When you look at a garden, there are many systems at work than simply a seed growing, and reaping the benefits from it. All gardens are a self-contained ecosystem with its unique set of challenges. These problems can range from pests, mending soil, or even that beginnings stages of planning out the garden.
One thing that has helped gardeners the world over is a revolution that helps to teach about the intricacies of growing a successful garden in a way that is more beneficial for the environment. We are talking about permaculture.
The permaculture movement began in the late 1960s. Permaculture developed through observing nature and noticing how everything is dependent and related to another in some way.
This realization came at a unique moment in time as well. We had just started industrial agriculture, and to those with the eyes to see could tell that it wasn’t sustainable.
It would become more evident due to the Dust Bowl that ravaged the Mid-West starting in 1934. These dust storms were caused by over-farming the land, and in turn, the soil devoid of nutrients turned to dust. When the wind came, it simply picked up the topsoil and blew it all away leaving arid land that couldn’t grow.
It is practices like conventional row planting and industrial agricultural methods that Permaculture turns away from, instead, turning to nature and emulating it. This emulating of nature has been proven to be successful time and time again.
It makes the management of pest and diseases much easier due to diversity, you save money because your garden produces naturally(like nature intended) and you no longer need to buy fertilizers, and you will even increase your yields with companion planting and planting methods that maximize the space you have. (Row planting is extremely inefficient.)
It’s obvious that permaculture is the best path to take when starting a backyard garden, developing a farm, or anything related to growing your own food. It’s the best method of creating sustainability on private property for a prepper. Period.
Within the Permaculture scene, you will surely come across the 12 Principles of Design in Permaculture. These were first brought up by David Holmgren in his book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
In his book, David speaks into great detail on these principles and why implementing them will bring you sustainability. No matter the size or space, these principles can be put into practice, and you can begin to see positive changes.
The 12 Permaculture Design Principles
1. Observe and Interact
This principle is easy enough, and it’s your first step. You should always be observing your Permaculture design.
Watching and interacting with nature is the only way we can make positive changes to our situation. This means being in your garden regularly, making plans for new designs, and always developing and improving your situation.
This is the first principle because it’s arguably the most important. Observe nature so that you can interact with it a way that is beneficial to you and to the ecosystem you are developing.
2. Catch and Store Energy
Like all the principles laid out in this article, this one is critical to sustainability. Nothing is wasted, and everything is used by the permaculturalist.
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Developing systems to harness the renewable energy that surrounds us is one method. With renewable energy becoming more and more popular, it’s relatively easy to buy and install solar panels.
To stay faithful to the permaculture methods, DIY methods are preferred, and with the internet, you can find many guides on building your own solar panels, windmills, and water mills.
3. Obtain a Yield
This one almost goes without saying. You are undoubtedly here because you want to start, are starting, or redesigning a garden. Excluding flower gardens and herb gardens to an extent, you are growing that garden to provide produce for yourself. This means obtaining a yield.
You need to learn and research new methods and always look for new and better ways to increase your yield. Methods like staggered planting and transplanting developed plants into your garden are ways to increase your yield.
You should always be looking to improve in all of these principles, especially this one.
4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
This one ties into the Observing and Interacting Principle. Within the ecosystem that you are building, things will happen that will be out of your control. Or so it seems. You will find in time that everything in nature gives you clues as to what is happening.
With self-regulating systems put into place, you can observe your garden and may become aware of changes within the system.
By accepting that feedback, you can now interact and find a resolution to the problem. An example of this is a hugelkultur which retains moisture better than conventional garden beds.
This is a self-regulating system in regards to water retention. Noticing that it needs to be watered is accepting feedback. This isn’t limited to just the method of thinking, only one example of many self-regulating systems that can be put into practice with Permaculture design.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Just like our second principle, a fundamental component of Permaculture design is renewable energy, resources, and services. The word renewable is used extensively in Permaculture circles, and the reasons should be clear.
We need renewable resources like compost and mulch for our ecosystem to thrive. Services like filter plants in ponds help clean the water and make it usable by us, even though we have no intention of using the filter plants, they are vital for us because of the service they provide.
6. Produce No Waste
Permaculturalist uses EVERYTHING. Nothing in our ecosystem is considered waste or trash. Everything has a purpose or is fed into the compost.
We minimize the use of plastics as much as possible, and when we do have to use them, we find a way to reuse it or recycle it. Living with and emulating nature is one of the cornerstones of permaculture. Nature wastes nothing and neither should we.
7. Design from Patterns and Details
This simply means working with what you have. Designing around your existing terrain, plant, and wildlife will help to maximize your growing space while at the same time being less intrusive to the environment.
