What exactly is permaculture? And why might you be interested in learning more about it? Permaculture can be broken down into two words: Permaculture = permanent + agriculture.
The main idea of permaculture is to create a sustainable edible and ornamental garden or landscape that is sustainable, environmentally responsible, and healthy for the people and animals that live nearby. This can include any combination of fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, legumes, roots, flowers, trees, and shrubs.
Some of the basic principles of permaculture include:
- Care for the earth.
- Care for animals and people.
- Grow something useful.
- Don’t be wasteful; take only what you need and make good use of the surplus.
- Work with nature, not against it.
- Use sustainable gardening methods.
- Focus on soil health and building a healthy soil structure.
- Work to create a healthy and balanced system.
- Be flexible and adaptable because nature is ever-changing.
How much space do you need to start a permaculture garden? Fortunately, you can use permaculture practices almost anywhere you grow a garden. You don’t need a large farm, and you don’t need to grow all your own food. It’s possible to create a permaculture garden with a very limited space or convert part or all of a large, grassy yard into a vibrant permaculture landscape.
Keep reading to learn more about 15 tips and practical ideas for designing, implementing, and maintaining your own permaculture garden.
Learn About Your Local Environment
Creating a balanced garden requires matching plants to local environmental conditions.
If you want to create a well-balanced garden, you will need to match the plants you grow with your local environment. Every yard has a different combination of natural resources and environmental conditions. Before you really start to plan, see if you can answer the following questions:
- How much light does your yard get?
- How many hours of direct sunlight do you have in the sunniest locations?
- How many hours of direct sunlight do you have in the shadiest locations?
- Do you know anything about the land-use history?
- Has the land been farmed before?
- Has the area been filled with low-grade construction dirt?
- Was the area previously forested or grassy?
- What is your soil composition? Is it sandy, gritty, rocky, loamy, heavy clay, rich in organic matter?
- Is the soil waterlogged or well-drained?
- Is the workable soil deep or shallow?
- What is the soil pH?
- How much average rainfall do you get per growing season?
- Do you need drought-tolerant plants? (If your area typically receives less than one inch of rainfall per week, select plants that are tolerant of dry conditions.)
USDA Hardiness Zones
- What is your USDA Hardiness Zone?
- If you don’t already know it, look at a USDA Hardiness Zone map to determine what your local zone is. This information is very helpful when you are looking for perennials, shrubs, and trees that will grow well in your landscape.
- What animals live in your area?
- Do you have browsing herbivores, such as deer and rabbits?
- What types of birds are you most likely to encounter in your yard?
- Do you need to protect your plants from wildlife, or can you share?
- Do you want to encourage or discourage certain animals from visiting your yard?
Create a Garden Design
Gather inspiration from books, magazines, and online sources for a successful garden design.
Creating a plan for your space takes time but will result in the most efficient use of your resources.
Things to consider:
- Which areas receive the most sun?
- Which areas are the most shaded?
- Where is your closest water source?
- How can you best utilize hills and slopes?
- How can you best work around trees and structures?
- Do you want or need raised beds?
- What types of plants do you want to grow?
- Where does it make the most sense to place each plant?
To help you with your garden design, look at books, gardening magazines, and online for design ideas. Take some measurements of your space to better visualize how much space you have to work with.
Draw some sketches with ideas about how you envision your garden space. Don’t forget to include features that will affect your design, such as structures, fences, walkways, water sources, and trees.
Use What You Have
Utilize existing natural features and resources rather than starting from scratch.
Look around your garden, yard, or landscape. What natural features are already there? How can you use those? Creating a permaculture does not mean tearing everything out, leveling the ground, and starting from scratch.
Instead, use the resources you already have. Do you have native species that offer shade or attract beneficial insects? Try to find ways to work with your existing landscape rather than feeling the need to start over.
If you already have a level area that’s clear and ready to be planted, it will be relatively easy to design a garden. You must be more creative if you have some challenges in your landscape, such as trees, hills, sandy soil, or periodically flooded areas.
Plant a shade garden under the trees. Grow erosion-resistant plants in areas prone to soil loss, such as steep slopes. For areas prone to wet soil, you’ll need to find plants that love moisture. Look for drought-resistant plants that thrive in dry soil conditions.
