How To Start Your Own Permaculture Garden (And Learn A Ton Along The Way)
Most home gardens are created with the goal of growing certain crops or flowers. But have you ever considered what it means to create a garden that actually gives back to the local environment? That's where permaculture gardening comes in. Here's everything you need to know about this ultra-sustainable, borderline spiritual technique:
What is permaculture?
Permaculture gardening heavily relies on nature and the inner workings of your local environment. It mirrors the observational growing that many Indigenous communities have been practicing for hundreds of years.
The specific term permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison in the 1970s and literally means "permanent agriculture." It refers to the constant cycling that happens in this type of garden throughout the seasons.
The technique is similar to lasagna gardening in that permaculture gardens are, for the most part, self-sustaining. They don't require much labor from your end and instead thrive on natural forces like the sun, wind, and water.
Their diversity of native plants and reliance on natural fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides is what differentiates them from your typical backyard garden or farm. Given the threat of climate change, these gardens will only become more essential in the future.
Angelo Randaci, a master gardener and horticulture expert at Earth's Ally, tells mbg the basic philosophy of permaculture gardening is care, care for the earth and for people, with a focus on how they come together.
In other words, you'll give a little and gain a lot with this technique.
The 12 principles of permaculture.
Permaculture is a holistic, regenerative gardening technique that abides by 12 core virtues.
Below, Randaci breaks down these principles, their significance to the process, and how they can be applied to life beyond gardening:
1. Observe and interact.
Permaculture gardening allows us to build a stronger connection to nature. Viewing the process as a bonding experience rather than a transactional relationship can cause us to "look deeper than the obvious" and bring us "in communication with the area we want to garden," Randaci says.
"We can see what we have to work with and think about the best ways to interact [with it]. It teaches us patience, which we need to acquire in the garden as well as our daily life," he adds.
2. Catch and store energy.
We are surrounded by energetic forces, and permaculture gardens are no exception. This technique allows us to incorporate more natural energy sources into our everyday lives and homes, Randaci explains.
"Growing our own food captures energy from the sun and reduces the energy expenditure of fossil fuels to truck food into our stores," he gives mbg as an example.
3. Obtain a yield.
Yield as a noun can be defined as "the full amount of an agricultural or industrial product." Permaculture gardening produces a yield, but the result goes beyond your crop.
Besides the end result of food for the table, Randaci says that the yields of this technique can also be spiritual and beneficial to one's overall well-being.
4. Apply self-regulation and feedback.
Although permaculture requires minimal labor, how much effort you put into your garden affects what you get out of it year by year. The process teaches us the importance of reviewing our gardening process after every season, learning from our mistakes, and constantly improving our techniques.
5. Use and value renewables.
Permaculture is rooted in sustainability and encourages us to find additional ways to incorporate energy, water, and power-saving practices into our everyday lives.
6. Produce no waste.
7. Design from patterns to details.
What are you trying to accomplish by creating a permaculture garden? By asking yourself this question, you look at the garden from a more holistic lens, Randaci says.
Identifying what you are trying to accomplish before working out the details is also a practice that can be applied to our daily lives.
8. Integrate; don't segregate.
A thriving permaculture garden is successful because its plants aren't just coexisting; they're coinciding. They're working together to make something beautiful and functional, which, Randaci says, we can all learn from.
"Putting plants together that harmonize rather than fight each other spills into our daily lives," he tells mbg. "It teaches us to work together."
9. Use small, slow solutions.
"Slow and steady" wins the race for a reason. Not only will making small incremental improvements to your permaculture make for less stressful gardening; it could also help you to evaluate every situation with a keener eye, Randaci says.
10. Use and value diversity.
In other words, don't be afraid to mix things up. "Gardening with a diverse selection of plants promotes general health to all the plants," Randaci says. It can also keep us more disease- and insect-free while also broadening our food selections, he adds.
