Anyone who has ever dabbled in gardening, will at the very least have heard the term “permaculture” in passing — perhaps recently, or maybe years ago. “That sounds fascinating,” many will have thought to themselves, while often immediately adding a second thought: “That sounds complicated.”
Are you looking for a sustainable way to garden, and are you committed to honoring nature as you work the earth?
Permaculture may be the answer you are looking for — and taking your first steps on this exciting road is a lot easier than you may think.
What Is Permaculture?
Permaculture, a term that two Australians, environmental psychologist Bill Mollison and environmental designer David Holmgren, coined in the 1970s, is more than an approach to crop farming or gardening. It is a philosophy that governs land management as a whole, and beyond that, even sets a framework for the ways in which humans would ideally interact with the natural environment.
The word itself combines “permanent” with “agriculture” or simply “culture”, and it already points to the sustainable practices this philosophy advocates for. Those who tend the earth are to work in harmony with nature, not to pilfer it, a belief that draws heavily on the approach Australian indigenous people have practiced since time immemorial.
- The concept of permaculture is much older, then — Mollison and Holmgren simply gave the philosophy and name, and shared it with the world in a more digestible way suited for the modern era.
- It is important to point out that each person who is heavily invested in permaculture will be able to offer his or her own unique definition of the practice, as permaculture covers the full spectrum.
- Permaculture is not just gardening or crop raising. It can also incorporate water management, environmental planning, the process of allowing nature to once again control areas heavily impacted by human activity, and even architecture — and that is just the start.
We will assume, however, that our readers are primarily interested in the ways in which they could potentially begin to implement permaculture principles in their own approach to gardening and growing food on a smaller scale, so this is what we will focus on in this guide.
The Essential Underlying Principles That Define Permaculture
Nature, without human involvement, functions in a sustainable, efficient, and symbiotic manner — and permaculture practices strive to mimic this natural system every step of the way. To make it easier to put theory into practice, 12 foundational permaculture principles were defined.
While they go into great depth, people who are not familiar with the concept at all will find it useful to at least get a “cliffnotes version”.
Let’s take a look at the 12 foundational principles of permaculture:
- Observe and interact. To understand nature, and more specifically to be able to begin to understand the piece of nature that we ourselves are taking care of, we need to observe it carefully. We need to, in other words, become situationally aware. It is this first step that then allows is to begin interacting with nature by, for example, planting seeds that have a good chance of thriving, or adding a duck pond to our yards.
- Catch and store energy. This principle is applicable very broadly, including in ways that will slash your utility bills, but can be applied in gardening as well. Collecting rainwater to quench your plants’ thirst, or specifically planting tall trees to reduce preserve heat in winter and keep out cold in summer both fall under the umbrella of this permaculture principle.
- Obtain a yield. If you are growing some of your own food, you will want to do so in sufficient amounts to make a difference. This principle can also be applied to garden plants, however, as you can use cuttings for propagation or collect seeds annuals leave behind to make your garden more sustainable.
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback, or in other words, hold yourself accountable. What can you do better? How is the way in which you interact with nature affecting the earth negatively? By seeking constant self-improvement through critical analysis, you can live in greater harmony with nature. In practical terms, that can be as simple as wondering why you reached for the pesticides when you could have used organic methods to control pests. Learn from your missteps, and seek to reduce your negative impact. Accept feedback from others in the process.
- Use and value renewable resources. For example, solar or wind energy — but in the garden, also natural compost and manure!
- Produce no waste (or, more realistically, seek to eliminate waste). That may be a process, rather than a single step, but it is achievable. This principle helps you on your way to self-sufficiency, as everything that can have a new purpose will be put to efficient use.
- Design from pattern to details, or in other words, apply big picture to small picture thinking. In practical terms, this means considering your natural environment before deciding how to interact with it. Don’t choose your plants and then find out what you need to do to make your local conditions hospitable, but reverse that process by observing your climate conditions first, and then deciding which plants to grow.
- Integrate, rather than segregate. One unique feature of permaculture lies in planting flowers with vegetable crops, and allowing the useful “weeds” in our garden to contribute to the ecosystem rather than seeking to eliminate them.
- Use small and slow solutions, because slow and steady wins the race. Don’t try to find all the answers overnight, but gradually implement steps that get you closer to being in harmony with nature.
- Use and value diversity. This permaculture principle goes hand in hand with integrating rather than separating, but goes far beyond it — it doesn’t apply only to plants or crops. There’s wisdom from all over the world, and the different skills we all have can all be useful. Be willing to learn from anyone who has something of value to offer, and implement what you find useful in your own life.