If you want to create a vibrant garden in an area unsuitable for planting, try gardening with raised beds. You can grow a tremendous variety of plants in high-quality raised bed gardens. These are a great choice in areas with poor soil, limited space, or many other challenging conditions. Install your raised bed in a location with a bit of sun, fill it with high-quality organic soil, and you will have a garden plot ready to plant with minimal prep time.
Say Goodbye to a Manicured Grass Lawn
Maintaining a perfectly manicured grass lawn is labor-intensive and environmentally unsustainable.
Trying to maintain a perfectly and uniformly green and weed-free grass lawn is not permaculture. Keeping your grass lawn looking great generally involves a tremendous amount of frustrating work. Lawn maintenance generally requires a lot of work, extra watering, and a lot of chemicals.
If you let go of the idea that a lawn has to look like a golf course, you can embrace a more natural look and feel. If you create a manicured lawn, you have created a single-species monoculture.
Monocultures are very difficult to maintain because nature is constantly trying to diversify. This means you’ll never be done fighting weeds and other plants in your lawn. Monocultures deplete soil nutrients and don’t support a diverse assemblage of mutually beneficial plants, animals, and microorganisms.
If you are attached to your green grassy lawn, start by simply reducing its size. Keep a little patch of green grass along the driveway, in the backyard, or wherever it makes the most sense. You could grow a more natural green space with water-wise lawn alternatives that require fewer chemicals to maintain. Then, convert the rest of your lawn into a thriving, diverse, and beautiful ecosystem.
Companion planting enhances plant growth through mutual benefits and pest control.
No living system is complete with just one organism. All living systems comprise many organisms living together in a community. Think of your permaculture as building a community. Everything fits together into that community, including the soil, water, natural environment, animals, and, of course, the plants.
Grow a variety of plants that not only complement each other but benefit each other. Companion planting is an excellent way to incorporate different plants that help each other. Companions not only grow well in the same conditions, but they can also help repel pests, attract beneficial insects, enrich the soil, or provide other environmental services.
Create a healthy community by choosing plants that work well together. Grow fruits and vegetables that ripen during different seasons. Plant flowers that bloom at different times of the year, attracting pollinators and beneficial insects during the entire growing season. The more diverse your garden is, the more resilient it will be. Diversity also increases productivity and makes your garden much more interesting to look at!
Study and Nourish the Soil
Soil organisms play vital roles in nutrient cycling and plant health.
One of the best ways to prepare a sustainable garden is to focus on the soil. Many people neglect the soil and later wonder why their plants don’t seem to grow well. Healthy soil is a critical element for the permaculture cycle.
Think of the soil as a living ecosystem. The living soil cycle is dynamic and constantly changing. Every plant you grow uses energy and moisture from the soil. In return, decomposing organic matter replenishes nutrients in the soil.
Plus, the soil is full of millions of other organisms that help keep everything in the cycle balanced. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are microorganisms that help make nitrogen available to plant roots, where it is then used to nourish the plant. Decomposers are animals that help break down dead material. Earthworms are beneficial because they help aerate the soil, increase water flow in the soil, and move soil nutrients around so plants can better use these nutrients.
Contact your local cooperative extension agency for a soil test to find out about your soil pH and micronutrients. Knowing this information about your soil can help you better plan to grow the plants best suited for your soil type or add the proper amendments to improve your soil quality.
Make Efficient Use of Available Space
Maximize permaculture garden productivity through efficient space utilization with these ideas.
Whatever space you allow for your permaculture garden can be used efficiently to maximize its productivity. Here are a few ideas to help utilize the available space.
- Use trellises to make use of vertical space. Vining plants love trellises, and even non-climbing plants like tomatoes can be trained to grow upright and save on space in the garden.
- Practice crop rotation. Try not to plant the same vegetables in the same places each year. Rotate them every three or four years to help increase yields and keep pests and diseases away.
- Don’t leave large empty spaces. Plan for some pathways to easily access your plants, but don’t leave unnecessarily large idle areas. There are plants suitable for shady spots, poor soil, odd corners, and edges.
