Permaculture ...
Starting Your Permaculture Garden
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Most people passionate about living sustainably and harmoniously with nature will eventually stumble upon the system of Permaculture, it’s hard not to, it’s a world-wide phenomenon and it’s growing!
If you’re reading this, then you’re one of these people! Some of you will eventually study Permaculture, and then, on graduating, go through what we term the “Permaculture Effect”, a sense of deep and profound inner change or realisation, and a passion that follows from there, to go out there and make a difference, to stop being part of the problem and be part of the solution!
So, then, where to begin?
The simple answer is, in your own back yard (if you have one!)
If you don’t have a backyard, a courtyard garden or even a balcony garden can be productive, and do still make a difference, every little effort towards helping the planet makes a difference, even of it just serves to maintain your connection to nature. If you don’t even have a balcony, there is the possibility of taking part in a community garden, getting your own plot, and doing your gardening there. In some areas the waiting list for community gardens can be long, while in other areas, there’s surplus free space with no-one claiming it. Another possibility is to volunteer to to design and maintain a friend’s backyard garden if they’re not interested in gardening and not using it for anything. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
One of the important things you learn in Permaculture is design, for Permaculture is ultimately a multidisciplinary design system.
If you’ve done the course, you should be able to handle a basic design, but that’s not where people get stuck. The biggest obstacles are taking the first step, believing in yourself, believing you can do it, trusting it will work!
In this article, I’ll assume you’re already familiar with the Permaculture design principles, and I’ll show you a systematic way to break down the whole design and construction process to something that’s manageable and not so frightening. This approach was all learned from first-hand experience, diving head first into my garden project, a full-time three month solo effort that transformed an average Melbourne home backyard into a demonstration Permaculture garden that is a living proof of concept and thriving success, which has seen several garden tours and hundreds of people since it was first built two years ago.
By sharing this information, I hope to encourage more Permaculture graduates to dive in and make it happen!
1. What is a Permaculture Garden
The first step in building a Permaculture garden is to figure out what a Permaculture garden is to you. This might sound strange, but the fact is that there is no one way to build any type of garden, and you’ll have to have some idea of what you want to create.
Having a finalised design means you have something to build, it ensures that you have committed your ideas to paper, and to do this they have to have some structure and form. If you’re just entertaining vague ideas, you could end up procrastinating and never designing anything, let alone building something tangible.
Designs encourage decisiveness, some people like leaving their options open, which means nothing gets done. I’ve seen people tell me they can’t start building there because they might do this and that in the future, and they might do something else somewhere else, so through indecision nothing ever happens. Decide what it is that you can do, and want to do, right now, not in some distant possible future, but at this very moment, then make the commitment to do it on a certain day and date, preferably now. If you defer tasks and projects to some unspecified future date, they most likely won’t ever be done…
Any garden designed with Permaculture principles, that is, it emulates patterns in nature, by definition, is a Permaculture garden. What you need to decide at the outset is the degree of incorporation of Permaculture principles in garden design.
  • The size of the garden will in part dictate this, the scale of the project, it can be anywhere between a balcony container garden all the way through to a broad-acre food forest.
  • You need to decide “how much Permaculture” you wish to incorporate into the design, whether your garden looks like a traditional vegetable garden with a few Permaculture design features, or a no-holds-barred full-scale over-stacked food forest design.
2. Principles of Permaculture, Emulating Nature
The next step is to decide which Permaculture design principles you wish to use, or to which degree you emphasise them.
Also, look at how you will choose to emulate nature in your Permaculture design.
Here are some points to consider:
Soil preservation – how do you intend to protect the soil?
  • Mulches, ground cover plants, etc.
  • Trying to maintain bare soil in the garden works against nature, because nature aims to fill the space with anything to protect the soil, and the plants that do this best are pioneer plants, often disrespectfully referred to as “weeds”.
  • Bare soil will be compacted by rain, which will degrade the soil structure, as well as wash away the top layer!
  • No-dig gardening preserve the soil, as turning the soil destroys the soil structure and exposes the deeper soil layers to the sun’s UV light and heat, which kills the soil biota (living things in the soil).
  • Garden beds can aid in maintaining good soil, as long as they are a size you can reach into easily so you never step into the garden beds. Stepping on the soil destroys the soils structure by compacting it, preventing air and water penetration to the plants roots, which affects plant health, restricts plant growth and reduces productivity.
Rebuilding soil – if your soil is pretty well dead, very little organic content and humus, if it is compacted, or damaged in any way, it has to be repaired. Soil building activities will be required to remedy the situation.
  • You can use plants with deep tap roots such as fenugreek and dandelion to break up the soil
  • If absolutely necessary, you can dig or fork the ground, once only, to loosen it up, then mulch it over to cover it up and protect it.
  • Composting over the soil can be used to bring life back into it, either utilising compost heaps, or more easily and quickly, using the technique of sheet composting.
  • Use of green manures, plants grown then chopped down afterwards, to generate lots of biomass to mulch the soil with, which will rot down to create humus. Broad beans work well in colder climates, and they add nitrogen to the soil, as do all legumes (bean/pea family). Any strong growing annual plants work well, just cut them down before they go to seed if they aren’t vegetables.
  • Don’t step on soil in your garden beds, use no-dig designs, and use earthworms to do your digging, they dig far more efficiently than you!
Plant stacking – stacking in vertical space
  • Plants grow in nature in a “stacked” layout, with trees forming the canopy, shrubs below them, then herbaceous plants below these, and ground cover plants at the lowest level, with root crops beneath the ground, and vines growing vertically in the background. Using this layout allows a greater utilisation of space, and greater productivity for a given garden area.
