Toby Hemenway: Explaining Permaculture

"Permaculture" is a word fast gaining adoption in (and beyond) the agricultural and gardening worlds. We see it mentioned fairly often here on

But what exactly does it mean?

When asked, many of our readers have a fuzzy sense, at best. So, we've asked one of the top experts in the permaculture field, Toby Hemenway, to provide an 'everyman's' overview of the philosophy, science and best practices of the craft. His book, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture has been the world's best-selling permaculture book the past 8 years running.

At its essence, permaculture is about understanding and appreciating how systems naturally operate, and combining those systems in intelligent ways to accomplish intended goals, sustainably.

And while it's mostly applied to food production and land management today, the principles of permaculture make just as much sense for our economic, energetic, social and other systems. Which is why we want to provide the Peak Prosperity audience with a solid grounding on the subject -- as Chris and I plan to actively integrate much of it going forward into the "lens" we look through at this site.

"Permaculture" really started as 'permanent agriculture': we were looking at food systems and looking at how to mimic natural ecosystems. But something that we began to discover was that what we are really talking about is complex, adaptive systems, or dynamic systems -- like an ecosystem.

But an economy is a dynamic system, a community is a dynamic system, an energy-harvesting system is a dynamic system. As human beings, we encounter so many different kinds of dynamic systems. And, it turns out that if you understand a dynamic system like an ecosystem, if you know the rules for how those can be healthy -- how to enhance their health and how to work with them -- then you can port those rules over to almost any other dynamic system: like a community or a neighborhood, or designing a business, or a local economy, or an energy system, or a social justice system.

It turns out that once you have got these principles, you can apply them to almost any other dynamic system. The main difference is you just need to understand what patterns apply to say a justice system or an economic system as opposed to an ecologically-designed farm. But the rules turn out to be very similar.

So the real, the fascinating, and the exciting work in permaculture now is being done in social permaculture, in financial permaculture, in looking at human systems. Because, Nature is in pretty good shape by herself; it's the human pieces that we need to get working a lot better. 

Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Toby Hemenway (42m:21s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I cannot allow the conversation to close without mentioning Mycelium Running by Paul Stammets. "How mushrooms can help save the world." (Sorry. I've got religion.)

And then there is the most productive agriculture by the worlds best farmers. The peoples of central and South America. (A nod towards the Chinese farmer)

The Chinampa.

How on earth would you feed a city of over 200,000 people when the land around you was a swampy lake? Seems like an impossible task, but the Aztec managed it by creating floating gardens known as chinampas, then they farmed them intensively.
Images Here.

I am looking for a bit of swamp. One man's meat is another man's poison and if he cannot see the value of that bit of swamp you will get it cheap.

Of cause the price of the land will come down as the price of gas goes up and the bit of land you lust after becomes less accessible. Therefore a strategy may be to concentrate limited resources on transport that does not require oil.

I have chosen a sailboat because the technology is easily available. Ideally I would prefer a solar powered airship (120m long, 10 to 1 aspect ratio, 15.6 tonne gross lift, made from recycled PET) This would give access to the interior of the land, not just the one dimensional coastline.

The problem I have is that most people can only see things as they are, not as they will be in the future.


Gaia's Garden is my favorite permaculture book. I refer to it often. The charts on different types of plants and their uses has been very valuable to me. I am in the process of copying the grey water system diagrammed here on my site. Thanks Toby Hemenway for writing a great book!


So great to hear from Toby and have an audio interview introduction to Permaculture for Peak Prosperity visitors.
If you are interested in some really fascinating videos of what is possible with Permaculture, I recommend Geoff Lawton's tours of Zaytuna farm:

Part 1

Part 2

Geoff also offers an online PDC (Permaculture Design Course) for anyone who really wants to learn this stuff in detail, and even get a certification that can help in making a career out of doing this sort of design work. His current class is full and in session, but he will probably have another one later this year.

I've not taken Geoff's course (I believe it is around $1,200) but I hear it is amazing.

Geoff also has a bunch of short videos with some great info in his marketing materials for his online class, which you can access free if you give him your email address.

Jack Spirko at has been educating people about permaculture for a long time and will soon offer his own PDC for around $300 as part of his PermaEthos project. He has some big names attached to it and I believe his will be an incredible value, so will certainly take that PDC. His PermaEthos concept is really revolutionary and I'm excited to see where it goes.

Mycelium running is a great book. Got it in my own "library".

