What Is Permaculture Gardening? (A Beginner’s Guide)

A beginner’s guide to permaculture gardening & what it is. Includes an introduction to the main principles and how they can be applied to help you build a high yield & self sufficient edible garden or vegetable plot.

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Tomatoes on a vine as an example of permacultiure gardening. Image: Markus Spiske via unsplash.com.
Fresh tomatoes on a vine. Image

When I started gardening I had a clear sense of I wanted to achieve, but I couldn’t quite put a name to it.

I knew I wanted to garden organically & grow my own food, but there was something deeper going on. A strong sense of wanting to reconnect with the seasons & nature, a desire to eat nutritious locally grown food & an urge to become more self sufficient.

I dreamt of eating the delicious, curvaceous, vibrantly green cucumbers my grandad used to grow & pick the crisp & tactile pea pods straight from the stem, shell them & eat them raw (when he wasn’t looking, of course).

The problem was, I couldn’t afford to spend day & night doing it. Turns out what I was looking to achieve had a lot to do with the principles of permaculture gardening.

But what is permaculture gardening? Personally, I’m almost certain the principles are very much in keeping with what many of us are intuitively trying to achieve with our edible gardening. Even if we don’t realise it.

What Is Permaculture?

A variety of plants in a permaculture intercropping bed, Photo copyright: Marcus Spiske via unsplash.com.
Inter cropping in a raised bed. Image

Permaculture is an integrated approach to designing sustainable human habitats and food systems that work in harmony with nature.On a large scale, it’s sometimes called ‘ecological farming’.

On a much smaller scale, it’s kind of like growing your own mini eco system in your garden or allotment.

Permaculture has 3 core tenants:

  • Care for the earth. 
  • Care for the people. 
  • Fair share (you only take what you need).

Unlike invasive, modern intensive agriculture, which uses synthetic chemicals & focuses on high yield monoculture cropping (growing one crop at a time) permaculture promotes multi cropping and integrated systems, which mimic the natural eco systems in nature. Synthetic chemicals aren’t used & the emphasis is on sustainability & limiting environmental impact.

It’s quite common to think permaculture is only really implemented on a large scale. And whilst it’s true you might have a permaculture food forest with many layers – from tall chestnut & fruit trees to fruit bushes & perennial flower & vegetable areas, there’s no reason why you can’t apply many of the principles of permaculture to an allotment or home vegetable plot.

Below, I’ll explain more about the principles, design methods & benefits of permaculture, including some tips on how you might apply this to a smaller scale permaculture garden.

The ‘Start’ Of Permaculture

I love gardening. It’s a hugely popular hobby that can bring us a great sense of calm and satisfaction. But imagine if you could also use your gardening skills to help the environment and create a self-sustaining ecosystem? That’s where permaculture gardening comes in.

Permaculture, as a term, was first coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s.

The idea for permaculture first came to Mollison in 1959 while he was observing marsupials in the Tasmanian rain forests. Inspired by the abundance & connectedness of the eco-system around him, he believed we could create similar agricultural systems, which worked just as well. by mimicking the structure & relationships of the ecosystems he’d witnessed in Tasmania.

A combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture” the goal of permaculture became to create agricultural systems that are self-sufficient, regenerative and provide for the needs of both communities & the environment.

The 12 Principles of Permaculture

A person transplanting seedlings. Image copyright: Zoe Shaeffer via unsplash.com.
Transplanting seedlings. Image

Underpinning the concept of permaculture are 12 guiding principles. These all seek to work in harmony with nature, not against it.

Using the principles of ecology, biodiversity and natural systems, these 12 principles incorporate a range of elements that work in a harmonious way to create a sustainable and thriving garden. This ‘mini eco system’ is one that actively encourages insects, pollinators & wildlife – all of whom have a place (& job to do) in nature’s wider picture.

This is very much in contrast to a lot of modern farming approaches & even gardening, which no longer work in line with nature in this way.