- Use edges and value the marginal. In the garden, this can mean allowing the border between your yard and the natural world to blur into one another.
- Creatively use and respond to change. Nature is always in flux, and to work the land, we need to respond to the changes we observe and begin working with them.
The fact that these 12 permaculture principles essentially form an entire philosophy — and offer a set of rules by which many people live their entire lives, far beyond the confines of gardening and agriculture — is undeniable.
Like other philosophies, permaculture should seriously be studied to understand the full depth of wisdom it has to offer. Like other philosophies, any given individual is bound to find principles they can readily embrace as well as those they do not fully comprehend, or even outright disagree with. Perhaps most importantly, like other philosophies, it is entirely possible to take what you find useful, and leave the rest behind, at least for now.
Those hobbyist gardeners who are interested in applying some of the principles of permaculture to their yard or vegetable garden can absolutely begin to do so without necessarily becoming a diehard permaculture adherent who lives on the land, off the grid, and in complete harmony with nature.
How can you begin to reap some of the benefits permaculture has to offer in your garden, without having to commit to transforming your entire life?
1. Observe Your Garden Space Before Working with It
In a home gardening context, observing your space and learning to understand it can help you choose which plants to grow and care for in your garden, as well as precisely where they would prefer to be placed.
Keenly observing your environment is nothing but common sense, and to get better at it, you simply need to spend time in your garden while letting everything that’s going on there percolate in your brain to inform the decisions you may make later on.
Observing your garden includes:
- Noticing which spots are sunny, and which locations catch a lot of shade, and at which points during the day.
- Paying attention to wind patterns. Some spots in your garden will naturally be protected from heavier breezes, while others sway with the wind easily.
- Keeping an eye on precipitation patterns.
- Getting to know the temperature ranges in your garden.
- Paying attention to the soil.
- Observing the insects, birds, small mammals, and other wildlife that visits your yard and contemplating how you can best interact with these creatures.
- Being able to notice the changes your plants undergo, including things like wilting or discolored leaves.
2. Creating a Harmonious Garden with Lots of Diversity
Permaculture principles observe that nature exists in a symbiotic relationship — some plants, fungi, and animals play key roles in each other’s life cycles, while others have developed ways to keep predators at bay.
A garden that follows permaculture principles respects this natural way of life, and recognizes that nature isn’t something to be mastered by humans, but an entity that is bigger than any individual or species.
Ways to incorporate these important principles into your own approach to tending to your garden would include:
- Looking up which plants can serve as perfect companions to plants you already have in your garden, and adding those, too.
- Adding plants that attract pollinators to your garden, and learning about local wildlife and their needs. Should you have rare butterflies in your area, for instance, or hummingbirds, you could think about adding plants that these animals would feel at home in. This is a wonderful way to give back to nature.
- Considering which pests are most likely to bother the plants that you are growing, and looking into organic pest control to keep these pests in check, which will protect your precious plants without causing any harm. Citrus oil and garlic are two options that may prove to be viable, for instance.
- Natural mulch alternatives such as leaves, grass clippings, pine needles, and straw respect the natural environment without causing any damage. Using them can also be a great way to recycle the materials left behind in your garden, thereby allowing you to work toward your goal of eliminating waste.
3. Planning a Functional Garden Layout That Flows Perfectly
Think about the way in which your garden is laid out, and the steps you could take to improve it, is not only a great way to begin practicing permaculture principles in your garden — it will also simply make your life a lot easier! Permaculture adherents advise gardeners to consider zoning their gardens, which is extremely convenient.
Here’s how it works — high-maintenance plants, or plants that grow very quickly, should be planted closest to your property. This allows gardeners to access these plants more easily, making gardening less of a chore and ensuring that the plants have the best chance of getting the care they need.
This often means that container gardens or raised beds, such as those that use a square foot gardening approach, shouldn’t be planted away from your property, while the most aesthetically-pleasing are placed where they can be admired, but rather close to home.
Wildflowers, butterfly gardens, and shrubs that don’t need daily care and will thrive even under a regime of benign neglect, are planted further away from the property, meanwhile.
Gardeners don’t even have to be willing to embrace all the principles of permaculture to learn from this approach — it’s simply common sense that a herb garden, which you’ll want to harvest often, should be within easy reach!
