What is a Permaculture Garden?

In the 1960s, Australian environmentalists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren pioneered the concept of the permaculture garden. They were concerned that industrial farming operations were depleting natural resources and worked to develop a new, environmentally friendly, and holistic blueprint for gardening. Their years of research and experimentation culminated with the publication of the book Permaculture One in 1978.
You can incorporate some of Mollison and Holmgren’s principles into your garden and landscape design to create a productive ecosystem that is resilient, self-sustaining, stable, diverse, and economical.

Basic Permaculture Principles

view of the plants and trees that make up a permaculture garden
To create a self-sustaining and efficient garden based on the permaculture model, you’ll need to follow some basic principles. They include:
  • Using renewable resources
  • Integrating techniques into a single, natural design
  • Defining and using the edges (borders) of your garden
  • Producing a substantial yield
  • Eliminating waste
These are not all of the core principles of permaculture, but they will put you on the right path.

Designing Your Permaculture Garden

aerial view of a well-organized permaculture vegetable garden in summer
You’ll need to spend some time developing your permaculture garden design. The planning and design phase will include site selection, defining and planning the edges, and selecting plants based on their functionality and what benefits they offer. You’ll need a plan for naturally developing and maintaining healthy soil. You’ll also need to consider water supply and drainage. Advance planning is the key to successful permaculture gardening.

Planning the Edges of Your Permaculture Garden Beds

a colorful vegetable garden allotment designed with permaculture concepts and a floral border
Planning the edges, or borders, of your permaculture garden beds involves defining the perimeters of the areas you intend to utilize and selecting the plants you’ll use to establish those borders.
For example, planting perennial hedges along the borders of the garden area can block high winds that may damage plants. They can also prevent snow drifts from building up in the garden and block out pests as well as larger animals like dogs.
Some plants and hedges attract pollinators and provide habitats for toads and beneficial snakes. Nearby pollinators increase yield while toads and snakes help to control pests, decreasing or eliminating the need for chemicals. A hedge created from raspberry or blueberry shrubs offers a food source for you to enjoy or share with wildlife.

Reducing Water Waste in Your Permaculture Garden

a large blue rain barrel located in the middle of a permaculture garden
When selecting the area for your permaculture garden, consider irrigation factors including whether rain water will run off without soaking in. Will that runoff cause erosion?
You can control erosion with ground cover plants. Permaculture methods for minimizing water waste and maintaining moisture in the soil include the use of natural mulch. You can make your own using leaves and other organic materials from your lawn and garden.
If you experience significant water drainage during periods of rain, to the point that it is eroding away the soil, you could consider constructing a swale. Swale drains can be an attractive focal point in a landscape. You can design your swale to resemble a creek and direct water flow where you want it to go, instead of water generally flooding and flowing based on the existing contours of the land.
For more water conservation and management recommendations, see our tips for saving water in the garden that include the use of rainwater collection systems.

Developing Fertile Soil in Your Permaculture Garden Beds

a pile of organic compost made from fresh garden waste
The natural production of healthy, fertile soil combines two basic permaculture principles – utilizing renewable resources and eliminating waste.
Use organic matter to build a healthy soil base where beneficial organisms will thrive. In addition to providing nutrients for your plants, your healthy soil will help to effectively and efficiently use water, minimize erosion, and prevent diseases.
One simple way to maintain healthy soil is by using the “chop and drop” method. When the growing season comes to an end, remove the withering annual plants, chop them up, and drop them back into the area where they once grew. This creates an organic mulch that will eventually become compost.
a hand unearthing an earthworm from rich, moist garden soil

You may also want to purchase some earthworms from your local bait shop and release them into your permaculture garden. They will aerate your soil and provide valuable nutrients.
In keeping with the permaculture principle of eliminating waste, we have some tips for creating natural, nutrient rich compost.

Using Companion Plants and Plant Guilds in Permaculture Gardening

close up of onions and strawberry plants growing as happy companions in a garden
Using companion plants and plant guilds in your permaculture garden will increase production and lower costs while making use of naturally renewable resources.
Companion plants provide nutrients to other plants nearby. Some even increase the yield of their neighbors or enhance the flavor of the vegetables they produce. Companion plants are also used for pest control or attracting beneficial insects or pollinators.
Permaculture plant guilds are groups of companion plants used to provide benefits to other plants or trees in the garden. An example would be surrounding a fruit tree with a diverse guild of beneficial companion plants, each of which supports the health of that tree.

Creating a Permaculture Garden

a wheelbarrow full of compostable organic materials in a permaculture garden
Thoughtful planning is the key to success in permaculture gardening. Carefully consider location and water management in your planning. Given your geographical area, climate, local pests, and environment, what should your edges look like? What plants can or cannot be grown in your area? You’ll need to do some research to find the right companion plants and create guilds if necessary to support particular plants or trees or to promote the general health of your garden.
Bear in mind that the ultimate goal is to create a new ecosystem that integrates with the natural environment, minimizes costs, labor and waste, efficiently uses renewable resources, and produces a yield that justifies your efforts.
Are you ready to join the trend to replace your traditional lawn in favor of plants that require less maintenance and benefit wildlife? We’ve got ideas for eco-friendly alternatives in our article 5 Alternatives to a Traditional Lawn.

a beautiful front of a home landscaped with a variety of plants and shrubs instead of lawn

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