11. Use edges and value the marginal.
Being aware of your surroundings is always valuable. Not only will it help you fine-tune your gardening skills, but it could also help you become more observant in general.
"This [virtue] teaches us to observe more closely the areas in our garden and around our property," Randaci says. By doing so, he adds, you'll become more accustomed to your environment and learn how to utilize each individual part of it more efficiently.
12. Creatively use and respond to change.
Change is inevitable, and it's important to learn how to adapt to it in the same way that nature does (and your garden will). By understanding the significance of time and how it is ever-shifting, Randaci says, we can review our past and look to improve the future of our garden.
Benefits of the technique:
1. It's all-inclusive.
Permaculture gardens rely on natural elements to thrive, and, as a result, provide a variety of food, herbs, wildlife habitat, not to mention beauty and color, says Randaci.
They promote biodiversity, utilize organic principles, and contribute to the environment in a natural, holistic fashion.
2. It connects humans to nature.
Working with nature instead of against it allows us to feel a sense of harmony with our surroundings. Permaculture gardening can also have a very real effect on our spiritual well-being, Randaci says.
3. It's low-maintenance.
Permaculture gardening is an excellent technique for anyone who doesn't have the greenest of thumbs or a lot of time to tend to their crops because it requires minimal labor.
Once your garden is designed and your seeds have been planted, the rest is really up to nature.
Designing a permaculture garden.
The most strenuous part of permaculture gardening is the design process. It involves figuring out the best spot for your plot; what sort of plants, food, and herbs you'd like to grow; and whether your local environment is equipped to grow said items.
Here's how to get the planning process started:
Step 1: Familiarize yourself with the land.
Once you've identified some plants that are native to your area, the first step is figuring out where to place them. Your environment is your foundation, so you want to make sure you're building your permaculture garden in a sunny area with easy access to a water source, Randaci says.
You want to make sure you've identified any areas with special features such as low areas, slopes, or other natural contours of the land, too.
Step 2: Figure out your spacing.
"[Figure out if your space] is a square, rectangle, circle, or some other shape," Randaci says. Really get a good feel for the area, and then decide how many plants you want to grow, and how much space is realistically needed to grow them.
"For instance, if you want to grow tomatoes in a designated rectangle area, figure out how many plants you will need. Figure out the spacing. If you are going to stake the plants, they will take up less room than if you let them sprawl on the ground."
You can also conserve space by practicing vertical gardening, he adds. "Vines such as grapes and other plants will grow on trellises, walls, and fences."
If you are the type of person who needs to physically see the spaces, he says you can use flags to mark where you want to place your plants during this step.
Step 3: Decide the physical type of garden you want to grow.
Next up: Deciding whether you want to build raised beds, plant containers, or plant in standard garden soil. There is no right or wrong between the three, only preference, Randaci says.
However, there are some things to consider when deciding which method will be best for your garden:
- Raised beds: Raised beds are a great option if you're working with poor soil because you can easily add organic soil amendments (compost, cover crops, etc.) to improve their quality. They are also good if you have physical limitations like uneven land or hard surfaces. Plus, you can design raised beds according to your aesthetic preferences, as the method involves using a range of building materials that can include things like stones or old bricks, branches, and logs. And in terms of labor, Randaci tells mbg raised beds are easier to manage because they warm up earlier in the spring and drain better than other types of gardens.
- In-ground gardens: In-ground gardens, on the other hand, utilize existing soil and therefore may not need amendments to produce a bountiful harvest, which makes them even more economical. What's more, in-ground gardens are easy to move to another location if desired. "If you decide that you want to garden a large area, in-ground beds are the easiest to prepare because you can use machinery to prep your garden for planting," he adds.
- Container gardens: If you'd like to grow a garden on your apartment balcony or have a very small yard, you can treat a container garden like a mini permaculture experiment. While not traditional, Randaci says there are plenty of benefits to this method, like fewer disease and pest problems (as insects that normally travel from one plant to another might have trouble finding your plants). Containers can also be aesthetically pleasing, easy to relocate if need be, low maintenance, and more accessible to children and elderly people.