Instead, they seek to control it or bend it towards certain outcomes. Intensive farming, for example, leads to soil degradation, deforestation & water pollution, whilst fertilisers & pesticides lead to a cycle of chemical ‘control’. This causes environmental pollution, residues on food, as well as huge interference in the balance of natural habitats. Once these cycles start they are hard to undo.

The same issues often transfer to modern gardens, where perfectly manicured & fertilised lawns often create more greenhouse gases than they soak up. Or where we inadvertently cause harm by buying intensively reared plants sprayed with pesticides, often grown in peat cut from the ground. (If you’re interested in the environmental impact of modern gardening practices, The Garden Jungle, offers an eye opening account of how we’ve unintentionally destroyed so much of the natural eco systems in our gardens).

Here’s a summary of each of the 12 permaculture principles, which guide the design of permaculture systems, big or small:

1 – Observe & Interact

Permaculture mimics the diversity and efficiency of our natural ecosystems. So by taking the time to engage with & observe nature in our environment we can often discover insights into how best to design our garden – whether it be a rural farmstead or an urban garden.

2 – Catch & Store Energy

By developing systems that collect resources such as water, animal manure, household vegetable scraps, or even solar power, we can store & use them in times of need. Ways to catch & store energy might include compost bins, water butts or DIY leaf mould bins.

3 – Obtain a Yield

Is your permaculture garden generating useful rewards, or yields, for the work you’re doing? Are the systems put in place producing sufficient benefits? Permaculture techniques such as companion planting, inter cropping and mulching are all useful techniques that can help produce a garden that is both productive and sustainable.

4 – Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

This principle encourages us to be open to & reflect upon the consequences of our actions (and realign them, where necessary), as well as accept & consider feedback & criticism. By keeping an open mind, we’re free to adapt & improve our permaculture spaces in line with our & nature’s needs.

5 – Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

Make the best and appropriate use of nature’s natural resources to reduce waste, over consumption & dependence on non-renewable resources.

6 – Produce No Waste

Permaculture encourages us to seek solutions that work in harmony with nature. So instead of seeing waste, value & re-use resources such as rainwater, old timber, compostable food waste or chicken poo! This is known as ‘closed loops’, where waste from one element becomes a resource for another, helping to produce a sustainable environment that is both productive & environmentally friendly.

7 – Design from Patterns to Details

By taking a step back, we can often observe basic physical patterns in nature, such as waves of light or water, the branches of trees or the spirals of whirpools. These natural patterns can often form the backbone of our permaculture gardening designs. One example might be to utilise the pattern of a spiral in a herb garden, with herbs & edible flowers dotted in different positions, depending on light & water needs.

8 – Integrate Rather than Segregate

When parts of a whole work together, things flow better & become more productive. Permaculture encourages us to look for ways to connect all parts of a garden so they develop relationships that are supportive. One method might be a fruit tree guild. Another might be intercropping.

9 – Use Small & Slow Solutions

As the proverb says ‘slow & steady wins the race’. Permaculture encourages the use of small scale natural systems or solutions that are easy to maintain, make use of local resources and produce sustainable outcomes. Techniques such as no-till planting, natural pest control or rainwater harvesting can all be used to create a garden that requires minimal maintenance and is eco friendly.

10 – Use and Value Diversity

The goal of permaculture is to create a food habitat that is self-sufficient and self-sustaining. To achieve this, permaculture gardens, or food forests, incorporate a diverse array of plants and animals into their design. These plants and animals interact in mutually beneficial ways, creating a natural habitat that is productive and sustainable.

11 – Use Edges and Value the Marginal

The edges of a garden or land area are often the most productive and diverse areas. In permaculture gardening, the goal is to maximize these areas to create a garden that is both productive and diverse. By incorporating a range of plants and animals into the edges of a garden, permaculture gardeners can create a thriving and sustainable ecosystem.

