Introduction to Permaculture Gardening
First of all, let's make sure we're clear on what permaculture gardening means: Permaculture is a word coined from "permanent" and "agriculture" but it's not just about gardening; it's about a whole new outlook on growing food for your family, using the rules of the physical universe to help.
Bill Mollison, often called the Father of Permaculture, first started to think about how all the systems around us should be integrated into a holistic approach. Instead of keeping the garden separate from all the other things going on in and around our dwellings, why not incorporate everything in a supportive way?
Permaculture Ethics and Principles
From the ethics, Care for the Earth, Care for People, and Return Surplus, we then have the basic permculture principles. There are many different versions of these principles, but here is the most commonly used:
- Observe and Interact: Get to know the land, the way the rainfall pools, where the sun falls and so on. Your land is unique and permaculture gardening is not cookie-cutter.
- Catch and Store Energy: From sun to water to waste, creating a closed-loop cycle is a key component of permaculture.
- Obtain a Yield: It's not sustainable if it doesn't work to support and feed you and the land.
- Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback: This could be feedback from Nature on what is working and not working, or even feedback from your neighbors. Ignoring the signs of a dysfunctional system spells disaster.
- Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services: A good example of this might be using small branches for a trellis instead of a plastic store-bought version.
- Produce No Waste: Precycle, recycle, reuse, compost...work toward nothing going to the dump.
- Design From Patterns to Details: Look for patterns in Nature to work with, such as the way Nature chooses rounded edges and spirals to conserve energy.
- Integrate Rather Than Segregate: Some plants can support your trees, your trees can support your animals, and so on. By creating synergy, you create less work.
- Use Small and Slow Solutions: Good design takes time. The more you allow solutions to evolve, the more integrated and sustainable they become.
- Use and Value Diversity: Don't plant one variety of tomato, or invest in one breed of animal. Diversity creates health and minimizes the loss from disease, drought, etc.
- Use Edges and Value the Marginal: Nature doesn't waste space, and it often uses edges (of ponds, paths, etc) for greater diversity. By increasing the amount of edges (with things like keyhole gardens) you can increase your own diversity.
- Creatively Use and Respond to Change: Perhaps one of our biggest agricultural challenges is our desire to shape Nature or circumstances to our ideas, instead of shaping our ideas to Nature and circumstances. Rigidness doesn't tend to last long in Nature.
How to Get Started in Permaculture Gardening
To truly effectively make the transition to permaculture gardening, you're going to need to do a lot of research and learning. Yes, this means some added upfront work, but the long-term payoff is a simple, sustainable system that requires much less time, energy, or resources from you. Using the principles above, here are some ideas to get you started.
The basis for growing food crops begins with much more than just roto-tilling a patch and hurling some seeds at it. First, the thought process begins with actual property selection; if you don't already have a piece of ground, the assessment of a potential garden and food forest is important.
Solar orientation is going to be your first consideration in permaculture gardening. South-facing land will get the most exposure to sun; north getting the least. Knowing the length of day for your region and what you wish to grow (or whether you're going to be considering the placement of solar panels on your property) will determine what you can do with the property you have.
Knowing which direction the land slopes is key. The drainage of air and water can make a big difference in what you can crops you can grow. With water in short supply, or expensive if you happen to live in a place where your municipality supplies it for a price, the assessment will also include some way of harvesting and storing rain water (and greywater too) for later use. For some people, they might live on and observe the land for four full seasons to see where rainwater naturally collects, how the changing sun shifts on the property, and so on.
Swales and earth work has to be done early in the project before fruit trees and bushes are planted. Swales and other changes made to the terrain can help prevent flooding, create water catchment, and divert water into gardens or orchards. This is one of the most time consuming and financially expensive parts of permaculture gardening, but once it's done, there is very little other upkeep and it creates a more passive workload later on.
One of the general guidelines in permaculture is that you should always use gravity wherever possible to move heavy or bulky items.
