a thriving ecosystem, it's also vital to agriculture (which accounts for 70 per cent of global freshwater use) and industry (20 per cent), as well as a wide range of household, recreational and environmental activities.

Designing for drought

  • Save surplus to get you through bad times. Stockpile surplus water, food, seeds, or money.
  • Store water from all precipitation and surface flows in ponds, tanks and wetlands. Swales, ditches, hedges and mulched areas built along contours will hold moisture on site.
  • Reduce irrigation using pumped up groundwater. Pumping deep groundwater can deplete aquifers and degrade water resources.
  • Reduce crops requiring frequent irrigation. Water intensive crops are being grown in places that do not have the long term water resources to support those crops.
  • Reduce soil erosion and build soil health. The healthier and deeper the soil, the more water it can hold.
  • Reduce bare soil surfaces. Soil that is exposed to the sun, wind, and falling raindrops is more prone to erosion and dehydration.
  • Cultivate tree products. Perennials are more resilient to yearly fluctuations of water availability because of their established root systems.

Designing for torrential rain

  • Harvest water as it passes through the site in ponds, tanks and marshy areas.
  • Water flow within ploughed fields should be channelized so flood flow does not spread out within fields and damage crops and soils.
  • Outside of ploughed fields, the passage of water should be slowed as much as possible through the building of permeable dams, meanders, overflow ponds and the creation of marshes, flood meadows and wooded areas.
  • Man-made channels will help direct water. Swales, ditches and mulched areas built along contours will catch and hold water safely, while ditches running down the slope will carry it to a stream or storage area.
  • Field drains should be mapped, cleaned and improved.
  • Plantings of trees will slow water flow, take up excess water, catch washed away nutrients, and stabilise soil against erosion.

Watershed level planning

True resilience does not happen within the boundaries of one site. It happens by planning at the scale of communities and regions. Water harvesting structures need to be interlinked between farms and villages, and there needs to be a recognition that upstream is intimately linked to downstream. The perspective that needs to be adopted is water resource development at the watershed scale. Another important aspect of restoring the hydrologic cycle and stabilizing the climate is reforestation.

This page is based on text written by Chris Warburton Brown of the Permaculture Association (Britain) for, and was created as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.

Flag of EuropeThe GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

A bumblebee and a small monarch butterfly on an allium flowerhead

Attracting pollinators

Pollinators are vital for growing crops and there are many different ways to attract beneficial insects to your plot.


Flower strips or fields are a great way to improve the abundance and diversity of pollinators around your growing area, such as wild bees, bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies. Wild bees, including bumblebees, are the heroes of pollination and more efficient than honey bees.

See 'Key practices for growing ecosystems' to determine what kind of flower strip fits your context best. This infosheet includes further details on: sown flower strips
; flowering cover crops in orchards; 
; and grassland with forb flowers.


Compared with flower strips, hedgerows provide longer-term sheltered habitats for some native woodland and woodland-edge pollinator and wildlife species. Hedgerows, like other non-cropped habitats, support greater numbers of beneficial insects, birds and mammals than simple landscapes. However, hedges may also pose considerable barriers for pollinators to move between more open landscapes and fields.

Wild areas

Only the preservation and restoration of (semi) wild habitats, including wildflower strips, forests, shrubs and grassland will maintain the overall diversity of native pollinator and wildlife communities. This provides more forage and nesting possibilities, facilitating the movement of pollinators.

Depending on their size, shape and distance from each other, flower strips, hedgerows and other wild or densely vegetated areas can become so-called 'stepping stones', bio-corridors or permanent habitats for wildlife and pollinators. 


Read more here - This links to a review of the academic literature and includes sources of evidence.

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This text is based on an academic literature review by Pavlo Ardanov as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.


European flagThe GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

Water lilies on a pond

Creating wildlife habitats

In general, the less disturbed an area is, i.e. the more “wild” it is. Wilder areas tend to have greater plant and animal diversity, particularly of native species. In towns and cities, and arable countryside, these wild areas become part of an important mosaic of “stepping stones”, which are small pockets of surviving habitats that enable species to travel and live in a wider, fragmented landscape.

The great thing about wild areas is that you can improve biodiversity, and increase benefits for the overall ecosystem with relatively little effort.  They thrive on minimal or no management.


