The seventh Permaculture Design principle is ‘Small Scale Intensive Systems’.

In Permaculture, we design and build small scale systems because they can be managed with less resources, which makes them very energy efficient.

We also construct these systems as intensive systems to obtain the maximum productivity from these smaller manageable spaces.

Where possible, these systems are scaled so they can be managed with human labour and simple hand tools. Such systems use very little energy and can provide a very high energy return on the energy invested . Typically, in systems utilising human labour, such as peasant farming, one person can produce enough food to support 8-10 people, so the ratio of energy we produce to the energy we use is as high as 10:1. In these small scale systems, we don’t just use human labour though, we can also use animals too, and where absolutely necessary we can use light machinery that uses moderate amounts of fuel, such as a small tractor.

Obviously, acre for acre, a small farm utilising human labour, animals, and possibly light machinery is going to be far more energy efficient than hundreds of acres of commercial farmland employing heavy machinery, which then transports the food over vast distances and stores it in cold storage.

The Permaculture small scale intensive systems described so far might sound fairly similar to peasant farming systems or small scale agriculture at this point, but this is where the similarity ends. Let us look at some of these difference in detail that distinguish Permaculture systems from the other systems, and the benefits these differences provide.

Perennial Plants Instead of Annual Plants

Annual plants are very short-lived plants that only live for a year, produce seed and then die down. Perennial plants are plants that don’t die down after a year, they can live for many years to many centuries, as in the case of trees.

In Permaculture systems, we do not rely exclusively or extensively on annual crops for food production as conventional agricultural systems do – the preference is to use perennial plants for food production wherever possible.

Nature predominately consists of perennial plants. When you look at natural terrestrial (land based) and freshwater aquatic ecosystems, the majority of plants are in fact perennial. There are very good reasons for this. Perennial plants form stable, resilient, biodiverse ecosystems.

In Permaculture, we model our designs and systems on those of Nature, and by replicating these perennial ecosystems, we can create stable, resilient food production systems.

Annual vs. Perennial Plants

If we look at the biology of annual and perennial plants, we can further understand the advantages of perennials, and their predominance in Nature.

Annual plants have a “live fast, die young” strategy – their survival/reproduction strategy is to reproduce from seed, grow very fast, using a very large amount of soil nutrients in the process to grow to as fast as possible, and to eventually produce large quantities of seed within the same year, before they finally die down. This very fast growth pattern does not give the plant much time to establish itself, it is an all out effort to get to the seeding stage before the growing season ends.

Typically, annual plants are very shallow rooted, for most vegetables, the bulk of the root mass is within the top 6” (15cm) of the soil, so they cannot access water and nutrients deeper in the soil, and their root networks are not capable of stabilising the soil to prevent soil erosion. Annuals do not form permanent ecosystems because once they reach the end of their growing season and they have gone to seed, they die down leaving bare soil once again.

If you look at either a backyard vegetable garden or a commercial farm covering hundreds of acres of land, it works exactly the same way. Seeds or seedlings are planted, they grow very fast after being given huge amounts of fertiliser, they are harvested, the soil becomes bare again, then next year they are replanted once again, and the cycle runs indefinitely. To prevent localised nutrient deficiencies and disease, the practice of crop rotation is used, where different plants are planted in each bed every season, and moved from one bed to the next each successive year.

Perennial plants have a very different survival/reproduction strategy. They can grow from seed or from offshoots of existing plants, and they grow quite slowly in comparison to annuals, taking their time to establish themselves. They grow extensive root systems that tap very deep into the soil, allowing them to access water and nutrients that cannot be reached by annual plants, providing a permanent network of roots in the soil that help stabilise the soil and prevent erosion.

Because they grow slowly, perennials do not need large quantities of nutrients all at once like annuals do to grow. In fact, perennials are much better adapted than annuals to grow in low nutrient environments, and can obtain their nutrients progressively from the soil over a longer period of time. In warmer climates perennials can grow continually, and in colder climates where they stop growing when the climate is unfavourable, they are able to resume growth earlier than annuals.