Water fits into this category. Without relying on gravity, you will be pumping the water with electric pumps, an internal combustion engine, or by hand. If the water supply is higher in elevation than the garden, gravity-fed options mean less labor for the gardener, and less wear and tear on the environment. You can consider creating this by placing your water catchment at higher spots on your property, or possibly even on structures. Let gravity move the water, and irrigate the garden with drip irrigation systems to lighten the load even more. It's a win/win situation.
Making things do more than one thing, and using sustainable methods of growing crops, are crucial parts of permaculture gardening. Water should be used at least twice: salvaging it from rainstorms, then directing it to wash clothes, or for showering, and from there to your garden is a way of squeezing as much use as possible from it.
Constructed wetlands, planted with cattails for mulch, or willows for crafts, bio-fuel, or chipping for garden pathways, are a way of cleaning water that has already been used. This way of filtering waste water can even provide potable water at the end of the cycle.
Composting and worm farming make your kitchen scraps and garden debris do more than one thing: from garbage, you can get black gold to make your garden even more productive. Get started on your home composting system now so it'll be ready when you need it.
Crops and Ideas for Permaculture Gardening
Biodiversity dictates that you should attempt to grow as many different and non-competing crops as possible (principle 10), so they will shelter and support each other as they grow. They can provide shade, fruit, nuts, or other harvestable food crops, or building materials such as twigs for trellises to grow other crops on. They can also provide beauty, habitat for animals, or a food source for pollinators.
In your area, there is most likely a pool of well-adapted and evolved plants that grow naturally; native types of plants can create a food forest that will produce many types of crops to harvest over the growing season. These can include hazelnuts, walnuts, crab apples, saskatoon, blueberry, strawberry and raspberry plants, and many, many others. Look in any old homesite or contact your local cooperative extension, and see which plants grow well, with little care. These are the ones to look for (or raise from seed yourself).
Vegetable gardens are an important part of permaculture gardening too, since saving money on organic food is one of the most popular reasons people decide to start gardening in the first place. Whether these are raised beds with a chicken tractor moving around them, a berm and swale arrangement, or a spiral garden, the biggest factor is a diverse selection of different types of plants.
Growing the Three Sisters together creates a harmonic grouping for your permaculture gardening: squash, corn and beans are so symbiotic that even with what seems to be a chaotic and crowded growing scheme these three plants together will produce much more than if planted separately in a perfectly weeded garden.
Stacking, or growing several crops that all play well together in the same bed is a smart way to utilize limited growing space; as well as providing support, shade and shelter for each other, they also help protect each other from pests.
Companion planting is a way of placing crops that complement and protect each other close together. The pests of one crop will be confused by the scent and shape of the other, which will prevent them getting a foothold.
Animals that are commonly raised in permaculture gardens are chickens, especially Bantam breeds or heirloom types which are pest control, manure production and egg and meat producers all at the same time. (You can read more about raising backyard chickens here.)
Fish, such as tilapia can be raised in tanks or ponds, and rabbits are raised in hutches placed above the water of fish tanks so their waste and scraps go into the water, which is then siphoned off to use as fertilizer.
It just makes sense...
The management of all these interconnecting systems means that you as the orchestra leader will have to be on your toes. Once each part of the puzzle is integrated into the whole picture, your goal is to keep it finely balanced and working well together. Adding compost when needed, keeping an eye on pests and monitoring crops, protecting your garden and animals from wildlife predation and planting and harvesting crops is all in a days work. In concert with nature, your harmonious garden will burgeon with life.
Permaculture as a Lifestyle
Permaculture gardening often becomes a natural approach to one's entire lifestyle, applying the same principles and ethics to community, technology, healthcare, and more.
If you're interested in exploring these ideas further, click here.
Permaculture Gardening and Greywater Recycling Books
Gaia's Garden is our favorite book on home-scale permaculture. But each of these books has something unique to offer. I'm including the greywater collection because of its usefulness.
Jacki Cammidge, Woman of Many Sticks, Certified Horticulturist and Webmaster grows her gardens with lots of love and attention, but very little in the way of chemicals, instead using Nature’s methods and techniques to keep pests away, and encouraging a wide diversity of wildlife, beneficial insects, and predators to help. Find her online at O-Garden.ca.