The True Father of Permaculture

by Peter Myers, November 19, 2016; updated December 3, 2018.

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Sceptics say, with regard to Permaculture: "It's All Theory." But Peter Cundall, that most practical gardener, founder of Gardening Australia, paid tribute to Bill Mollison after his recent death in Hobart.

The ABC published an obituary Tributes flow in for Permaculture 'father' Bill Mollison, which says Cundall described Permaculture as "an all-encompassing method of actually living without in anyway disrupting the environment" ... "It was the way of the future, and this is why it became so exciting," he said.

Permaculture became a worldwide movement, but the book 'Permaculture One', which started it off, was published in Tasmania (in 1978) and oriented to Tasmania, focusing on crops suitable for growing there.

I was living in Tasmania at the time, and picked up news on the grapevine. Word went out that Mollison would start a Permaculture commune at a greenfields site in the north-east of Tasmania.

Instead, he establised the first Permaculture community in the north-west fishing town of Stanley, where he had grown up. I knew a family who lived there, and visited them several times. This first venture was a failure.

Mollison then set up a community in the subtropics at Tyalgum, near Murrwillumbah, in NSW. In 1993, my family and I called in while on a trip around the country. He showed us the orchard, featuring fruit and nut trees, with perennial vines (I recall sweet potato) as a cover crop underneath. The trees included coconut, which hates frost, and plum, which needs frost (this was before low-chill plums were introduced). Bill gave us some sweet potatoes to cook.

Subsequent Permaculture communities included Crystal Waters, near Maleny. Green Harvest was set up by Permaculturists from there.

Peter Cundall was a member of the Communist Party, but Mollison was more of an Anarchist. He believed in communal living, and introduced the heavy emphasis on 'systems theory'. Mollison was a collaborator of Bob Brown, but later came to call the Greens 'Eco-Fascists', for their crusade to pull out useful plants growing wild, eg olives in the Adelaide Hills and Brazilian cherry-guavas in south-east Qld.

Mollison had campaigned against Plant Breeders Rights, but, after Permaculture took off, he switched sides and put a copyright on the word 'Permaculture.' The books 'Permaculture One' (1978), 'Permaculture Two' (1979), and 'Permaculture: A Designers Manual' (1988), bear a notice informing the reader of this copyright. Mollison then introduced fee-paying courses on Permaculture Design; holding courses became an income for Permaculture communities.

Some years later, when a forum member threatened to complain to the ACCC, Mollison dropped the copyright on the word 'Permaculture'. The story was reported in an article titled The Great Bill Mollison Copyright Swindle:

As if to atone, Permaculture Two is now online (19mb) at the Internet Archive. The first link offers a choice of filetypes:

This one downloads the pdf directly:

A reader says this link works too:

You can also download the Designers Manual. To do so, copy and paste this search (exactly as below) into Google, and click on the first hit:
"Permaculture: A Designers Manual" filetype:pdf

But Mollison was not the real father of Permaculture. The real father was J. Russell Smith, author of the 1929 book Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture.

Wikipedia's article about Bill Mollison contains this note:

{quote} Note 1: although Joseph Russell Smith is not similarly referred to as the "father" of permaculture, Smith was the first to write about a system of permanent agriculture in a book entitled Tree Crops, published in 1929, and earlier in 1910, in a piece entitled Breeding and Use of Tree Crops" (Wikipedia as at 18 November 2016, at 09:50.)


David Holmgren was a student of Bill Mollison at the University of Tasmania. It seems that he, not Mollison, coined the word 'Permaculture', from the title of Smith's book. Holmgren and Mollison jointly wrote the book 'Permaculture One'; but the subsequent books were written by Mollison alone, not Holmgren.

Permaculture One does not acknowledge Smith as the source of the name 'Permaculture'; it only contains one brief mention of his book, as a reference in endnote 18. Smith is not mentioned in the body of Permaculture One.

Smith's book is cited as a reference in endnote 31 of Permaculture Two, but not mentioned in the body of that book.

None of the other Permaculture books by Mollison, that I have seen, mention Smith.

Yet, in 2013, David Holmgren published a review of Smith's book in which he credits it as "a major influence on the development of the Permaculture concept". He even calls it "a Permaculture classic by J. Russell Smith".