12 – Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Change is inevitable. But by carefully observing & interacting in our environment, we can intervene in a creative & positive way at the right time.

Common Permaculture Terms

Young perennial rhubarb stems in my allotment.

When I first started exploring permaculture gardening & the 12 principles above, I kept coming across terms I’d never heard of or didn’t fully understand. These included keyhole beds, herb spirals, perennial vegetables, food forests, no dig and many more.

Whilst there are too many terms & concepts to list here, it can really help to understand some of the most common ones when you’re new to permaculture.

Here are 10 terms to start with:

1 – Perennial Plants – permaculture focuses very much on perennial plants because they live for a number of years (annual plants have just one growing cycle each year, after which you have to plant them again). Examples of perennial plants include fruit & nut trees, rhubarb, asparagus, artichokes, horseradish, cardoons & berries. That’s not to say we can’t grow annual carrots or tomatoes, of course – perennial plants are just more sustainable than annuals since they come back year after year with hardly any work.

2 – Polyculture – most modern intensive farming focuses on monculture farming (one crop is grown in an area at a time). Polyculture is where an area is used to grown more than one crop at a time. Whereas monculture farming tends to use a lot of synthetic chemicals to feed crops & handle pests, polyculture helps to prevent these inputs through methods such as inter cropping.

3 – Food Forest – a diverse planting of edible plants from tall nut & fruit trees to perennial vegetables & cover crops, which are designed to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature.

4 – Zoning System – a system where a growing area is divided into 5-6 zones based on ease & frequency of use. Zone 1 tends to be closest to your house/the most accessible – herbs for every day use might typically go in zone 1. Zone 5 is the wildest area, where nature is pretty much in charge & there’s little human input.

5 – ‘No Dig’ – an approach to gardening that doesn’t repeatedly dig the plot over each year. Instead, through minimal soil disturbance & annual mulching, delicate soil networks are preserved, soil is enriched & weeds are better controlled.

6 – Keyhole beds – a raised garden bed layered in a circle between six and eight feet. In the centre of the circle, a composting basket distributes nutrients from food waste into the surrounding soil. Keyhole beds are designed for easy access, soil enrichment & abundant harvests.

7 – Chop and Drop – a technique where you simply chop down vegetation & let it fall, where it breaks down naturally & enriches the soil.

8 –  Nitrogen-Fixing Plants – nitrogen is one of the main elements that helps plants to grow, so by planting nitrogen fixing plants, such as clover or alfalfa, soil is naturally enriched.

9 –  Coppicing/Pollarding – a method of cutting down & harvesting wood from a tree without killing it.

10 – Intercropping – the planting of two or more plant species together that have beneficial & supportive effects on one another. One example might be planting a tall crop with a shorter one that requires partial shade. Another could be planting herbs throughout your garden, many of which have strong scents which help deter pests.

Permaculture Design Methods

A spiral in nature. Image copyright: Bogomil Mihaylov via unsplash.com.
A spiral design from nature. Image

Once you have an understanding of what permaculture is, you can use its 12 underlying principles to start creating a permaculture design. This is the process that involves creating a workable blueprint from which to create your permaculture habitat or garden.

Permaculture design can sound a bit technical & off putting at first, especially if you only plan to implement permaculture gardening on a small scale – so if you start to feel overwhelmed just leep coming back to what you want to do with your plot & how you can implement your vision most efficiently in a way that mimics nature & encourages biodiversity & wildlife, for long term gain. An effective permaculture design recognises that nothing in nature stands alone, so it must meet the needs of those using it, as well as those of the natural environment in which it exists.

I’ve come across slight variations to the permaculture design steps, so I’ve used those outlined by Toby Hemingway in Gaia’s Garden, with some suggestions on what each step might entail.