  • Increase species richness
  • Native flora are more likely to attract native beneficial fauna (pollinators and predators)

There are lots of kinds of wild spaces that you could create or maintain. Examples include:

  • Un-mown sections of lawn
  • Natural (unmaintained) ponds
  • Pots of native plants (e.g. nettles)
  • Piles of wood – dead branches and twigs
  • Native hedges and borders

Let the grass grow

Grow some of your lawn. Well-controlled lawns are referred to as “biological deserts”. How about leaving a patch of lawn un-mown through the growing season? What comes up will be a surprise, largely dependent on what you have started with, soil type, and climate. Change your perspective on weeds, if your lawn is particularly old and weedy, you could have a mini wildflower meadow.


Natural Ponds

Leave natural ponds – rather than maintaining them. Silty shady ponds are just as important as beautiful ponds with a mix of everything. Do not suddenly change the management of a pond or surroundings or the existing community will be damaged with little conservation gain.


Nettle patches

Patches of nettles can support certain butterfly larvae, pollinators, and lots more. You can even plant them in pots if you don’t want them spreading.


Dead wood piles

Dead wood piles are useful to maintain a humid microclimate that is often missing from gardens due to “cleaning up”. This is the perfect habitat for fungi and dead wood loving organisms. All you need to do is leave a pile of wood in your garden, rather than clear it up.  If you prefer it to look neater, organise it into a “dead hedge” with poles to support the edges and the sticks forming the hedge.


Native hedges

These can provide a long-term sheltered habitat for a number of native species. Hedgerows can support beneficial insects, birds, and mammals. If you want edible hedgerows try sloe (blackthorn), hawthorn or hazel.


High performing corridors allowing high connectivity of semi-natural plant communities really contribute to species richness within cities. Humans have an impact but the geographical location plays the biggest role in determining the constitution of the flora.


A few things to remember

Be careful to ensure any wild areas are typical of the surroundings if specifically planting. Woodland vegetation is very different to open habitat and likely to support a different set of species. Think carefully if creating agricultural buffer strips to maximise the wildlife typical of the surrounding area.

Patience – it takes time – the species that will be attracted will be highly dependent on your surroundings

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This text is based on an academic literature review by Alice Ambler at the James Hutton Institute as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.


Flag of EuropeThe GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

Soil in hands

Introduction to soil

Good soil is central to food production, and therefore to human life. It is necessary for strong, healthy plants that can feed us well. Modern industrial agriculture makes huge demands on soil and there is widespread evidence of soil erosion and a slow decline in soil fertility. Improving you growing soil will not only improve the crops you grow, it is a crucial contribution to healing the planet.

Good growing soil has three characteristics: rich biological life, good structure, and readily available nutrients. A range of simple tests can be done at home to measure the biological life and structure (see The Permaculture Association Soil Test Handbook).

Biological life

Good soil has rich biological life ranging from billions of things you can't see like bacteria and fungi to big things like worms and beetles. The biological life in your soil creates the soil through its digestive activities and binds the soil together. Whatever kind of soil you have, improving the biological life will improve it; in sandy soil, biological life will bind it together, improve the amount of water it can hold, and keep nutrients in the soil. In clay soil, biological life will breakup the lumps in your soil and free up trapped nutrients for plants to use.

Soil structure

Good soil has a number of structural features; it lets water through when weather is wet and holds water when weather is dry; it consists of a number of small, loosely packed balls (crumbs) which allow plant roots to pass between them while anchoring them securely, it is deep enough to allow plant roots to grow extensively, and it is not easily eroded by water or wind. Soil naturally forms layers; the organic layer, the top soil, the sub soil, the bedrock. Together, these layers are termed the soil profile.


Plants primarily feed on energy from sunshine (photosythesis). However, to be strong and healthy they also need a number of minerals from the soil; soil nutrients. Soil nutrients are difficult to measure without using a lab, so you may want to submit a sample to a lab to find out the balance of nutrients in your soil. However, if you feed your soil properly,  look after its biological life, and ensure it has a good structure, it will generally feed your plants well unless it is lacking in a specific mineral.


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This content is derived from work created as part of the GROW Observatory, which received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199. 

Phaseolus vulgaris with nitrogen deficiency Credit: Rasbak, shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

Soil nutrients

At least 17 elements are essential for plant growth. Soil nutrients can limit plant growth if they are not available in sufficient quantity, ratio, or the correct form. Some soils are naturally low in certain elements.


Three macronutrients (carbon, oxygen and hydrogen) are obtained by plants from air and water. The rest of the macronutrients are obtained from the soil. The ‘big three’ are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium - often known as NPK (from their elemental symbols).

Nitrogen (N) makes up a large part of plant tissues and is essential for photosynthesis. It has to be provided from the soil ‘fixed’ (combined) with other elements as nitrate or ammonium.  Nitrogen deficiency results in stunted growth, slow growth, and yellowing (chlorosis).

