Anyone concerned with sustainable living will at some point sooner or later come across the concept of permaculture. Permaculture is notoriously difficult to define, but the term is a portmanteau of the words ‘permanent,’ and ‘agriculture,’ although it was later expanded to include ‘culture,’ as it encompasses much more than just agriculture. Permaculture was started in Australia in the 1970s by David Holmgren, who was a graduate student at the time, and Bill Mollison, who was his professor.
What Is Permaculture?
The essence of permaculture is designing landscapes that prove beneficial and harmonious to plants, animals, soil, and people. Permaculturists aim to create lasting and self-sustaining agricultural landscapes that produce their own fertility.
You can get a firm understanding of the ethos behind permaculture when you compare it to modern agriculture. Modern agriculture is defined by the production of a single crop in an area, known as a monoculture. There is a heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and a whole array of other toxic chemicals that deplete the soil over time.
Permaculture, in turn, seeks to mimic observational growing patterns that are common to more indigenous types of agriculture that are dying out these days. Recycling, regenerating, and reusing are three important facets that permaculture copies from the natural world.
Multi level growing.
The 12 Principles of Permaculture.
Permaculture is a regenerative process at its heart. As a method, it has 12 core values that it follows which we’ll now look at in turn.
Observe and Interact.
Permaculture aims to build a more robust connection to the natural world. It teaches us to view our interactions with the land as a two-way process as opposed to the prevalent way which focuses on mere extraction.
Catch and Store Energy.
We are surrounded by natural forces that a permaculture gardener tries to harness. The aim is to harness as many natural energy sources as possible into our homes, gardens, and everyday lives as is possible.
Examples include setting up a solar system and harvesting rainwater. Growing your food captures energy from the sun and earth and gives it to the people who consume it. It also reduces the reliance on fossil fuels and shipping that conventional agriculture is reliant on.
Obtain a Yield.
Permaculture produces a yield, but the value of this yield supersedes the mere value of the crop. The benefit of the yield serves the health of the greater ecosystem and also helps the practitioner obtain a greater sense of connection with their surroundings and the natural world.
Apply Self-Regulation and Feedback.
Permaculture implies minimal labor as a system. However, how much you put into your garden will dictate how much you get back from it, every year. The process teaches us to be constantly reviewing our practices season after season, year after year, learning from our missteps and fixing whatever didn’t work.
Use And Value Renewables.
Sustainable practices are at the heart of permaculture. It teaches us to find new ways to incorporate more energy-saving practices into our daily lives.
Produce No Waste.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle applies to the permaculture method. It teaches responsibility for the waste that we produce and encourages composting and recycling.
Design From Patterns to Details.
By asking yourself what it is exactly that you want to achieve by growing a permaculture garden, you can start to view things from a more holistic perspective.
Integration in our gardens; integration in our lives.
Integrate, Don’t Segregate.
A permaculture garden thrives when all the plants aren’t merely coexisting but are harmonizing. When plants work together to perform a function, whatever that may be, the gardener can be said to be following permaculture principles. It’s also something that we can learn from and take with us into our lives outside of the garden.
Use Small, Slow Solutions.
Evaluate what changes need to be made to your system and implementing them slowly and skillfully will allow you to view things with a keener eye than if you were to just rush in.
Use and Value Diversity.
Gardening with a greater range of plants helps the health of the whole garden, so don’t be afraid to shake things up every once in a while. Diversity helps to keep disease, weeds, and insects at bay whilst also giving a greater variety of things to harvest.
Use Edges And Value The Margin.
Being observant of your surroundings will help you fine-tune your ability to see what’s going on in the garden. By becoming more aware of the particulars of your garden and surroundings, you can get to know your garden well and utilize all space to the best of your ability.
Creatively Use and Respond To Change
Change is inevitable and nothing would exist without it. Learning how to respond and react to change like the natural world does will help your garden do the same. By appreciating the passage of time, we can learn from our past to improve our future.
Alongside these 12 principles, there are also 3 more which we can view as the ethical tenants of the system. These are; earth care, people care, fair share. The last of these refers to returning any surplus of resources to the earth or sharing it with friends and family.
Use edges to your advantage.
Where To Begin?
The simple answer is to begin with what you have. So start in your backyard! If you don’t have a backyard, start on your balcony. If you don’t have a balcony start on your terrace, and if you don’t have a terrace start on your window sill. Permaculture is all about working with what you’ve got.
Any space designed with permaculture principles can be considered a permaculture design, from a small container garden grown on a balcony right up to a food forest or a broad-acre farm, and everything in between.
Once you’ve got your space, you’ll have to decide how much permaculture you want to incorporate into your garden design. Whether you want to go for a more traditional vegetable patch with a few permaculture design elements thrown in or a fully-fledged, no holes barred permaculture food forest.
