Using Permaculture Principles Without a Garden

Patrick Whitefield
Wednesday, 1st August 2001

We are often asked: "I am interested in permaculture, but I don't have access to land and I'm not sure where to start. Can you help?" We asked Patrick Whitefield to provide some answers.

The basic idea of permaculture is that we take natural ecosystems as the model for what we do ourselves. This is all very well if you have a farm or woodland to work with, or even a large garden. But what about people who only have a small urban garden, or even no garden at all? How can they use permaculture?

It would be pretty difficult if permaculture was always a direct imitation of an ecosystem, like a forest garden for example. But it doesn't have to be. The essence of permaculture is not in copying the outward appearance of natural systems but in understanding the principles by which they work and applying these to our activities.

One of the things which makes an ecosystem work is the network of useful links between all its components. An example is the relationship between flowering plants and pollinating insects, where one gets its reproductive needs met and the other gets fed. There are many similar links we can make in our own lives, and these can reduce the ecological impact of getting our needs met.

Another thing we can learn from ecology is that in a mature ecosystem the most successful plants and animals are those which minimise their need for energy and other inputs. Pioneer plants use up masses of energy producing tens of thousands of seeds per plant, but their day is soon past. They're soon superseded by plants which produce much less but which persist indefinitely. The lesson for us is plain.

Ecological Impact

If the aim of permaculture is to reduce our harmful ecological impact, the first step must be to look at which aspects of our lives have the biggest impact. The book, Our Ecological Footprint, comes up with the proportions shown in the pie chart.

Other studies have come up with different proportions to these, some with transport rather than food taking the biggest slice. It all depends on what weightings you give to different kinds of impact – how much global warming equals the loss of one species? – and how you allocate things. If you include flying green beans in from Kenya under transport, then food will get off very lightly.

I've even heard it said that if a person stops driving to work and walks instead their ecological impact can go up, because the ecological cost of the extra food they eat due to the exercise is greater than that of driving! I don't mean to suggest we should all drive to work, but that eating locally-grown organic food is perhaps the most important thing we can do to help the planet.


Permaculture places a great deal of emphasis on food. This is partly because it was first conceived of as an alternative to agriculture and only later expanded to include other aspects of life. But the dominance of food in the Ecological Footprint study suggests that this emphasis is wholly appropriate.

Only one per cent of our energy consumption is used in farming, but twelve times as much is used
in transporting, processing, packaging and marketing it.

Energy use is only a rough indicator of ecological impact. Since farms cover much of the land surface of the world they have a greater direct impact on biodiversity, for example, than many other human activities. Nevertheless the energy ratio suggests that where we get our food from is at least as important as how it's grown.

Would you rather eat an organic apple air-freighted from New Zealand or one from five miles away which has been sprayed with 24 doses of pesticide in it's short life?

Importing dry foods, such as grain, nuts and pulses, has much less impact. Because they're not perishable they're transported by sea or land rather than air. The transport cost per calorie is much less in any case because they contain very little water, compared to 90% water in fruit and vegetables.

Of course the ideal is to eat food which is both local and organic. But 70% of the organic produce eaten in Britain is imported. So a third priority is to encourage more British farmers and growers to go organic, so that more of us can eat truly wholesome food without incurring the ecological costs of long-distance transport.

We can use the permaculture principle of making links to achieve all three aims. The link here is a direct one between producer and consumer. By joining a Box Scheme, where fruit and vegetables are sold directly to the consumers by the growers, we not only know exactly where the food came from and how it was grown, we also make organic growing more financially viable to the producers and thus encourage more local organic production.

On average only 10p in every pound spent in a supermarket goes to the person who actually grew the food. But when we buy direct it all goes to them. Even allowing for the extra work and expense of operating the Box Scheme, the growers make a far better living than they could by selling to a supermarket. This especially applies to small growers, who don't have the economies of scale on their side.

An even more powerful link can be made by joining a subscription farming scheme, or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as it's sometimes known. In these schemes you don't pay for your produce by the week, you buy a share at the beginning of the season and take a share in the harvest. Payment by instalments is usually available to people who can't find all the money at once. But the more people can pay up front the better, as it keeps the farmers out of debt, and interest payments can swallow up most of their income if they have to borrow to finance the sowing of the crop.

Farmers' Markets are another direct link between producers and consumers. Most of them stipulate that the food must be grown within a certain radius of the market and that the person on the stall must be the farmer or someone who works on the farm. The produce doesn't have to be organic, but these markets provide an ideal opportunity to talk to the producers face to face and perhaps persuade them to go organic.

Any food we grow for ourselves will have even less ecological impact than what we buy from local sources. Even people without gardens can grow some of their own food by sprouting seeds. Sprouting turns a relatively indigestible food with a negligeable vitamin content into little plants which are highly digestible and have a higher vitamin content than at any other time in their lives. This increase in food value is definitely a form of food production rather than preparation, and anyone can have a mini-garden in their kitchen.


