The following resources have been crucial in my education and in my work. Permaculture is a very encompassing discipline, and it is difficult to develop broad competence while finding your own niche. I have read every book listed below cover to cover at least once (and in some cases multiple times). There are others that many would consider essential to a basic permaculture education, that I will get to eventually. However, I don’t feel like it would be honest to recommend anything that I don’t have personal experience with.
Books: The Fundamentals
Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual is the book to buy if you want to start practicing permaculture. This tome is the basis for every permaculture design course, and dense with information. It is intended to be used as a manual; to be consulted as needed and as a broad and detailed overview of permaculture as a whole.
J. Russell Smith’s Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, is one of the foundational documents that lays out some of the principles and ideas behind the Food Forest. I love this book–he does three chapters of philosophy and ideas, and then goes through lots of different trees, with a focus on North America–outlining the Carobs, Mesquites, Honey Locust, Chestnuts, Oaks, Mulberries, Walnuts, and more. The link above is to a free PDF, or you can get it for your kindle here.
It is a little controversial to list this next one as fundamental to a permaculture education, but for anyone working on a big project, this is a must. Much more than a land management book, Holistic Management by Allen Savory is about a decision-making process that helps people deal with immense amounts of complexity while moving their goals and projects in the right direction. It’s helped me to catch mistakes before they could reach their natural conclusion–particularly in how I manage my teams of beodu in Makkah.
Many people buy Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden as their first permaculture book. It is a wonderful introduction to designing efficient, perennial gardens and is a great resource.
Martin Crawford’s How to Grow Perennial Vegetables is based on his work in the UK but carries over to much of the Americas and Europe as well. I haven’t had the chance to put much of this into practice, since the climate i’m living in is so different, but still found his approach to design and the great lists of plants he has to be useful.
Volume 2 of Brad Lancaster’s great series on harvesting rainwater. This volume focuses on Water-Harvesting Earthworks–how to design, construct, and maintain them so that you can make the most use of the only truly sustainable water source on the planet.
Art Ludwig’s Create an Oasis with Greywater is a treasure trove of information on all things grewater. Regardless of what climate you’re building in, Art’s book covers system design, construction, and maintenance, along with advantages, disadavantages, and pitfalls of each type of system. Art has a lot of experience, and I consider his book the authority on greywater.
This is Art Ludwig’s book on water storage. I used it as a guide in building some ferrocement tanks in my work in Saudi Arabia, but it’s also very useful in knowing how to take your situation and calculate what kind of storage is most appropriate for you. If you want to know how to build, and when to use cisterns, aquifers, or other water storage systems, this is a great start.
Craig Child’s The Secret Knowledge of Water is set in the American Southwest. It combines great storytelling with a curiosity and amazement for how life in the desert interacts with its most scarce and precious resource. It opened my eyes to the ephemeral nature of water in an arid landscape, as well as to the commonality of floods. Perhaps most interesting was his description of desert streams that only occur in the dark of night.
I love this book so much that I was prepared to quit my job in corporate America and move my family into the woods in Southern Oregon just to spend six months learning from Ianto. Ianto is the father of the modern American cob revival, and his Hand-Sculpted House is both beautiful and utilitarian.
Nader Khalili is the father of earthbag building, and was hired by NASA to develop building systems that could be used on the moon and beyond. His Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture goes through how to build your own earthen house and is tremendously useful as a guide to building–he goes into good detail on arches, domes, wall systems, flooring, and then shows pictures of how to model and practice these on a small scale before moving onto a house. He also pulls from his Persian heritage to explain the old technology of building clay brick houses and then turning the house into a giant kiln, and firing the whole house, to turn it into a monolithic structure. It’s full of historical no-tech solutions to lots of issues with housing, and one of my favorites.
The Art of Natural Building is written by multiple authors with expertise in various types of natural building. This book is a broad swath of natural building–covering the case for natural building, design and planning, overviews of foundations, earthen floors, adobe, bamboo, cob, CEB, cordwood, earth bag, hemp, straw-clay, drystone, papercrete, rammed earth, strawbale, and timber-framed building. It also covers different roof, wall, and finishing systems. Each section has a resources section so that if you have found the thing you know you want, you can chase it down the rabbit hole a little farther and get into more detail. This is a great overview of natural building for people who are discovering it for the first time.
This is the authoritative text on Earthbag Building. If you have any interest in learning about, or building with earthbags, this book can get you through some basic structures. Learn from Kaki Hunter’s and Donald Kiffmeyer’s experiences in earthbag building and avoid some of the mistakes they’ve made with this book.