Create a Water-Wise Habitat
This type of garden aims for water-efficient sustainability, minimizing the need for frequent watering.
Water is essential to life and is an essential ingredient for a healthy garden habitat. Does this mean you need to spend hours each week watering your garden? Hopefully not! The idea of a permaculture garden is to create a sustainable garden that doesn’t require excessive extra watering.
Check out the following tips to help you conserve water in your landscape.
- Grow plants that are drought-tolerant.
- Install a rain barrel and use it when you need to water.
- Water early in the morning.
- Use mulch to maintain soil moisture.
- Create and build healthy garden soil.
- Use ground cover and mulch to retain moisture.
Creating a sustainable permaculture garden requires careful planning and time.
Creating a sustainable permaculture garden does not happen overnight. This is a process that takes considerable planning and time. But the rewards can more than make up for the hard work. Create a realistic timeline to help you move towards your goals. Roughly speaking, a basic timeline might look something like this:
- Year 1: Research, planning, and observation.
- Year 2: Start to implement plan, landscape design, and initial planting.
- Year 3: Continue building, modifying, adjusting
- Years 4 and beyond: There will always be work to do, but as you figure out what works best for you and what doesn’t, focus your efforts on the areas where you see the most benefit. As with any gardening effort, there will be regular, routine maintenance each year. Because you are actively managing the sustainability of your garden, mulching, composting, planting, thinning, and harvesting will be ongoing.
Mulch, Mulch, and More Mulch
This is essential as it conserves moisture, regulates temperature, and deters weeds while enriching soil.
Mulch is an incredibly useful resource for the home gardener. Mulch helps protect plant roots from drying out. It helps protect plant roots from the hottest summer heat and the coldest winter freezes. It helps create a more consistent balance of soil moisture and temperature. Mulch acts as a barrier to discourage weeds. As mulch breaks down, it also helps replenish soil nutrients.
Use any sort of organic materials for mulching. Depending on where and what you want to mulch, you can use any of the following materials: clean wheat straw, grass clippings, shredded leaves, pine needles, wood chips, and even newspapers and cardboard. Use a mulch composed of natural materials that will break down over time rather than plastic sheeting or shredded rubber mulches, which will never break down or nourish your soil.
Recycle kitchen scraps as compost to benefit your garden and reduce waste.
A very simple way to benefit your permaculture garden as well as reduce your own waste is recycling your kitchen scraps as compost. If you are already creating compost, that’s great! Use it in your garden wherever you need to enrich your soil.
If you haven’t ever done composting before, it’s never too late to start. Home composting is surprisingly simple and doesn’t take much space or require any expensive special supplies, although you can certainly spend a lot of time and money on composting if you really want to!
The simplest way to start creating your own compost is to start a small pile in a discrete and out-of-the-way place in your yard. You can buy a big plastic bin, build a wooden bay composter, or create a simple mesh enclosure. Add your fruit and veggie-based kitchen scraps (peelings, cores, stems, etc.), and you’re well on your way to generating your own free, high-quality soil amendment!
One caveat to know here, though: adding meat or dairy may attract local wildlife you don’t want, such as rats, coyotes, bears, and so on. In addition, any pets you may have (particularly dogs and cats) can be attracted to your compost pile by meat or dairy. For those, if you want to incorporate them into your permaculture, bury them deeply so animals are less likely to find them. Two feet underground is generally enough to deter even the most determined animal.
Befriend the Bugs and Wildlife
Many insects in your yard are beneficial, especially predatory insects and pollinators.
There are countless beneficial insects out there in the world. Yes, of course, there are annoying insects as well, like the mosquitoes that bite us and the aphids that feed on our favorite flowers and veggies.
But most insects that visit your yard are not harmful, and many are even beneficial. The two groups of insects you should become special friends with are predatory insects and pollinators.
How can you best support these friendly bugs? Here are a few simple ideas to get you started:
- Don’t use pesticides.
- Use organic practices that won’t harm beneficial insects.
- Grow a wide diversity of plants.
- Grow a variety of pollinator-friendly plants to attract, feed, and shelter beneficial insects.
Invite these insects to your garden to reduce pests and protect your plants.