Design Your Garden.
Following permaculture principles means that your garden design will depend on what makes sense for your landscape, climate, and ecosystem. The particulars of where your garden is situated dictates the design. This is in opposition to many landscaping designers who put the design they want in place first and then mold the garden to fit it, no matter how difficult or what the ecological cost is.
Before you design and plan your garden you’ll have to take time to observe and be on the land. The longer you’re able to observe the landscape before starting work, the better idea you’ll have of how it functions throughout the different seasons.
Take the time to get to know your land. This will help you create a thriving ecosystem. Get to know all the key features that will affect your design. Get to know if there are any areas where water pools after it rains. Are there any slopes? Are there any mature trees on the landscape already? Familiarize yourself with which areas get the most morning and afternoon sun.
Get to know what insects are around, both beneficial and harmful ones. Are there any resources that you can take advantage of?
Water harvesting systems create a more ecological garden.
Create Water Systems.
No life is possible without water. Permaculture seeks to store as much water as is possible and slowly drain it into the landscape. Figuring out how you will utilize water is the most important part of the planning process of your permaculture garden.
Learn which areas, if any, pool water when it rains heavily and where water drains away. By doing so you’ll start to figure out the contours of your land, which is vital for your design.
Dig swales, slightly sloped ditches, to rehydrate the land, lock moisture in and stop it draining and taking away the nutrients and fertility of the soil. Build berms in front of the swales and grow suited plants there to start building up soil fertility. You can also dig ponds to contain the water and create a habitat for wildlife.
Rainwater can be harvested in big water tanks if you have the space. It can also be collected from your rooftops and stored in wells or cisterns and be used for irrigation, washing, or drinking. You can also consider treating your grey or black water through filtration systems built with gravel, rocks, fish, and purifying plants such as reeds to reutilize your wastewater and feed it back into your system.
About Permaculture Zones
It can seem overwhelming when starting to plan your permaculture project. Zoning is about designating spaces for different types of cultivation to create abundance for plants, animals, and people. Zone 1 contains things you use daily from the garden, with the subsequent zones containing things you need less regularly.
Permaculture design is broken up into 5 different zones depending on how often you’re likely to have to go there. Zone 1 is the area right outside your dwelling. It could contain things such as your kitchen garden with vegetables and herbs you harvest daily for use. You could also have some dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees here, as well as berries for your regular enjoyment, as well as plants and flowers you like to see.
Zone 2 could contain things such as fruit trees, berries, and perennial vegetables, possibly with some chickens or rabbits, or other birds integrated into the system to help with weeding and fertilization. You could also place your compost piles, mulch piles, or worm farms in this area.
Harvesting berries, which could be placed in your zone 2, or 3 perhaps.
Zone 3 marks the last regularly managed zone. Here you can plant staple crops such as wheat, potato, and corn should you have the space to grow them. You can also plant fruit trees whose harvest you’ll pick in one batch, such as cherries, apples, pears for example, as well as nut trees. It’s also where many people place their beehives too.
Zone 4 is mostly left wild and to its own devices, although you may visit it sometimes to harvest wood from larger established trees, or to forage for things like mushrooms or anything that grows wild in the area.
Zone 5 is not under cultivation and should be left wild, free of human intervention, should you have enough land to do so. However, if the land bears the scars of recent human intervention and isn’t looking particularly diverse and inviting to flora and fauna, you may wish to treat it more like a zone 4 until it can be left to its own devices. By taking a few small steps and lending a helping hand, then stepping out the way, you may end up with a more biodiverse area than if you just left it to its own devices from the get-go
Decide What To Plant.
Choose plants suited for your environment. If you live in a hot and dry climate, consider starting with Mediterranean plants, as an example. Permaculture typically grows in seven layers, to make use of all available space and mimic the way forests grow in the wild. The tallest layer is the canopy layer. The understory layer contains small trees and large shrubs. Below this is the shrub layer which can contain fruiting bushes such as various kinds of berries.
If space is an issue, and tall trees are not possible, understory, smaller trees or shrubs can serve as the canopy layer. Remember it’s all about working with what you have.
A tall overstory tree canopy.
Finally is the herbaceous layer; think annual vegetables and ground cover crops or nitrogen fixers. The sixth layer is the rhizosphere, the edible parts of which are the edible roots of plants such as potatoes, carrots, etc. The final layer is the climbing layer, which often includes things like beans and peas, or black pepper if you live in the tropics. Vining crops can produce a large yield whilst simultaneously having a very small footprint.
Plant what is suited to your area. Avoid planting anything where the effort that goes into it will far surpass the yield. Research what perennial food crops grow well in your area. Or better still, consider what native species can meet your food, medicine, and material needs. Locally sourcing your plants or seeds will help to ensure they’re suited to your soil and climate.