Perennials, being long lived, create stable ecosystems such as forests, which can provide a food source and a home for a diverse range of flora and fauna. Forests are home to approximately 50-90% of all the world’s terrestrial (land-living) biodiversity. Tropical forests alone are estimated to contain between 10-50 million species – over 50% of species on the planet. Annual farmlands are only a temporary home to pest insects, nothing else.

Perennial plants don’t need to be replanted every year, so the arduous seasonal task of ploughing, digging and sowing seed that is carried out for annual crops is no longer a concern.

Less fertiliser and water is required to grow perennial plants, and they are on the whole a lot more productive than annuals. Growing perennial food plants is a far more sustainable and energy efficient, and requires far less work.

Use of Biological Resources

This area is covered in depth in the fifth Permaculture Design principle ‘Using Biological Resources’.

This strategy is concerned with the use of biological resources to do work or conserve energy, rather than using non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuel resources. Wherever we can use a plant or animal to preform a certain function in our designs, then this is our preferred approach.

For example, in a small scale intensive system, we can use mulching as a preventative measure for weed control rather than using herbicides after the weeds have grown. We can also use ground covers as living mulches to shade out and out-compete any weed seeds that might find their way into the soil.

Another example is fertilising – rather than use synthetic chemical fertilisers, we can use a range of sustainable and energy-efficient options, such as nitrogen-fixing plants, animal manures, dynamic accumulator plants and green manures.

Biological resources are a key to recycling energy and materials, so by using biological resources we can work with Nature to gain many benefits in terms of energy efficiency over systems that only harness human labour or are unsustainably powered by non-renewable fossil fuels.

Use of Alternative Technology to Generate or Save Energy

In Permaculture, small scale intensive systems can utilise alternative technologies to generate or save energy. These measures contribute to the high energy efficiency of permaculture designs by making best use of the energy available and harnessing it for use on site.

  • Energy can be generated using renewable sources such as solar power, hydro systems, wind power, wood and other sources of biomass.
  • Energy can be saved through energy cycling – see the sixth Permaculture Design principle ‘Energy Cycling’. In our Permaculture designs, we seek to capture energy to increase the growth of our living systems, and set in place cycles which will perpetuate life. The strategy here is to take energies flowing through a site and to divert them into ‘cycles’ to allow them to be utilised to ultimately increase the available energy on the site.

Plant Stacking – stacking in vertical space

In a forest, Nature grows plants in a highly optimised pattern, utilising multiple layers and making the most of both horizontal and vertical space. A forest typically is comprised of seven layers, and in Permaculture we design food forests in the same way, as shown below:


In this system, plants grow in forests in a “stacked” layout, as detailed below:

  • Tall trees form the uppermost canopy layer– typically large fruit and nut trees.
  • Smaller trees form the next layer– typically lower growing and dwarf fruit trees.
  • Shrubs sit beneath the small trees – these are well represented by currants and berries.
  • Herbaceous plants occupy the next layer – these are the culinary and medicinal herbs, companion plants, bee-forage plants and poultry forage plants.
  • Ground cover plants carpet any remaining space on the ground, forming a living mulch that protects the soil, reduces water loss to evaporation, and prevents weeds growing.
  • Rhizosphere or root zone plants go a level deeper into the underground level – these are the root crops, such as potatoes, onions, carrots, ginger and yacon.
  • Climbers and vines rise upwards to occupy vertical space. They can be run up trellises, arbours, fences, trees or any other vertical support. This category includes grapes, climbing beans, many berries, passionfruit, kiwi fruit, climbing peas, chokos and many other species that love to climb.

The benefits of a stacked forest design are as follows:

  • Very high yields are possible because of the vertical stacking of up to seven layers of trees and plants in the one space to create an intensive planting system.
  • A microclimate is created by the close arrangement of plants, which allows plants to grow in a protected space where they are not subjected to harsh conditions.
  • Companion planting – the intensive mixed planting of various species creates a biodiverse environment which allows synergy between plants, where plants help each other grow, protect each other from pests and diseases, and increase productivity.

Succession Planting – stacking in time

In Nature new plants are already growing well before the old ones have died down, so soil is never left bare.

