The term Permaculture is a blend of the words permanent agriculture or permanent culture. It is an alternative form of agriculture with a holistic design that addresses social, economic, and environmental aspects of sustainability.
Permaculture is not just about gardening. Permaculture searches and applies the appropriate methods that different cultures have grown food, built shelters, and meet their daily needs. It does it in a way that does not harm, instead, it also gives back to the environment. It is working with nature instead of against it.
Many people who have been looking for a sustainable system to grow their own food have been looking at applying the principles of permaculture gardening.
This article will introduce some gardening practices and designs following permaculture and offers tips to begin your own.
The Three Ethical Principles of Permaculture
According to Bill Mollison, an Australian Ecologist who co-founded permaculture in the 1970s, permaculture is a way of thinking and is guided by three ethics:
- Care for the Earth
- Care of people, and
- Fair share or return of surplus to Earth and people
Care for the Earth
Care for the earth includes animals, plants, as well as the resources of land, water, and air. All these elements are interconnected in a complex, interdependent web of processes that are vital for our survival.
Ensuring the survival of the earth means ensuring our survival, simple as that. It is the Earth that sustains us as a species, providing us all the essentials to keep us alive.
Care of People
This principle is all about building community. It is centered around sharing and supporting one another to meet our needs.
Although sometimes it might not seem like it, the truth is all resources are finite. If all available resources are kept by one single individual, everyone else is left without any. The principle moves us away from our greed and selfish impulses.
In the hunter-gatherer times, hunters knew to only take what they need for their tribe to survive. Taking every available resource would lead to waste and scarcity in the future.
The teachings of permaculture are taken from nature and applied to how we live every day. It does not only apply to food but since it is a critical part of building community, it becomes a big part of permaculture.
Why you should consider permaculture gardening
Conventional agricultural practices that feed our growing global population are leading to adverse environmental impacts. More alternative forms of agriculture that address social, economic, and environmental aspects of sustainability are called for.
A study in 2019 established some of the benefits of permaculture in rural livelihood in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Improved Quality of Life
The participants in the studies had overall improved health from eating more diverse foods with high nutritional value. They benefit from organic and good quality food sourced locally.
Food security is also another beneficial aspect in setting up permaculture gardens in these countries. They have consistent access to a variety of food for each household annually than not having a permaculture garden.
In addition, a permaculture garden also boosts the overall quality of life and human well-being by developing respect for both nature and people.
Having a permaculture garden promotes long-term sustainability by addressing environmental problems that conventional farming practices pose. A permaculture garden teaches practices that ensure minimal resource waste and is relatively low maintenance.
When everything has been set up, your permaculture garden can take care of itself. Each plant you add to your garden has a specific purpose. It operates as a truly sustainable system that should not take a tremendous amount of labor.
When a permaculture garden is done right, it will produce high crop yields and higher profitability. This is due to reduced costs in resources like water, fertilizer, and even time and labor.
Deep Green Permaculture breaks down 11 design principles that can be applied and used as a guide to permaculture gardening. Not only does each of the permaculture principles define beneficial food production practices, but they also build efficient and sustainable human habitation.
- Relative Location
- Each element performs many functions
- Each important function is supported by many elements
- Zones and sectors, efficient energy planning
- Using biological resources
- Energy cycling
- Small scale intensive systems
- Accelerating succession and evolution
- Edge effect
- Attitudinal principles
These principles are discussed in more context in relation to permaculture gardening techniques as a whole throughout the rest of this article.
Permaculture gardening builds upon the concept of designing a garden around its local environment or emulating nature. This means paying close attention to how you can best harness the power of the sun, wind, and water, and then work from there.
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Conventional gardening tends to focus on maximizing productivity by designing the use of space. A garden bed of soil is divided up into an exact number of segments designed to fit a set number of plants for each segment.
In permaculture as a contrast, the design depends on what makes the most sense for the land and the climate system that is present there. When you are able to work with how nature intends, it minimizes your labor and efforts while maximizing your gains and harvests.
The main idea is to optimize permaculture gardens using the principle of relative location by locating design elements near other ones so that their inputs and outputs flow into one another bringing about beneficial effects overall. As an example:
- A kitchen garden can be located close to a kitchen that exits to the backyard for easy access to vegetables. The output of the garden which is vegetables is the input to the kitchen.
- Kitchen scraps are input to compost bins or worm farms to create fertilizer for the kitchen garden.
What can you grow in a permaculture garden?
According to Permaculture News, 80% of food crops grown in the world are annual plants. These are plants that complete their life cycle within one growing season and then die until the next planting season comes. Monoculture is an unsustainable practice requiring excessive amounts of resources and results in several environmental issues.
Permaculture strongly prefers and emphasizes the importance of using perennial plants in food production systems. In nature, 90% of plants are perennials.
They are long-lived plants and can live from many years to many centuries, depending on the species. Perennials form stable, resilient, biodiverse ecosystems such as forests providing food sources and diverse flora and fauna.
