What is permaculture gardening?

I meet a lot of people who are new to the idea of permaculture, or more so, they’ve heard of the term but aren’t quite certain what it entails. It’s using raise beds, right? Generally, I try to be broad in my description, including elements of sustainable housing, renewable energy, cyclical systems, small bonded communities, and the whole shebang…But, largely, people have heard about permaculture through the food movement and want to know about the gardening.

Perhaps, they are right. Sustainable housing isn’t an immediate possibility for most people, who either already have homes or lack the land upon which to build one. Renewable energy is on the upswing, but by and large, it’s not usually a quick, easy or cheap endeavor for those who already have a car, the typical electric set-up and water spewing from the city main. So, what they see is that the garden might be a realistic first step.

So, they ask me what I would do to make their garden better, or if they don’t have a garden, they ask me how I’d go about putting one in. I think most people who venture this route are expecting some magical formula for how permaculture works, and it’s difficult to merely tell them that each piece of land should be approached differently. Instead, I’ve come up with some factory ideas for just how to begin transitioning into a permaculture garden, along with logical reasons this the case.

1. The Notion That Soil Is Something to Be Grown, Not Just Grown In

Living Soils

Caring for and adding to the soil is perhaps the simplest and most profound piece of gardening advice I can give, and for me, as with many other practitioners, this is rooted in the implication of no-till and/or one-dig garden beds. Sheet mulching is perhaps the easiest and fastest route to get there, especially for people who already have an abundance of garden supplies. For newbies, I take a rather rudimentary route—the same I use most of the time—of choosing a space and beginning to layer it with the things that I can gather. Come into cardboard boxes or newspapers, that’s great. Have a bunch of leaves from the sidewalks or front yard, fantastic. Fresh grass clippings from weed-eating or, god forbid, mowing, that’s nitrogen. Whatever it is that’s biodegradable, pile it up into the shape of a garden bed. When it’s time to plant, clear out a little whole in the debris, fill that hole with good soil, and add the seed or seedling.

Constantly turning soil takes away the life that makes the earth work fluidly. Tilling works for a short time as plants feed off of the decaying soil life, but it eventually goes away. Soil building is also based on decay, but in this case, the soil is being added to…naturally.

2. The Shift from Annual-Only Gardens to Mixed Perennials

To me (and I think most), perennial plants are at the crux of most permaculture gardens, and rather than planting them in tidy rows of singular species, we find the right mixes to make balanced eco-systems. The reasons for doing this are many, but let’s keep it brief. Perennial plants are less energy-intensive, both for the earth and for the cultivator: They don’t gobble up soil nutrients and fizzle fast like annual plants do, which means gardeners won’t continually have to start them from seed every time they’d like some vegetables. This, of course, isn’t to say that annual vegetables are no good. I like a tomato as much as the next gardener, but moving our diet, thus garden, from being annuals-based to utilizing more productive and less needy plants is a shrewd move for the garden environment and for the cultivator tending it.

Look to include perennial vegetables, nuts and fruits like rhubarb, asparagus, berries, kale, garlic, scarlet runner beans, and so on, and even if the whole garden isn’t perennial, be sure to develop that side of things. Perennial provides for again and again and againzx.

3. The Multiple Ways Mulching Is Of Utmost Importance

A Mulched Garden Bed

Mulching and soil building might go under the same listing, but I find mulching to be such a game-changer in the garden that I can’t let soil steal all the thunder. Whether it’s living or decaying, it improves so much of what is happening. It adds nutrients. It protects the soil from drying out. It prevents the rain from eroding the soil are pounding it into concrete. It provides habitat for microorganisms, insects and all sorts of other things that are living in and constantly improving the soil. It pacifies weeds and even makes those that do grow easier to pull. It preserves the moisture in soil, keeping it from evaporating and keeping it for the plants. And, ultimately, it builds layer upon layer of new, loose and lively soil.

Lots can be said about mulching, the right way to do it as far as living versus decaying, and what material makes the best choice, but in this instance, the simple need to get something atop the soil overrules the pedantic lessons of whose way is best. Mulching is better than bare soil.

4. The Efficient Use of Space Does Not Come in the Form of Rows

This is something I find people latch onto pretty quickly and dsicover to be a more pleasing way to view the garden, both visually and intellectually. Visually, a garden of keyhole beds and contour edges is much more stimulating and interesting, not to mention full of plant life, than one of plowed rows. The mixing of a tall and short plants, vines twisting up stalking corn or papaya trunks, and colorful leaves and flowers and vegetables and fruits is all there to decipher in one space, to find and appreciate. If it’s only paths that aren’t growing plants, then obviously there is the opportunity to grow a lot more as well. For every row, there is an empty row next to it, so intellectually speaking, it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand what’s a more efficient us of space.

The unnatural world has taught us to overvalue the straight line. It works well for building houses quickly or getting from point A to B fastest, but curves—both along the sides and vertical throughout the bed—make more surface area and microclimates for plants.

5. The Production of Food Should Happen in a Waste-Free Cycle.

Pig Compost

An indelible feature of permaculture gardens (and other systems) is that they don’t create waste. Everything that dies, falls, or goes uneaten is simply turned back into the system to foster the next generation of something. Money, time and resources aren’t often spent on additives because the systems replicate nature, creating the same sort of fertile balance that we find in prairies and forests, where all “waste” goes to feeding the soil, soil life, wildlife, and the next in the endless cycle of plants. In permaculture gardens, weeds and trimmings are used as mulch to build the system for the cultivated plants. Dropped leaves or failed plants just add to the pile of organic matter producing loamy loveliness. The scraps the harvests produce in the kitchen come back in the form of in situ compost (such as in worm buckets or banana circles) or animal feed that get there in the form of manure.

