Several individuals revolutionized the branch of permaculture. In 1929, Joseph Russell Smith added an antecedent term as the subtitle for Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, a book which sums up his long experience experimenting with fruits and nuts as crops for human food and animal feed. Smith saw the world as an inter-related whole and suggested mixed systems of trees and crops underneath. This book inspired many individuals intent on making agriculture more sustainable, such as Toyohiko Kagawa who pioneered forest farming in Japan in the 1930s.
In Australian P.A. Yeomans' 1964 book Water for Every Farm, he supports the definition of permanent agriculture, as one that can be sustained indefinitely. Yeomans introduced both an observation-based approach to land use in Australia in the 1940s and the Keyline Design as a way of managing the supply and distribution of water in the 1950s.
Holmgren noted Stewart Brand’s works as an early influence to permaculture. Other early influences include Ruth Stout and Esther Deans, who pioneered no-dig gardening, and Masanobu Fukuoka who, in the late 1930s in Japan, began advocating no-till orchards and gardens and natural farming.
In the late 1960s, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren started developing ideas about stable agricultural systems on the southern Australian island state of Tasmania. Dangers of the rapidly growing use of industrial-agricultural methods sparked these ideas. In their view, these methods were highly dependent on non-renewable resources, and were additionally poisoning land and water, reducing biodiversity, and removing billions of tons of topsoil from previously fertile landscapes. They responded with a design approach called permaculture. This term was first made public with their publication of their 1978 book Permaculture One.
Among some of the more recognizable names who received their original training within Mollison's PDC system would include Geoff Lawton and Toby Hemenway, each of whom have more than 25 years experience teaching and promoting permaculture as a sustainable way of growing food.
Simon Fjell was a Founding Director of the Permaculture Institute in late 1979, with over 40 years' experience, having first met Mollison in 1976. He has since worked internationally.
By the early 1980s, the concept had broadened from agricultural systems design towards sustainable human habitats. After Permaculture One, Mollison further refined and developed the ideas by designing hundreds of permaculture sites and writing more detailed books, such as Permaculture: A Designers Manual. Mollison lectured in over 80 countries and taught his two-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC) to hundreds of students. Mollison "encouraged graduates to become teachers themselves and set up their own institutes and demonstration sites. This multiplier effect was critical to permaculture’s rapid expansion."
The permaculture movement also spread throughout Asia and Central America, with Hong Kong-based Asian Institute of Sustainable Architecture (AISA), Rony Lec leading the foundation of the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP) in Guatemala and Juan Rojas co-founding the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador.