Permaculture. It’s been a buzz word in the garden world for a while now, but what exactly does it mean?
I’ve been curious about permaculture for a while now, but I’ve struggled to understand how permaculture really works in the garden. To be fair, it’s a simple enough philosophy, but one with many complex layers, principles and interpretations. In other words, it’s not easily explained.
That being said, I’m going to do my best to break it down in a way that most people can understand and apply. To help me do that, I turned to my friend Jesse Bowen who has studied permaculture in depth and applied it to his own thriving garden.
Jesse first became interested in permaculture when he began researching eco building and natural homes.
“I originally started thinking about all this permaculture stuff after I was researching eco building and I wanted to build cob homes. My friend had built a straw bale house with posts and beams and a green roof and all of that seemed interesting to me, so I wanted to learn about that. But they were always talking about permaculture at the same time as eco building,” said Jesse.
As he began to discover how closely related eco building and permaculture were, Jesse decided to enroll in an online permaculture design course. As he studied the principles from start to finish, he began implementing his new found knowledge on his own property and now has a thriving, largely self-sustaining garden to show for it.
So, what is permaculture?
Permaculture comes from the root words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture.’ This rightly suggests that permaculture has a lot to do with developing agricultural systems that, once established, continue to regenerate and produce year after year without having to replant or needing a lot of tending to. In essence, it’s the practice of setting up a farm, garden and/or homestead that is by and large self-sustaining once the initial work of setting it up is done.
This is appealing for many reasons, not the least of which is that traditional gardens, quite frankly, take a lot of work to maintain. Imagine planting your garden once and then rarely worrying about weeding, watering or resowing seeds, and yet still getting a massive harvest at the end of each season. This is sort of what permaculture aims to do.
While annuals do very much have a place in permaculture, the more perennials you can plant and relationships you can create between your plants (and animals), the less work it will be for you in the long run.
“[Permaculture] is about getting the most amount of function and benefit for the least amount of work,” Jesse explained.
I think of it like this: I’m a teacher, and as a teacher, I know that in order to make the whole year run smoothly, it’s incredibly important to establish systems, routines and expectations up front during the first few weeks of school. This is when students learn what is expected of them, what behaviour is acceptable and how to transition from one activity to another easily without wasting time.
Once these systems and routines are established, they become habit and students start following them automatically. The teacher does not need to spend any more time on this stuff and can instead concentrate on academics and other teaching-related duties. However, if the teacher does not take the time to establish clear routines and expectations up front (and remain consistent), the whole year will be a struggle just trying to get students to behave, pay attention and do their work.
In the same way, permaculture is all about establishing intentional, clear systems up front, in and around one’s garden, homestead, property and even the larger community. These systems should be set up with the intention that once they are established, they will be self-sustaining so the gardener/homesteader can focus on other things like expanding the garden, adding new livestock or learning new skills instead of constantly struggling to keep up with maintaining what’s already there.
But what does that look like?
How do you establish a self-sustaining garden? Where should you begin?
“The first step is observation. That’s where you start,” said Jesse.
“Then if you’re just patient, and you look at something and try to understand what it is or what it wants or what it needs, then you can work with nature and just try to do it the easy way.”
This could mean observing where the sun hits your property at different times of day. What areas of your property get better drainage? What areas are hotter or cooler than others? Which native plant species are already growing on your property and where are they growing? What is the soil like? Discovering, creating and utilizing microclimates is a big part of permaculture.
What’s a microclimate?
A microclimate, in short, is exactly what it sounds like: It’s a small space on your property that has it’s own climate within the much larger climate or gardening zone that you live in. So for example, you might have one area on your property that gets direct sun all day, and another that stays shaded most of the day.
You might also have a hilly area that gets very good drainage and stays fairly dry, as well as a water feature such as a pond or a creek. Maybe the area close to the pond has sandier soil while the soil in another part of your property is more loamy. Each of these areas has its very own microclimate within the larger climate of where you live, and different plants will do better in different microclimates depending on what they need to survive and thrive.
If you can, take the time to just observe your property for a full year (4 seasons) before planting anything. By taking the time to observe and take notes on what grows and happens naturally on your property at each time of year, you’ll be better equipped to make smart decisions about where to plant what in your garden when it comes time.
Permaculture is all about working with nature, not against it. So it makes sense that, through observation, you can learn what your area already provides naturally and you can begin to harness that energy to help create a thriving garden instead of working against it and struggling to keep a garden alive.
So for example, if you are looking to grow plants that do best in a cooler, wetter climate, you would plant those plants in an area of your property that remains moist and shaded throughout much of the day instead of planting them in direct sunlight and then struggling to keep them watered every day. Likewise, if you are growing something like tomatoes that need full sun, you would plant them in the area that gets the most direct sunlight, not next to the large trees that shade out the sun for half the day.
You can also create your own microclimates, which we will talk about a bit further down. Using a greenhouse is one popular way to create a warm microclimate on your property.
The ethics, principles and design of permaculture
While we often think of permaculture as being directly related to agriculture, it is actually more of a design concept than an agrarian one.
Permaculture design can be applied to everything from our gardens to our homes to our communities and even ourselves. It’s all based on a code of ethics that can be applied to everything we do and how we do it.
Permaculture is based on 3 main ethical standards: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share
Earth Care is all about making sure that our actions improve (or at least maintain) the earth and the natural environment. So for example, when it comes to gardening that means we are using organic methods to make the land more productive and diverse and steering clear of herbicides, pesticides and GMOs.
In the home, Earth Care could mean using natural cleaning products and practicing good habits like turning lights and taps off when we’re not using them. In the community Earth Care could mean walking or cycling instead of driving or picking up litter.
People Care is all about making sure the needs of the people around us are met in sustainable, self-sufficient ways. Feeding ourselves, our families and our community members with the food that we grow is one way of caring for people, but it is certainly not the only way.
Fair Share is all about taking only our fair share. In other words, take only what you need from nature and allow renewable resources time to regenerate. Cut down on consumption and waste as much as possible and harness the power of natural energy from sun, wind, rain and biomass instead of relying on the grid to support all of your activities.
The 12 principles of permaculture
One of the founders of modern permaculture, David Holmgren came up with 12 key principles of permaculture that fit within the realm of the 3 main ethics discussed above. These 12 principles are sort of like the 12 steps of permaculture: If you do each one of them in order, you will succeed at setting up a permaculture system on your property and in your life.
Without going into too much detail, the 12 steps are as follows:
1. Observe and Interact with Nature
Observe the land and the systems that are already functioning naturally to help you decide how to make these natural systems work for you.
2. Catch and Store Energy
Collect natural forms of energy when and where they are available to use when needed (ie. collect rainwater in the wet months for irrigation in the dry months, chop wood in the summer to heat your home in the winter, etc.)
3. Obtain a Yield
All plants (and most animals) should serve a purpose on a homestead. Try not to plant purely ornamental plants or to have animals that are just pets (although pets are wonderful!). Instead, plant plants that will produce a yield of something you can eat or use in some way (like herbs or flowers for medicine or trees for wood). And keep livestock for food, or if you do have pets, perhaps they can do double duty. For example, we have a pet rabbit but we use his waste as manure. Perhaps you have dogs that could help herd other livestock or cats who could control the rodent population.
4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
Be conscious of what and how much you consume. Reflect on your consumption patterns and make adjustments where necessary. Always assess and reassess what is and isn’t working and make necessary adjustments.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources
Try to use resources that are renewable over those that aren’t (ie. using wood fuel over oil). Don’t take too much, use only your fair share and allow these resources the time to regenerate.
6. Produce No Waste
While it is difficult not to produce any waste at all, try to make use of the waste you do create (ie. use grey water to irrigate, repurpose old packaging, fix old tools, compost, etc.)