After you’ve planted in your perennials, you can start planting your annual crops in between. Annual vegetables, greens, and flowers can help ‘fill up,’ a permaculture system in the years of waiting before your perennials trees bear fruit or nuts. It’ll also allow you to have a food source and potentially some income whilst you wait. A permaculture garden is constantly adapting and changing the older and more established it gets.
Build and Protect The Soil.
Healthy soil is the foundation of your garden.
Once you’ve decided where your garden will go, you’ll have to start building soil fertility. Permaculture seeks to implement the least destructive changes wherever possible. So in most instances, if you can, you’ll want to avoid actively digging the earth as this disturbs and kills many of the millions of bacteria and life forms present in the soil. Digging exposes the soil to the sun’s rays and means that rain will end up washing away the topsoil, causing erosion over time.
If your soil is lacking in organic matter, the humus is compacted, or is lacking in life, you’ll need to go about rebuilding fertility. If it’s extremely compacted you could resort to forking it over just the once, and then immediately covering it with mulch. Ideally, you want to start planting things that will build up soil fertility, such as plants with deep taproots that break up the soil and draw up nutrients and make them accessible to other plants.
Green manure can be grown. You can make green manure from any fast-growing annual plant suited to your area which you then chop and drop to provide a living mulch that will eventually be turned into humus and improve the soil fertility. Plants in the legume family are a particularly good choice as they fix nitrogen in the soil, and when chopped release it to be used by other plants nearby.
Sheet mulching, also known as lasagna gardening, is a good way of adding fertility to your beds without disturbing the living soil. It gets its name from how you go about it, which involves adding alternate layers of organic matter such as leaf mold, straw, wood chips, even cardboard or newspaper, and compost. You can even start this process on top of grass which will itself become part of the soil.
Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash
Mulching is important to retain moisture, keep weeds at bay and provide organic matter which will eventually break down.
Companion Planting and Plant Guilds
Companion planting is all about planting things together that benefit each other. You can do this to aid in pollination, increase beneficial insects that eat pests, ward off disease, and improve health and productivity.
Monocultures make plants more susceptible to pests. Emulate nature by mixing up the plants in a given space. If you have to go to some effort to find your plants, then so will the pests!
The permaculture principle of stacking means you grow taller sun-loving plants that in turn create support for shade-loving understory plants, which in turn provides enough shade for ground cover plants. The result is all the plants have the conditions they need to thrive and you end up growing more in a smaller space and produce higher yields with less effort.
How Does Companion Planting Work?
There are several ways that companion planting works. Some plants have pest-repellent properties that they exude from their roots, leaves, or flowers in the form of chemicals that repel or suppress pests and protect plants in the vicinity.
Some plants, especially those from the legume family such as peas, beans, acacias to name a few have root nodules that create a home for Rhizobium bacteria. This bacteria can take nitrogen from the air and fix it into the ground, meaning it makes it available for the plants. This is a symbiotic relationship between the plants and the bacteria, and nitrogen also becomes available for neighboring plants to use.
A wildlife-friendly, companion-planted garden is the best way of getting rid of pests naturally. This can include things such as creating a garden pond to provide a habit to snail and slug-eating frogs or toads, or by providing plenty of ground cover to deter weeds. If you have the space, many people like to plant pollinator companion gardens or sections in every zone of their permaculture garden.
Garden maintenance should be minimal with a well designed permaculture garden.
Tips For Maintaining Your Permaculture Garden.
It’s prudent to start small and get to grips with what your land and garden needs before you scale up. This can help keep you on top of the process and what your garden needs.
Remember, It’s A Process.
Permaculture is a way of living more than anything else. Embrace the idea that you’re part of the living ecosystem and not separate or above it.
The Bottom Line
Permaculturists aim to create permanent agricultural systems that produce their own fertility over time. Begin by really getting to know your landscape through the seasons, creating water systems, building and protecting the soil, and planting what’s suited for your environment. By following permaculture principles and working with the natural processes and not against them you slowly begin to see your permaculture garden unfold.
Remember to aim for biodiversity and to mimic the way food grows in the wild, which is intermingled with many different species and not in single rows as in modern agricultural practices. Plant in different stories with compatible companion plants and you’ll see an increase in the overall health of your system.
Growing a permaculture garden is a highly rewarding experience that will put you into greater contact with your surroundings, landscape, ecosystem, and community. Permaculture is more a lifestyle than a gardening method, which is what makes it so difficult to define. It’s a system of design and you can apply permaculture principles to all aspects of your life to achieve greater harmony, not only within your garden but within your landscape and the whole world too.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.