What Is Permaculture and How Can I Use It in My Home Garden?
Once a mysterious agricultural philosophy, permaculture is now going mainstream and can help your garden thrive.
Q: I have been hearing a lot about permaculture lately. How can I implement permaculture principles in my own garden? What will I need and how do I get started?
A: If you’re looking to take your garden to the next level, consider some of the latest sustainable gardening trends to help you design a better home garden. You may have decided to rethink your vision of a beautiful garden by trying a rewilding approach, which involves leaving neat, manicured yards behind for a more natural space. You can take things even further by adopting permaculture techniques to create an efficient, thriving garden. But what is permaculture, anyway?
The definition of permaculture can be summarized by its origin as a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” though this philosophy isn’t limited to just farms. Permaculture involves integrating land, resources, and people in a sustainable way. It includes concepts like recycling, minimizing waste, utilizing space, and only taking one’s fair share of resources. It is all about working with rather than against nature. Continue reading to learn how you can apply permaculture concepts in your garden.
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Permaculture is all about using land and resources sustainably.
The term permaculture was coined in the late 1970s by Bill Mollison, a professor of biogeography and environmental psychology at Australia’s University of Tasmania. Now applying to culture in general as much as agriculture, permaculture is a philosophy highlighting the harmonious and mutually beneficial integration of the land, people, plants, animals, and soil in a sustainable manner.
The key priorities of permaculture include diversity, stability, efficiency, conservation, resiliency of natural ecosystems, and a closed loop system that turns waste into resources. It can be applied to all aspects of our lives, including how we set up and manage our home gardens.
Permaculture is based on a set of ethics and principles.
What makes permaculture particularly unique is its core set of ethics and principles for people to follow. While the concepts may seem a bit challenging initially, once you understand and apply the basics, you can make your garden more productive and sustainable. Above all, though, worry less about “perfect permaculture” and take the steps that work best for you.
The three ethics of permaculture are:
- Care for the Earth.
- Care for people.
- Take only your fair share.
The 12 principles of permaculture include:
- Observe and interact with nature.
- Catch and store energy efficiently (such as with solar panels).
- Obtain a yield from the land (that is, efficiently produce useful resources from your plot).
- Self-regulate and accept feedback from nature to always improve.
- Use renewable resources.
- Minimize waste.
- Design gardens intentionally by observing natural conditions and systems.
- Integrate as much as possible so different elements work together.
- Use small and slow solutions that take time to set up but offer big returns in the long run.
- Value diversity to create a healthier ecosystem.
- Use edges or otherwise unused areas when planning a space (such as growing vines on fences or maximizing on the corners of your garden).
- Creatively respond to change to keep adapting and growing.
Because it’s scalable, permaculture can be practiced in home gardens, on farms, or anywhere.
Permaculture is ideal for anyone looking to grow food and other plants in a sustainable way. You can turn your lawn into a permaculture garden with a few simple steps, no matter where you live or the size of your outdoor space.
Start by getting to know your own yard, community, and region as far as native plants, insects, predators, and weather conditions. Design your garden based on these observations. Consider sunlight, water sources, and the landscape in your design, and be sure to incorporate permaculture zones (more on those below). The most important point is that anyone can adapt the tenets of permaculture to a variety of locations, meaning backyard permaculture is just as achievable as larger-scale permaculture farming.
Permaculture uses and expands on organic gardening practices.
Permaculture involves natural and organic practices, such as avoiding pesticides, but goes a few steps further. In fact, many consider it to be an improvement to organic methods. While organic farming focuses solely on environmentally friendly food production, permaculture involves a broader and more comprehensive approach.
Permaculture relies on a specific design process and involves several important concepts. It produces through a no-till system and relies on succession planting. This means that when one plant dies off, another blossoms or ripens in its place (usually by planting a few weeks apart).
Next, mulching is necessary for permaculture gardens to avoid digging up the lawn. Many gardeners use sheet mulching, which involves layering different materials—cardboard or newspapers, then dead leaves, straw, or other types of compost—on top of grass and soil.
Finally, composting plays a critical role in permaculture to reuse waste. Keyhole gardens are a type of permaculture garden that, when watered, spread nutrients from compost through the soil to create natural fertilizer.
Permaculture gardening prioritizes low-maintenance edible crops and native plants.
When deciding what to plant in your permaculture garden, choose as many native plants, edible crops, and perennial plants as possible. Because permaculture is a no-till approach, it’s highly compatible with perennials since they don’t need to be replanted every year. Edible crops, like fruit, vegetables, herbs, seeds, and fruit-bearing trees, also are a priority since they exchange sustenance for land and resource use.
When possible, choose plants that are native to your specific area. They are extremely beneficial, since they attract pollinators, provide food and shelter for wildlife, typically resist disease and drought, require less maintenance, and tend to thrive in local climate and soil conditions.
A permaculture garden should make the most of its space.
Another important aspect of permaculture gardening is to use space as efficiently as possible. Permaculture gardens come in all shapes and sizes, but if you have limited space, try some tricks to maintain permaculture principles in small spots. For example, try growing vegetation vertically on trellises or other structures. There are many ways to get creative with vertical gardens by using ladders, walls, paint cans, baskets, and more.
Spot planting is another way to use space. Instead of digging up an entire section of the lawn all at once, just remove an area large enough to plant one tree or shrub. Finally, installing raised garden beds can save space. A permaculture practice from Germany called hugelkultur involves building raised hugel beds on a mound of earth to maximize space and soil quality.
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Permaculture gardens attract and support local wildlife.
The ethics, principles, and practices of permaculture naturally invite wildlife to an outdoor space. You can turn your backyard into a flourishing oasis for birds, pollinating insects, and other animals by following the guidelines of permaculture. These ideas include abandoning pesticides, using vegetation to attract certain animal species, hanging bird feeders, keeping some dead logs and leaf litter in your yard, and planting appropriate trees and shrubs to serve as shelter for local wildlife.
Permaculture encourages dividing outdoor spaces into zones.
By separating your outdoor space into permaculture zones, you can more easily and effectively set up and care for your garden. The zones are based on how you share your space with nature and how much time you spend in each section. Keep in mind that not every zone needs to be represented on your property, zones don’t need to be a certain shape, and there are no hard boundaries between zones.
Zone 0: Your home.
Zone 1: Area closest to the home with the most foot traffic that includes elements requiring daily attention, observation, and frequent upkeep. Think herb plants, salad vegetables, berry bushes, seedlings that require daily watering, a lemon tree, or your favorite flowers.
Zone 2: Area that needs attention, but not every day. Plants in this zone require irrigation, mulching, and occasional weed control. Examples include shrubbery, perennials, longer-cycle vegetable gardens, small fruit trees, hedges, and ponds.
Zone 3: Managed growing zone that does not need mulch or visits on a regular basis. Examples are large fruit or nut trees and dandelions.
Zone 4: Area further away from the center of living requiring very little care. This is the place to potentially gather wild foods or grow timber.
Zone 5: Unmanaged wilderness. Naturally occurring plants and wildlife thrive in this zone.
Natural pest control is an important part of permaculture gardening.
Instead of using harmful pesticides to deter insects and animals, permaculture relies on natural approaches like companion planting. Certain plants pair up well with other plants to help control insects and other pests. When planning out your garden, you can make choices such as planting flowers that attract butterflies, growing herbs that deter harmful insects from attacking fruit trees, and placing insect-repellent flowers like marigolds near veggies like cucumbers. Check out our article on companion planting for some helpful tips.
Permaculture has many benefits for people, animals, and their environment.
Depending on your needs and perspective, there are a few disadvantages of permaculture to keep in mind. It can be more expensive as you start implementing some of the recommendations in your garden. The upfront costs should pay off in the long run, though. On that same note, some people may be frustrated with all the work that needs to happen in the short term to enjoy long-term benefits. Finally, some gardeners may be leery of unpleasant odors from composting, a messy garden that wastes nothing, and unwanted pests and bacteria because pesticides are prohibited.
Overall, though, there are numerous benefits of permaculture. It reduces waste, helps us use our resources more efficiently, and prevents pollution. It provides an ethical approach to living on the land that improves the quality of life of homeowners and their natural environment. And it could create a sustainable system aimed at protecting the natural habitats of people, animals, and plants—and the entire planet—for generations to come.