1 – Observation

This first step involves simply examining your site, or garden, so you know what you have to work with. What resources do you have available? Are there any constraints? It can be really useful to make a rough sketch of your plot at this stage. Use the sketch to roughly mark out any sheds/buildings, paths, existing beds, plants, shrubs or trees, shady spots, soil type etc.

Also observe whether there’s existing bird & wildlife attracted to the area & which types of plants grow nearby. Make a note of them. You could also take a video on your phone. My daughter took one of our allotment & it made me see it in a completely different light.

The second part of this stage is to identify your resources – are there any tools, plants or supplies at your site that you can re-use? For example, I inherited a shed on my allotment. It had blown over with & the pitch was hanging off. Instead of getting rid of it, I pushed it back up, re-pitched the roof for a few pounds, added some bunting & made it windproof by laying steel bars inside.

Once you’ve identified the resources you have, identify & make a list of what’s missing that you’ll need to buy or borrow. Remember to be realistic – based on time you have available & budget.

2 – Visioning

The second stage is where you get to dream up what you want from your site, whilst keeping firmly in mind that this is an ecological design. As Toby Hemingway describes it, an ecological garden design is one that:

  • requires few inputs – permaculture promotes beneficial relationships between it’s parts. So for example, the output of one element (say, a mound of chicken poo) becomes the input for creating something else (i.e.a natural (and free) fertilizer). This is called a ‘closed loop’ system. By optimising closed loop systems, everything in a permaculture system, or garden, is recycled, waste is eliminated & transformed into resources & processes are efficient & energy saving. This leads to minimum maintenance & ultimately less input from us, the gardener.
  • increases biodiversity – permaculture seeks to increase the variety of important & desirable plant & wildlife within a given environment.
  • creates rather than destroys wildlife.plant behaviour – permaculture seeks to work with nature’s systems, not against them.
  • eventually results in less work, rather than more – over time, a permaculture garden becomes self sufficient & sustainable.

Keeping these ecological principles in mind, you’d then start to brainstorm ideas for your plot & note them down. Your ideas will also be informed by the information you gathered during the observation step.

Some permaculturists also look for patterns in nature around them, such as spirals (think herb spirals, for example) or wave formations (e.g. plantimg crops in curves rather than straight lines). These patterns can sometimes form the basis of designs for permaculture gardens.

Questions you might ask yourself in this step might include:

  • What types of plants do you you wish to grow – e.g. medicinal plants, kitchen herbs, fruits, perennial vegetables, wildflowers?
  • Do you want a theme or specific function for your plot – e.g. a family sanctuary, a community garden, self sufficient food, market gardening as a source of income?
  • What does the plot need – e.g. soil improvement, wildlife attracting plants, shed repairs, composting/recycling area, water collecting systems, hedges?

Next, organise this information into priorities. What do you need to get done first? For example, if you want to make an income from market gardening, improving soil quality is likely to rank higher than building a relaxation area.

Spending a bit of time on these first two stages should make the planning stage a whole lot easier.

3 – Planning

Now that you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve from your permaculture setup, the planning stage is where you start to plan out the ideas and framework that will make them happen.

It might entail making a list of all the constituent parts – from the different types of food, flowers & herbs & their functions to the irrigation water systems (water butts etc), social or seating areas, composting areas & storage facilities.

Remember to keep in in mind the permaculture principle that everything should work together as connected parts of a whole. So for example, if you have a shed, could you also use it to collect water from the roof into a water butt?

Learning about the the permaculture zoning method is also invaluable at this stage, as it will help you decide where to put pieces of your garden so they integrate & work together as a whole.

Next, you would identify the design elements for your garden or plot – i.e. the parts, materials, plants etc that you’ll need to make your plan a reality.

Finally, you would think about the layout of your permaculture garden – what will go where & why. For example, if you plan to plant a fruit tree, is it self pollinating or does it require another tree nearby for pollination? If you have limited space, could you design a mandala bed, rather than plant crops in straight rows. Are the everyday herbs situated in a position where they’re easy to access & the perennial crops that need less attention planted further away?