Start thinking cycling in the garden. Grow plants to harvest the seeds. Grow legumes to cut them down for nitrogen boosting and mulching purposes. Use all the weeds and expired annuals for soil rebuilding. Never cart them away. Ultimately, the garden should sustain itself.

Without a doubt, there are other important aspects to building a permaculture garden. Water catchments come to mind, swales and ponds and greywater, as do incorporating interactivity within other systems, like compost toilets or chicken tractors. Observing, utilizing and enhancing the existing landscape is as basic as it comes. However, what these sorts of techniques require is some know-how—how to find contour, what to look for in a landscape—as well as a general leap into the thick of it. Not everyone is so keen as to rearrange their bathroom situation for the sake of a permaculture experiment.

So, as for me and what to tell those with a passing interest, I like to keep the advice to something that could be done in a garden that is already there. I think these techniques often show some immediate, pleasing results, such as less need for watering and eliminating the need for maintaining a compost bin. As well, people tend to enjoy gardens with beds, but there is only work to be done in a garden patch with nothing but rows. There are also some long-term benefits to be enjoyed, like next year’s light and rich soil (for free), as well as the fact that all those perennials will be coming back on their own. In other words, for those who take these tips to heart and give them a shot, they’ll likely be coming back for more.

Feature Photo: Small Space Intensive Food Garden


Conventional gardening tends to use a one-size-fits-all method for growing food. Its central concepts are based on what gardeners want to grow rather than on what plants best suit a particular piece of land.

Permaculture gardening, on the other hand, is based on the concept of using the perfect plants for the climate, and utilizing only what works best for the local environment.

Dry climates require a different approach than humid climates. Hot climates support different flora than cold climates.

Permaculture techniques are incorporated from many different sources, allowing anyone to adapt their permaculture garden to whatever methodologies their plant hardiness zone‘s climate dictates.

Fortunately, many permaculture gardening designs work well across a broad variety of climatic conditions.

Besides climate, the permaculture philosophy also focused on building up soils to gradually make them more nutrient-rich and well-balanced over time. Soil, after all, is the base from which our food grows.

Virtually all of the health benefits that come from growing your own food are literally rooted in having healthy soil.

When permaculture systems are designed well, they are intrinsically sustainable and much easier to care for (especially over time). Permaculture gardens create true ecosystems that have built-in mechanisms to constantly revitalize the earth, keeping the plants healthier.

Healthy plants are more resistant to disease and pests, which minimizes labor for upkeep.

Here’s a deeper look at what permaculture gardening is, how it works, and how to design a permaculture garden that works best for your space, climate, and lifestyle.

What Is Permaculture Gardening?

  1. Definition of Permaculture
  2. How does Permaculture work?
  3. Key Permaculture Principles
  4. 7 Permaculture Design Ideas
    1. No Dig Gardening
    2. Keyhole Garden Design
    3. Worm Composting
    4. Chop-and-Drop Organic Mulch
    5. Companion Gardening
    6. Rotational Cropping
    7. Green Manure
  5. Benefits of a Permaculture Garden

READ MORE: DIY Permaculture Garden Guide


So what is permaculture? Permaculture is notoriously difficult to define. The word is a portmanteau of “permanent agriculture.”

It was originally coined in Australia by David Holmgren (a graduate student at that time) and his professor, Bill Mollison, who is considered to be the father of permaculture. The two collaborated on the 1978 book Permaculture One, which first introduced permaculture design to the general public.

Bill Mollison’s 1991 book, Introduction to Permaculture, defines permaculture as “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

To understand the very basics of the permaculture meaning, it’s important to recognize that all decisions are rooted in three ethics: earth care, people care, and fair share (a.k.a. “the return of surplus”).

These ideas guide everything in the chain, from gardens and food forests, to earth works and water catchment systems, to homes and power systems.

READ MORE: 15 Ways to Reduce Waste and move towards Waste-Free Living

Natural Cycles


Permaculture systems are designed to be interactive. For example, roofs are used to catch water that can be used in the kitchen. From there, it drains into gray water irrigation systems.

These feed the plants, which in turn provide food and fuel (wood). Each of these elements are then put back into the system as compost. No waste is created. No resources are imported.

But it’s also important to realize that permaculture is about much more than a design. It’s a complete shift in lifestyle– a change of approach that ensures that our habits and practices are working in cooperation with (and benefit to) the planet rather than merely taking from and polluting it.

Simple eco-friendly ideas such as reusing bags, buying secondhand clothing, and eating local food are also parts of the permaculture mindset.

It’s not just a way to grow food. It’s not just about resource conservation and renewable energy. It’s not just a new way to shop. It’s all of these things and more.

Permaculture is a rigid system in terms of ethics, but it’s surprisingly open in its approach. Whatever works well for taking care of people and our planet has a place within the practice.

This makes a condensed definition of permaculture more difficult than it is in practice.

READ MORE: Going Green: 60 Simple Tips for Earth Day & Every Day

Slow and Steady


According to most sources, permaculture has roughly a dozen design principles that tend to guide practitioners through a given project.

In essence, these permaculture principles are centered around using nature— the most sustainable of all ecosystems—as a manual of sorts for creating productive, efficient, and ecological designs to meet human needs while also caring for the planet.

As explained by the co-founder of the permaculture movement, David Holmgren, the principles begin with observing and interacting with nature.

This moves into capturing and using renewable energy sources, such as water flows and gravity, and producing abundance while practicing self-regulation.