If we plant different crops with each other that have different growing seasons, we can plan it so that as the existing plants are coming to the end of their fruiting/productive cycle for the season, new plants are beginning to grow – we can “stack plants in time” to get extended cropping throughout the season, without having bare spaces in the garden or ‘slack time’ when nothing is growing.

For example, we can plant our cold season crops such as broad beans while our warm season crops, such as tomatoes are approaching the latter part of their life. By the time the tomatoes begin to decline, the broad beans will be growing strongly to fill place in the garden beds.

This table summarises the differences discussed so far between conventional farming systems, peasant farming systems and Permaculture systems.

 Conventional Farming SystemsPeasant
Farming Systems
crop typemainly annual cropsmainly annual cropsmainly perennial crops
soil cultivationenergy (fossil fuel) intensive soil cultivationhuman labour intensive soil cultivationuse of biological resources
human labour uselow – fossil fuel powered & machinery driventotal dependency on human labourlimited use of human labour
machinery useheavy use of machinerylittle or no use of machineryonly if needed, moderate use of machinery
energy saving or energy generationnoneenergy efficiency through use of human labour & animalsuse of biological resources and alternative technologies

The design principle Small Scale Intensive Systems is about using small manageable areas of land as efficiently and sustainably as possible, using biological resources and designs that imitate Nature, to reduce human labour and to leverage natural ecological processes to our benefit, so we can obtain maximum yields with the least effort in the most ecologically sound way possible.

In Permaculture, since we care for the planet, and work with Nature, it is important that the site we design and construct is not too big for us to manage. We must be able to keep what we construct under control. If we lose control of the site, and it gets overrun with weeds, then what we have in fact done is damage a natural system, which Nature will have to repair.

An important principle in Permaculture design, to quote Bill Mollison’s “Introduction to {Permaculture”, is “…if we cannot maintain or improve a system, we should leave it alone, thus minimising damage and preserving natural complexity.”

It is too easy to ‘bite off more than we can chew’, and build a very large, extensive site, which is too big too look after. Inevitably, if we cannot maintain all the plants and trees on a site, they will die, which is a huge waste of life and resources, and the natural systems which occupied the area previously will have also been lost in the process. The net result being wholesale destruction of Nature, something we would prefer to avoid!

When designing a small scale intensive permaculture system, we always begin designing around the site of the home, and extend out from there. We can progressively extend the design as necessary, but what is critical is that we start small, and we maintain control of the space we have modified, this is the essence of responsible design strategy.

16 thoughts on “Permaculture Design Principle 7 – Small Scale Intensive Systems

  1. totally awesome… is there any reason why whole cummunities arent making this a priority … forest gardening I mean?

    1. Call it tradition or custom, people have just been doing what the people before them did when it comes to growing food without ever questioning the wisdom of it…

    2. i think because of the food security of everyone. because we can feed the world by traditional farming by this rapidly growing population and the only way to survive is to go intensive but eco-friendly. this idea is good for a family that want to live peacefully.

  2. Thought provoking. Implementable. Study of the local area and effective economics very important

  3. Could you give more practical examples of food forest (I live in NSW North of Sydney.) How do you manage crop rotation in this system.
    You are the first perma site that makes sense to me… I need a lot of examples to understand the principle and you focus on urban garden… i love it!
    Thank you

    1. Hi Veronique, see my comments in the crop rotation article I wrote – Crop Rotation Systems for Annual Vegetables
      “With a food forest system the annual plants are interspersed throughout in spaces where appropriate conditions exist for them to grow, just like in a real forest ecosystem. Since there are no mass plantings of any vegetable anywhere, and they are placed in various locations from year to year, it eliminates the need for crop rotation altogether.”

  4. I read this in a garden book: “proximity to trees, root systems – besides the shading effects of trees, consider the spread of their roots. Locate your garden plot at least 10′ beyond the drip line of any nearby trees”. How do you reconcile this statement with a food forest garden… doesn’t the soil dry up and get robbed of its nutrients by the trees? What happens to the smaller ones underneath? I have trouble understanding!
    Thank you for your great site and your generosity

    1. That’s the problem with agriculture methods, they ignore Nature! In a natural ecosystem, plants live together, and they occupy a place in the ecosystem that suits the plants needs {not that of humans). Plants support each other by providing protection from wind and sun, they create microclimates which help more fragile plants thrive, and they can have beneficial effects on each other, as we can see in the case of Companion Planting. The garden books are probably referring to huge shade trees which have excessive water requirements and outcompete most things around them. Look at my articles on food forests to see how plants naturally create layers above and below the ground – just as plants and trees are not the same height, their roots systems occupy different depths in the soil, so they take what they need from different levels of the soil.