Succession planting – stacking in time
  • Nature regenerates plant growth to protect soil – plants are replaced as other ones die off. If you organise the planting new plants while existing plants are coming to the end of their fruiting/productive cycle, you can “stack plants in time” to get extended cropping throughout the growth season, without having bare spaces in the garden, or waiting as long for plants to fruit.
Edge Effect – in nature, the edges of any ecosystem, where the environment transitions from one form to another, is the most productive.
  • If you wanted to emphasise the Edge Effect Principle, you would perhaps lean toward curved edge garden beds, mandala design garden beds, or just use a large number of smaller rectangular beds.
Microclimate – groups of plants planted together create differences in temperature, shade and humidity in comparison to the surrounding area, better supporting plant growth.
  • Use plants growing together to protect each other from the elements (wind, sun, etc). This will help them survive and create a more resilient garden. Remember, one plant on its own in a bare garden bed is like a man standing in the middle of a desert under a burning hot sun!
Vertical gardening – plants don’t only grow flat on the ground, they can grow up vertical surfaces to make better use of space. Here are some ideas:
  • Various vines such as grapes, kiwi fruit, passionfruit can be grown over trellises, arches, fences, and pergolas.
  • Cucurbits, such as pumpkins, rockmelons, watermelons, zucchini, gourds, loofahs can be grown vertically up a wire mesh (with widely spaced mesh big enough to fit hands through) supported by posts.
  • Espaliered trees can be used along fences or narrow spaces to maximise the productivity of large unused vertical spaces.
Water gardens – aquatic ecosystems are the most productive ecosystems of all, and they have many design functions.
  • Can be used to grow edible aquatic plants, such as water chestnuts, sagittaria, lotus, Vietnamese mint, and many others.
  • Can support aquatic or amphibious life, that is, fish or frogs.
  • Large ponds can support ducks
  • A pond can be used as the water collection area from a reed bed filter system that is used to clean recycled grey water
Mono-cultures, Poly-cultures and Companion Plants – nature favours biodiversity, and a range of plants mixed together, in the right combinations can support each other’s growth and increase productivity,
  • Companion planting can be used to stimulate plant growth and productivity, increase resilience to pests and diseases, hide your plants from pests or mask their scent to make them harder for pests to find, and attract beneficial insects which act as pollinators, such as bees, or attract beneficial predatory insects that will eat pest insects, such as ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies.
  • Monocultures make plants more accessible to pests, and prevent the use of companion planting or plant stacking. Emulate nature by mixing plants up, if you have to go to some effort to find them, so will the pests that eat them!
  • Monocultures of annuals take more work, effort and record keeping, as planting one type of annuals in the same spot for more than one season will lead to nutrient depletion, and susceptibility to pests and diseases. The choice is either to perform crop rotation, and keep accurate records of what grew where and when, and what goes where next, or you can just take the easier natural approach, embrace polyculture, and grow everything everywhere. 
3. Getting Started
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is building a Permaculture garden is starting the actual construction. Often people may agonise over the design for months to get it perfect, then come to a complete standstill when it comes to beginning the project.
The critical human factor is motivation, overcoming the inertia of taking on a big challenge. A big challenge is easier when it’s broken down into smaller and manageable parts. There is wisdom in the old joke “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” I can’t overemphasise the importance of starting small. Even if you’re ambitious and motivated, should you come across any delays, hurdles or obstacles, there’s the chance of seeing the task as too daunting and simply giving up.
If you select a small task to complete, you make it easier for yourself, and the successful completion of each simple task will bolster confidence, self esteem, and provide the momentum for the next task which follows.
My strategies for getting started are as follows:
  1. Design BIG, start small – know what it is that you ultimately want to build, use an all-encompassing design that factors in all important design aspects, then construct it one small piece at a time
  2. Determine the scale of the project – whether it’s a container garden or a food forest, get a clear idea how big the garden will be. Factor in the maintenance for the garden too. A full-blown food forest, very closely resembling nature, will require far less maintenance and upkeep than an urban container garden. This becomes clearer when you think about root space, water availability, plant size, etc. Remember, nobody needs to water forests, prune them, or fertilise them!
  3. Determine the critical design elements – these include water, wind sun, orientation of garden, proximity to house, location of plants according to requirements. Also, remember to plant in the correct season, that is, not mid-summer!
  4. Modular design – a highly efficient way to build a large garden is to start small, use repeatable units (including guilds) that can be easily replicated to extend the garden to the desired size.
  5. Design element size priority- a critical construction priority is to put in the biggest elements on the design first, then design around them. For example, in a stacked food forest design, trees go in first, then the irrigation is put into place. Then all the progressively smaller plants are planted around the trees and the location of the irrigation lines. The smallest elements, such as ground cover plants are planted last. The rationale of this is process is that you can’t dig tree sized holes in garden beds filled with little plants, and installing irrigation in a planted up bed is one of the most time consuming and painful exercises if you’re trying not to damage all the plans in the garden beds…
In summary, breaking down the task of building a garden from scratch into small, manageable pieces, a garden bed at a time, with a complete overall design to guide your efforts, makes it far less daunting than it initially appears at the start.  You’re more likely to start something if it looks more like a molehill than a mountain! Once you’ve  successfully completed a project like your own Permaculture garden, you’ll look back and be glad you made the effort. If you’ve done a Permaculture course, I urge you to take that step and apply what you’ve learned. Nothing reinforces knowledge like the practical application of it. We learn best by doing!