Perennials grow slowly compared to annuals because they take time establishing their roots very deep into the soil which allows them access to water and nutrients in depth. They also create a permanent network of roots that help stabilize the soil preventing erosion.
Although perennials take a longer period of time to be harvested, once they are established, they offer long-term harvests. Plant them once and you can expect to harvest them year after year. Perennials are far more sustainable, energy-efficient, and require a lot less work to maintain.
Perennial plants vary from region to region growing naturally in specific climates. Selecting what to plant in your permaculture garden would depend on your local growing conditions and what makes sense in your own garden.
When designing your own permaculture garden, think about growing plants for food, medicine, shade, mulch, ground cover, shade, or other specific functions. Consider doing a functional analysis to identify plant form, tolerances (plant requirements in sun, habitat, climate, etc.), and uses.
Some perennial plants to consider adding to your permaculture garden:
- Good King Henry
- Taro Root
- Red Clover
The following sections in this article discuss some permaculture design ideas to implement in your own permaculture garden.
Gardening Techniques for Permaculture Gardens
Deep Green Permaculture offers gardening techniques and permaculture design principles to consider when starting your own permaculture garden that is summarized here:
Soil is the most important resource in the garden. It is what sustains and grows food for us and all animals. That is why it is a good idea to start with how you intend to protect the soil in your permaculture garden to sustain long-term productivity.
Farming practices are only as sustainable as the soils they are on. Permaculture generally goes for the least destructive to what already exists as much as possible.
No-dig gardening and using organic mulch
It can be counterintuitive to think that gardening does not necessarily require digging. No-dig gardening can take a variety of forms. One technique would be sheet mulching or lasagna gardening.
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The name lasagna was associated because it involves stacking one layer on top of another with materials like organic mulch (leaves, straw, wood chips, fresh-cut forage, etc.), compost, and other organic matter. Each layer slowly breaks down and released into the soil giving nutrients to the garden. The soil is not disturbed and plant health is improved.
Other important benefits apart from soil protection, each layer provides a way to conserve moisture, regulate soil temperature, and suppress weed growth.
When grass grows, you don’t need to remove them, you just keep mulching on top of it. Sheet mulching requires far less effort than laboriously removing grass and tilling the soil before planting.
Sheet mulching doesn’t disturb the organisms in the soil and preserves the overall soil structure. However, it takes time for materials to decompose when sheet mulching.
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Another highly effective no-dig garden design is planting in raised beds. They are permanent growing beds of vegetables and flowers, separated by access paths. Some of the well-loved benefits of raised beds are:
- They allow compost or plant food to be concentrated in a smaller area leading to less waste
- Improves drainage and keeps soil from washing away during heavy rain
- Keeps weeds out of the soil and prevent soil compaction from foot traffic
- Barrier to pests
Overall, gardening in raised beds allows longer plant growing seasons and provides favorable growing conditions.
A keyhole garden is a raised circular garden bed design with a pocket cutout on the side like old-fashioned keyholes that allows gardeners to get in closer to the garden easily. It also allows easy access to a cage in the middle housing a compost bin. The compost decomposed and releases important nutrients into the rest of the garden bed. It was developed to help gardeners achieve good soil to grow nutritious crops and vegetables.
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Keyhole gardens were designed to lessen soil erosion and moisture loss. It also makes it a lot easier to weed, maintain, water, and harvest from the garden plot.
In addition, the layout allows the mixing of plants like in companion planting, as compared to the traditional plants in a row setup. In effect, a keyhole garden allows great use of space in the garden.
Ground cover plants
Using ground cover plants like clover in garden beds, effectively reduce soil erosion by protecting it from drying out in the sun or being carried off by rain runoff or blown by the wind. Planting specific plants improves soil texture because their roots can either break up compacted soil or hold together loose soil. In addition, they stop weed growth in an empty garden. Here are 8 ground cover plants for your garden.
Using Biological Resources as Natural Fertilizers
Soil compaction happens when soil particles are pressed together after getting wet or by mechanical causes like heavy machinery in industrial farms. One way to keep soil structure is to enrich it with organic matter.
Organic matter in soils improves soil structure and aggregation. This forms a greater resistance to compaction. Organic matter in soils can be increased by adding green manure and animal manure to the soil.
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Green manures are crops that are not harvested but are cut down to form mulch on the soil surface. In permaculture terms, they are also called dynamic accumulators that have roots that go to deep levels of the soil and accumulate certain nutrients. When the plant decomposes, the accumulated nutrients are released to the surface layer of the soil available for new plants.
Permaculture gardening takes organic composting further by closing the loop. This is called energy cycling which is another design principle in permaculture. The energy present in the space is recycled instead of letting them flow out of the system. Examples of energy cycling are:
- fallen leaves from trees and plants are gathered for mulch or compost
- composting of kitchen scraps and waste in a compost bin or to feed worms in a worm farm (worm composting)
- Composting of animal manure to use as fertilizer or to produce biogas as a natural source of fuel
Permaculture Zones and Sectors
The concept of figuring out zones and sectors in permaculture gardens is concerned with efficient energy planning in the garden. Dividing a permaculture garden into zones means planning how often you need to access an element (trees, structures, buildings) and how often you need to service them.