Invite bug-eating insects to benefit your garden. The more predatory insects you have hanging around, the fewer bugs you’ll have trying to bite you or eat your crops.
There are predatory insects that snatch bugs out of the air and predatory insects that stealthily crawl around on the plants, looking for other insects to munch. Learn to identify these garden partners to appreciate their work further whenever you see them.
Pollinators are essential for food production, benefiting both gardens and crops.
We’ve all heard that pollinators are good for your garden, but it’s important to emphasize that they aren’t only good for your garden. They are essential for producing many of the foods we eat every day. Blueberries, strawberries, squash, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, apples, and peaches are just a few of the common edible plants that rely on pollinators to produce their fruits.
Even if you aren’t growing any of these specific crops on your property, you can still encourage and support pollinators. Pollinators are essential in the natural environmental cycle. Welcome them into your yard and enjoy their beauty and activity as they fly from flower to flower.
Consider local wildlife when planning your garden to coexist harmoniously.
When considering a permaculture garden as part of the natural environment, it’s important to remember the resident wildlife and their needs. Yes, I know deer and rabbits can be a real nuisance, and I’m not telling you to plant a garden just for them to eat, but do consider the local wildlife population when designing and planning your garden.
- Grow pollinator-friendly plants.
- Include a few butterfly host plants, such as milkweed.
- Install a bird feeder nearby.
- Grow a few flowers to attract hummingbirds.
- Accept that wildlife is part of the natural ecosystem and share the space with them.
Choose Your Plants Carefully
Choose perennials and native plants for a low-maintenance, water-efficient garden.
The whole point of permaculture is to create a sustainable environment. Try to avoid growing trees, fruits, vegetables, or flowers that require excessive care and maintenance. Let’s assume that you know that growing a peach tree in your area will require the regular application of fungicides and pesticides to get a decent peach crop. In a case like that, it may be better to choose a different fruit tree, such as a fig tree, that will produce an abundant harvest without needing to be sprayed with chemicals.
Choose perennials over annuals whenever possible. With annual vegetable crops, choose easy-to-grow varieties that are more drought tolerant and require less extra watering. When selecting flowers, look for native varieties that attract pollinators.
Avoid non-native species that may be invasive, high-maintenance, need a lot of extra watering, or offer little benefit to pollinators. Native plants have the added benefit of being well-adapted to the local environment and are typically very easy to grow.
Frequently Asked Questions
Not at all. Large farms can establish permaculture practices and create a more environmentally friendly and sustainable system. Home gardeners with small plots of land can do the same. You can have a small plot of land in the city or a large plot of land in the country and create a permaculture garden wherever you call home. The scale is different, but the practice is basically the same.
You don’t necessarily need to grow your own food, although you can certainly easily incorporate some edible plants into your landscape. You can create a permaculture landscape with perennial wildflowers as long as the focus is on sustainability and creating a healthy habitat. Consider incorporating some plants that are both ornamental and useful. Herbs such as basil, lavender, or sage can be great additions to a permaculture garden. You can incorporate permaculture practices into any type of garden.
Organic gardening is a method of using only organic inputs to sustain a garden, and may sometimes include biofungicides, certain soil bacteria as pesticides, and similar organic methodology that does not persist in the landscape and decomposes readily. In many cases, it also includes integrated pest management systems that utilize specific practices to reduce the pest or disease pressures, such as the use of floating row covers to keep moths away.
Permaculture implies a more long-term and sustainable approach that includes considerations about land use, watering, mulching, composting, and landscape design, as well as basic organic gardening practices. In most cases, permaculture practitioners tend to eschew the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides at all. They may opt out of the use of fertilizers that they cannot provide themselves (compost is a common fertilizer alternative in permaculture), and often put a much more rigid focus on things that will create an integrated ecosystem.
Creating a permaculture garden may sound like a lot of work, but any small steps you take will bring you closer to creating a natural and sustainable garden environment. Start small and work your way up. Plan for your project to take some effort, one small step at a time.
Permaculture gardening is a fabulous way to use your space, enjoy an edible landscape, and garden in a healthy and conscientious way. Start by gathering ideas, examining your landscape, and learning as much as possible about it. Then, get creative and draw up a plan for your own beautiful permaculture landscape.