What it boils down to is do as little as possible. The hunter/gatherers use far less time for work than a farmer do.

Collecting rainwater is a good idea.
Artificial irrigation with groundwater is not good. For the opposite reason one would not drink rainwater for extended periods. (Or distilled water).

I enjoyed this interview so much. I am a huge believer in the principle of every element should serve multiple functions. I am also a huge believer studying and using in what processes are already on a piece of land so we can piggyback onto what the land wants to do, since, as you say, nature is already doing a bunch of the work. Example: in our garden we had an area with immense amounts of drifting pine straw, so we planted perennial strawberries in that area, things that needed straw anyhow.
I am glad Toby Hemenway asked us to think about, "what is the history of the land use, or what are your neighbors doing that may influence your land?" I have a client who is downhill from an automotive scrap yard who is doing extensive soil testing for contaminants - it's a very important question for her.

Adam, I hope you have Mr. Hemenway back for another visit very soon.


Aloha! To me it is awesome that so many people are looking to be more self-sustainable in relation to food production. I have never thought that food dependence, meaning depending on Safeway, was an optimal idea. Just from the cost and availability aspect it makes sense to grow your own even if you live in LA! That is why I get excited to see guerilla gardeners like my friend Ron Finley moving to the forefront of urban blight consciousness. This is the big picture …

Even though it was meant to be a comedy routine it should be a "perma principle" to live where the "food is"! Sam Kinison used to do this comedy bit where he talks about starving people in Ethiopia living in the desert. His solution was instead of sending them food send them UHauls! It's sand and no water … nothing grows in sand without water! Move them to where the food is!

It reminds me of places like Las Vegas and the Mojave where whole cities and developments are built with little or no regard for water. I have friends in Las Vegas and I always wondered what Las Vegas would look like when Lake Meade was running on empty. Perhaps we will all see that in our lifetime. Obviously the mafia guys that founded Vegas weren't really interested in perma culture or water rights back then. Who would have thought Vegas would turn out to be what it is today in the 1950s?

After running its course through Las Vegas and California the Colorado River delta looks like this some where in Mexico …

An observation of mine being here on the Big Island since 1998 … The roads coming out to my farm are just now being widened. More lanes are being made. That can only mean one thing. More people …

I think these "people" are California babyboomers who sell their $1.5mil 1500 sq ft shacks and come to the Big Island where the last affordable Hawaii land is. They take their $1.5mil and buy a home on 3 acres for $300k and bank the rest. Pretty much its "instant food and water" with no labor invested. They have unwittingly followed Sam's advice and moved where the food is. Its perpetual green here and not much has changed in terms of "greenery" since Capt Cook days. There are two sides to every island … leeward and windward. If you want more jungle and rain live on the windward side. It's where the food is!



Once again                  thanks for the great Mushroom and Swamp information, Arthur, and the brilliant ExistentialComic reference. They're going to have to erect a statue to you in Perth for Alternative Universe Generation! Cautionary Note :  it may be after your demise.
PS my laptop refuses to type an " I" before Incubate.

One of the things I discovered very quickly with shifting my garden planning to permaculture was how much weeding was eliminated.  Suddenly were I had weeds I now have salad greens, green manure and bee forage.  Obviously I can't just let things go completely as I live in a area which will very rapidly revert to an oak/maple climax forest and there isn't much forage for humans under a closed canopy. 
On another note, has anyone got any thoughts on harvesting rabbits?  I'm thinking that if they're going to be in my garden I might as well eat them but I'm reluctant to set snares for humanitarian reasons and be because I don't want to kill the cat by mistake.

John G.

Here is an actual you tube video on hunting rabbits without a snare…very informative.

This will be my first year hunting rabbits with a bow! I'm certain that a snare or shotgun and dogs would be more efficient but im looking forward to the challenge. Ill let you know how it works out.   

Yes, jgritter, we've noticed that too. We have thyme and fennel in between the asparagus ferns, and nary a weed between them. The strawberries take up an entire long raised be: no weeding. As the perennials spread through our garden, we have less and less work and more and more harvest.But in our case we are constantly pulling out Southern pine seedlings and muscadine grape vines.  This place would be a pine forest with vines running up the trees if we let our guard down.

[quote=RogerA]…one would not drink rainwater for extended periods.[/quote]Why?
Drinking rain water is the norm in many rural area. I know many people in the 70s and 80s who have drunk rain water all their lives (including my own parents). Rain water is not distilled water, the back ground salinity of rain water averages 60 ppm.