In other words, there are inherent limitations to consumption. Because, while nature can provide enough for humankind, nature also requires resources, energy, and time in order to maintain proper balance.

READ MORE: Using Permaculture Principles in Travel

Permaculture Garden by Irene Knightley via CC

The principles of permaculture acknowledge that, while our yields may be plentiful, success is not measured only in terms of production.

Systems must be constantly renewed and cyclical in order to avoid stockpiles of waste and pollution. This can be accomplished by designing in meaningful patterns, in which waste products become assets.

For example, kitchen scraps are composted to feed worms. They provide worm castings and aeration to the soil for growing more food. That food eventually provides more kitchen scraps to continue the circle.

Designing these cycles requires integrative techniques as opposed to the segregating techniques of factory farming. The different elements of permaculture designs work together, adjusting slowly (as happens in nature) to create stable systems.

It’s through natural diversity, a mosaic of plants and landscapes and insects and animals, that stability can be found.

Ultimately, any garden design will run into challenges. But permaculture principles ask practitioners to work with these obstacles and adapt strategic methodologies rather than trying to make the same techniques work for everyone, every time, everywhere.

READ MORE: What is Aquaponics? The Ultimate Beginners Guide

Ready to Design


Most people are introduced to permaculture in the garden. This holistic approach to gardening offers exciting, effective, efficient ways to produce food in small spaces without chemicals and without waste.

Instead of using the conventional rows and crops most people picture when they imagine a garden, permaculture garden designs utilize plants and planting methods that are better suited to the specific area and climate rather than striving to grow something that matches poorly with the environment.

This approach may mean that not all of the fruits and vegetables shoppers are accustomed to eating will be available in their backyard garden. But it does equate with a more low-maintenance, positive-impact abundance of a wide variety of crops.

That means growing local, fresh, organic foods that improve the environment as opposed to chemically derived, internationally imported products. Most of which come from monoculture and factory farms that create pollutants and encourage deforestation.

Permaculture designs can be implemented at a mass market scale. But the real crux of the movement is the idea that society as a whole would benefit from moving back towards home garden production, both in rural and especially urban settings.

The following examples of permaculture gardening techniques can help to establish sustainable soils that will make your fruits and vegetables grow as sustainably and as nutritious as possible:

READ MORE: Top Foods to Buy Organic (& when it is Not Necessary)

No-Dig Bed, photo by Samuel Mann via CC by 2.0


No-dig gardening is a widely applied permaculture technique designed to preserve the soil life that converts organic matter into plant food.

When we dig or till, we kill beneficial bacteria, organisms, and creatures that keep the soils in good order. Initially, the decomposition of their bodies will feed the plants in our garden.

But ultimately, when there’s no soil life left to decompose, the result will be nutrient-deficient soils. Therefore, we should try to encourage soil life rather than deplete it.

No-dig gardening beds are built atop existing soil, which has several benefits. Beyond saving soil organisms, the topsoil we’re building the bed on and the soil and mulch we’re using provide a double dose of quality growing medium.

For those in humid climates, no-dig beds help to make sure that soils drain well. The use of deep mulches ensures soils stay sufficiently moist, cutting down on maintenance and water use. Popular no-dig methods include raised beds, sheet mulched beds (my favorite), and hugelkultur.

READ MORE: How To Compost At Home

African Keyhole Bed, photo by Clem Rutter via CC by 2.0


Permaculture gardening also emphasizes efficient design, and keyhole beds are a great example. In conventional agriculture, we only plant about 50% of the land we’re cultivating. The raised rows are planted, while the troughs are more or less left to weeds.

With keyhole design beds, we’re able to maximize ROI from the space we’ve got for our garden. Keyholes also encourage biodiversity, using mixed planting rather than rows of singular crops (which are more susceptible to diseases and pests).

With a keyhole garden, more land goes to cultivation than dead space. This is accomplished by bending a row three to four feet wide around a central point. You’ll want to leave a small access path to that point so that the bed resembles a keyhole.

These garden beds can either be harvested from the center, or that spot can be where your compost is concentrated and leached into the raised garden. Because everything is condensed into one spot, it takes less effort to harvest, and we’re using more of our garden for growing plants.

READ MORE: How to Make a DIY Vertical Garden

Worm Composting, photo by Oregon State University via CC by 2.0


Worm Composting or vermiculture is when worms create compost, and vermiculture buckets are a very efficient way of doing this.

Rather than having a single compost bin where we put all of our food scraps, we space many small bins (I use 5-gallon buckets) around the garden. Kitchen scraps are distributed into the different buckets, into which composting worms have been introduced.

The worms break down the kitchen scraps into worm castings that are much more fertile than typical compost. This permaculture gardening technique works great with both raised beds and keyhole designs.

Simply drill a bunch of nickel-sized holes into the bottom half of a 5-gallon bucket. Then bury the bucket in the garden, with the bottom half beneath the soil surface.

Then fill the bucket with a bed of shredded paper and/or cardboard topped off with a layer of soil, manure and/or dried grass. Once composting worms are added, they’ll handle the rest. The nutrients of the vermicompost drain directly into the garden and feed the plants. When the bucket is full, the castings can be spread over the bed.

READ MORE: How To Attract Birds To Your Garden

Comfrey, photo by graibeard via CC by 2.0


Mulching is another key difference between permaculture gardening and conventional gardening, which typically removes all organic matter.

