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How to Start a Permaculture Garden

One of the key elements of survival is being able to gather or produce food. In any SHTF situation food needs to be produced without the inputs like electricity, fertilizer, and pesticides that modern agriculture relies on. The easiest way to do this is through permaculture.

To create a permaculture garden is to create a “hidden” survival garden that mimics a natural ecosystem. It requires no outside inputs and is self sufficient and sustainable in terms of weed suppression, pollinator attraction, fertility, and water. This is accomplished by incorporating elements that would be found in a natural setting such as stones, native plants and weeds, perennials, trees, and even fish and animals all mixed together. There’s different species growing side by side and plants of all different heights and structures.

The combining of these elements will help you grow food nearly maintenance free just as plants grow in the natural world. No digging, no commercial garden products, little or no watering, and little weeding will be needed to care for your garden. It will look and function like a forest.

Preparing the Soil

A productive garden begins with the soil. It has to be fertile, moist, and alive in order to produce bountiful harvests year after year.

The first thing many first time gardeners do is run out and buy a rototiller. This is a mistake. Mechanical tilling dries the soil out and kills helpful things like earth worms, mycelium, and soil microbes.

You can start a no-till permaculture garden in three ways: the “sheet method” (sometimes called “lasagna method”), hugelkultur, or by forking the garden by hand. Obviously forking the garden by hand from the very beginning is a long and laborious process so instead you’ll probably choose to try the sheet or hugelkutlur methods to start with.

worm farming

To begin a sheet garden lay brown cardboard (not the waxed kind) or a lot of non-glossy newspaper in a layer over your desired garden space. Then layer hay, straw, grass clippings, leaves or a combination of the four over the cardboard. You’ll want this layer to be pretty thick.

Then add compost or a combination of compost, soil, and manure. You can use compost you made or find a local farm to purchase from.

Lastly you’ll add a final layer of mulch either the hay, straw, leaves, or grass clippings and wet the whole thing down so it’s nice and moist before planting.

The second method, Hugelkultur is actually very similar to the sheet method in that you build soil up in layers. However your first layer in hugelkutlur is actually a pile rotting wood which is then covered with soil, compost, and mulch. The resulting bed is raised above ground level.

No matter what method you choose you may also consider having your soil tested. Your local agricultural extension agency should be able to help with this. Testing lets you know what, if any, nutrients are lacking in your soil and your soil’s pH or acidity level. The pH can be amended with products like lime or wood ash if your soil is too acidic and sulfur can be added if it’s too basic.

Also the occasional addition of compost and use of a broad fork to loosen the soil is a good addition to either of these methods. You can learn how to use a broad fork by watching the video below.

Design Your Ecosystem

The most successful permaculture gardens are ones that have been carefully designed. Having and overall plan will help make sure all of your garden’s needs are met with the least effort on your part.

zones diagram

Permaculture Zones

Permaculture zones are generally used to help design an entire homestead but you can use them to structure just a garden as well. There are typically 5 zones with zone 1 being the most frequently used and most accessible with zone 5 being wild area that doesn’t receive management and isn’t frequently accessed.

When you design your garden divide it into these 5 zones. If you want to grow plants like lettuce that receive daily care and are used often place them in zone 1 so they are easily accessible from your home. Transition away from your home or into harder to get to areas with plants that don’t need as much care or aren’t used much. For example zone 4 may be an orchard or food forest.

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As previously mentioned zone 5 is an unmanaged area. Having these wild areas on your property is important to maintaining local pollinator and beneficial species habitat.

You may also decide to incorporate fish and/or animals in your design. Fish will obviously need a zone with a water feature such as a pond. However animals like chickens can easily be rotated through several zones depending on the zones’ use each season and how large they are. For this reason you might want to make your chicken coop with access to several zones.

Water Catchment

With any garden but especially after TEOTWAWKI getting water to plants can be an ordeal. Thankfully there are several permaculture designs that will help create a maintenance free garden once they’re established.