Phosphorus (P) is a major structural component of DNA. Phosphorus is highly reactive and is often limited to plants. Many plants make symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi to increase phosphorus uptake. Phosphorus deficiency causes intense green colouration or reddening in leaves.

Potassium (K) is involved in forming carbohydrates and proteins. Potassium is particularly important for fruit formation. Potassium fertilisers are called potash and is mostly from mining; there are only small amounts in manure. Potassium deficiency may cause yellowing between leaf veins, stunted growth and dieback.

Sulphur, calcium and magnesium are classed as 'secondary macro-nutrients', and are all essential for photosynthesis in plants.


Micronutrients, or trace elements, are essential for plant growth but in much smaller quantities. There are eight micronutrients that plants obtain from the soil: iron, boron, chlorine, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum and nickel

Feeding your soil

Try some organic methods. Soil nitrogen content can be improved by planting legumes. Incorporating compost into your soil will increase nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Compost also contains many essential micronutrients. Applying organic mulches can increase your soil fertility over time as they break down.

Soil pH

pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a soil is. The pH scale runs from 0 (acid) to 7 (neutral) to 14 (alkaline). Acidic soils have a pH below 7, and alkaline soils have a pH above 7. The optimum pH range for most plants is between 5.5 and 7.5., while most annual vegetable crops prefer soils with pH 6.5-7. Soil pH is determined by the underlying parent rock material, vegetation type and land management. Soils tend to become more acidic over time.

To make soils more alkaline (increase pH) lime is often added. You can also use wood ash from hardwood trees and eggshells. To make soils more acidic (lower pH) sulphur is added. Adding organic matter including compost and manure can also lower pH.


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This content is derived from work created within the GROW Observatory, which received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

Newly dug swales filling with water Photo: DanMcTiernan

Soil moisture

The right soil moisture is needed for optimum plant growth. It also regulates the exchange of energy and carbon between the soil and the atmosphere.

All soil water which can be taken up by plants is called 'plant available water' and its amount differs from site to site depending on soil texture, soil organic content, stone content, activity of small burying animals, plant rooting depth and root density, and soil management by humans.

Soil moisture characteristics

Following heavy rain, full saturation occurs when all the soil pore spaces are filled with water, preventing air entering the soil. If this situation exists for a long period, roots cannot breathe and plants die. As the water drains, air (including oxygen) can enter the pore spaces, which is vital for roots.

After the drainage has stopped, the large soil pores are filled with both air and water while the medium and smaller pores are still full of water. At this stage, the soil is said to be at field capacity, ideal for crop growth. This is usually 2-3 days after a major wetting event.

When the soil reaches permanent wilting point, the remaining water is no longer available to the plant, and plants will quickly wilt, and then die.

Ways to maintain soil moisture

There are two ways to measure how much moisture is in your soil and how much is available to your plants: a) Soil moisture content - the amount of water in the soil, usually described as a percentage based on mass or volume; b) Soil moisture tension - how hard the plant root has to work to extract water from the soil.

Keep moisture levels right by:

  • Hand watering with a hose or a watering can
  • Drip irrigation using a network of hoses with small holes
  • Wicking from a porous reservoir under the soil
  • Sprinkler hooked to the end of a hose that sprays water through the air
  • Soaker hose that leaks water along its length

This text is taken from the GROW Observatory document 'Making sense of sensors'. 

Image removed.

This content is derived from work created within the GROW Observatory, which received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.


Earthworm in soil

Soil organisms and fungi

Soils are vast and complex living ecosystems, teaming with an incredible diversity of micro and macro-organisms that function together as one superorganism. The diversity of life that exists within the soil environment perform an array of crucial functions including decomposing organic materials; mineralisation of soil nutrients; fixing atmospheric nitrogen; enhancing soil aggregation and porosity; building soil humus; preying on crop pests and being consumed themselves by higher level predators from the intertwined soil food web.

The soil food web

Within the soil ecosystem, there are six main types of organism; bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, insects and earthworms. It is through the interaction of these organisms that highly productive natural soil ecosystems can maintain their fertility without the application of fertiliser year after year. Optimising these natural processes of nutrient cycling to supply our food crops is of key interest for low input, agroecological production methods such as permaculture.

The soil food web offers a perfect example of the permaculture viewpoint regarding collaboration and synergy whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The focus is on the relationships between organisms and how they function as a whole system.

Feeding your soil organisms

Soil biology is the most complicated living system we know about, but as growers we do not need to fully understand it. Just by looking at soil, smelling it and feeling it, you can see that living soil looks very different to dead soil.

