Permaculture’s artistic side

January 22, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Photo by Karla Akins Garden design with water features

Look at your yard (or your lack, thereof). Is it producing as much as you want it to? Are you growing all the flowers, food and herbs as you’d like? Is it a pretty space? If you live in an apartment, do you feel like you have absolutely no space in which to grow plants, compost or catch rain water? Some of you probably feel like you have nothing to work with.

No matter your homestead reality, permaculture can help you move closer to the space of your dreams. Permaculture is a design system that mimics nature in a way that is aesthetically pleasing while also functional, productive, and sustainable.

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Photo from The natural beauty of a space transformed by permaculture

To find out more about the connections between art and permaculture, we talked to art director and permaculture designer, John Bushe’. John works with permaculture in multiple ways. He applies permaculture to homes and land, and he also uses permaculture principles to design and grow businesses and municipalities in the U.S. and Latin America.

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Photo provided by John Bushe’ Artist and permaculture designer John Bushe’ at Enchanted Rock

Hi, John. Please tell us your view of the role of art in permaculture.

Permaculture itself is an ecological design system that is replacing our current failing agricultural system. You can apply its principles to a garden, a business, your life or even art.

Permaculture’s a functional way to organize chaos. Whether I’m designing a landscape or a website, aesthetics should be a huge part of that design. We want our environments to look and feel good, right?

If you go to school and learn art, you gain skills but you don’t learn the ecological side and don’t necessarily learn to make art that’s functional, that serves a purpose beyond aesthetics. If you go into a museum, you’re not going to come out of there with food or drinks; you get entertainment. Now if Michelangelo had turned the David into an atmospheric generator (collects water from the air) that would be something, wouldn’t it? That is possible now.

Permaculture creates resources like food while serving an artistic purpose in the home and yard. Of course, some permaculture designers are better gardeners and not as good on the aesthetics of the design. If you hire a permaculture designer, you’ll want to find out if their strengths match up with your needs.

I studied art direction in college and art and design in high school, and no one ever talked about the relationship between art and nature. If you like art and nature, permaculture is an excellent way to work with both.

There are specific artistic design patterns associated with permaculture – like the spiral – but really, the whole system is an artistic application of common sense design ideas that are right in front of our noses. I live in an urban condo with a tiny back porch. It’s so small and intricate, but I’ve had a blast designing it for maximum food, flower and herb production. It is a much different system design for this small space compared to what we do on large pieces of land. Soon, we’ll have tilapia back there. This project is important to me because I want to show people that they can do a lot with very little space.

Do you have a specialty inside of permaculture?

I like to say I specialize in “resourcery.” For years, I’ve acted as a catalyst for businesses, cities and individuals to transform over to the resource economy. “Don’t throw away waste; find new ways to use it.” That’s zero waste philosophy, the most powerful goal in the universe, in my opinion.

Now we’re learning to see things that weren’t there before with different eyes. Artists are so good at this. That’s why upcycling has become such a huge movement over the last few years.

Ultimately, bringing ecology into art and design takes the conversation from scarcity to abundance. In the past, artists have had to go to stores and buy paint brushes, paint, canvases, etc. The zero waste conversation turns everything into a potential art supply. Everything is a potential canvas. You can produce food, water, entertainment, beauty and abundance by applying the zero waste-permaculture philosophy.

You can go to a landfill and find materials to make art, an epic building, and probably even a 3D printer! With food waste, you make compost that helps you build fertility in the soil to grow food, etc. You can help end hunger by teaching people about making compost out of food waste, saving seeds from local organic produce, and then planting them. When you have way too many seeds for your own household, you get to start sharing them with others. Zero waste solves everything, and it is just one of 12 permaculture principles!

It’s interesting because this is all really just forgotten knowledge. We go visit Mayan ruins and marvel at the art and design, but we don’t apply that knowledge. The Maya caught rainwater in big vessels called chultunes. The Aztecs built chinampas to make use of the best soil from the bottom of lake beds in their gardens. Permaculture helps us to remember these kinds of common sense design ideas.

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Image from Illustration of Aztecs building chinampas

Do you have a specific example of landfill waste that artists can use for supplies?

Pretty much anything and everything can be turned into art supplies and resources. I have a disassembled blender at home. I can use the wire wrapped around the motor to make a sculpture. The plastic can become ink for a 3D printer. There’s copper in there, and steel, too. There’s e-waste in there that can be used to build a cell phone If you’re interested in building something like a phone, you can just look up directions online.

So, when I’m creating permaculture designs and thinking of ways to make a space look kick ass while also producing a big yield, I look around the community. Cheap or free resources are usually just sitting there waiting to be used.

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Photo by Brian Patrick Flynn Upcycled materials make a container garden

Permaculture’s a beautiful animal. I truly believe that, by applying permaculture principles in conjunction with the goal of zero waste, we have the key to heaven on earth.


To contact John with questions about your space or to find out how to become a permaculture designer, write him at

Tags: art, permaculture