Chickens in the backyard offer hours of entertainment! They also eat garden pests and provide fresh eggs for your family and rich manure for your garden. (photo by Mavo)

Permaculture practitioners encourage you to take as little or as much as you’d like from their ethos

By Lisa Truesdale

In the 1931 cartoon “Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin,” a soup spoon raised to a man’s mouth initiates a series of actions: a jerked ladle, spilled soup and other incidents that eventually result in the soup being wiped off the man’s chin by a napkin attached to a pendulum. The name of the cartoon’s artist, Rube Goldberg, soon became an accepted adjective to describe anything that attempts to accomplish a simple goal through complicated means.

permaculture flower by David Holmgren and Richard Telford

Permaculture is kind of the same type of thing. The term (from “permanent,” “agriculture” and “culture”) was coined in the 1970s by Australian ecologist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren, who went on to coauthor the preeminent book on the subject, Permaculture One. The two men first described permaculture as “an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.” They later updated their definition to “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber and energy for provision of local needs.”

Both the original and updated definitions make permaculture sound like a Rube Goldberg machine—somewhat complicated! Although not every aspect of permaculture is complex, the plan is to get all its systems working together toward a simple goal—working with nature, not against it.

“Permaculture has been called a philosophy, a movement, a design approach, a set of techniques, a practice, a worldview, a land-use ethic, a science, a pseudoscience and even a religion,” says Toby Hemenway, a California-based permaculture teacher and author of Gaia’s Garden, one of the best-selling books on permaculture. “But here’s a more down-to-earth definition: If we think of practices like organic gardening, recycling, natural building, renewable energy, and even consensus decision-making and social-justice efforts as tools for sustainability, then permaculture is the toolbox that helps us organize and decide when and how to use those tools.”

Each city in Boulder County has its own regulations and permits for raising chickens, so check with local authorities before building a coop. If you’re in an unincorporated area, learn more at


Anyone can practice permaculture. “Permies” include young and old folks, from apartment dwellers and homeowners to those who build community permaculture sites. But it’s not quite as simple as just planting a garden, tending a beehive or harvesting rainwater.

Natural building with locally sourced materials is an important part of any permaculture design project. (photo courtesy Sunrise Ranch)

“Many people think permaculture is just a fancy kind of homesteading or gardening,” says Kelly Lynn Simmons, a permaculture design instructor in the CU Environmental Studies Department. “But it’s not just an amalgamation of cool stuff like grey­­water and edible perennials plopped down willy-nilly. It’s about design and relationships and connections.”

Also, she explains, permaculture is not something you can readily see. “It’s kind of like all the work the architect did to design a great sustainable building, but we don’t see that; we only see the building.”

Positivistic View

Marco Lam is a Boulder resident who has practiced permaculture for more than 20 years and taught it for 16. He used to be an environmental activist, but says it was exhausting to constantly fight unwinnable battles.

“Permaculture is a set of ethics and principles,” Lam explains. “It’s a more positivistic view that we can collectively make the world a better place. It puts the responsibility back in your own hands—your responsibility to the land where you live and the food that you eat. But it’s not just about gardening; it’s about designing a lifestyle that works for you.”

Lam’s south-Boulder yard includes a number of permaculture elements: front- and backyard gardens; a variety of fruit trees; bees that provide honey and plant pollination; gutters and rain barrels that capture water for all the plants; a large compost pile; cold frames for extending the growing season; and a greenhouse attached to the side of the home that also provides warmth in the winter. All of the systems have different functions that were carefully planned to work seamlessly together, like his coop full of chickens that produce fresh eggs and manure, and serve as bug and weed control. “They’re like giant recycling machines,” he says. “And they’re very entertaining!”

Here are Lam’s four simple suggestions

(based on the 12 permaculture design principles of David Holmgren) to help beginners get started.

Permaculture instructor Kate Miller teaches a class about the abundance of food and medicine in nature. (photo courtesy Sunrise Ranch)

Take a Permaculture Course
“It’s usually just one weekend,” Lam says, “but it’ll change your life.” Classes are offered for beginners who simply want to learn what permaculture is and how to do it; there are also professional courses for those who wish to teach it. Sunrise Ranch in Loveland offers permaculture-design courses led by Longmont-based ecological designer Avery Ellis. Topics include water systems, soil science, natural building, seed saving, greenhouse design, aquaponics, composting and other permaculture applications.

Sunrise Ranch in Loveland offers permaculture-design courses led by Longmont-based ecological designer Avery Ellis (

During a recent Local Action Day, permaculture students gained valuable hands-on experience with community building by transforming a front yard into a “food forest.” (photo courtesy Sunrise Ranch)

Start Small, Start Slow
“Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes,” reads the original principle set forth by David Holmgren. Nature is constantly experimenting, Lam explains, and we should too, so we can learn from those experiments. Keep your permaculture design flexible, so changes can be made as you observe what’s working and what isn’t.

Earthworms are like “free farm help”—they break down organic matter and increase the amount of beneficial air and water that gets into the soil. For more information about worm composting, see “Wiggly Wonders: Vermicomposting”. (photo courtesy Sunrise Ranch)

The Problem Is the Solution
Lam lives in an older ranch home that used to be too hot in summer and too cold in winter. So he installed a large grape arbor on the south-facing side; the dense shade offers a cool place to relax in summer, but in winter, when the grape leaves have fallen off, it lets sunlight into the home to help keep it warm. “It takes care of both problems,” he says, “with the added benefit of providing delicious grapes.”

Determine What’s Important to You
When deciding which permaculture elements to begin with, Lam suggests looking to your own lifestyle for clues. What do you want most to accomplish? If it’s cutting your grocery bill, plant a vegetable garden and build a chicken coop. If it’s cutting your heating/cooling bill, plant trees and bushes that offer relief from the elements and also provide fruit to eat, a home for birds and leaves for mulch. If it’s cutting your health-care bill, start with a medicinal herb garden (Lam suggests including garlic, nettles, elderberries and raspberries). Eating fresh food that you grow yourself is also better for your health, Lam adds.

In fact, he says, practicing perma­culture in any form is beneficial for the body. “When we live in alignment with what we ethically believe, we’re much happier humans.”

Permaculture Primer

1Adding Solar Panels

photo by ofc pictures

Adding solar panels to your home increases your property value, saves money on energy bills and lightens your carbon footprint. For more about solar panels, see “Salute to Solar”

2Capturing Rainwater

photo courtesy Sunrise Ranch

As of May 2016, capturing rainwater to use for garden irrigation is legal in Colorado. Rain barrels come in plastic, ceramic, wooden, stone or metal versions. For more information about rain barrels, see “Roll Out the Rain Barrel”

3Raise Your Own Bees

photo by Kosolovskyy

When you raise your own bees, they pollinate the plants in your yard while also producing fresh honey, beeswax and bee pollen. Plus, you’re helping to protect pollinators if you have an all-organic yard. For more about bees, see “The Buzz on Bees”.

4Make An Edible Landscape

photo by Glenkar

Besides providing delicious fruit, seeds and nuts, an edible landscape attracts beneficial insects, provides a habitat for birds and small wildlife, and offers shade for humans. For more about fruit trees, see “An Eden of Trees”.