Again, the zoning method will really help you determine the most efficient layout for your space.

4 – Development

The development step involves making a detailed sketch of the location of each design element identified in the Planning stage.

Include paths, bed layouts, sheds, composting areas, seating areas etc & also research the specific plants, vegetables & species you plan to grow Then note down the steps you’ll need to take to implement each of the elements in your design.

By the end of this stage you should have a clear & detailed sketch & notes of:

  • what will go where
  • what materials you need to make each part happen
  • how to implement each part of your design.

5 – Implementation

This is where you actually get to install your design. Hurrah, at last!

As with any design, transferring something from paper to the physical world may spring a surprise or two. Try to be flexible if something doesn’t quite work & adjust to fit, if necessary.

When implementing the elements of your permaculture garden, Toby Hemingway suggests following this order:

  • Major earth moving – for example, dig any ditches, swales or ponds & install any irrigation systems if you plan to use them.
  • Add any soil amendments & compost
  • Complete any hardscaping – i.e. any elements that need actual constructing, such as sheds, paths or fences
  • Lay down sheet mulches
  • Situate any large plants, such as trees or big shrubs
  • Plant any cover crops, non-woody plants or grass (lawn)
  • Keep plants watered & help them to get established, especially any that may need a little extra attention.

Obviously, with large permaculture communities or permaculture farms, this design phase is crucial & will take considerable time & resources. If you’re interested, there are a number of courses online that will teach you the permaculture design process in much more detail (I’ve listed some at the end of this post).

But if you simply have an allotment plo, or garden space, there’s no reason why you can’t still follow these steps to help you implement an efficient permaculture gardening design that employs many key permaculture principles.

Whilst you might not have the space for huge chestnut trees, livestock or a full on rainwater harvesting system, you can still make use of permaculture zones that suit the space you have available, employ companion planting to help deter pests & disease, grow cover crops to feed the soil with nitrogen & plant edible perennials for a sustainable food source.

You could also become more self sufficient through the use of homemade composts & leaf moulds. The possibilities are endless.

9 Benefits of Permaculture Gardening

Freshly dug potatoes in a vegetable bed. Image copyright: Markus Spiske via unsplash.com.
Freshly dug potatoes. Image

As we’ve seen, permaculture can be applied in a host of settings. Whilst it’s often associated with large scale farms and communities, the benefits of permaculture can just as easily benefit smaller scale spaces – whether this be a rural or urban garden, an allotment or even a ‘green’ roof top.

Some of the many benefits of permaculture gardening include:

  • Increased food security
  • Self sufficiency
  • Improved soil health
  • Reduced waste
  • Increased biodiversity
  • Enhanced water management
  • Increased resilience to climate change
  • Less work
  • Improved community relationships (allotments, community gardens etc)

Permaculture Gardening: Conclusion

By incorporating permaculture principles into our gardening, we not only help to create mini sustainable habitats that provide for our own needs, we also enhance the wider environment & health of the planet.

So whether you’re a farmer, a gardener, or simply someone interested in sustainability, permaculture gardening is a practical & efficient approach to grow your own food in a sustainable way, often with much less effort.

From fruit tree guilds & composting to a homemade leaf mould bin, ‘no dig’ beds, nitrogen fixing cover crops & perennial vegetable planting, I’ve already implemented many permaculture gardening techniques on my allotment. And I can’t imagine going back on any of them…

Permaculture Gardening: Further Resources

If you’re interested in learning more about permaculture, there are many resources available, including websites, books, online courses & magazines. I’ve listed some of these below:

Official Online Resources

UK Permaculture Association – www.permaculture.org.uk
World Permaculture Association – worldpermacultureassociation.com
Permaculture Magazine – www.permaculture.co.uk

Permaculture Gardening Books

Permaculture Courses

UK, US & International Couses – www.permaculture.co.uk/courses

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