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 start your very own a permaculture garden is to create a food forest that mimics a natural ecosystem. It requires little outside inputs, and is self sufficient and sustainable in terms of weed suppression, pollinator attraction, fertility, and water.

squash and borage
Squash and borage growing together.

This is done 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 are 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.

Little or 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.

The 12 Permaculture Principles

You may have heard about the 12 permaculture principles. It’s good to know them, although they’re pretty common sense, and will make more sense when you start applying them. They are:

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. use and value renewable resources and service
  6. Produce no waste
  7. design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

Here’s David Holmgren explaining the principles on tape:

Observe Your Land

Before you actually do anything, you need to pay attention to the land that you have at your disposal. Some folks recommend you spend an entire year just observing, which is obviously a lot, but for good reason: you need to know things like:

  • How is water draining from your soil a after a heavy rain?
  • Which parts get shade, and which get full sun?
  • Which parts of the garden only get sun in the winter, when the trees don’t have any leaves?
  • What direction(s) is the wind blowing?
  • Are you getting any pests, predators and pollinators? What about your neighbors’ gardens?

… and many more questions.

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 hugelkultur methods to start with.

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, and 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.

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, 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.

So yes, you do have to do some digging in order to create these swales, however, as you can see in the video below, no digging doesn’t actually mean no work:

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.

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 and 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, pest pressure and soil depletion, and you’d need chemicals in order 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.

Why would you use guild? Why wouldn’t you? Here are just a few reasons:

  • prevent soil erosion and runoff as it encourages you to plant trees
  • higher yield as you’ll be growing (or stacking) plants vertically
  • they protect each-other from pests and disease
  • some plants will help keep the soil moist for the others

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.

The most common guild is centered around the apple tree:

apple tree guild diagram small
click here to open a larger image

Different plants may be chosen depending on the type of tree the guild is for.

Another name for plant guilds is plant stacking.

Container Gardening

If you don’t have that much land, or if you’re looking to start a permaculture garden in an urban setting, then growing some of your plants in containers is a great idea. Plus, they have the added benefit of you being able to move them around.

For example, here’s melon and leek growing in the same pot:

melon and leek in pot

And here’s a look from afar, to see the whole setup:

pots with various plants
Tomato, leek, beetroot, broccoli growing in pots.

Choosing Your Plants

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 forest.

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 in the United States
USDA hardiness zones map in the United States. Click here for a larger version.

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.

Space Requirements

Another consideration is how large the plants will be at maturity. Whether you’re planting annuals or perennials you want to give them enough space for them to thrive, 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

While permaculture garden are more sustainable and self sufficient than traditional gardens, there’re 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 (we’re talking about annuals, not perennials) 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.

cover crops and herbs

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.

Steps to Starting Your Permaculture Garden

Step 1: observe. We already talked about this. You should observe your land closely before planting anything.

Step 2: figure out your permaculture zones. Your house is zone 0, the perimeter around it is zone 1, veggies and fruits in zone 2, and so on.

Step 3: pick the plants you want to grow for your USDA zone. Perennials and annuals. Perennials are more important because these will be there, in the exact spot, year after year.

Step 4: plan your guilds. Figure out where you want the plants from the previous step to grow. It’s ok to design the whole thing, even if you won’t be planting everything the first year. In fact, you should!

Step 5: get the tools. You may not need a shovel to dig, but you still need other equipment to start your garden.

Step 6: set up the infrastructure. Swales, sprinklers, chicken coops, rainwater harvesting systems, compost pile area… Even if you’re not going to build the coop soon, you should at least leave room for it.

Step 7: sheet mulching. This should be done in the fall, so you’re ready to start planting the follow spring.

Step 8: plant the perennials. You may want to get these as transplants, because they take a long time to grow. The first few years, you can fill out the space where these perennials will develop with annuals, so you get better yields until they do.

Step 9: plant the annuals. As per the guilds you designed above.

Step 10: water as needed. Make sure you give your young plants enough water in order to develop, particularly if there isn’t much rain.

Can You do Permaculture in Small Spaces?

Definitely, although you won’t be applying all of the principles and won’t be using all of the permaculture zones. If you’re a little bit creative, you can grow lots of plants to feed your family, not to mention finding clever ways to harvest rainwater, such as this one:

bean borage plastic cup
Notice the plastic cup used to harvest additional rainwater for later 🙂

Wrap Up

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?

permaculture gardening 101 Pinterest image

2 thoughts on “How to Start a Permaculture Garden”

  1. Avatar

    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.

  2. Avatar

    I also love in WV and would love to converse with someone who know about varieties to use in our zones. We are using the cardboard method to start with. We need ideas on the types of fruit trees, berries and grounders to use. We have a yard surrounded by chain link. I’d like to know what to plant around the yard to hide veggies and stuff from most neighbors. Don’t live in a good part of town and worried about theft from garden should a massive food shortage occur. Any and all help is appreciated. Thank you!

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