David Holmgren, co-founder of the permaculture concept

David Holmgren (born 1955) is an ecologist, writer and co-originator of the permaculture concept.

Life and work[]

Holmgren was born in the state of Western Australia to political parents who were very active in the movement against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war. Political activism against injustice provided a background to his own life's work with Permaculture as positiveenvironmental activism. (ref Permaculture pioneers) After graduating from John Curtin High School (Academic dux 1972) he spent a year hitch hiking around Australia which exposed him to the first wave of "Back To The Land" rural resettlement. In 1974 he moved to Tasmania to study Environmental Design, at the innovative school set up by Hobart architect Barry McNeil at the College of Advanced Education in Hobart. Towards the end his first year of studies he met Mollison, who was then a senior tutor (in the psychology faculty at the University of Tasmania. The two found they shared a strong interest in the relationship between human and natural systems. Their wide-ranging conversations and gardening experiences encouraged Holmgren to write the manuscript that was to be published in 1978 as Permaculture One.[1]

'I wrote the manuscript, which was based partly on our constant discussions and on our practical working together in the garden and on our visits to other sites in Tasmania... I used this manuscript as my primary reference for my thesis, which I submitted and was passed in 1976.'[2]

The book was a mixture of insights relating to agriculturelandscape architecture and ecology. The relationships between these disciplines were elaborated into a novel design system termed permaculture. Although the title clearly owes something to J. Russell Smith's Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (first published 1929), Holmgren's chief theoretical inspiration was the energy dynamics of American ecologistHoward T. Odum (Environment, Power and Society, 1971). The same book was promoted by David M. Scienceman as a platform for a scientific political party.

According to Holmgren, '(t)he word permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison and myself in the mid-1970s to describe an "integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man". A more current definition of permaculture, which reflects the expansion of focus implicit in Permaculture One, is "(c)onsciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs". People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved into one of permanent (sustainable) culture.' [3]

Permaculture One was far more successful than anticipated, as it seemed to meet a need of the emerging environmentalist counterculture looking for something positive and substantial to align with. It was published in five languages, but is now out of print and of mainly historical value, having been superseded and refined in later works.

While Mollison travelled the world teaching and promoting permaculture, Holmgren was more circumspect about the potential of permaculture to live up to the promises sometimes made about it. He concentrated his efforts on testing and refining his brainchild, first on his mother's property in southern New South Wales (Permaculture in the Bush, 1985; 1993), then at his own property, Melliodora, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens,[4] at Hepburn SpringsVictoria, which he developed with his partner, Su Dennett.[5]

Since 1983 Holmgren has acted through his company Holmgren Design Services as consultant for a large number of projects, examples of which can be found in the report Trees on Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for the Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria (1994).

Holmgren started teaching on permaculture design courses in 1991 and from 1993 taught PDCs at his Hepburn home with a group of local permaculture colleagues including Ian Lillington.

A major project was the Fryers Forest eco-village, to create a model of sustainable housing and financially viable sustainable forest management, on a site near Castlemaine, Victoria.[6]

Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability[]

The publication in December 2002 of a new major work on permaculture, saw a deeper and more accessible systematization of the principles of permaculture refined by Holmgren over more than 25 years of practice. The book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability (2002a), is dedicated to Howard T. Odum, who died two months before its publication, and it owes much to Odum's vision of a world in energy transition.[7] The concept of the energy descent future that Holmgren describes in PP&PBS has also been (independently) articulated by American writer John Michael Greer.

Principles and Pathways offers twelve key permaculture design principles, each explained in separate chapters. The icons used to identify each design principle (created by permaculture graphic designer Richard Telford) have been widely used in teaching these principles around the world. This book filled a conceptual gap that has been evident from permaculture's inception. It is regarded as a major landmark in permaculture literature, especially as the seminal work, Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual (1988) was published fifteen years previously and has never been revised.[8]

Weeds or wild nature[]

Holmgren has had a long-standing interest in the use of naturalised plants, for food and fibre, but more controversially for ecological restoration and 'ecosynthesis'. This interest in recombinant ecosystems or 'weedscapes' is partly inspired by a 1979 visit to New Zealand and interactions with New Zealand ecologist Haikai Tane (1995).

The article Weeds or Wild Nature? published in the Permaculture International Journal in 1997.[9]

Holmgren's refusal to toe the majority line on introduced and invasive species has led to some ill-informed criticism of permaculture in a debate which is very much alive in the Australian environmental movement.[10] Over 25 years of observations teaching and writing about the value of willow (Salix albaXfragilis) in a Victorian stream corridor including beneficial sediment and phosphorus capture can be construed as 'heretical' in relation to official policy. Holmgren goes so far as to comment, 'The science of ecology provided the overwhelming evidence that everything is connected, so it is a great irony that conservation biology is now dominated by an orthodoxy that is blind to ecosynthesis as nature's way of weaving a new tapestry of life.'[11] The article Weeds or Wild Nature: A permaculture perspective published in Plant Protection Quarterly provides a historical overview of the multiple influences on the positive view of naturalised species and cross references the more recently emerging field of peer reviewed ecological science focusing on what is now called Novel Ecosystems.

Eco village design[]

From the early years of permacuture Holmgren was influenced by and involved in several intentional community projects including the Bredbocommunity that emerged from the 1979 Down To Earth Festival.