Trains are not ecologically friendly; they're just less damaging than cars. The first choice to make in transport is not between the lesser of two evils but to live in a place where we don't need to make long trips to work, school, shops and so on. For most of us this means living in the town. The idea that the permacultural ideal is to live in the country is only true for the minority of us who actually make our living there, and want to live a simple lifestyle.

This is the principle of linking again. Links can only happen when we place things appropriately, and this is why permaculture is often seen as a design system. Design starts with our whole lifestyles, and we need to place ourselves where we can make the journeys we need to without using fossil fuels.

Becoming car-free is the biggest single change most of us can make to green our lifestyles, but not all of us are willing or able to take that step. A good intermediate step is to join a car sharing club. These are already well-developed in many Continental countries and are just starting up in Britain.

The beauty of car sharing is that it reverses the financial incentive to use a car for every little trip. When you own your own, most of the costs are fixed costs and the cost of a single extra journey is only a little petrol. In a car share club you pay a proportion of the whole cost for each trip, so the less you use a car the more you save of the fixed costs. The result is that people who share typically save £1,000 to £2,000 a year, and masses of carbon dioxide.

Air travel is even more destructive than car. Not only do aeroplanes use more fuel, they deposit the exhaust gasses high in the atmosphere, where, by one estimate, each molecule causes 30 times the damage of one released at ground level. It has been calculated that one round trip to Florida uses up each passenger's entire lifetime allowance of carbon dioxide output, at the level we need to achieve if we're going to stabilise the Earth's climate. Personally I've decided never to fly again – though I wouldn't try to impose that choice on other people.


Once again, the first decision is where to live. One of the most energy-efficient forms of housing is the terrace house. Each house shares some of its heat with its neighbours, and there's little external surface through which heat can be lost to the outside. Compare this to the other extreme, a detached bungalow, which has a much greater surface area compared to volume.

When it comes to increasing the energy efficiency of a house, simple, cheap things usually give a better return in both cash and energy terms than more high-tech improvements. The latest central heating systems using condensing boilers are amazingly efficient. But if you throw out the old system before it comes to the end of its life you're also discarding some of the energy which went to make it in the first place, the 'embodied energy' as it's known. It's expensive, and you may not even come out ahead in energy terms. Much the same applies to sealed-unit double glazing.

Draught-proofing can give an excellent return in an old house. Putting tin foil behind any radiator on an external wall reflects heat back into the house rather than losing it to the outside by conduction through the wall. Increasing the thickness of insulation in the loft to 300 or even 450mm (12 or 18in), compared to the standard 150mm (6in), is also well worthwhile.

If you do need to replace a worn out appliance, such as a fridge or washing machine, shop around. There are big differences in energy performance between different models, and the most efficient are not necessarily any more expensive.

Having got our energy consumption down from pioneer-plant levels to that appropriate for a successful life in a mature ecosystem, we can start to look at what kind of energy to use. There's no way that renewables can support the present per-capita consumption in our culture. Putting up a windmill in the back garden is not practical for most of us, but there are now a number of electricity companies which supply only renewables, at very little extra cost.

Consumer Goods

Once again, the first question to ask is not which things we buy but how much we buy altogether. There are useful choices to be made between different products. For example, conventional cotton consumes enormous amounts of irrigation water and pesticides in its production, and it is now possible to buy organic cotton products,or even hemp or linen, which could be grown here in Britain. But no sustainable system could support the sheer quantity we consume.

The idea of fashion has much to answer for here. We need to reinvent a culture in which it's perfectly acceptable to be dressed the same way this year as last, or to use the same bathroom ware our grandparents did. One good rule of thumb is to buy things which are made to last. They will probably work out cheaper in the long run. Another is to buy second-hand whenever possible.

Helpful People

Perhaps the most useful links we can make are those with other people who are on the same path. One of the most difficult things about greening our lifestyles is the feeling that we're on our own. Nothing can help more than mutual support between those who share the same aims.

The best way to start is to go on a permaculture course, whether an Introductory weekend or the longer Design Course. These courses enable you to get a deeper understanding of permaculture than can ever be had from reading books and magazine articles. Meeting a lot of like-minded people can be one of the most empowering and enjoyable aspects of a permaculture course.

To help you access like-minded people in your own area, you can join the Permaculture Association and they will provide you with a list of all members in your area. You will probably find that most of them are keen gardeners.

How did I get this far in an article about permaculture without mentioning gardening before now? It is a very important part of permaculture. What's more, growing food is something active we can do to turn our negative ecological impact into a positive one, when so many of the things I have mentioned here are a matter of not doing something. Permaculture gardening is such a big subject that it deserves an article all of its own.

The late Patrick Whitefield is a renowned permaculture pioneer and author of The Earth Care Manual, How to Make a Forest Garden and Permaculture in a Nutshell