How to Start a Permaculture Garden

You May Be Practicing Some Permaculture Already

Tall and low-growing vegetables side by side in a permaculture garden

Kevin Gorton / Getty Images

Permaculture is a sustainable approach to the use of land, no matter its size. If you are a mindful home gardener, chances are that you are already practicing permaculture without being aware of it. 

This article lays out the basic principles of permaculture and the steps for starting your own permaculture garden.

What Is Permaculture?

Permaculture, a term coined from “permanent agriculture”, was developed in the 1970s by two Australians, biologist Bill Mollison and the environmental designer David Holmgren. The key principles of permaculture are caring for the earth, caring for people, and taking only your fair share (returning any surplus is a dividend).

Characteristics of Permaculture Gardens 

Here are the most relevant aspects for home gardeners: 

Working With Nature

Permaculture requires you to look at your yard with a different mindset. Unlike conventional industrial agriculture, permaculture according to Bill Mollison is all about working with nature and collaborating with it, instead of wrestling with it and working against it. 

Observing Nature and Learning From It

Working with nature means that you need to be knowledgeable about it. This means observing what’s around you. Permaculture is not a one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter method, but adapted to a specific location—its climate, natural ecosystem, and topography. Permaculture garden design is based on these observations so that it fits the local environment. 

Grass clippings remain on location and become organic matter

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Recreating the Natural Growth Cycle

Nature is a continuous cycle. Dead plants decompose and become the basis for new growth. Permaculture recreates this integrated cycle. Instead of discarding garden waste and hauling it away, permaculture uses it and turns it into valuable organic matter

Creating a Garden With Multiple Functions

A permaculture garden does not serve a single purpose; it provides food for humans as well as a habitat for wildlife. It is a place that is both productive and attractive and designed with all seasons in mind. A permaculture garden also provides privacy and a place to relax, play, meditate, and exercise. 

Taking the Least Disruptive Approach

Permaculture gardening practices interfere as little as possible with the local ecosystem. Any changes that could be destructive are avoided. This low-key approach goes hand-in-hand with being low-maintenance. 

Steps to Start a Permaculture Garden

In permaculture, size does not matter; in fact, permaculture gardens are often small. Regardless of the size of your yard, follow these steps to start a permaculture garden:

Familiarize Yourself With Your Yard

The very first step is to get to know your yard over time, ideally a full year throughout all four seasons. Find out how much light, wind, and water it gets, and learn about the natural ecosystem, climate, and microclimate. Pay attention to how a slope affects rainwater runoff, where rainwater accumulates, and where the prevailing wind comes from. 

Divide Your Permaculture Garden Into Zones

Divide your yard into zones. Plants that you visit the most, such as herbs for cooking, should be the closest to the house. The zone that is the farthest away is the one that needs the least care and attention. 

Use Space Effectively

Especially if your yard is small, think about how you can grow things vertically on trellises and other structures, both ornamentals and edibles. 

Swallowtail butterfly on native bee balm

Roman Tirapolsky / Getty Images

Plant Natives

When designing your permaculture garden, include as many native plants as possible but make sure they are indeed native to your area. Native plants have numerous benefits: they attract pollinators, provide food and shelter for wildlife, and they are much better adapted to your local climate than introduced species. They are also fairly disease- and drought-resistant. 

Include Edibles in Your Landscaping

A permaculture garden doesn’t draw strict borders between edibles and ornamentals and intersperses the two. Rhubarb does not necessarily need to be planted in the same location as your vegetables, and bee balm is well-placed in the midst of your vegetables because it’s a pollinator magnet. 

Practice Sheet Mulching

To turn lawn, or any other area that is currently planted, into a permaculture garden, instead of digging it all up, practice sheet mulching. In this method, which is also called lasagna gardening, you cover the area with a thick layer of mulch and wait until the vegetation below the mulch has decomposed. This takes time and advance planning. Ideally, you would do sheet mulching in the late summer to early fall so it’s ready for planting the next spring. Sheet mulching requires less effort than digging up the soil and it disturbs the soil less, plus it returns the decomposed plant material right back to the soil, which is one of the principles of permaculture. 

Spot Planting

Instead of digging up an entire patch of grass, remove an area just big enough to plant a tree or shrub. This is called spot planting. 

Utilize Plant Waste

Compost all suitable plant waste such as vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and leaf litter. 

Gradually Improve Soil Quality

In permaculture, improving the soil quality is an ongoing process. Add organic amendments to the soil whenever you have them, utilizing decomposed plant waste. 

Collecting rainwater from barrels with overflow

tanyss / Getty Images 

Practice Water-Wise Gardening

Plant natives that don’t need watering. Collect water in rain barrels and create a rain garden. Use efficient and sustainable watering methods such as drip irrigation and soaker hoses. 

Companion Planting

Select plants that make good neighbors, both for insect control and the balanced use of soil nutrients. Use tall plants to create shade for light-sensitive plants. 

Avoid Chemicals

Find alternatives to chemical weed killers, insecticides, and pesticides. To suppress weeds, fill any empty spaces with desirable plants. Plant perennials first, then use annuals such as sunflowers as fillers. Choose plants that attract natural predators of pests, such as hoverflies, whose larvae eat aphids. 

Be Realistic

Take with a grain of salt the claim that a permaculture garden will take care of itself. Regular weeding is still required, otherwise your garden with be quickly overgrown by invasive plants.

Also, be patient. Creating a flourishing permaculture garden takes time—sometimes years. And despite your best efforts, there will be successes as well as failures, just as in any other type of garden.

 

Article Sources
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  1. "Permaculture… The Beginnings". Permaculture Australia, https://permacultureaustralia.org.au/about-us/permaculture-the-beginnings/.