7. Design From Patterns to Details
Be intentional with the way you design your garden, homestead and property. Observe first and then design your property to take advantage of the naturally occurring systems already in place. (ie. you can create microclimates on your property where ones don’t exist by taking advantage of what already does exist. So for example, you could construct a pond at the bottom of a hill where runoff will naturally filter down and collect).
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
Set things up to work together and benefit each other. Companion planting is a great example. Instead of segregating crops and making them susceptible to pests and disease, planting different mutually beneficial crops together will help them to take care of each other without you having to take care of them on your own.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
Focus on establishing plants and systems that take time to set up and produce up front, but will produce massive yields later on. For example, fruit and nut tree trees take a long time to start producing, but once they do, they produce abundant harvests year after year with little to no input.
10. Use and Value Land Diversity
Plant lots of different crops. Plant the same crops in different areas (microclimates) on your property. If one system fails, chances are others will succeed.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Utilize as much of the space on your property as you can. The edges of your property are great for planting fruit-producing shrubs and bramble or trees for harvesting wood. Don’t neglect or overlook the far corners of your property.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Climate and geography can change. Our climate is currently changing on a massive scale, and this can affect small-scale changes on our properties. Or perhaps a system you set up has some unintended consequences, like maybe certain trees you planted have made the nearby soil more acidic. Find a way to adapt to the changes instead of fight them. Grow things that thrive in your new environments. Start at square one again. Observe and then design. Always work with nature, never against her.
For a more comprehensive understanding of these 12 principles of permaculture, check out David Holmgren’s book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
Permaculture Design and Zones
So we now know about the ethics and principles that guide permaculture design, but what is permaculture design exactly? What does it look like?
Jesse explained how permaculture is based on the design of a spiral, and each part of the spiral (from the centre outward) makes up a different zone.
“[Permaculture] tries to get the most amount of function and benefit for the least amount of work. That’s why you work on a system of zones, and that’s the way you think about things in permaculture,” said Jesse.
“You think okay, my house is Zone 0 (inside the house). Around the house is Zone 1 because I go there every day and it’s easy to deal with all that stuff. So [for example] you want your herbs really close to your kitchen so you’ll actually use them, because it’s not gonna be a hassle.”
“For Zone 1, you want your herbs, lettuce… you know, a little kitchen garden somewhere close. You could have pots on your deck or whatever and that’s all zone 1,” said Jesse.
“You’d probably put your chickens in Zone 2. You might do some animals or raised beds or other gardens you need to go work in so they’re not too far away.”
“Zone 3, you might have a pasture area for sheep or goats or something, or just let it go to meadow or some natural thing that you don’t have to take care of much… Maybe a food forest.
“Food forests are kind of a permaculture word for ‘establishing things that don’t take a lot of maintenance or work together.’ Companion planting, things that come back every year or self-seed… Things like that. [This way] you can go and harvest from it but you don’t have to spend a lot of time in it. Get your fruit trees in zone 3,” he explains.
“Depending on how big your property is, Zone 4 might be like the back trail in the woods [around] your property. [For us] it’s the trail and the beach that’s a 5-minute walk away.”
“Zone 5 is probably the grocery stores and stuff in my community where I can go and get stuff.
“[Permaculture] is about [spiralling] out from your centre of what your designing for (or whom you’re designing for). Spirals are a natural system. Everything grows in spirals in nature, or at least a lot of things do.”
Zone 6, 7, 8, 9 and so on…
As is the nature of a spiral, the zones could keep going forever, and that’s sort of the point. You want to start at ground zero (Zone 0) and then work your way out. Once you’ve set up Zone 0 and then Zone 1 to work for you, then focus on designing Zone 2, 3, 4, etc.
If Zone 5 is your community, Zone 6 might be the city or region where your community lies. Zone 7 might be the state or province. Zone 8 might be the country, and so on. There are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes what zones. The spiral can be applied anywhere, even to an individual person (your consciousness being Zone 0, your thinking mind being Zone 1, your physical body being Zone 2, your environment being Zone 3, etc. It’s sort of up for interpretation.