The first methods are generally used on slopes. These include terraces and swales. Terraces are basically just steps in a hillside that create small flat areas where water will seep into the soil instead of continuing downhill. They can be used in combination with swales which are trenches on the contour of a slope that catch and hold rainwater run off for plants to use gradually.

Large rocks can also be used like berms to prevent water run off and may help to collect dew and let it drip onto plants. Additionally rocks help hold daytime warmth and can create microclimates for heat loving plants and warm soil temperatures in their immediate area.

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Additionally rainwater can be collected from gutters and either filtered for drinking water or used immediately to water gardens. Greywater or water that has been used in a sink, tub, or shower (with biodegradable, organic soap), can also be piped into gardens instead of into septic systems.

Lastly if electricity is available to pump water the most efficient way to water a garden is through drip irrigation. It delivers water slowly and directly to the soil around your plants using “drip tape” which is basically tubing with tiny holes in it. It can be placed under mulch and unlike sprinklers or hand watering the water isn’t sprayed on top of the plants and garden surface where much of it evaporates.

Companion Planting & Tree Guilds

Current agricultural methods frequently include mono-cropping, or just planting a single crop in one area, but this practice isn’t how plants grow in nature. Mono-cropping leads to higher disease and pest pressure and soil depletion and after SHTF there won’t be any chemicals available to fix these issues.

Companion planting and tree guilds on the other hand help eliminate these issues. Companion planting is growing plants next to each other for various benefits. Examples include combinations like asparagus and calendula which helps deter asparagus beetles, tomatoes and basil which helps promote the tomatoes’ growth, and corn, beans which grow up the corn and squash which grows underneath the corn and beans blocking weeds and shading the soil.

Companion planting also means researching what doesn’t grow well next to each other like radishes and hyssop or strawberries and cabbages.

Tree guilds follow the same principles as companion planting but are centered around a tree. Plants often used in tree guilds include comfrey which can bring minerals to the surface for the tree with its long taproot or be cut and used as mulch, clover, alfalfa, or other legumes which are add nitrogen to the soil around the tree and attract pollinators, and chives which deter many pest species. Different plants may be chosen depending on the type of tree the guild is for.

Choosing Varieties

The last piece of getting your garden started is picking out the plants. With all the varieties available it can be a bit overwhelming but the following basic principles should give you a good idea about how to choose the right plants for your garden.

You should choose a variety of annual plants and perennial plants, trees, and bushes just as would be found in the natural world.

Hardiness Zone

One of the most important features of plants for your permaculture garden is their USDA hardiness zone. A hardiness zone is basically a region with similar climate. You can find your USDA by finding the area you live on this map (click to open in a new tab):

usda hardiness zones map small

Many plants like fruit trees will be labeled with zones that they’ll survive and thrive in. For example Reliance Peach Trees are “hardy” to zones 4-8. So if you live in Colombus, Ohio which is zone 6 you know this tree will do well in your garden. However if you live in Miami, Florida which is zone 11 your area will be too hot for this variety to produce well and you should select another.

To avoid all this you can always get recommendations from a local nursery or garden center.

Consider Space Requirements

Another consideration is how large the plant will be at maturity. Whether you’re planting annuals or perennials you want to ensure that your space is large enough for them to be successful and that you’re using your space well.

If you’re tight on space, it may be worth spending some time thinking about the yield of different vegetables and their price at the store before you decide which to include in your garden.

This can also be true with perennials. There are a variety of fruit trees available and many even have dwarf or semi-dwarf types available for urban or small scale homesteaders. However if you do have the space it’s usually wiser to plant standard trees because they are typically longer lived and produce higher yields.

Research Local Disease and Pest Issues

Contact your local agricultural extension agency or a local farmer and inquire about the most prevalent diseases and pests in your area. If people tell you that they struggle with early blight killing their tomatoes or cedar-apple rust is rampant at a nearby orchard seek out varieties that have shown resistance to these diseases.

This information is available in most seed and nursery catalog descriptions or may be found online or through your extension agency.

Grow Plants You Like

Sea berries may sound like a really cool choice from a permaculture perspective but if you don’t love them don’t plant them. Focus on plants you know you and your family will love to eat. That way you’ll be more motivated to tend the garden and put your harvests to good use.