      1. Thank you Angelo… I hadn’t seen the reply and forgotten about your wonderful site…
        you are inspiring me again! 🙂

  5. Hello, thanks for the article it is really insightful. I am starting a small scale organic farm from scratch with 2 quarter acre plots of compacted grass land to begin with. I don’t have any experience with permaculture but prior to reading this article, I envisioned a food forest idea for a market garden type farm that is congruous to what is written here. The handful of ex-organic farmers, and current farmers tell me that this type of design which allows layers of plants to live together and fruit is not compatible with how a small scale farm (based of efficiency and strict organization) can operate. Can this style of permaculture be incorporated into running a small farm? I know you said permaculture starts from the scale of a home and no other farmers seem to think it is effective way of farming, which tells me this has probably not been done before. But I want to do this on a bigger scale- I want my plants to know of the reality of living in little harmonious biological neighbourhoods without tilling or plowing. My question doesn’t have any definitive answers but I am curious to know your opinion. Thank you

    1. Hi Jackie, small scale intensive systems are highly productive and highly managed systems at least four times as productive as farms. To understand permaculture design you need to understand Zones – and how these systems fit into inner zones, not whole farms.

      For farmers who doubt permaculture, do an internet search on Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm!

  6. Working from your home outwards and zoning runs counter to keyline design, where you work from the outside perimeter towards your home.

    Would you agree?

    Also, should a “broad” acre be divided up into several adjoining “small intensive zones” if this is to work for big farms?

    1. Thanks for your question, it’s a very good one, and requires a long answer…

      Keyline design and zone design are both design concepts, but they they are not directly comparable as they deal with very different applications and work on totally different scales. One neither excludes nor conflicts with the other.

      The ‘Keyline’ system by P.A. Yeomans is a sustainable agriculture technique for improving soil and drought-proofing farms. It aims to slow the flow of water and nutrients down the landscape, capture water in dams, cycle nutrients and water through the soil and plants. Since this system uses the basic principles of catchment design, it relies on contour, either planting along the contour of the land, or ripping the soil and subsoil just off the contour, much like contour trenches (swales) do. The reliance on slope and the ‘keypoint’ of the landscape makes this system particularly relevant to farms located on foothills.

      By comparison, zone design differs in two major ways, which are far more encompassing than keyline design.

      Firstly, zone design works on a much larger scale than keyline design, which is only restricted to farms, that’s only zone 3 in the six zone design system. Zone design deals with zone 0 – the home, zone 1 – the most intensively used managed and controlled zone around the home, zone 2 – quite intensively used and slightly less managed areas incorporating larger design element, zone 3 – basically farms (which is where keyline design falls into), zone 4 – part wild/part managed land and zone 5- unmanaged wilderness. Furthermore, zone design is a design system for integrating all these areas so they work together, holistically, it’s much more than designing better farmland.

      Secondly, zone design has a completely different application, as it can be applied to tiny urban backyard through to broadacre farm and much further out to unmanaged wilderness. It can be used for each or any zones in whatever combinations, and integrates with sector design to manage ‘wild energies’.

      The glaringly obvious difference between the two design systems you mention is that zone and sector planning work together as a system of energy efficient design applicable to any scale and application of land use, whereas keyline design is a sustainable agriculture system for managing soil and water on sloped farmland.

      In terms of Permaculture design, if you were designing your broadacre farm, complete with house and other amenities, you would first divide up your total plot into zones, and once you’ve defined zone 3, which is your farming land, you would then go into the next level of detail. You want to use keyline design for your zone 3, no problem!

