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Permaculture Principle #9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

Make the least change for the greatest possible effect. – Bill Mollison 

Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, make better use of local resources, and produce more sustainable outcomes. 
– David Holmgren

Systems should be designed to perform functions at the smallest scale that is practical and energy-efficient for that function. Human scale and capacity should be the yardstick for a humane, democratic and sustainable society.

For example, in forestry, fast growing trees are often short lived, while some apparently slow growing but more valuable species accelerate and even surpass the fast species in their second and third decades. A small plantation of thinned and pruned trees can yield more total value than a large plantation without management.

By Tim Sonder, Education Chair (September, 2019)

I instinctively saw this principle as focusing on incremental solutions, but it’s really about scale and efficiency. These ideas are connected: Incremental changes can be more easily understood and monitored, and small-scale solutions and activities are easier to adapt to local needs and be respectful of nature. Why? By keeping things small and slow we are more likely to see the consequences of our actions and be able to adjust them.

This is connected to one of Bill Mollison's "Golden Rules" from his Designers Manual — start small, get it under control and then slowly expand the perimeter; don't take on too much too quickly, as you are likely to be overwhelmed.


Think about the ways in which one might plant a perennial garden.

  • You can go out and spend a lot of money buying a ton of large plants someone else raised.
  • Or you can start with a few seeds, some cuttings and layered starts, and a few plants obtained from a neighbor who needed to divide theirs.

Go big and expensive, and the garden will look great at first, but then be overcrowded and you’ll be busy digging things out and dividing them. Start slow and small, and you will end of with a thriving beautiful garden and expend a lot fewer of your financial and energy resources. Mostly, you will have to be patient. In the long run both may be beautiful and thrive, but you will gain more actual yield and more emotional yield by starting small and slow.


Think about transforming a lawn to a garden bed.

  • You could hire someone or rent a backhoe, scrape everything off the surface, buy a truckload of soil from somewhere, dump it and spread it.
  • You could use a small tiller and rototill in the grass, rake away all the “debris,” add a bit of compost and plant.
  • You could use a shovel and flip all the grass over and bury it under some soil and plant.
  • Or you could lay down some cardboard, add a layer of woodchips, and a layer of compost, and wait.


Reaching physical (and mental) destinations:

  • Travel by plane and you get to your destination quickly (if you are lucky), and mostly miss everything in between.
  • Drive the interstates and you have the opportunity to get some idea of terrain between start and destination, as well as add a few extra stops and perhaps pickup or deliver something large on your way.
  • Bike and you get to see farms, gardens, and small towns with their bookstores, general stores and cafes.
  • Walk and you get to meet people, observe nature, listen to the sounds.

How fast do you need to get there and how much energy do you need to expend today? How interested are you in what you might miss along the way?


We’re looking a building an education center building for the Food Forest.

  • We could hang umbrellas in the tree
  • We could put in a few posts and hang a piece of canvas
  • We could buy a tent
  • We could build a simple structure with found materials
  • We could get a prefab structure
  • We could build a totally enclosed building with plumbing, electricity and windows

What’s appropriate to our needs and the space and will provide a reasonable benefit?


How can this be applied to solving the homeless crisis or to food security issues? Look at intractable problems in society, or intractable problems in your life, and see if there is a small solution which might make a big impact.