Mulch, especially organic mulch, offers a wide range of benefits. It moderates soil temperature by keeping the sun off of it and insulating it from the cold. It prevents evaporation so that the soil stays moist. It stops heavy rains and wind from eroding the topsoil. And, as it breaks down, it reinvigorates the soil with more organic matter to feed on.

Chop-and-drop mulch is a technique that doubles up on the benefits. By growing nitrogen-fixing legumes and dynamic accumulators (i.e. plants with deep taproots that pull minerals up from deep in the earth), top-quality mulch material is produced right there on-site.

Nitrogen-fixing legumes provide natural fertilizer—nitrogen—while the decomposition of dynamic accumulators re-mineralizes the soil. Because the plants are in the garden, leaves and branches are simply chopped and dropped right onto the beds.

These plants will grow back again and again, providing more and more organic matter to constantly improve the soil!

READ MORE: Sustainable Agriculture: Is Will Harris the Future?

Carrots and Onions, photo by Samantha Durfee via CC by 2.0


Biodiversity in the garden is beneficial because the nutrient needs of crops vary. Pests aren’t provided with rows upon rows of their favorite food. And harvests aren’t centered on the success of one crop.

Companion gardening ups the ante with pairings in which the individual plants provide services for the other plants in the group. Having chop-and-drop organic mulch plants is an example of this, but there are many other aspects of companion planting.

Good plant combinations can help with controlling pests, attracting beneficial insects, filling vertical spaces, and providing fertilization. Most culinary herbs and many flowers, such as Nasturtium and Marigold, are fantastic repellents for garden pests. Flowering plants are very good for attracting bees and other pollinating insects.

The trinity of corn, bean, and squash are a classic combination of efficiently using vertical space in your garden. The corn grows high, beans use their stalks as poles, and squash winds along the ground. Corn, beans, and squash also have beneficial relationships at the root level, from which each plant’s growth is enhanced.

READ MORE: Top Foods To Buy Organic (& When It’s Not Necessary)

Ruby Chard, photo by THOR via CC by 2.0


Perennial plants are a huge part of permaculture design because they supply food without needing to be replanted year after year. But that isn’t to say that permaculture gardening plans never include annual plants.

Annuals do have a place in permaculture, but the overall approach is more measured. Growing annuals sustainably requires rotating crops, which means changing the type of plants we are growing each time we cultivate a particular bed.

When the same plant (or plant family) is used in the same soil time and time again, that soil becomes depleted of whatever nutrients that plant likes. And diseases and pests that like that particular crop linger in the soil, waiting for the next round of feasting.

By using rotational cropping techniques we can create simple sequences of planting that will revitalize the soil and keep pests and diseases at bay.

A typical sequence starts with soil-enhancing beans and peas before hungry cruciferous vegetables. Then you switch to nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, with mineral-mining root vegetables as the last leg. Then, the whole cycle starts over.

READ MORE: Mushroom Growing Guide

Red Clover, photo by cynthia collins via CC by 2.0


Permaculture gardening centers on three core ethics: Earth care, people care, and fair share. In terms of gardening, “fair share” means that we can’t constantly take from our gardens without giving back.

Conventional agricultural has done this in the form of chemical fertilizers, which is neither necessary nor sustainable.

Using fertilizer as opposed to organic matter to feed plants doesn’t help with feeding soil life and building new soils. The end result of this process is completely sterile earth that has nothing more to give in terms of nutrients.

Green manure is another way to give back to the garden. This process involves growing soil-amending groundcovers with the sole purpose of cutting them down and giving them right back to the garden as organic matter.

Natural systems work this way: Things grow, die, and go back to the earth so that the next generation can grow from them. If we only ever harvest from our annual gardens, the soil never gets back the energy lost in producing those crops.

It’s only fair to our soil to occasionally grow something for it. Many gardeners grow green manure as part of the crop rotation (often after the root vegetables).

READ MORE: 5 Hobbies that can Offset your Carbon Footprint

A Permaculture Garden, photo by hardworkinghippy via CC by 2.0


A permaculture garden is a great thing for anyone to involve themselves and their family in. It helps keep everyone active, and encourages meaningful interaction. It’ll beautify the house, and perhaps create a DIY wildlife habitat for bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies in your own backyard.

It’ll improve the soil and provide productive avenues for household waste, whether it be kitchen scraps, gray water, or paper products. It’ll increase the local biodiversity, both plant and animal, while simultaneously producing healthy food.

Beyond these very admirable attributes, permaculture gardening involves people in their food on a very personal level.

Gardens like this will revive the collective understanding of what it takes to produce a carrot or potato or apple, where they come from, when they’re at their best, why organic is more than a label, and how everyone everywhere is capable of contributing to dinner.

This is a cleaner, healthier, dreamier way of both envisioning and participating in the future, creating a new Eden of sorts. It strives to create a future in which humans are more in tune with the planet, with each other, and with themselves.

Some experts believe that it’s only through re-engaging with sustainable systems and adopting a more cooperative mindset that humanity on the whole will be able to survive on this planet in the long-term. Personally, I tend to agree. -by Jonathon Engels; header photo by Anastasia Limareva via CC by 2.0


Breaking news

STEVE WOOSTER / NZ GARDENER Flowers growing amid the vegetables attract and feed beneficial insects to pollinate crops and eat pests.

Understand and apply the principles at the heart of permaculture design and you’ll make your garden more productive and sustainable.

The simple techniques and ideas at the heart of this design ethos can be useful even to a gardener on a small urban plot.

Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the word permaculture back in the 1970s. They wrote a book theorising that if we emulate the ecosystems of nature we can create “sustainable human environments” rather than following the often destructive methods of mainstream horticulture and agricultural practice. Their aim was to encourage people to adopt an integrated design system using nature as its model.

