The Permaculture Path to Sustainability

by Emma Crameri

The Permaculture Path to Sustainability illustrates the steps we can take to transition to a life with a smaller footprint on the earth.

When I was completing my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC), I wanted a simple way to plan the future of our house and garden. I was feeling a little overwhelmed by all the different ideas buzzing around in my head. I needed to capture these and create a clear plan of attack.

I started by writing down all of the elements found in a typical permaculture garden and divided them into different categories. The categories are food production, fauna, practices, flora, energy, water, and waste.

I then sorted the elements out into levels. Each level reflects an increase in the level of difficulty, commitment and/or expense.

  1. Level 1 is what you may find in an average suburban backyard.
  2. Level 2 are practices and elements found in a more sustainable household. Perhaps the owners have been influenced by a book or gardening show on TV, or have been involved in a PermaBlitz. Only a few of the categories are closed loops.
  3. Level 3 are practices and elements which are found in households dedicated to resilience, self-sufficiency, and sustainability. The owners view their property as a system. These households may be completely off-the-grid.

I love to see concepts come alive as a diagram, so I created a colourful table to illustrate “The Permaculture Path to Sustainability”:

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Food Production
  • Vegetables beds (with annuals)
  • Fruit trees
  • No-dig garden
  • Mandala and key hole beds
  • Herb spiral
  • Seed saving
  • Bush tucker (native) plants
  • Exotic edible plants
  • Nut trees
  • Perennials
  • Native plants
  • Bird bath
  • Nesting box
  • Messy space and logs (for lizards, etc.)
  • Bee hive
  • Chickens
  • Fodder plants
  • Mulching
  • Companion plants
  • Crop rotation
  • Crop succession
  • Greenhouse
  • Green manure
  • Shade house
  • Native plants
  • Wind break
  • Fire break
  • Trellising
  • Energy efficient bulbs and appliances
  • Insulation
  • Solar power hot water and energy
  • Wood fired oven
  • Buckets
  • Gray water hose
  • Drip system
  • Water tank
  • Grey water system
  • Pond
  • Swales and rain pits
  • Reusable containers & bags
  • Recycling
  • Compost
  • Bokashi
  • Worm farm
  • Composting toilet
  • Living mulch

Where is your household on the “Permaculture Path to Sustainability”?

Are you doing well in one category and neglecting another?

I’d love some feedback on this concept.



15 thoughts on “The Permaculture Path to Sustainability

  1. Hi Emma

    I looked at the table and said yes I am level 3 and felt good about my self for a moment. I looked at the table again and over the 25 years of being a Permacultrist I have grown through the 3 levels. Throughout I also thought I was level 3, someone dedicated to resilience, self-sufficiency, and sustainability.

    I would like to think that all 3 levels are households dedicated to resilience, self-sufficiency, and sustainability.

    As there is not one Permaculture, all 3 are practicing Permaculture and thinking Permaculture which is the Key to a sustainable future and the growth of Permaculture world wide.

    As in all systems best is to start small and encourage that design to create abundance and do what you can given knowledge time and finances.

    The table could be seen to have the opposite effect and discourage people as thinking they are not households dedicated to resilience, self-sufficiency, and sustainability because they do not have a swale or compost toilet. Is that what we want?

    Is the question we need to ask ourself, “Am I applying principles of Permaculture in my life where I can ?

  2. What an excellent diagramatic representation of your ideas. It will certainly be useful to me in planning my next steps on the path to sustainibity.

  3. I think that’s an excellent concept. Knowing where to start is hard and giving each category a level of difficulty helps to prioritise the project. I hope you get plenty of people adopting the concept. Keep up the good work on Gustoso too!