Basically, you design the space nearest the house (Zone 0) to include those elements that you most often use (Zone 1) and less going outwards (Zone 5). Doing this makes it easier to access meaning less energy to waste in movement.
Plant Stacking or Forest Garden
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A forest garden is a permaculture design concept which tries to mimic a young forest ecosystem. This works just like how nature optimizes its arrangements. Trees (canopy, fruit trees) being the tallest is the top layer, shrubs are a little above ground but below the trees, then herbaceous plants, and lastly the ground cover plants which are closest to the soil. Other plants like root crops grow beneath the soil and vines also add to the system when they climb trees for example.
By stacking, you can use space efficiently and have very high yields. Stacking is under the small-scale intensive systems as well as the multiple functions permaculture design fundamentals.
Permaculture gardens can be managed with fewer resources making them energy efficient. But are also intensive practices by obtaining maximum productivity with the least amount of resources spent possible.
In a permaculture garden, companion planting means choosing crops that work together naturally. Growing companion plants together stimulates plant growth and makes efficient use of garden space.
In addition, this makes them resistant to pests and diseases as well as helps in pollination and providing a habitat for beneficial insects. Companion plants provide a symbiotic relationship with each other helping them thrive and increase productivity.
Companion planting encourages a biodiverse environment which is essential in achieving sustainability.
Succession Planting or stacking in time
In nature, the soil is never left bare because new plants are already growing while old mature ones have died down. We take growing seasons into account when planting different crops that thrive in each. When plants are coming to the end of their productive cycle, other new plants take over in succession.
Planning and organizing the proper succession of crops help make sure that there is no slack time or unproductive land use. There will also be no bare spaces in the garden for weeds to grow saving you some human labor.
Natural Pest Control
Using chemical pesticides introduces highly toxic substances that harm the environment, other animals, and overall unsustainable. Permaculture encourages the use of natural alternatives and practices to deter pests and replace the use of conventional pesticides.
Natural alternatives to pesticides are creating an environment that attracts beneficial insects that feed on pests to eliminate them naturally. You can plant dandelions, daisies, sunflowers, and the like to attract ladybirds, lacewings, and parasitic wasps to name a few.
You can also encourage other species to come to your garden like lizards, frogs, and birds that feed on insects and pests as a natural way to control pests.
The edges of an ecosystem are considered the most productive. These are the areas of transition in the local environment like the perimeter of bodies of water like rivers, lakes, and streams. These interfaces trap more energy and materials that move through.
The overlapping space supports species from each of the distinct ecosystems and other species found in both. Traditional human settlements were commonly established along these productive transition zones throughout history.
To make the most of this principle in permaculture gardens, you can explore curved edge garden beds, mandala design garden beds, or a large number of smaller rectangular beds. Access paths in gardens are wavy paths to more edges are exposed to plant along. Other garden designs implemented in permaculture gardens are edge cropping and strip intercropping.
When a group of plants grows close together, they can create their own climate with differences in temperature, shade, and humidity relative to their local area. This little difference can help support plant growth.
This can be achieved by growing differently sized companion plants together to protect them from the wind and sun and other harsh conditions. This can help you create a more resilient garden.
Incorporating aquatic ecosystems can offer multiple design functions in a permaculture garden.
Water gardens can be used to grow edible water plants like chestnuts and lotus. You can make your own ecosystem with frogs or fish. A pond can also be used as a natural water collection area and used to clean recycled greywater.
These are just a few permaculture garden design ideas that you can begin implementing if you are thinking of starting your own permaculture garden.
Tips to start a permaculture vegetable garden
Some quick tips to get your started:
- Get to know your garden plot. Each garden area will be different and unique, so the first step should be to observe your garden and how the elements interact with it. Note the direction the sun shines and sets, the natural flow of water in the area, natural flora and fauna, natural topography of the area, and such.
- Incorporate diversity. Pick out and plant a range of food crops with mutually beneficial relationships as in the companion planting principle. A mixture of perennials and annuals can be beneficial to provide vegetables throughout the year. In addition, having a mix of both creates greater resilience with your food supply.
- Design areas in terms of zones for efficient energy planning. Here are some detailed notes on what is within each zone and sector.
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Designing your own permaculture garden can be challenging. But if you start implementing small gardening techniques in your existing garden, it will be much easier than starting from scratch. The design principle of small-scale intensive systems is all about using small manageable areas of land as efficiently and sustainably as possible.
You can create many different designs that can suit your space better. Each garden is unique. There will always be distinct ways to improve a permaculture garden design the more we gain knowledge of the space and apply the teachings of permaculture gardening.
Permaculture gardens evolve through time and how well you utilize their resources will only be limited by your imagination and knowledge.
If you are planning to start your own permaculture garden, start implementing small changes using the techniques in this article and have fun learning and discovering more about nature!