Whether your property is covered in trees (like a forest), swampy (like wetlands) or arid (like a desert), if you observe how those natural ecosystems operate you can pick up clues on how to manage it more sustainably.

This doesn’t mean that you must allow it to revert to natural bush or a tussock plain. You may decide to incorporate only a few permaculture design principles; using the leaf litter and fallen branches to mulch and fertilise your garden, say. Or if you live in a dry climate, growing drought-tolerant plants and collecting rainwater.

A key principle of permaculture is that nothing is wasted, as in nature. This not only includes water, vegetation and animal manure, but your labour. Why spend it digging, weeding and spraying? In gardens designed according to permaculture principles, most areas are self-sustaining and the need for such tasks can be reduced.

* Organic & off-grid: The quarter-acre dream like you’ve never seen it before
* Spray-free & sustainable: edibles all year round in a Waikato lifestyle block
* Meet the gardener living her self-sufficient dream in central New Plymouth

STEVE WOOSTER / NZ GARDENER Vegetables that need regular care or are picked often should be handy to the house.


So where to start? Just as you would with a conventional garden design, begin by . Even if your garden is already established you can experiment by gradually integrating some of the main principles.

For beginners, one of the easiest to follow is the idea of multiple functions. These functions should benefit you or other inhabitants of the site including plants and wildlife. So if you plant a hedge it should have at least two (and up to five) more reasons to be there besides decoration. It could also provide screening, firewood, fruit and shelter for birds.

In your analysis:
* Look at every element in the garden and work out what it can provide and what it needs.
* Next, combine the various elements so they can support each other in zones that are conveniently located, and require minimal physical input from you.
* As you develop your garden plan, you can incorporate other permaculture design principles such as encouraging diversity and minimising water use.
* Don’t forget traditional design principles such as balance, harmony, repetition and unity.

An ambitious goal when designing an organic vegetable garden is to aim to produce no waste. Instead find ways to re-use or recycle what would otherwise be thrown away.

In theory, at least, an organic garden is what is called a closed loop system. What does that mean in a home garden? A simple example would be that a permaculture garden would allow for composting green waste and kitchen scraps, and hard landscaping would be positioned so it functions as a heat sink to keep the energy of the sun and in the organic matter within the garden system.

No space – no problem! A suburban food forest in Auckland shows how it’s done.

It is still possible to apply permaculture principles if you are gardening exclusively in pots. Crops in pots always need lots of water, so adopting as many water-saving methods as possible is a good start. Adding plenty of compost to the planting mix will improve its water-holding capacity as will mulching the surface. Invest in a rain barrel to harvest rainwater off your roof too.

Another good permaculture principle to follow is grouping your pots in zones, according to their watering needs, soil requirements and your convenience. Planting water-hungry vegetables such as salad greens together in one or several pots will make irrigation easier and you won’t be wasting precious water on plants that don’t need it.

Position pots with herbs and greens you use frequently near the house so you don’t have to go far to harvest and tend them. Potted fruit trees and herbs such as rosemary and lemongrass that need less attention can be further away.

Encourage beneficial insects by planting dill, fennel, cosmos and marigolds as groundcovers. And layer your crops as you would in a large organic garden so you have plants of different heights, including climbers.

STEVE WOOSTER / NZ GARDENER A permaculture garden can be pretty and productive.


There are 12 basic principles of permaculture, and they are worth considering if you want to create a more sustainable garden.

1. Observe and interact: Getting to know your garden will help you make better decisions.

2. Catch and store energy: Not just water and sunlight, but also biomass and fertility.

3. Obtain a yield: Every plant should have a useful role to play.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Listen to both positive and negative feedback from nature… and from people!

5. Use and value renewable resources: Make the best use of renewable natural resources.

6. Produce no waste: Recycle, reuse and compost.

7. Design from patterns to details: Look for and replicate the patterns you see in nature.

8. Integrate rather than segregate: Create synergy between plants.

9. Use small, slow solutions: Good design takes time.

10. Use and value diversity: A more biodiverse garden is a healthier garden.

11. Use edges and value the marginal: Nature doesn’t waste space, so plant “edges” of ponds, or paths to increase biodiversity.

12. Creatively use and respond to change: Be flexible! Rigidity does not last long in nature.

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What’s the difference between Organic Farming and Permaculture?

Design Matters

The 3 things that make Permaculture different:

  1. It has an ethical core. The test is: if it isn’t good for the earth and good for people in a fair share, then don’t use it.
  2. Imitate Natural Systems. Permaculture uses biological resources and natural energies and observes the clever ways nature responds and adapts. Nature cycles the energy resulting in now waste. Efficiency is Natural.
  3. Permaculture uses a set of Principles, Strategies and Techniques

Integration is Key

Permaculture uses organic gardening practices but it goes beyond. It integrates the garden and home to create a lifestyle that impacts less on the environment.

The Permaculture garden is more than an organic garden. Although organic food production often has many innovative elements, a Permaculture designed garden joins each of the elements into functional relationships.

Being Mindful

Permaculture design is mindful of our relationship with our environment. We see we are living in a period of energy resource limits. And we acknowledge that emissions are contributing to the heating the planet. Many of us are feeling the changes and seeing our environments polluted. Whilst a few wealthy people have the resources to ignore climate change, most of the world’s people cannot. Rich people can relocate, get air-conditioning, and import truck-loads of water. But even the wealthy cannot fix nitrous oxide build-up or save their beach homes from collapse.