The review is on Holmgren's website at

Here's what it says:

{quote} Melliodora videocast: a Permaculture classic by J. Russell Smith
By HD Office on April 17, 2013 in Reviews
In its first instalment for the regular Permaculture Classics videocast series from Melliodora, David Holmgren talks about J.Russell Smith's Tree Crops: a permanent agriculture. You may not have realised, but this 1929 classic book was a major influence on the development of the Permaculture concept in the 1970Õs.

Smith encouraged family farmers to grow Tree Crops rather than annual grains, as food for animals and people:

"Hogs won't touch corn if there are acorns to eat, and oaks can produce more calories per acre than grain, when done right. A top quality pecan tree can drop nearly a ton of nuts per year. Hickory nuts can be smashed and boiled to produce hickory oil. Pistachios fetch a high price and have a long shelf life. Many types of pines produce nuts. The honey locust is a drought hearty US native that will grow where corn or cotton grows, and animals love the beans. The sugar maple produces sugar. Persimmons are enjoyed by man and beast. Pigs and chickens love mulberries. And don't forget walnuts, beechnuts, almonds, cherry pits, soapnuts, holly, ginko, pawpaw, horse chestnut, osage orange, privet, wattle, wild plums, and choke cherries."

Decades later, animals are reared more intensively than ever. Cattle are housed in feedlots, fed on grains, which fatten them but make them sick. Pigs and poultry are imprisoned from birth in the most crowded conditions, being force-fed grains, hormones and antibiotics; their whole lives are a misery. Their meat is unhealthy for us to eat, and even their manure is dangerous to handle.

Smith offered an alternative vision, of animals free-ranging on farms in which fruit and nut trees drop mulberries, persimmons, acorns etc for them to eat. The last day of their life, when they faced the butcher, would be traumatic, but, up to that day, they would lead happy lives.

Further, these tree crops would replace annual crops, cultivated by ploughing, which causes erosion.

Cotton can be grown as a tree, or as an annual. Tree Cotton was the species known in ancient India and the Middle East. Annual Cotton was only developed in the last few centuries, in the American South. It's now a major crop in flat arid areas of the subtropics (eg western Qld and western NSW). It needs a lot of water, which is supplied from huge dams. Tree Cotton needs much less water, and less fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, but the industry has no interest in it because the harvesting machines have been developed for Annual Cotton.

Michael Foley noted that Smith's book 'anticipates the permaculture literature in advocating a "two-storey" agriculture, with tree crops (primarily nuts) as the primary source of animal fodder on sloping and hilly land. It documents the incredible productivity of tree crops and their traditional uses as fodder for pigs, goats, cattle, and poultry. I was particularly struck by the evidence from southern Europe, where extensive chestnut forests produce(d) some of the finest pork in the region.'

Smith wrote,

"Trees are much better able than the cereals to use rain when it comes. They can store moisture much better than the annuals can store it because they thrust their roots deep into the earth, seeking moisture far below the surface. They are able to survive drought better than the annual crops that grow beside them. For example, a drought that blasts corn or hay or potatoes may have little influence on the adjacent apple orchard. Trees living from year to year are a permanent institution, a going concern, ready to produce when their producing time comes." (Tree Crops, pp. 16-17)

"We will have small plowed fields on the level hilltops. The level valleys will also be plowed, but the slopes will be productive through crop trees and protected by them ­ a permanent form of agriculture." (p. 18)

Smith advocated "two-story agriculture", annual crops grown between rows of trees (now called 'intercropping' and 'agroforestry'):

"Other two-story Majorca farms had, for a top crop, almonds, one of the staple exports of the island. Other lands were in olives, and a few were in the sweet acorn-bearing oak. The people said that the farmer did not get the greatest possible crop of wheat or the greatest possible crop of olives or figs, but that he got about a 75-percent crop of each, making a total of 150 percent. It is like the ship which fills three-fourths of her tonnage capacity with pig iron and five-sixths of her cubic capacity with light wood manufactures." (pp. 17-18).

Once Smith is properly credited as the Father of Permaculture, Mollison's role as broadening the concept should also be recognised. For example, he and Holmgren included water harvesting and house design. Many creative people have come on board, eg Sepp Holzer in Germany and Masanobu Fukuoka in Japan. They each do things their own way: there is no ONE way.

There is even a Permaculture garden at Bustan Qaraaqa in Bethlehem:

You can buy Tree Crops at a bookstore, or download the pdf at

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