Maintenance

At this point you’re ready to set up a permaculture garden. While they are more sustainable and self sufficient than traditional gardens there’s still a few things you should do to keep your garden’s productivity up.

Mulching & Garden Amendments

If you start with the sheet or hugelkultur methods discussed above, you will obviously start with mulch. However as droughts and record high temperatures become more prevalent a major concern for any gardener is keeping the soil moist and cool. This can be a particularly big issue in a survival situation, where there is limited or no energy available to pump water.

One of the best ways to mimic a natural ecosystem and protect the soil is through the use of mulch. Re-cover your soil with mulch like grass clippings, leaves, hay, or straw whenever you need to, even before the winter. Soil should never be left exposed!

Mulching also has the added benefits of keeping down on the number of weeds in your garden and adding fertility as it decomposes. It should ideally be done with a variety of mulches, including variations in leaf and grass species, as this helps add different nutrients to the soil.

Plant Rotation

If you plant the same species of plant in the same space year after year your soil can harbor pests and diseases over the winter. To eliminate this problem plan to rotate through where you plant each crop. For example in one section of garden you might plant tomatoes the first year, kale the second, and peas the third before planting tomatoes again.

As these plants aren’t generally afflicted by the same pests and diseases so they won’t be harbored in that same plot year after year.

This succession also allows plants to utilize different nutrients and fertility levels. Tomatoes are heavy feeders so they are first in the rotation. Then kale is planted as it uses relatively little nutrients. Finally peas are grown because they are nitrogen fixing and add nutrients back to the soil before tomatoes are planted once more.

Cover Cropping

Another way to protect your soil’s health is through cover-cropping. This is when you plant species in your garden area for the sole purpose of rejuvenating your garden. Cover crops are often planted when traditional crops are not in season but should also be part of your rotation with vegetable crops to let the garden rest.

The aim of cover-cropping is to restore nutrients to the soil, decrease or eliminate pest and disease issues in a specific plot, and prevent soil erosion, moisture loss, and compaction. Frequently used plant species include alfalfa, buckwheat, mustard, purple vetch, clover, and millet.

The cover crop possibilities are really endless but a little research or a conversation with your local garden center will help you choose a variety that can provide just what your garden needs.

Ultimately permaculture is one of the easiest and most effective ways to garden. It can help feed your family on a small suburban lot in tough financial times or help you transform a bug out location into a productive homestead in a long-term survival situation. Whatever your needs are if you follow these steps you’ll be well on your way to producing homegrown food!

Question:

What permaculture techniques are you currently using or going to use on your homestead?

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About Jordan Charbonneau

Jordan Charbonneau is an organic vegetable farmer and off grid homesteader from West Virginia. She graduated from Sterling College with bachelors degrees in ecology and environmental humanities in 2015. She also completed an Appalachian Trail thru-hike and enjoys learning about permaculture, herbalism, and wild edibles in her free time. She loves to share it all and has been a writer and blogger since 2013.

One comment

  1. Thank you for the great article. I took “No Till Organic Gardening” classes throughout the past 2 years to learn how to successfully grow a garden here in NW Florida. The instructors were teaching the sheet method of permaculture. Their instructions worked! While I haven’t planted enough to have extras for preserving, at least there were enough herbs, peppers & broccoli to keep us happy while snacking.

    I have several old livestock water tanks & mineral tubs that make excellent raised beds. To each tank or tub I add over a foot of composted manure each growing season, a layer of garden soil & another foot of mulch. Throughout the growing season I will add more compost.

    I recently got Sepp’s book on Permaculture & decided to give the hugelkulture method a try. Just built the bases of 2 beds yesterday. Hope to finish them with another load of composted manure and then garden soil & mulch this week. I like to let my beds sit a couple of weeks before I plant anything.

    We have rainbarrels set up on cement block pedestals for watering. There’s enough water pressure to run a small bubbler type sprinkler, If we can get a well dug, we will look at a drip irrigation system.

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