Big, Little, and More

Permaculture thinking can be applied to many physical and social structures. It is energy-wise and collaborative to minimise the impact of a culture on the surrounding environment. A good permaculture design has great potential. It can connect neighbours. The biggest Permaculture site in the world, The Chikukwa Project, has helped the whole community.

Permaculture design has:

  • Focus on closing the nutrient and water loop by using waste, and reducing the dependence on inputs.
  • Creation of healthier soil and diversity of produce.
  • Responsibility for waste. There is an aim to eliminate waste. i.e. no excess nitrogen nor weed seed, released.
  • Variety keeps residents engaged and excited about growing their food.
  • Imitating nature by conserving the soil and water, and genetic capital. There is an intensive use of space. Plants are allowed to set seed and are inter-planted for pest control. You are unlikely to see food plants in rows. The permaculture site will look more like a food-forest with some open glades full of herbs and perennials.
  • Optimisation of natural energies, e.g. wind, dust, leaves, bird droppings.
  • Nutritious food and habitat for people AND native animals and birds.
  • Dependence on observation. Permaculture design is a mixed technology. Bill Mollison (co-founder of permaculture movement) said that permaculture, like a bicycle, it is adaptable and has great potential but is only as good as the user.
  • Minimal risk. If we fail at permaculture, nature simply takes over. The soil will continue to heal, the forests grow and someone else can step in to rebuild our efforts.

Closed and Open Nutrient Cycling

There is a significant difference between closed and open food-production systems. In a truly closed system (one in vacuum or in space) energy is not lost it is simply transferred from one being or element to another. In a permaculture system, (which can never be fully closed), energy is ideally used by one element effectively and passed on for the benefit of the next before it leaves the system.

Organic Farming promotes the use of natural fertilisers, making use of the natural carbon cycle so that waste from plants becomes the food (fertiliser) of another. In organic farming however, as with ALL farming, minerals are being lost from the farm every time a truck load of produce is carted to market.

The Ideal Permaculture ‘Farm’ brings production of food closer to consumers and the consumer’s wastes back into the cycle. It also reduces the energy wasted in transporting the foods by producing the foods where the people are. In permaculture, the people contribute in their daily life toward the production of their food and other needs.

Tea doesn’t have to cost the earth

When is Permaculture not Organic?

There will be times when a permaculture system is not strictly organic:

  • when we use local resources rather than imported certified organic resources
  • When we want to increase diversity by bringing in unusual plants/seeds from a non-organic plant supplier
  • Permaculture is capable of enhancing a supply and converting it to organic. for example: when we grow food-plants along polluted river or roadsides to filter out toxins and break them down to safer levels. We know we may not be able to eat these plants but we can keep them as our ‘catastrophe’ backup.

Essentially Permaculture is trying to close the energy loop by optimising what we have.

Fostering A Culture of Community Recycling

This is not usually due to an intentional use of pesticides, but often due to the use of a by-product that would otherwise be wasted. We could use old shoes as pots for plants, an old truck tyre/tire to hold the edges of a pond. Sometimes the choices are difficult and we have to do a quick cost/benefit analysis. For example: At Silk Farm we use recycled oil (to make fire starters) and the oil cans (for our simple worm-farm towers) from a non-certified organic restaurant who sometimes uses leaves and fruits from our garden. This ‘trade’ stimulates our local relationship and fosters a culture of resourcefulness.

Permaculture Can Actively Convert Resources

We would need to weigh the benefit of a using a free local waste (ie. horse manure) versus supporting a good organic supplier who may be in another country. When we design well, the permaculture system can act as a cleanser or processing agent. Sometimes, we can transform then utilise a polluted waste (within what is realistic achievable). In the case of the horse manure, we could ask the owner about their anti-worming medication, check that it can be broken down by high-temperature composting then go about re mediating it before using it. Good permaculture design will aim to have a better output than input. Organic gardening may not have checks to reduce the system’s impact on the wider natural system.

Build you knowledge about permaculture by doing a permaculture design course with us.

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Now that I have seven acres of countryside to steward, I’m feeling somewhat overwhelmed about where to begin. I’ve done my PDC and designed my property, but now I have all these pieces that I somehow need to fit together and I need to prioritise my tasks.

The problem is that permaculture is a set of principles, not a framework. While it is certainly a process, it lacks a set of linear steps to follow. Clearly, what permaculture lacks is a clear decision-making process.

Taking a PDC doesn’t solve the issue, while it helps with the design phase and developing a site plan, what is frequently ignored is “how to install the design”.

It is most manageable when the design is implemented in stages which build upon each other. That’s why, having taken some time to read up more on the subject, I have created a multi-stage plan based upon the components of the ‘keyline scale of permanence’

This helps me develop my design incrementally, envisage the ‘big picture’ and, most importantly, I have an order in which to establish my farm.

In this post, I’ll share some advice on beginning your farm’s development and on how to implement your design in stages. Even if you haven’t yet designed your property you can still follow the process. Let’s dive in.

Farm development and whole farm planning using the scale of permanence

One of the best tools for farm planning and development in our current permaculture toolbox is the Keyline Scale of Permanence. Developed by Australian agricultural designer, P.A. Yeomans, in the sixties, the scale facilitates prioritization and decision-making when planning fertile farm landscapes.

There are eight factors in the scale with climate, landshape and water supply on the top, and roads, trees, buildings, fencing and soils being at the ‘more flexible part of the scale’.

Yeomans used ‘relative permanence’ to discuss the time-scale element for each factor and how much energy we should expend upon them. For instance, roads will last longer and consume more energy to install than subdivisional fences, therefore fencing is lower on the scale.

