Ready for your first steps in permaculture? Whether your garden be big or small, laid out already or still in the planning stages, here are the guidelines on permaculture. You’ll learn about how it works and how to design an organic garden leading to abundant harvests.
What is permaculture?
Permaculture is a way of growing food (an agricultural system when practiced at a large scale). It uses environmentally-friendly techniques that sometimes date back to ancient times. The technique aims to reproduce a balanced ecosystem that is sustainable, stable, resilient and diverse. Resilience is the fact that after any disturbance, the system settles back into its previous state naturally.
From an outside point of view, permaculture means reproducing what nature does on its own: living beings, animals and plants all strike a balance in every setting. Soil is fed and nourished by plants that live and die in it. Larger plants shield more delicate plants from wind and heat. Plants are adapted to the soil type and to the climate, and they reproduce naturally through self-sowing… In a permaculture garden, the gardener turns into a conductor, just like in an orchestra: he or she endeavors to create an overall harmony, while letting each of the instruments play its own part to perfection.
A permaculture garden slowly turns into a nearly autonomous system, very durable, where the gardener lets nature do its thing instead of constantly trying to control it. Natural interactions are the solution. The goal is to coax change in a natural way instead of forcing artificial results. Biodiversity helps in all this, as does repeatedly recycling matter. The image of a wide, mono-crop field loaded with chemical pesticides and fertilizers is the opposite of what is desired.
The 10 basic principles of permaculture
- living soil (worms, micro-organisms, organic matter…)
- rich biodiversity (many cultivated and wild species, lots of different animals)
- companion planting on the same plot (no single-crop plots)
- closed-circuit cycles without any need to dispose of waste nor to add any inputs (no need to purchase fertilizer, preferring local heirloom species that are fertile for sowing from seed, greens and organics recycled on-site…
- maximizing water usage (recovering rain water, protecting soil from erosion)
- producing lots on a small surface: growing along different heights, intercropping…
- introducing domestic animals (chickens, sheep…)
- constant ground cover (with green manure, mulch, planting a new crop after harvesting the previous one…)
- very reduced tillage – almost none! – to preserve soil structure and preserve its equilibrium
- a small cultivated area that is geared towards high productivity
First steps in permaculture: creating your garden
Observe and make note of what is already there
Choosing permaculture means rethinking your entire garden, but you should also retain anything that makes sense to keep. The first stage is the observation stage:
- What soil type is your garden in? Clay, sand, loam? Is it chalky or more on the acidic side?
- What exposure does the garden have? Which portions of the garden get the most sun and which get the most shade? On which side of the garden does the sun rise? Where do the main winds blow from?
- What is the local climate like?
- Is the garden sloped?
- What is interesting or useful enough to retain: hedge, pond, tall trees, walkways, shrubs, walls…?
- Where is the nearest water source?
As you list and map these items, you’ll start having a clear picture of the basic building blocs for your garden. List the plants you want to grow, giving special consideration to how compatible they are to the soil type and to the climate. Lastly, try imagining where they would grow best in your garden.
Draw out a map of your permaculture garden
A hedge not only serves as a landmark or to block out neighbors, it also doubles as a home for an incredible number of animals (birds, beneficial insects…). These will benefit the entire garden, so feel free to plan out hedges tall and short in various spots of the plot. Each hedge is a rich interface where wildlife and cultivated plants meet. Perhaps the only word of caution: they shouldn’t block the sun out for other plants.
A pond or small body of water is also extremely precious for permaculture: it attracts many pest-eating predators such as frogs, toads and dragonflies. On top of that, it stores water and acts as a buffer that tempers the sun’s harsh rays. Temperatures don’t rise and fall as dramatically around a pond.
A few tall trees are also important for the shade they give to vegetables. Some cultivated vegetables really need shade and hate full sun.
The key to permaculture is to favor interactivity.
You shouldn’t exile your chicken coop at the far side of the garden; instead, place it where the hens and roosters will be the most beneficial: near the fruit orchard or near the vegetable patch. There, they’ll feast on unwelcome insects such as slugs and snails.
Also, try to do away with the old notion of having separate ornamental and food gardens. Best by far is to pair vegetables, fruit trees and flowers close together with each other. Beautiful flowers attract pollinators that will work for food plants, too. Herbs are typically very happy next to vegetables, much more so than in their own lonely garden box in front of the house. Crop plants growing next to herbs and spices will always benefit from their pest-repelling properties.
As you sketch your map out, consider how the garden is oriented: is it North-South or more like East-West? Mark out favorable interactions between the different zones in the garden, including any features you wish to retain and crops you’re hoping to harvest. Keep in mind that everything should be convenient and easily accessible – minimize distance for back-and-forth tasks, such as placing the compost bins near both the house and the vegetable patch…
Here is a short list of what might appear on your plan:
- orientation (North, South, East, West)
- residential house
- entry points to access the garden
- large trees meant to remain there, and also those that must still be planted
- fruit orchard and berry shrubs
- vegetable patch with the different species to cultivate
- space for preparing seedlings with covered nurseries…
- rainwater harvest tank
- greenhouse (ideally adjoining the house on a wall facing the equator)
- garden shed for tools and empty pots…
- compost bin
- managed forest
- wild space (prairie, shrubs)
- chicken coop, rabbit coops, shelter for sheep or goats…
Read on for the next steps: Permaculture, green fertilizers and compost
Smart tip about permaculture
Perhaps most important: make sure you’re pleased with the outcome! Remember that permaculture is all about finding our own place in nature. From it all a feeling of well-being should arise in time.