  4. Hi, this is great… we did a similar thing when we started our permaculture and sustainable, off the grid home in Ireland in the 90’s… since then i have travelled so much that i could only recycle and compost… now i am permanently in South Africa I am starting to organize our garden and home like yourself… and i need to get grey water and solar sorted… busy with a Reiki Peace garden at the moment… and recycling area… we built a bottle wall and composting area and worm farm… we are not sure about the new energy efficient bulbs as my husband worked in the electricity industry for twelve years and found out that the mercury is harmful to the environment and also dangerous for us at home when they break… we have a few… but are not sure if this is an urban myth… however we are intending to get solar pannels in the future and use LED lighting more… its all a work in progress… :) thanks for your plans as its helped us see what we need to work on… :) its great to share our knowledege… i love the internet for that reason… :)
    have a great day
    Mandy :)

  5. By the way we used Bill Mollisons book Permaculture Design back in 1998/9 or thereabouts in Ireland when we first learnt about Permaculture… its great and it works… :) and in the future we will be using all we learnt to build an eco game reserve… its going to be awesome… i cant wait… but at the moment i am helping my husband recouperate from a car crash… once he is up and running so will our project… and all those years research will be put into practice…

  6. Hi Emma, I like what you have done. The only thing I miss is the level of interfacing with the outside world, networking, trading, resources from others waste etc.

  7. I like the idea of measuring and recording a personal PC pathway, but “levels” of success doesn’t seem to hit the mark for me. You could have many elements in a design, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to a successful/”better” PC design, e.g. an ad hoc design could have more elements with poor placement and therefore be a “higher” level.

    Rather than have a list of elements, if you start with a list of PC principles and see how many can be applied to each element, it might be a better measure of a design pathway, the more principles that can be applied to each element the better, this takes in placements, successions etc. into the design process and is less of a “tick a box” type thing.

    I found the UK PC Diploma guidebook an invaluable resource in this regard, if you look at the list of criteria each design must meet it might help design a more robust pathway, the guidebook can be downloaded from the Diploma Documents download page here…

    I also think there is the community integration angle missing from your list as Chris suggested.


  8. Thanks for the list, Emma. As I am new to Permaculture this list sums up neatly all of my forthcoming projects. However, I am not part of a permaculture affinity group, and hence need to convince people to join these projects in our communal garden and home.

  9. Hi Emma, seeing the mistakes made by lots of new Permaculture designers, I am cautious about creating a hierarchy of design elements.

    The biggest mistake I see with Permies who don’t understand the design principles (and there are lots out there unfortunately) is the practice of what I term “design by element inclusion” – that is, if you take the stereotypical elements that you find in a Permaculture design, dare I say, precisely what you’ve listed here, and pack them into a space, you supposedly have a Permaculture design, which is definitely not the case.

    I can see how you’ve created categories of the elements you might find in a more advanced design, but it’s not the elements that make the design, it’s the relationship of the elements to each other. Despite what many new designers think, you don’t need raised beds, herb spirals, native bush tucker unless there is a good reason for them to be there.

    I would actually state that the sustainability of a site or design is more dependent on the relationship of the design elements rather than the “choice elements” that require no brains and lots of money.

    How many permie designs do you see that have beehives, chicken runs, and all the level three elements that you list, and grow their food in single level blocks of mini annual monocultures that are subject to pest attack, and are just as energy and labour intensive to grow as agribusiness produce?

    The most sustainable designs are ones that model Nature, and the further the design is from that of a woodland forest, the less sustainable ut will be, regardless of the fancy elements present.

    I am cautious of cliché designs, and lets face it, there is a lot of bad design out there bringing the reputation of Permaculture down. I encourage designers to learn real design, put the design principles into practice, and not compensate for a lack of skill, experience and plant knowledge by relying on cliché elements to create a substandard design with a “Permaculture flavour”. Permaculture is not a aesthetic design fashion, it’s functional, so I would advise that you categorise your level of advancement in terms of sustainability from a conventional annuals only vegie garden with chemical pest control and fertiliser at one end of the spectrum, to a full-blown food forest at the other end, and rate yourself that way, that’s more realistic.

    The elements do not maketh the sustainable design.

    Hope this helps.

  10. Angelo I dont see how your comment helps at all. Permaculture is such an important way of improving our sustainability and needs to be encouraged to all people. You should be embracing other peoples take on permaculture and glad that Emma is trying different methods for more people to take it up.

  11. Hi Matt, Emma’s table fairly accurately shows the correlation between the progression of designs and the elements you might find in them, but the elements are not the cause of a good design. There might be a strong correlation between high level designs and water tanks for example, but a water tank doesn’t make a good design, or a permaculture one for that matter, and a good permaculture design doesn’t need to have a water tank, hope that makes things clearer. It’s important that new permies understand that, hence the reason why I mentioned it, so I believe this is very helpful to raise this point.

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