If you want to study permaculture in an intensive way, but can’t afford to take a course, do not despair! Although nothing in the world can replace a great teacher and the dynamic interactions of an involved group, there is nevertheless lots to be learned at home on your own, with the guidance of good books and online resources.
For a complete list of permaculture books, including a detailed write up for each one, Permaculture Media offers a fantastically thorough booklist organized by category.
If you are new to permaculture and just want to explore some permaculture philosophy, with lots of how-to techniques, I highly recommend Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. I’ve read it twice, it’s a great beginner/intermediate book.
If you want to go all the way though, really sink your teeth into it, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, the 576 page tome by co-originator Bill Mollison, is the seminal work and required reading for serious permaculturists. A warning though– don’t expect gardening techniques, practical advice or even very much applied permaculture. Mollison’s book is almost entirely ‘thinky’– it’s a treatise on earth sciences and design theory. Rather than line out the practical details of a ‘good permaculture’ he describes a way to arrive at those practical details yourself, tailored to all the individual variables of each individual site. The specific techniques that he does list are more examples of how the thinking can be used than examples of ‘what you should do.’ It might be the ultimate DIY, don’t just do it yourself, think it yourself!
Other top PC books include Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by the other co-originator David Holmgren; The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and Other Temperate Climates by Patrick Whitefield; Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening and the relatively new but already a pivotal classic, two-volume Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier (next on my personal list, when I can afford it!)
You will notice that all my book links go to Good Reads, rather than the omniscient Amaz*n. I love books, and I support buying quality reference books that will be used for years, but for the most part I recommend asking your local library first, who can often order almost any book you want from other libraries, for a standard borrower period.
There is a ton of great information online, though it can be hard to find. Please add anything you know of in the comments below.
First of all, here’s a good 24 page introduction to permaculture by Graham Burnet to get you started.
If you really want to read Mollison’s Manual, but can’t get a copy through your library and simply cannot afford to buy it, Scribd has a free online pdf of the entire book! The quality is high, and if you download their free app you can read it on a tablet in a very clear format.
Here is a very detailed official PDC course outline. At nearly 80 pages, it’s almost a book itself. Treeyo Permaculture put together a nice companion reader for Mollison’s Manual that follows along chapter by chapter. Both of these are great resources if you are trying to structure your own study like a real course.
Barking Frogs Permaculture/Yankee Publishing has put a set of pamphlets (essays really) by Bill Mollison totaling 155 pages online for free viewing. The writing is not nearly so well organized and concise as his book, but they’re free!
The Soil and Health Library maintains an incredible number of classic texts in their Holistic Agriculture collection, and Journey to Forever has an equally impressive number (though many of the same titles) in their Small Farms Library.
If you want to turn your study into a multi-media event, Network Earth has a 14 hour video lecture series by Bill Mollison, and here is another 20 hour lecture series by both Mollison and Geoff Lawton. These are both edited out of recordings from actual PDCs. Between the two, you could get 34 hours of permaculture instruction, all for free! And from the man himself, no less. Although Mollison is undoubtedly charismatic, he is also hopelessly tangential, I personally enjoyed Lawton’s lectures more. Lawton is awesome– passionate, motivated, obviously extremely experienced and knowledgable, and a great teacher. For more from Lawton, check out this free full length video Establishing a Food Forest the Permaculture Way on YouTube.
There is actually an entire 40 hour PDC lecture series online from a university in North Carolina. Unfortunately I personally didn’t like the professor and found the material overly simplified.
There are also a couple of permaculture podcasts and other audio listed at Permaculture Media.
Geoff Lawton is the king of permaculture video media. Check out all these gems when you have time (they are long). Be prepared for some serious inspiration:
Permaculture Design Courses always involve the creation of a design for an actual property, called a practicum. This is an important compliment to the more theoretical reading and research. We learn by doing, and in the case of permaculture, we learn how to apply the theory by applying it. I highly recommend this to anyone doing intensive self-study.
Treeyo Permaculture lays out in good detail for their students the steps to follow for site design (look under Chapter 3: Design Process).
The Scale of Permanence Checklist by David Jacke (adapted from Yeomans) is indispensable for the assessment process. And I found this article about Goals Articulation (summarized from Edible Forest Gardens) to be very useful as well.
My own post, Researching Local Climate Data for Site Assessment has some awesome links in it to specific climate data for even the most obscure locales.
For planning out spacing and placement of traditional garden crops, I have found this Vegetable Planting Chart from High Mowing Seeds useful, as well as Peaceful Valley’s Growing Guides for perennials.
Permaculture puts a great deal of emphasis on perennial plants, many of them non-traditional and hard to find information about. The first place to look when researching unusual species is the Plants for a Future Database, which details a mind boggling 7,000 species of edible and useful plants, from all around the world. You can search for a specific plant, or use the highly interactive ‘Search by Use and Properties,’ in which you can combine desired qualities such as ‘shade tolerant,’ ‘cold hardy’ and ‘heavy soil’ to see a list of plants that can tolerate such conditions. The value of their site to permaculture designers cannot be overstated.
Temperate Climate Permaculture has a list of plants for edible forest gardens, with a separate page for each plant. There are only a few dozen plants detailed so far, but a pretty comprehensive write up for each.
Because permaculture is about emulating natural ecosystems, including animals in our designs is preferable when possible. Poultry represent the livestock best suited to most urban and suburban yards and lifestyles.
Harvey Ussery, although he does not call himself a permaculturist, is a fantastic resource for creating integrated home systems which include poultry. His book The Small Scale Poultry Flock is unlike all the other standard issue chicken books, with radical ideas about feeding and housing your flock to minimize dependance on outside resources while at the same time increasing the health and quality of your poultry, your soil, your gardens and– by default– yourself.
Furthermore, he is a generous man and although his book is absolutely worth the money (you will want to reference it often) the Poultry Page on his website is treasure trove of free information, with dozens of lengthy articles about chickens and ducks– nearly a book’s worth when taken together.
The Henderson Chicken Breed Chart lists more than 60 breeds, focusing on laying ability. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has an extremely useful chart of heirloom chicken breeds, listing both laying and meat bird qualities. They also have a more detailed description of all breeds in their Poultry Section.
As for ducks, which are very appropriate to many permaculture designs, look to Dave Holdderead. He is The Duck Man for North America, having saved many heirloom breeds from extinction, and brought many more into the US from overseas. He wrote Raising the Home Duck Flock which is available online for free at Sribd, it has an extremely handy chart of breed characteristics to aid in selection. He also wrote the Storey Guide to Raising Ducks. Even more important than his writing, he maintains the Holdderead Waterfowl Farm and Preservation Center, which sells day old ducklings of hard to find breeds.