Taking a step back and developing sound plans and concepts to implement will ensure that your entire situation has been given a look over, and will help you to integrate your garden needs into the preexisting ecosystem. Designing with these patterns and details in mind will guarantee your permaculture success.
8. Integrate rather than Segregate
We have touched on this principle a little bit already. Nature never segregates. She is always evolving and adapting to the changes to ensure that life continues to exist.
An excellent example of segregation and its debilitating effects in nature can be seen on monoculture farms. If you don’t know, these farms will grow acres and acres of one crop.
They constantly have to apply pesticides and herbicides to fight off the plague level of pests and diseases due to the ecosystem consisting of one plant. Diversity is another cornerstone of permaculture.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
Keeping true to one of the cornerstones of Permaculture, emulating nature to solve our solutions is the best method for keeping your garden healthy and thriving. Nature very rarely makes drastic changes to an ecosystem.
Instead, these changes come on gradually giving the ecosystem time to adapt to these changes. Everything is a lock and key with ecosystems and removing or changing one aspect could be catastrophic.
This principle also relates to planning and developing your garden in a whole. Make concrete plans and implement them slowly to allow the surroundings to adapt to your changes.
10. Use and Value Diversity
Diversity! It’s what turns a bland garden into a super garden. As stated before, diversity is a cornerstone to permaculture because, without it, we wouldn’t have permaculture or life for that matter. Because we are emulating nature, we get to see her in her true glory because of the diversity in the garden.
Increased production through companion planting, attracting beneficial bugs, and a decrease in pest and diseases are just a few of the benefits that diversity give us. If monocultures have taught us anything, it’s that it doesn’t work.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
This related to the edge of two separate ecosystems. Here there is usually a large transfer of energy and resources that are available for us to use through Permaculture. Think about the traditional Chinese rice fields.
They are carved into mountain valleys to collect the rain from the mountains. This is an example of utilizing the “edge.” We can implement something similar with layered edges to a pond or lake to help with diversity.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Changes
Our last principle ties into our first one nicely. Observing and Interacting with our Permaculture design ensures that we are aware of changes in our ecosystem.
Seeing these changes as opportunities instead of challenges will help you to develop responses that can potentially improve your situation. A month of heavy rain could be catastrophic, or it can be an excellent time to build a retention pond and increasing your bio-diversity.
With Permaculture, you can develop a thriving ecosystem full of bio-diversity with little to no involvement needed from you once the design is developed.
Because we are emulating nature, the design will take care of itself and provide you with all the produce you will ever need. This is one of the reasons that it has become so popular, not to mention it’s one of the few methods that’s beneficial to the environment.
Following some of these design principles won’t be easy, especially if you are starting off fresh. These principles will ensure that you are on the Permaculture path and they will keep you honest when developing and implementing your design.
This article laid out the principles of Permaculture, but what about some practical tips to apply them into your life?
I have recently been implementing these in my garden, and I have to say, they are AMAZING! The beds are made of old wood/logs piled up and covered with dirt. As the wood decays, it turns into a “spongy” mass, perfect for water retention.
I live in an area with extreme heat and UV index during the summer time. I haven’t watered my tomato plants all summer, and I am still grabbing a bucket full of tomatoes daily. The best part, hugelkulturs only get better with time. Like a fine wine.
This applies to grazing animals, as most Permaculturists will have a few. The idea is not to allow over-grazing of any area.
To do this, you rotate your fields just like you would rotate your garden beds, so the soil isn’t depleted of the same nutrients over and over again. Instead, we ensure that the grass and top soil isn’t depleted.
A popular practice is to split your field into four sections. Two are for growing, one for grazing, and the last one is “resting.” Rotational Grazing also includes rotating the animals through the field.
Usually, the largest to smallest, finishing with chickens, as they are perfect for scratching up the top soil and working in all the manure from the larger animals.
Emulating nature, that is what sheet mulching is. In particular, how in a forest the leaves and branches fall, creating a sheet of mulch on the forest floor. This is undoubtedly on of the most successful ways of retaining water.
Save the grass clippings for composting and mulching. Simply lay down a “sheet” of grass and then a “sheet” of more “traditional” mulch.(bark, leaves, and twigs).
Doing this regularly will provide organic matter for the microbial bacteria to work with and turn to rich dirt while retaining most of the moisture that falls. A win-win.
Hopefully, these tips will help you as they have for me, and always remember to plan out your designs and look for new and better systems to put into place in your Permaculture design.
Heath is a homesteader, permaculturist, farmer and ex-level 1 combatives instructor in the U.S. Army, with a lifelong passion for martial arts.