top of page

Permaculture Design: Thinking Like an Ecosystem

Caroline Aitken

Caroline Aitken is partnering with us on the Introduction to Permaculture course at FarmED on July 13th. Caroline Aitken runs Whitefield Permaculture, a design consultancy based in Devon. She has a background in market gardening, horticulture, smallholding and design and specialises in designing land systems.

Permaculture is often difficult to define as it is not so much A Thing, as a way of thinking. It is in essence an ecological design process which can be applied to all areas of human life. The word is a combination of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ created by the founders of the movement who aimed to find sustainable alternatives to conventional agriculture practices. From these roots, the movement has evolved to incorporate everything from agriculture to personal well-being, and is now about creating a permanent (sustainable and resilient) CULTURE.

The principles of permaculture design come from observing natural ecosystems. Nature is not only self-sustaining but abundant, so we have a lot to learn from understanding what makes these systems so productive. Nature’s ability to cycle resources is largely down to biodiversity; many different species making use of the environment in many different ways. An important part of diversity is the way in which these different species interact in order to co-exist. Beneficial relationships are prevalent in nature; contrary to the Western perception of a ‘dog-eat-dog world’, it is adaptation, co-operation and avoidance of competition that allows ecosystems to thrive and make best use of the available resources. Our human systems have moved away from these principles due to the availability of ancient sunlight - oil, which has allowed us to live beyond our means. We now need to relearn how to live well with local, renewable resources.

We can apply ecological principles to our own situations, by starting to see everything as a system. When starting a business for example, you might look for your ‘niche’ within the market. You can survey that market and identify other businesses that you can form relationships with. Who will supply you with your essential resources? Are there any waste products from local businesses that could be a resource for yours? How can the waste products of your own business be reused either within the business or by other local businesses? A great example of these principles in action is the Dartington-based business GroCycle who use waste coffee grounds from cafes to grow gourmet mushrooms. The mushrooms are sold to local eateries and the coffee grounds become fertile compost for local food growers. The GroCycle mushroom farm is in a disused office building in central Exeter, right where the waste is produced and the food is needed. They fit perfectly and harmoniously within the ‘system’ that is their local food market.

While it can be applied to all human systems, Permaculture is most commonly associated with land design, and there are many growing methods associated with the movement. These include no-dig gardening, forest gardening and integrated pest management. These methods mimic nature in order to harness natural processes, rather than fighting them. Permaculture land systems work very well on small scales: gardens, smallholdings and small mixed farms, and there are benefits to small scale land systems. When land is managed on a human scale, without large machinery and dependence on external inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, etc), productivity by area can be high and more livelihoods can be supported. People working the land can observe and respond to nature far more effectively than a farmer in a large tractor cab who covers 100s of acres in a day. But the principles can be scaled up, either directly, or through replication. Agroecology has very similar ethics, principles and methods to permaculture, but is focussed on farm-scale food production.

Permaculture design offers many tools which can help us to streamline our systems and keep them balanced and healthy. These tools can be applied as easily to a kitchen garden as they can to a business, a community, a project or an individual. A big part of modern permaculture is finding ways for we humans to co-operate in order inhabit and manage these sustainable systems in a way which feels sustainable for us. By teaching us to think like an ecosystem permaculture offers a holistic understanding of our world which allows us to be a harmonious part of it.

In our Introduction to Permaculture course you’ll have the opportunity to learn about permaculture design principles and ethics and how to apply them to your daily life, as well as being introduced to agroecological farming methods and techniques utilised in permaculture design.

If this has all whetted your appetite to find out more about permaculture, there are more podcasts & articles from Caroline Aitken, below.

Podcast series - Farming for the Future - Caroline Aitken interviews food and farming authors who have been inspired by permaculture to create productive, nature-friendly systems:

Farming for the Future #1: A Small Farm Future:

Farming for the furture #2: The Ecological Gardener:

Farming for the Future #3: Farming on the Wild Side:

Podcast - Morage Gamble interviewing Caroline Aitken about permaculture and the transition to regenerative agriculture:

Dartington Article:

Caroline's Permaculture book:


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page