      Whether you choose to use keyline design or not for your zone 3 area, you still have to decide and design where dams will be located and how they will gather water, where the main farming crops and tree orchard will need to be planted, the areas for livestock rearing and pastures for grazing, what animal forage will be grown and where, how bird flocks will be managed and so on. Another important consideration with keyline design is that the land has a keypoint to work around.

      You obviously wouldn’t apply keyline design to other zones where you would construct small-scale intensive systems, as it’s totally inappropriate and irrelevant. Keyline design is as applicable to zones 0, 1 and 2 as it’s applicable to urban Permaculture, and I don’t need to (and can’t) rip keylines with a tractor and Yeoman’s plow in my backyard food forest. Equally, on the the end of the scale, it would be environmental vandalism of the highest order to run a tractor with a plow through zone 5 pristine wilderness areas!

      So, to answer your original question, zone design works from the home, outwards, to delineate zones which define land use. How each of these zones is designed to function is immaterial, as any technique can be used. As Bill Mollison taught in class when I studied my PDC with him and Geoff Lawton, Permaculture is not about techniques, it’s a holistic design system which can incorporate any chosen techniques. These techniques could include those of keyline design within zone 3 areas, which is where that system was created to be used. Inside the boundaries of zone 3, when you’re designing the farming area, you can design in any direction as it makes no difference inside the defined farming zone.

      This may be my personal opinion, but I think the confusion and the erroneous conflation of these two ideas arises from the fact that Permaculture as a design system is a high-level conceptual system of holistic design, a ‘filter’ as it were, through which to apply other disciplines and techniques to make them integrate harmoniously with Nature and make them more energy efficient. Permaculture may have some favourite techniques, but it doesn’t prescribe techniques or restrict them, any techniques are allowed as long as they are sustainable and ethical. Remember, Permaculture started off as ‘permanent-agriculture’ and became ‘permanent-culture’, because it can be used to design communities, architecture, and a host of economic and social systems that support stable communities, it’s much more than farming.

      By contrast, Yeomans’ Keyline system seriously muddies the waters if you try to think of it purely as a design system, because it embodies a very specific system of design which operates within a particularly narrow set of parameters – it’s applicable specifically to rural agriculture, preferably to land with a keypoint, and it utilises very specific prescribed techniques to achieve its goals of regenerating the soil and capturing water. Its a blend of techniques and design principles, and as such is neither a pure design system nor a flexible one. It achieves what it’s creator intended, a better way to farm, and it does achieve that goal admirably, but any attempt to expand this system would create a whole new and completely different system altogether, basically another modern regenerative agriculture system based on Yeomans’ system. I thinks it is more accurate to think of the keyline system as a sustainable farming solution, which incorporates a system of design that operates strictly within the context and the framework of the problem it was originally created to solve, much like any other engineering solution using technological tools and techniques to resolve a problem.

      I hope it’s clear from this long exposition that it’s a really case of comparing apples with oranges when we try to draw a comparison between the two systems. Actually, it’s worse than that! Permaculture is about creating beneficial relationships between elements in design, and to do that, any good designer has to be able to see and identify those relationships in the first place! Let’s do a bit of Permaculture solutions thinking, examining the issue both holistically and from a reductionist perspective. If we logically examine the relationship between the two concepts from a mathematical set theory perspective, keyline design may be a subset of zone design, but zone design can exist (and therefore work) without the inclusion of keyline design, and keyline design can work outside of a zone design system, so both can exist independently of each other, but the two concepts are not mutually exclusive and can work together.

      Broadacre agricultural areas which are defined as zone 3 are by definition not intensively managed, so they should most definitely not be divided up and treated that way. Please see my article on Zones and Sectors Efficient Energy Planning, the point of zoning is to aggregate design elements by energy requirements to create an energy efficient design. If you want an intensively managed and highly productive space, which will be at least fourfold or more times more productive per unit area than any zone 3 farm area, the solution is to build a food forest or intensive kitchen vegetable garden close to the house, and keep it to a manageable size, so you can intensively manage it with the least energy possible.

      Hope this helps! : )

  7. EXCELLENT reading,wonderful detailed instructions. I always wondered how things were done now I know. Thank you so much for all this information. We can all learn from this. Get growing.

Leave a Reply