Step 4: Plant what will thrive in your area.
Different plants require different conditions, which is why doing your research can help you narrow down which can successfully grow in your area. For example, plants with a succulent nature thrive in drier areas, Randaci tells mbg.
Important elements of a permaculture garden:
1. Pest management
According to Sherri Danner, commercial account manager at GrowGeneration, pest management is arguably the most crucial element of a permaculture garden. "It is essential to invest in beneficial predatory insects and companion crops that assist in naturally discouraging pests," Danner tells mbg.
"A lot of new gardeners put disproportionate effort into water, soil, and fertilizers yet ultimately end up losing crops to pests."
A polyculture can be defined as a cultivation of several crops or animals. In this case, polycultures refer to a diverse group of plants, which Randaci highly recommends integrating into your own permaculture garden.
"Plant a mixed group of plants by utilizing a variety of plants; herbs, veggies, annuals, perennials, trees, and shrubs," Randaci tells mbg. "Certain plants help repel pests; others are nitrogen-fixing and will actually take nitrogen from the air and turn it into a form that can be utilized by the plants."
Pro tips for your garden:
1. Start small.
This is an especially important tip for beginners or anyone new to the holistic permaculture technique. By implementing on a small scale from the get-go, you can gain an understanding of what your garden will need in terms of maintenance and time in the long term, explains Randaci.
2. Make sure you are near a water source.
Whether it be natural water sources like a pond, lake, well, or access to a hose, a reliable water source is key to growing any garden. Randaci's tip: Employ rain barrels to collect water and further increase the sustainability of your garden.
3. Remember: Right plant, right place.
Randaci encourages prospective gardeners to thoroughly research their growing zone before choosing any plants.
4. Trust and embrace the process.
"I like to think of permaculture as more than just a gardening technique—it's a philosophy on life, so embrace the movement," Danner tells mbg.
"Acknowledge your position within the natural ecosystem, and reject the idea that we're separate from, or above, nature," she adds. "In that spirit, permaculture enthusiasts should strive to live true to those principles outside of the garden, too: Reuse and share resources, integrate with your local community, and above all, work with nature, not against it."
How big should a permaculture garden be?
As a general rule of thumb, Danner says most permaculture gardens take up at least a quarter of an acre. But, she adds, beginners should start small.
"It can be discouraging to start a new garden and get overwhelmed the first season or two, but it's so rewarding to have the land give back the positive energy and time you've invested," she says. "Allow your garden to grow with your time, experience, and budget. You can learn from the soil and crop along the way by listening to nature and improving your skills."
What's the best location for a permaculture garden?
When mapping out the best location for your permaculture garden, there are a few factors to consider, such as availability of water, rich soil with proper pH (though this can be amended with compost), and accessibility to gardening centers and coops for materials, Danner says.
What are some good books on permaculture gardening?
According to Danner, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower's Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming by Jean-Martin Fortier is a fantastic, easy read for beginner and intermediate gardeners alike.
"It provides so many ideas that are accessible and require minimal financial investment. Readers will learn the basics of gardening and how to minimize their carbon footprint—all while embarking on a new hobby that can be shared with neighbors, family, and friends," Danner says.
Additionally, Danner recommends Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis as it breaks down the seemingly complex science of permaculture gardening and makes it fun and digestible.
"It provides ideas for improving your garden and its output in attainable ways. It also covers the microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, and companion crops that make your soil teem with life," Danner says.
Are there any potential setbacks to permaculture gardening?
Yes, but no more than any other gardening technique: Lack of time, finances, access to plots of land or supplies, are the most common, Danner tells mbg.
The bottom line.
If you're interested in a low-maintenance gardening technique that benefits not only you but the world around you, permaculture gardening is a wonderful choice. It's an eco-friendly method that can teach you how to reduce waste, use what nature has given you, and thrive—on and off the garden.
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