What is permaculture and why is it so important for wellbeing, life and business?


What is permaculture and why is it so important to life wellbeing and businessI recently attended the three day Think Like A Tree course facilitated by Sarah Spencer and Milly Carmichael in the fabulous straw bale roundhouse at Whistlewood Common in Melbourne, Derbyshire.

It sounds a bit woo-woo, perhaps a bit like a convention for tree huggers, doesn’t it?

But that could not be further from the truth.

I have long felt that as we become a more ‘connected’ world, we are becoming an ever more disconnected society. We are disconnected from ourselves, those around us and the planet we all call home. So, I was really pleased to meet other professional people (including GPs, nurses, a social worker, a coach and educators) who feel the same – and who, like me, feel that the answer is right in front of our noses, right there in nature.

Trees have been here for around 280 million years, other plants have been around much longer and animals started to evolve around 1.5 billion years ago. Human beings have only been on Earth for approximately 200,000 years – so we’re relative newcomers and you’d think that we would want to learn from the plants and animals that came before us (and that we share the planet with)!

But we have ripped up the rule book and done things our way, not looking back to see the chaos and catastrophe we’re leaving in our wake. We are not living sustainable lives, both in terms of our impact upon the planet but also in terms of our impact on ourselves because of how we live in a 24/7 world that never sleeps with its artificial lighting, all year round availability of non-seasonal food, focus on short term gain and success measured in extremes (of money, time spent at work, amount of stress we put ourselves under, the speed we answer emails, academic achievement…).

But the natural world has the answers. The answers are staring us in the face. They are willing us to notice, to listen, to take a step back, to be present – if we are willing to do so, that is.

The Think Like A tree course looked at how the principles of permaculture can be used in life and work as a tool to design sustainability and wellbeing into the things we do, the choices we make and our decisions make. To me, it was a relief to realise that what I’d felt for a while wasn’t bonkers! And there are other people who would like to work in the exact same way…

What is permaculture?

The word ‘permaculture’ was first used by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s but permaculture in some form or another has been around for thousands of years. Our ancestors lived seasonally, following the cycles of the moon, the cycles of the year, living in accordance with the lore of the land, but somewhere along the way this way of life has been lost – and I believe to some extent it’s time we got back to a more seasonal and cyclical way of living. I’m not saying that we should give up everything we have and live in a mud hut; but I think we should observe, listen to and learn from the world around us, being mindful of the impact of our decisions, choices and actions on ourselves, others and the natural world.

At its most basic, permaculture involves observing natural systems and using them as a model to live and work by to make our interactions with ourselves, other creatures and the planet more sustainable.


  • Uses nature as a guide
  • Considers the whole
  • Involves solution-based thinking
  • Is a design tool
  • Focuses on connections
  • Results in sustainability, harmony and abundance

At its core, there are three ethics:

  • Care of the earth
  • Care of people
  • Fair shares

And a set of permaculture principles that have been devised from observations on how natural systems work and are basically tools that we can use to think about, plan and design… anything, really…

The principles of permaculture are:

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

How many small business owners do you know who have become burnt out?

If only they had followed the natural principle of ‘catch and store energy’ to look after their own energy levels with food, exercise and sleep, for example.

Why do so many people want it all NOW?

‘Small and slow solutions’ have much stronger foundations and can result in much more long-term success – think crash diets; they never work, do they?

How many times do you hear of people who are ‘different’ being marginalised in society?

But by ‘valuing diversity’, our lives can be so much richer, with different viewpoints, different experiences, even different foods, traditions and cultures.

How many of us like to stay within the safety our comfort zones?

But by ‘using the edges’ and pushing ourselves just that little bit further than before, may lead to new opportunities where magic can happen.

How can I apply permaculture to my life and business?

Permaculture is all about systems thinking. Often, people think and do things in isolation without looking at the big picture. Even in a family situation, a me-me-me attitude does not result in harmony; it often causes discord, resentment and a breakdown of the family unit – now apply that to situations outside the family…

And it’s a design tool that can be used as a framework to incorporate natural patterns and ancient wisdom into modern lives and businesses.

Looby Macnamara in her book People & Permaculture and Sarah Spencer in her book Think Like A Tree introduce the idea of a design cycle or design web that we can use to guide us as we consider and plan any activity in our lives or business.

So many times when we set ourselves goals, we jump straight from the Vision stage to the Action stage – and then we wonder why we fail.

To me, the design cycle approach makes more sense. Admittedly, it may take longer to work through all the stages, but the essence permaculture principle 9, ‘use slow and small solutions’, working consistently through each stage can give a more robust plan that we can follow, maintaining momentum and achieving the results we aspire to. And as it’s a cycle or web, we can tweak and modify as we go, revisiting each stage as necessary.

From a small business point of view, the permaculture design cycle can be used for many different activities such as:

  • Creating a workable social media strategy
  • Building a website
  • Developing an environmental management policy
  • Implementing business systems
  • Working freelance on client projects
  • Decision making

I have been using the principles of permaculture for a long time without knowing that they were the principles of permaculture, just because they were things that made sense to me as a country woman who is happiest when outside. However, I would like to incorporate them more into my work with my clients and the services I offer to small businesses in the rural sector.

I’m committed to doing my little bit to help small business owners create more sustainable businesses in terms of both the people who work in them and the impact they have on others and the planet.

Watch this space!