Permaculture 101

Permaculture 101
  • Posted September 26, 2015

Permaculture is an approach to the landscape that emphasizes food production and sustainability. Originally coined in Australia in the 1970s, the word permaculture describes not only an approach to gardening, but a philosophy of living lightly on the land and a worldwide movement of people dedicated to the philosophy of Earth stewardship. “Permaculturists" attempt to produce much of their own food and make use of sustainable technologies like greywater recycling, earthen building and alternative energy. Though the ideas of permaculture are broad in scope, they are most often applied as a gardening method.

The Food Forest

Unlike most gardens, a natural forest is not dependent on people to grow and thrive. A Permaculture garden, however, tries to mimic the self-sustaining nature of a forest ecosystem, while using as many food plants as possible. A 'food forest' may contain many layers of vegetation, from the top of the canopy to groundcovers and bulbs, each of which should have a mutually beneficial relationship with the others. The tallest trees in an edible forest ecosystem are often protein-rich crops like chestnuts, pecans and walnuts.


These should be widely spaced to allow sunlight to penetrate to smaller edible trees, especially those that succeed in partial shade, such as mulberries, persimmons, filberts and plums.

MulberriesPersimmonsFilberts (Hazelnuts)Plums

Shade-tolerant berry bushes round out the shrub layer, including many lesser known, but delicious varieties like elderberry, currants, gooseberries and goji.

ElderberriesCurrantsGooseberriesGoji Berries

Mint, sweet woodruff, wild ginger and other shade-loving culinary and medicinal herbs carpet the floor of a food forest and crowd out undesirable weed species.

MintSweet WoodruffWild Ginger

Self-Sufficient Plantings

Permaculture plantings are designed to make do with a minimum of 'external inputs', such as irrigation, synthetic fertilizers or mechanical maintenance. For example, they are often structured along swales—or if the slope is steep, on terraces—so rainwater percolates into the soil where it can feed the roots, rather that running off and causing erosion. Likewise, nitrogen-fixing plants—species that convert nitrogen from the air into a form that serves as fertilizer for other plants—are scattered throughout the planting, ranging from tiny groundcovers (such as clover) to full-size trees (such as black locust). A deep layer of mulch is always maintained to conserve soil moisture and add organic matter to the soil.

Clover Black Locust

Animal husbandry also plays a role in a permaculture homestead, especially small livestock, like chickens, ducks, goats and bees. Where appropriate, ducks and chickens may be allowed to forage in the garden, where they will act as a natural form of pest control, gobbling up every slug, snail and insect in sight and converting them into a valuable fertilizer in the form of manure.

Goats, who love to eat noxious weeds like poison ivy, kudzu and privet, can be turned loose to clear overgrown areas for new plantings.

Bees provide honey, but they also pollinate fruiting plants, increasing their productivity.

Beyond the Garden

The idea of permaculture is to get all of these different organisms and garden elements working in concert with each other just as you would find in a natural system. But the ultimate permaculture garden is fully integrated with the house, as well. A sunny, south-facing wall forms a perfect microclimate for a small, efficient kitchen garden, for example.

The rainwater coming off the roof can be routed into a swale to nourish the plantings directly or stored in a tank for later use. Greywater (wastewater from sink and tub drains in the house) is often employed on useful, non-edible crops, such as comfrey, an herb with enormous leaves that is used as a source of composting material.

As long as you try to provide for the needs of each element of the landscape with the natural by-products of others—whether shade, manure, warmth or moisture—you are on your way to being a savvy permaculture gardener. Nature will thank you kindly and you will always have something from the garden to enjoy at the dinner table.
Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.

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