In 1995 in partnership with Haridas and Samantha Fairchild, Holmgren and Dennett formed a company Fryers Forest Research and Development to establish the Fryer's Forest Ecovillage on 120 hectare of forest land near Castlemaine, in Central Victoria, Australia. Central features of the village design are, the integration of domestic forestry with selective thinning for fire-safety (The harvested wood provides energy for domestic wood stoves), and the integration of the Keyline Design system of water storage and transfer with the Village road network and residential home site location. The water keyline storage system was the main design instrument for the regeneration of a landscape degraded by over 50 years of gold mining. There is currently no data available on the sustainability of the Fryers Forest settlement but the water system design has weathered an extremely long drought, (1994 to 2009) when the water levels in dams became very low. However, rainwater supply to the community (via tanks catching roof run-off) was excellent and by early 2011 all dam systems were full to overflowing again and survived peak flood events without significant damage.

Peak oil and retrofitting the suburbs[]

Another theme in Holmgren's work has been a positive view of how suburban landscapes can be retrofitted in the energy descent future. In a 2003 interview (ref U tube) Holmgren outlined how this retrofit would be a practical and effective response to Peak oil. In 2006 an Australian speaking tour with American peak oil author Richard Heinberg allowed Holmgren to promote permaculture retrofit of suburbia as a positive response to peak oil and climate change using a humorous Aussie St case story. In more recent presentations of these ideas Holmgren's Aussie St story has been extended to incorporate the speculative impacts of deflationary economic contraction. An essay published by The Simplicity Institute related the retrofitting strategy to the debate in Australia about urban infill development.

In 2007 Adam Grubb, founding editor of Energy (now published Holmgren's extended essay Future Scenarios; mapping the cultural implications of Peak Oil and Climate Change that established Holmgren as a significant futurist articulating and clarifying the Energy Descent concept.[12]

aSelf publication[]

Although Permaculture One was published by a mainstream publisher (Corgi) most of Holmgren's work has been self published allowing experimentation with subject material such as case studies (Permaculture in bushTrees on the treeless planes and Melliodora) book formats (Melliodora A3 landscape) and eBook formats (Melliodora, Collected Writings) before their more widespread uptake and Web publishing (Future Scenarios). This DIY approach reflects permaculture principles that encourage experimentation and self-reliance.


The Essence of Permaculture, a summary of PP&PBS is the most translated work by Holmgren (available in 7 languages early 2013) whilePP&PBS is available in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Czech and Japanese. Future Scenarios and Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability are available in Japanese.


Recognition for Holmgren's contribution as an environmental designer, educator and activist has been slow to develop after the initial enthusiasm generated by the publication of Permaculture One when he was 23. The inclusion in Ecological Pioneers (of Australia)[13] was the first substantial recognition by academic authors. The inclusion of a three part series on Melliodora in a best of ten years of Gardening Australia, the most popular TV gardening program and a person profile on Landline (ABC TV rural program) has been the most significant recognition by mainstream media. In 2012, following the publication of PP&PBS in Italian, the environmental organisation Fondazione Parchi Monumentali Bardini e Peyron recognised Holmgren's contribution with award Il Monito del Giardin.


  • 1978 Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. Melbourne: Transworld.
  • 1985 Permaculture in the Bush. Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.
  • 1994 Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.
  • 1995 "The Permaculture Movement and Education", in Goldfields Permaculture and Landcarers, 3, 14-16.
  • 1996 a Melliodora (Hepburn Permaculture Gardens): Ten Years of Sustainable Living. Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.
  • 1996 b "Fryers Forest Village", in Green Connections, 2.2, 20-21.
  • 1997 "Getting Started", in Green Connections, 10, 28-31.
  • 2002 a Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.
  • 2002 b David Holmgren: Collected Writings 1978-2000. [CD] Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.
  • 2005 Mellidora (Hepburn Permaculture Gardens): A Case Study in Cool Climate Permaculture 1985 - 2005 [eBook] Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.
  • 2006 a Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. [eBook] Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.
  • 2006 b David Holmgren: Collected Writings & Presentations 1978 - 2006 [eBook] Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.
  • 2009 Future Scenarios. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
  • 2011 2011 Permaculture Diary, Marrickville NSW: PcDC Michele Margolis.
  • 2012 Permaculture Pioneers: Stories from the New Frontier, edited by Kerry Dawborn & Caroline Smith, Holmgren Design Services,ISBN 0975078623


  1. ^ Holmgren, 2011
  2. ^ Ecological Pioneers, Mulligan and Hill, 2001:203
  3. ^ Holmgren, 2002a: xix
  4. ^ Melliodora, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens, at Hepburn Springs, (
  5. ^ Melliodora, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens - Ten Years of Sustainable Living, 1996a; Payne, 2003
  6. ^ Holmgren, 1996b
  7. ^ A prosperous way down, Odum and Odum, 2001
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Low, 1998; Grayson, 2003
  11. ^ Holmgren, 2002a: 265
  12. ^
  13. ^ Mulligan & Hill 2001

  • Grayson, Russ (2003) "Permaculture an agent of bio-invasion?". The Planet. The journal of Permaculture International Limited, 6 (Autumn), 10-11.
  • Low, Tim (1998) Feral Future. Melbourne: Viking Australia.
  • Mollison, Bill (1988) Permaculture: A Designer's Manual. Tyalgum, NSW: Tagari Publishing.
  • Mulligan, Martin and Stuart Hill (2001) Ecological Pioneers. A Social History of Australian Thought and Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 202-207.
  • Odum, H.T. (1971) Environment, Power and Society. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Odum, H.T. and E.C. Odum (2001) A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Payne, Steve (2003) "The Good House Effect". The Organic Gardener. Autumn. Ultimo, NSW: ABC Enterprises, 30-34.
  • Smith, J Russell (1977) Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. Old Greenwich, MA: Devlin-Adair.
  • Tane, Hakai (1995) Ecography. Mapping and Modelling Landscape Ecosystems. Canberra: Murray-Darling Basin Commission.


Further resources[]