What we do need to know is how best to support soil life: For the bacteria, feed fresh, green matter. For the fungi, provide lots of brown carbon (e.g. straw, leaf litter), avoid disturbing the soil, and prevent excess moisture. For the worms and insects, provide bulky organics and drill the soil occasionally. For all soil life, keep tillage to a minimum, avoid compaction, keep the soil covered with living plants or mulch, avoid excess soluble nutrients and avoid pesticides.


This page is based on a talk given by soil consultant Joel Williams at the International Permaculture Convergence 2015.


Image removed.

This content is derived from work created within the GROW Observatory, which received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

Mulching around vegetables


Organic mulching is the common practice of covering up soil with all kinds of organic materials such as straw, wood chips, compost, and crop residues.

It is practiced for its numerous positive benefits, that may lead to an increase in crop yield, such as:

  • Decreasing soil erosion from water and wind
  • Increasing infiltration (the ability of water to go into the soil)
  • Increasing soil moisture/ the length of time moisture is stored (the mulch acts as a barrier to evaporation)
  • Decreasing weeds
  • Regulating soil temperature (less fluctuation)
  • Increasing biological activity within the soil
  • Can increase nitrogen content (e.g. mulch made of legumes)

There are however, things to think about, and some disadvantages, such as:

  • Deep mulches can impede crop growth due to soil temperature warming too slowly and lower oxygen
  • Deep mulches can reduce earthworm numbers
  • In very hot and dry countries it has been known to intercept rainfall, which then evaporates before it reaches the soil
  • In the long term, as mulch breaks down, it may make the environment more favourable for weeds by enriching the soil

Examples of mulch:

Straw mulch is great for reflecting solar radiation to keep your soil cooler and prevent weed growth. However, it can harbour pests such as slugs. If you are using a straw mulch and live in a climate with a pronounced cold season, ensure that your soil has warmed up enough before applying your mulch.

  • Apply in the spring, after the soil has warmed
  • Remove any weeds and ensure that your soil is moist
  • Spread the mulch in an even layer to an approximate depth of 7.5cm
  • Lightly work it into the soil after harvest and re-apply in the following spring

Compost mulch is great for enriching your soil, however, it may be less effective at smothering weeds.

  • Follow the same procedure as with straw mulch
  • Do not compact the compost
  • Compost breaks down much faster than straw so will need applying more regularly
  • Apply before and after harvest.


Read more here - this links to a review of the acaemic literature and includes sources of evidence


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This text is based on an academic literature review by Alice Ambler at the James Hutton Institute as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.


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The GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

Buckwheat cover crop

Cover crops

Cover crops have been used for thousands of years to increase soil productivity and benefit ecosystems.

Used mainly to regenerate and protect soils during periods of low production, they can be planted as winter cover or during the regular growing season to protect bare soil from erosion and sediment run-off. They also help to sequester carbon in the soil, while at the same time improving its overall water and nutrient-holding capacity.

When used as green manure, cover crops can improve the available nutrients in soils, leading to increased growth and yield for plants grown afterwards. Planting cover crops can also break pest and disease cycles.

Leaving cut cover crops on the soil surface, or planting as a ‘living mulch’ with a tall main crop, can help reduce weeds. However, careful plant selection and management is required to ensure cover crops do not out-compete the main plants.

You can download this free GROW infosheet to find out more about how to make the right choice of a suitable cover crop species (or mixes) and the timing of planting and removal depending on whether your objective is to:

  • Protect soil from erosion and related nutrient loss
  • Increase soil fertility and quality
  • Reduce weeds
  • Reap other benefits, such as attracting bees and other pollinators


You can read more here - links to a review of academic literature and includes sources of evidence.

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This text is based on an academic literature review by Naomi van der Velden at the Pemaculture Association (Britain) as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.  


EU flagThe GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.



A legume is a plant from the Fabaceae (pea or bean) family. Most of them have the amazing ability to fix (or change) atmospheric nitrogen into readily available nitrogen in the soil, i.e. nitrogen that other plants and organisms can use. They do this by having a special relationship with the nitrogen fixing bacteria, Rhizobium, which lives inside their root nodules. This makes them perfect for use in intercropping, crop rotations, and as cover crops.  Note that the legume plant should be left in the soil to die down at the end of its growing season so that the nitrogen it has fixed can be returned to the soil.