Many revisions of the original scale on the left.

Nowadays, there are many differing versions of the keyline scale. For example, the Regrarian framework that Darren J. Doherty teaches has some changes to the headings and suggests another two factors: energy and economy. David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in Permaculture One added microclimate, while VEG incorporates crops and animals into the scale.

The bottom line is that these are the components of the farm development you’ll need to consider. Let’s now put them in a logical order and group some of them for the purpose of establishing your farm.

Thinking about starting a permaculture farm? Skip the guesswork and use this free checklist as your reference.

1. Start with Good Maps and an Understanding of Your Local Climate

Geography analysis of my farm.

The most permanent agricultural factor is climate, and it is fundamental to every aspect of your farm. Temperature, insolation, wind, the annual distribution of humidity and rainfall – these are essentially ‘the rules of the game’, as Darren Doherty would put it.

Geography concerns the location of your farm within the region, shape and form of the land, along with underlying rocks and your proximity to potential markets. If climate sets rules for the game, geography is the board on which you play.

These two factors form the environment into which you must place your farm. These are your design parameters – study them, gather the historical information, produce new data, observe, consider your local geography and geology and study its influence on your farm. Most importantly, obtain good maps depicting your property – here are the steps:

1) Use Google Earth to get a screenshot of your property – it is easy to obtain high-quality images of your property by taking screen shots.

2) Mark the boundaries of your property – create a boundary map on Google Earth. See this film for Darren’s explanation on how to do this.

3) Get a topographic map to analyse the landform and develop plans for the property. Ideally, you should have 0.5-1.0m contour maps, but for starters use Google Maps – terrain view.

2. Develop Water Supply First

Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof.

In essence, water and rainfall will determine your farm’s development. The harvesting, storage and distribution of water form the foundation upon which you will build, because all the water lines: diversions, swales, terraces, dams/ponds, channels, will become permanent land features that other infrastructure components will follow.

When developing your water systems you will need to consider the storage, harvesting and reticulation of the available water.

1) Water Storage

Before you start developing your water storage you should think about your needs and work out how much stored water you’ll need to sustain yourself, your crops and any future livestock. Following this, calculate the catchment area to determine the volume of available water that your farm receives in a form of rainfall to ensure what you’re planning is viable. The one formula you need to remember is 1mm of rain on 1m2 equals 1L of water.

The best location for your ponds and tanks is high in the landscape, so use your topographic maps to pinpoint the optimal location for your water storage. Then you can use that water for your irrigation purposes whenever necessary. Plastic pipes deliver water very efficiently: following storage in an elevated header tank, it is then moved to where it’s needed by gravity during dry periods.

2) Water Harvesting

Once your water storage is ready, you need to develop and expand upon the methods of harvesting the water. Water wells can tap into underground aquifers; however, before going deep use the surface stream flows and rainfall runoff to fill your water storage.

You can capture water with water harvesting drains that will divert the runoff, stream flow or pumped water into your ponds, and subsequently tanks. Swales or ditches on contour can also overflow water into your ponds. Once installed, your roads themselves become a very important and efficient water harvesting system.

3) Reticulation of water

You should always aim to slow, spread and sink the rainfall you receive evenly across the landscape. This can be achieved by using keyline cultivation, a unique cultivation pattern which is an artificial water line, or by using swales. Both capture water, which then slowly infiltrates and hydrates the landscape.

You can also use gravity-powered irrigation to release the water stored in ponds and water tanks when necessary. The best location for your irrigation reticulation pipes is on ridges because, in this way, you’ll achieve maximum coverage of the foothills. Once your irrigation is established, other elements such as farm roads, trees and fencing will follow.

3. Define Access Points

Access points visualization – credits: Regrarians.com and Humadesign.org.

Next you’ll need to put in access roads, tracks and paths, all of which are permanent features in the landscape and very important to consider early in the process. The placement of access points will define your movement around the farm.

The location of the access points is influenced by climate, land shape and the water supply network you developed in the previous step. On gentler slopes the location of the permanent farm roads is more subjective. However, as soon as you get into steeper terrain, the siting of the farm roads is heavily dependant on climate and land shape.

The best location for the main road is on the ridge crests, which divide watersheds – this road will be high and dry, and, most importantly, easy to maintain. Some other potential road locations are along boundary lines and by water channels such as diversion channels, irrigation channels, and irrigation areas.

Farm roads will also change the natural drainage pattern and also serve as hard surface runoff. You’ll want to place your roads on the contour to prevent the erosion and concentration of the runoff.

Thinking about starting a permaculture farm? Skip the guesswork and use this free checklist as your reference.

4. Restore Existing Buildings and Introduce New Structures

Building should be placed to optimise the potential energy flows – David Holmgren’s Melliodora.

Now you have dealt with water and access and can move around, you can start the placement of buildings and other structures. In most cases, you’ll already have a house with a shed and a yard so you’ll first need to retrofit and adapt them to your needs.

You should always look after what you start with, then restore what you can, finally introducing new elements into the systems. You can start slowly from your house and work outwards – renovate the house first, perhaps extend it with a greenhouse, introduce plant nursery and keep on expanding….

When introducing new structures, their placement should follow earlier factors on the keyline scale, as these have already indicated the most suitable locations for the permanent farm buildings. Water supply is determined in relation to land shape and climate, farm roads are guided by the positioning of the water supply, and so on. All of which will disclose the suitable locations for your farm structures, buildings or other elements.

With this in mind, your buildings shouldn’t be overly exposed and they should have good solar access and protection from the winds, ideally on a slope. If you’re building sheds or other structures, try to position them higher than the house in order to utilize their water tanks for a gravity-fed water source for your home.