4. Maximizing Your Available Space
Many sustainable approaches to gardening share a great degree of overlap, and can indeed be put to work right alongside each other!
Whether you have a huge backyard or a small and cozy garden, maximizing your available space is always a great idea. That can mean going vertical, but planting climbing vines or vertical plant walls, and it can also mean container or square foot gardening.
5. Growing Native Plants in Your Garden
Choosing to grow plants that are native to your area follows the permaculture principle of working with, rather than against, nature. On a more practical level, this decision also gives gardeners the best odds of success — flowering plants, grasses, shrubs, trees, and vegetables that natively grow in your region are easier to grow and care for, and harder to kill. They have, after all, adapted to your locality, including its climate and soil conditions.
As a nice bonus, native gardens are a wonderful way to invite local wildlife to your garden. In a world that is increasingly affected by the effects of climate change, choosing to add at least some native plants to your own green space is a sensible choice and a way to honor nature.
Native plants are easier to obtain, as well, and often cheaper — and contemplating that fact for a while demonstrates just how nicely permaculture principles take every aspect of gardening into account!
6. Mulching Your Garden
Mulch can be defined as any material that can be laid out over the soil surrounding your decorative or edible plants, with the goal of keeping moisture in the soil, helping with climate control, and repelling pests.
Making use of mulch is an important permaculture principle, because mulching your garden preserves resources such as water, and allows you to minimize the negative impact you have on your environment as you are able to stay away from pesticides.
Organic mulch, which can include materials ranging from pine needles to grass, additionally enriches the soil, thereby sustaining your plants.
7. Incorporating Edible Plants Intro Your Garden
Conventional gardening methods often separate ornamental and edible plants along strict lines, creating two stand-alone gardens — a decorative garden, and a vegetable patch.
Permaculture, which recognizes the fluidity of nature, does no such thing. While that may seem strange at first, it’s good to keep in mind that many edible plants are also exceptionally beautiful.
Rosemary or lavender shrubs, fruit trees, rhubarb and strawberries, and smaller herbs like basil, are just the start! When you are able to grow edible plants alongside decorative plants, which serve as good companions, you have a more diverse garden that is better able to withstand pests.
8. Working with Natural Compost in Your Garden
All plants shed materials, such as leaves, that are often carefully swept up and discarded — in many cases, even in the regular household trash, right alongside plastic packages and cat litter. Any gardener can take a step toward permaculture by thinking about all the ways in which they could be putting these materials to good use in their gardens, instead. You will find that many waste materials can be used as mulch or fertilizer.
If you would like to take an even greater leap, thinking about how you can use organic household waste in the garden, too. Coffee grounds make for a rich natural garden fertilizer, for example, while citrus peel can be given a new mission in repelling pests such as termites or carpenter bees.
9. Using Natural Pest Control Methods in Your Garden
Organic household waste may have a place in organic pest control, but introducing friendly species to your garden can fulfill the same purpose — and it’s yet another gentle way to step into the world of permaculture.
Frogs are, as one example, a wonderful way to deter slugs, which so often attack the vegetables and decorative plants grown in the garden, and adding plants that act as a cover for birds, as well as exploring other ways to make your garden more attractive to birds, will help to control the local insect population, too.
10. Minimizing Water Waste
Rainwater catchment systems and ground water wells alike can often replace the tap water used to water the plants in the garden — and reducing water waste in this way isn’t just a more environmentally-friendly choice, but also a great way to reduce your expenses. It’s a win-win!
Looking for plants that are naturally more tolerant of drought is another option, and both can indeed be put to use side by side to create the most sustainable garden possible.
Learning about permaculture — and deciding how you can begin to practice this approach to caring for your garden — is definitely a marathon, rather than a sprint. Permaculture is all-encompassing, and complex in its universally-applicable nature.
Gardeners who first begin to explore permaculture, whether as a gardening technique or a way of life, can easily find themselves overwhelmed. They may, dare we say it, even encounter purist permaculture acolytes who insist that you either embrace the entire lifestyle, or you are failing at permaculture.
If this happens to you, it helps to remember that few things in life are black and white, and you never have to choose between all or nothing. Take baby steps as you learn about the methods you can use to make your own garden more sustainable, and remember to learn from your local environment as much as from books and other resources about permaculture.
You will soon discover that every change you make offers a new learning opportunity, and you’ll encounter failures as well as successes. Neither are wasted, as you will understand the environment you are working with much better in either case. Keep learning, and you you will grow a garden that’s a joy to take care of.