The spiral effect
Spirals are the basis of all design in permaculture because spirals are a recurring design element found in all facets of nature from flowers to forests and flora to fauna.
It all has to do with some pretty fancy mathematics involving the Phi Ratio (Golden Ratio) and the Fibonacci Sequence. As fascinating as I find all of this, it is certainly not my area of expertise, so I won’t bother trying to elaborate here. But I highly recommend doing some independent research to learn more about the mathematics of nature as it is indeed quite interesting and enlightening!
What’s important here is that we understand that permaculture is intentionally based on the spiral design for good reason. And we can incorporate the spiral design in our own gardens. Jesse did just that with his herb spiral, which is often the first project a permaculture practitioner takes on in his garden. (A permaculture gateway drug of sorts!)
“For my herb spiral I just put in all the things that I would like to be able to pick and eat for my kitchen,” said Jesse.
“The spiral I built up so I could get different levels and everything will be pickable because it’s only a 6-foot diameter circle. So I can reach the middle from any side. And you get little different microclimates within the herb spiral because some will get more sun, some will be more protected from the wind so you can put things where they’ll be most comfortable. So you can read up on whatever you’re trying to plant and then pick the spot where it would do best.”
In this sense, the herb spiral makes perfect sense: It follows the spiral design found in nature, it creates and makes use of different microclimates, it makes things accessible, produces a yield and fits the Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share ethics model.
Jesse also made use of other materials he found on his property to create his spiral, which made use of natural systems already in place and cut down on his consumption and waste production.
“So this was really cheap to build. I used chopped up maplewood as the base, so I actually used Hügelkultur, which is basically rotting wood mounds that you put dirt on and then grow on. As [the wood] decomposes it’s gonna feed the plants and the pile will just keep nourishing itself with rotting wood. Because the centre’s built up higher, all the centre has the wood in it to build it up so I didn’t have to spend so much money on compost and soil and manure and stuff that I mixed and put in.
“I just had rounds [of maplewood] and I just stacked the rounds in as tightly as I could, and then I just put peat moss all over it and mulched up leaves that I had collected that were all fungus-y (which is really good because it gets a micro-biome going in the soil). Everything I planted in here did really well,” he said.
“I built [my herb spiral] out of wood that I had trimmed from a hedge next to it. It was a Laurel hedge and I was reading up on it and laurel supposedly has cyanide in it and I was a little bit worried about poisoning my plants with cyanide. But now I think it’s totally fine. It’s better to just try something than to worry about it and do nothing. If worst comes to worst at least you’ll learn something.”
Try something new
At first it might seem as if permaculture is a complex and complicated design process that is vague and unspecific at the same time. Indeed, it is all of these things. But at its core it is actually quite simple: Permaculture is based on the same designs found in nature, and aims to work with nature rather than against it to create a self-sustaining garden, homestead and lifestyle that benefits both the people that depend on it and the earth and ecosystem(s) around it.
To begin practicing permaculture in your own life, start by keeping the 3 main ethics in mind and make sure that you constantly reflect and reassess to make sure your actions and your design planning adhere to these ethics.
From there, follow the 12 steps laid out in David Holmgren’s book. Start by observing. Think longterm and don’t rush the process.
But don’t wait forever to start either. It may seem daunting at first, but as they say, all great journeys begin with a single step. And permaculture may just be one of the most noble journeys one can embark on in our time.
At the end of the day, it can’t hurt to give it a try. Maybe permaculture won’t inform your every decision or dictate how you live every minute of your life. But maybe it will make some aspects of life just a little bit easier, better and more fruitful for you, for your family, for your community, for the planet.
As Jesse said, “it’s better to just try something than to worry about it and do nothing. If worst comes to worst at least you’ll learn something.”
What can permaculture teach you?