Key benefits:

  • Increase the quantity of readily available nitrogen in the soil, decreasing the need for artificial nitrogen fertilisers
  • Increase the yield of the subsequent crop/ crops grown alongside legumes
  • Often an edible, tasty and nutritious source of plant proteins


  • Requires upkeep. They struggle with soil water stress, are sensitive to weed competition, and can be prone to some pests and diseases
  • Some legumes fix less nitrogen than others, e.g. chick peas are not an effective nitrogen fixing legume
  • If grown alongside other crops to provide nitrogen, there may be a trade-off; you may get less of a crop from the legume for more of the second crop



Try including a legume in a crop rotation. For example, broad (or fava) beans are a hardy legume crop that will grow in most climates, with great nitrogen fixing potential. To include these in a crop rotation, simply, plant them where you previously had another crop. For maximum benefit, follow the beans with a crop that requires high nitrogen, then follow that with with a crop that requires little nitrogen, and repeat. Three year cycles help to break the cycle of pests and disease. Choose a well-drained site, and if in sandy soil or low in organic matter, improve with compost


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This text is based on an academic literature review by Alice Ambler at the James Hutton Institute as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.


Flag of EuropeThe GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.

no till cropping

No dig/no till

No dig gardening or no-till agriculture is based on observing deep and productive temperate forest and grassland soils, where a top layer of nutrient-rich material is added without disturbing the existing topsoil.

There are several benefits:

  • Fewer weeds as seeds remain buried and don’t germinate
  • Existing soil structure remains intact, including pores and channels in the soil which improve aeration and water movement
  • Soils retain moisture and are less prone to erosion (by up to 90%)
  • Animal life is less disturbed, and soil biological diversity is maintained
  • It doesn’t involve lots of time and energy in digging
  • There is some evidence that yields are higher compared to tilling

This approach can be challenging if your soils suffer from compaction, especially if they are of a clay texture, or if you have aggressive weedy species. Weeds like bramble (Rubus fruticosus) or dock (Rumex species) may need to be dug out initially, then weeding is a ‘little and often’ job.

No-dig is often used in combination with leaving crop residues, mulching and composting.

Minimum tillage

This approach recognises that sometimes digging or tilling is necessary, but aims to minimise it. Conservation tillage is an example of this. Instead of turning over all the soil completely, some of the crop residue (e.g. the stalks) is left on the surface to help shade the soil, retain moisture, and provide shelter and food for wildlife. This approach can also reduce wind and water erosion and improve soil quality compared to conventional practices.


Read more here - links to a literature review and includes sources of evidence.

Permaculture Association logo

This text is based on an academic literature review by Chris Warburton Brown, Permaculture Association (Britain) as part of our collaborative GROW Observatory project.

EU flagThe GROW Observatory has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.


Dry, cracked soil. Photo: Ricky Thakrar shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Soil physical properties

Understanding the physical properties of your soil gives you valuable information into what your plants need, how often to water, how best to work your soil, how much to feed and which plants will do well.

Soil structure

Soil structure describes the layers in soil. Organic material is added from above as plant debris, creating an organic layer near the surface (the O-horizon). Underneath the O-horizon is the A-horizon – the topsoil; a mix of organic and mineral components, full of soil life. Next, the B-horizon - the subsoil; mainly a mineral soil but broken up by weathering. The deepest layer, below the soil, is the bedrock (R-horizon) - a solid layer of rock. Together, these layers are called a soil profile.

Soil texture

Soil texture refers to the relative amounts of three particle sizes: sand (the largest), silt, and clay (the smallest). It influences water drainage, nutrient levels and susceptibility to erosion.

Sandy soils have large particles and gaps between them so they dry out quickly and nutrients are washed out. However they do warm up quickly and are easy to dig.

Loams are ideal for growing food as they have a good balance of smaller and larger particles. Water does drain in loam soils, but not too quickly and they hold nutrients well.

Clay soils can get waterlogged and are vulnerable to compaction. Clay soils take longer to warm up in spring and can be difficult to dig but usually have high nutrient levels.

Soil texture can be difficult to change except by adding sand, so choose crops that grow well in the soil you have. Root vegetables grow well in sandy soils and nutrient-hungry plants like brassicas grow better in clay. Both sandy and clay soils can be improved by adding bulky organic matter.

Porosity and bulk density

Soil porosity refers to the number of gaps (or pores) between soil particles. Pores can be created by physical soil processes like drought or frost, and biological soil processes like  plant roots and earthworm burrows.

Bulk density is the mass of soil particles in a given volume and depends on soil type, porosity and the level of soil compaction. If soils become compacted the spaces between particles are compressed so porosity decreases and bulk density increases. This can cause problems for growing.

You can carry out a range of simple tests at home to assess your soil structure, soil texture, bulk density and porosity.

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This content is derived from work created as part of the GROW Observatory, which received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.