Another aspect to consider at this stage is your energy needs; the generation and storage of that energy. Every household needs energy to provide heat, hot water, and power your electrical devices: i.e. to maintain a basic standard of living. You’ll probably require the building or introduction of some energy producing or harvesting structures to fulfil those needs.

5. Subdivide Your Farm With Fencing

Fencing development on my farm.

Fences can be also considered as a part of the infrastructure but they are less permanent than other infrastructure components. Although they come later in the scale of permanence, if you already have an idea where they should go, now’s the time to put down your permanent and fixed fencing.

You can consider flexible and mobile fencing later, once the animals are introduced into the system: you should be adaptable to take advantage of different opportunities as they appear. For the moment, just consider the fences that will be a permanent feature of your farm, along with boundaries that will be permanently planted, such as living fences and hedges.

The easiest way to subdivide your farm is to work in accordance with more permanent infrastructure elements. All such factors will clearly indicate the pattern of the subdivision. Your main fences will generally be closely associated with the roads and follow their pattern, enclosing the paddocks and planting areas. Your farm zones can also offer useful guidance for subdividing your property.

6. Improve Your Soil

Improve your soil depending on what you want to grow.

Although soil is the last factor in keyline scale of permanence, because poor soil can be quickly changed into fertile soil, it’s of primary importance in any agricultural development.

For this reason, when developing a farm, you should be building your soil as soon as you are able. The goal is to improve the fertility of the soil in order for it to provide the maximum benefits when first planting your crops.

Simple techniques can be used to build soil and you can begin the soil conditioning in the earthworks (infrastructure) stage. This can include keyline ploughing, cover cropping, mulching, erosion control, and even the starting of microbial inoculation through biofertilizers and compost teas.

This is a necessary step prior to planting because it will improve the growth of your plants. Later, when good grazing practices are introduced, subsoil can be transformed into topsoil even more rapidly and you can increase soil fertility with less energy input.

Soil life requires air, water and minerals, living biology in and on the soil and intermittent disturbance regimes. If you create these conditions the soil’s life will respond, and start creating humus. For a better understanding on how to improve the soils read my definitive guide on building deep rich soils by imitating nature.

7. Plant Trees and Crops

Grant Schultz Versland – trees are planted in contour strips, following the land shape

Now that you’ve got your soil and water supply ready and ensured an easily accessible property, the next stage is the planting and establishment of the main systems of the farm – savannahs, orchards, woodlots, farm forestry, pastures, market gardens etc.

In most cases you should begin by establishing windbreaks for the protection of your plantings. Once you have this ready you can start planting trees, woody crops, and annual and perennial plants. In doing so, you might wish to focus on establishing pastures and annual crop lands prior to planting tree-based systems. This will provide a source of income and a quick return on your investment in time and money.

When it comes to tree planting, in general, the pattern should be based on the shape of the land. For example, in the case of keyline plan, farm forests are contour strips that predominately follow the patterns of water harvesting/distribution channels, as well as the roads, all of which are determined by the land shape. For a typical keyline layout take a look at Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm or Grant Schultz’s Versaland.

In a nutshell, your desired tree density determines which of the tree-based systems you’ll adopt. Food forests are denser while savannahs are more open and, for each of these systems, you’ll need a different approach. I have previously outlined the approach for establishing a food forest and, in case you missed it, you can read my step-by-step guide here.

Thinking about starting a permaculture farm? Skip the guesswork and use this FREE Checklist as your reference.

8. Introduce Animals

In nature soils are formed in conjunction with herbivores.

Animals are an integral part of the agricultural enterprise and regenerative ecology. They are key to the maturation of any perennial systems because no ecosystem can reach its full potential without animals. The natural progression is to introduce your animals once you have established your seedling trees. Nonetheless, animals can be introduced at the same time as your plants, although this will place additional pressure on your funds.

When starting out, consider pigs and chickens. They are easier to care for, have a quick turnaround to get your cash flow going and they are omnivores – giving you more feeding options. Temporary fencing will give you the flexibility to move them around, to protect your trees and other plants, and you can also use them for animal tractoring for an additional boost to the fertility.

You can introduce the big herbivores later and, with good grazing practices such as planned grazing, increase your fertility even further. With properly maintained livestock and living soils, you can complete the cycle and be permanently transforming subsoil into topsoil.

9. Develop Farm Economy

Jean Martin and Maude-Hélène (Market Gardeners) at farmers market.

Once you got your farm up and running it’s time to deal with the financial aspects and expand your influence in the local community.

Making your farm financially sustainable is entirely dependant on your ability to create a narrative about your farm. You should always aim at developing a personal relationship with your customers. This has never been easier, you can utilize simple and free marketing techniques such social media tools to make those personal connections.

However, doing this is one thing, and producing a product that the consumer really wants and then delivering it is another. The markets are very dynamic, and are constantly changing and evolving over time. However, the good news is that market analysis, and your access to these markets, are also only a few clicks away. Setting up an e-commerce site such as Shopify and selling directly to a consumer really changes the approach to selling.


Establishing a farm is a long process and the stages of your farm development are entirely dependent on your economic conditions. You might be forced to skip some of the steps and return to them later once you have acquired enough funds to express your capital.

Please feel free to disregard whatever is inapplicable to your site and remember that this is just one way of developing your farm.

Make sure that you download the FREE checklist to aid you in the process.

P.S. Have you started setting up your farm? What problems have you encountered? Let me know in the comment section below.

I read every comment and always respond to questions.

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