So you want to create a permaculture garden? Growing according to permaculture principles helps to minimize your effort in the garden, while also maximizing harvests. While the idea of gardening in nature’s image can seem appealing, sometimes the recommended ways to do so can be overwhelming. The key is to start where you are and work slowly toward your goal. Here are seven steps you can take at the beginning of your journey to get you started down the right path.
1. Design Your Garden
Every great garden starts with a plan. Permaculture designs include consideration for water sources and use; existing land elements, like elevation and shade; perennial and annual plants, play and gathering spaces; and growth over time. Many permaculture designers will make detailed overlaid paper plans accounting for each of these elements. You can find permaculture design courses, books and videos to guide you. Join (or create!) a local permaculture group and attend garden tours to see other people’s ideas in action.
Alternatively, create a more casual design in your head or with sketches based on how you know you work and live. There’s no right way to design a permaculture space and your design can always be adapted to changing experiences, goals or needs.
2. Create Water Systems
Water can make or break a garden, and permaculture gardens see water as a resource to be carefully held and drained in sustainable ways. As you’re planning your permaculture garden, consider where water pools and washes away on your property, as well as what areas need water the most. Where your space holds an excess of water, dig a swale—a very slightly sloped ditch, often lined with gravel—or a pond to contain the water. If you lack water, capture rain from rooftops with cisterns or barrels to use for watering and non-potable washing.
3. Build and Prep Beds
Permaculture principles call for breaking ground and building new beds using the least destructive methods with minimal effort. For backyard projects, this often includes spot planting and sheet mulching.
Spot planting is when you remove a small section or strip of grass, dig a hole, and plant. You may add a slow-release organic fertilizer or compost to the hole. You may also want to straw mulch or wood chip mulch around the top to hold water and prevent weeds. Spot planting is especially effective for adding bare root trees or increasing the number and variety of perennial flowers in a meadow area.
Sheet mulching is a method to turn a larger area into a plantable space. Also called lasagna gardening, sheet mulching is layering materials, such as cardboard, leaves, wood chips and/or straw, that compost in place to kill grass. Building soil in this way minimizes effort and does not disturb existing soil tilth and microbes. It is ideal to sheet mulch an area in the fall for planting the next spring.
4. Source Your Perennials
Trying to grow lemons in Alaska is not in line with permaculture principles because the effort required is so great compared to the possible yield. Instead, research what perennial food crops grow well in your planting zone, or better yet, consider what native plants yield the food, fuel, fiber or medicine you desire.
Sometimes you can plant perennials from wild-crafted seed. More often, though, you’ll need to find a source of bare-root saplings or transplants. Many county soil and water conservation districts hold sales of native or zone-compatible plants in the spring. Local farmers and garden clubs may have ideas about sourcing less common plants, and many nurseries sell online by mail order.
If you have the option, choose a local nursery so that the plants will be most adapted to your soil and weather conditions. You can often join with friends to buy in bulk for lower prices.
5. Start Planting
Eventually, stop planning and gathering resources and put some roots in the ground! If you can afford it, plant more densely than you think you need so that you can later select the healthiest plants and remove others for compost or fire wood. Dense planting also helps prevent weeds from overgrowing.
Companion plants, like alliums (think chives and onions) and herbs, placed under fruit trees can help prevent disease and digging pests. If your area lacks pollinators, be sure to plant flowers that attract them. Many permaculturists seed green manure crops to build soil nutrition and tilth while young perennials are establishing themselves.
6. Intercrop With Annuals
Your permaculture garden will likely look like a field of sticks if you plant young and affordable bare-root fruit and nut trees. For the first few years, it’s a great idea to fill in the space with annuals. Sunflowers are beautiful, low-maintenance space fillers, and you can choose varieties for cut flower or seed production. Some people intercrop with squashes or sweet potatoes because the vines are minimally invasive to tree root systems and the spread lessens weed problems. Annual greens, flowers and vegetables can help an establishing permaculture system look full and provide a source of income or food.
7. Watch and Maintain
Enjoy your new garden! Watch for wildlife enjoying the diversity of blooms and branches. Harvest from the fastest growing, healthiest plants in the first years. Give new perennials plenty of water and weeding if you can, so that they become well established. And don’t forget, it’s completely fine to adapt your plan as the seasons and your interests change.