If you’re already an organic gardener and are looking for more advanced information and techniques, permaculture design may be for you. This page will help you start your own permaculture garden, in alignment with the permaculture ethics and principles of the design science.
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Permaculture blends the words “permanent” and “agriculture”. It is a design science that uses and blends together the best ideas for living sustainably. Permaculture has been described as “beyond organic gardening” because it can be used to design entire systems rather than simply gardens.
Permaculture design uses ecological principles to create consciously-designed systems which mimic nature while also producing a yield. Systems are designed to be open and yet self-supporting, producing food and other resources while continuing to thrive on their own. Here is a basic description of permaculture, including how the design process works and how permaculture knowledge is transferred.
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture was developed by Bill Mollison, in collaboration with David Holmgren. Permaculture is a design science that collects together and combines the best ideas for sustainable living. Effective strategies and tactics from different disciplines including agriculture, horticulture, engineering, and landscape architecture, are blended together to create a home and lifestyle that is optimized for system health and production.
There are three key Permaculture Ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. All permaculture design is guided by the three ethics. The three ethics help designers keep the overall goals in mind while working out the finer project details.
The Earth Care ethic is focused on nurturing the environment, the People Care ethic is focused on meeting the needs of humans, and the Fair Share ethic is focused on sharing abundance with others. These ethics underlie all permaculture design, ensuring that differing priorities are taken into account.
There are 12 permaculture design principles. They originate from David Holmgren in his classic book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Here’s a nice overview of the 12 permaculture principles on Wikipedia if you’re not into reading the whole book.
Permaculture design includes a framework for dividing a given area into zones. The zones are used to delineate the distance from the main house on a property. The house is Zone 0, and is where the most time and energy is spent. Each outdoor zone beyond the house (Zones 1-5) requires less and less time and energy as distance from the house increases. The permaculture zones close to the house are actively managed while the area far from the house is wild.
Permaculture zones are a concept rather than a hardscaping feature. The permaculture zones of a property may not look like perfect concentric circles around the house, and the boundaries between the zones are often fuzzy. Using the zone concept in permaculture design helps a gardener to create an efficient site layout.
- Zone 0 – The house
- Zone 1 – Easily accessible from the house on a daily basis. This might include a kitchen garden that you could walk to in your slippers to pick fresh strawberries in the morning.
- Zone 2 – Accessed less frequently than Zone 1 (and requiring less maintenance). This might include a perennial garden, small fruit trees, and a compost bin.
- Zone 3 – Farmland beyond Zone 2. This might include fields of crops, pasture for animals, or large fruit and nut trees.
- Zone 4 – The half managed, half wild area beyond Zone 3. This might include timber woodlots, wild forage for farm animals, and access to useful wild plants.
- Zone 5 – The wild. This includes all unmanaged area that is free from human intervention, including forests, marshlands, and other natural eco-systems.
The permaculture zones above are more of a concept than a physical barrier. A small urban lot may only include Zones 0-2. Zone 5, the wild, does not need to be on the property to be accessible. Public wilderness conservancies, parkland, and creek access can be wonderful places to observe natural ecosystems.
Permaculture courses include short courses on specific topics which can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The classic permaculture course is the Permaculture Design Certificate, or PDC. I took my PDC with Element-Eco Design, but there are courses offered by permaculturalists all over the world (as well as online options). There are also more specific classes offered for more advanced permaculturalists.
Perennial plants are an integral part of permaculture design. Read more about specific perennial plants on the Plants Main Page.
Flower gardens are both beautiful and useful. Your flower garden can produce beautiful flowers to attract beneficial insects, pollinators, as well as cutting flowers to bring indoors during the growing season. Some flowers are also grown for their use in cooking or DIY beauty product recipes.
Lawns are definitely a part of the permaculture garden! Lawns are great spaces for children to play and for generally enjoying the outdoors. Permaculture lawn care involves working with nature rather than against it to create a lush lawn. This means that the blades of grass shouldn’t be mowed lower than 3″ so that the grass blades can shade the grass roots and help keep the soil moist. This will reduce watering requirements and increase the health of the grass.
There are some more great natural ways to approach lawn fertilizer without resorting to synthetic chemicals. Read about feeding organic lawns here.
Sustainable agriculture is a collaborative system in which farmers raise plants and animals by following practices that allow farming to continue into the foreseeable future. This includes inputs to the farm and the health of areas which supply or are otherwise affected by farming activities. There are many types of sustainable agriculture, including organic farming, permaculture farming, and biodynamic farming.
A market garden is a small-scale farm in which produce is sold directly to consumers. A market garden may produce vegetables, herbs, fruit, and even flowers. Market gardens typically sell this produce directly to the public at a farm stand or farmers market, or directly to local restaurants.
Market gardens are distinguished from farms both by their small size and by the abundance of different crops growing in a small space. Market gardens can range in size from a small yard to a few acres of land. Many market gardeners focus on growing a variety of high-value crops that consistently sell for a good price in their local area. The crops are generally harvested and packaged by hand rather than with agricultural machinery.
Organic farming ranges from large market gardens all the way to industrial large-scale organic agriculture. Some small organic farms may look just like big market gardens, just with larger portions of land dedicated to each crop. Small organic farms may sell at a farm shop, farmers market, or sell directly to wholesalers, restaurants, grocery stores. Many smaller organic farms are starting to offer CSA programs (community-supported agriculture), in which a flat monthly or annual rate is paid by customers to receive a weekly share of fresh local produce.
Some industrial organic farms operate in a similar manner to conventional agriculture. Organic alternatives are substituted for the synthetic chemicals, but many of the processes remain the same. Large industrial organic farms often use mechanical cultivation and harvesting machinery. They are also more likely to use mechanized packaging than small farms. Lastly, industrially-produced organic produce is often sold directly to wholesalers or grocery chains where it can be distributed around the world.
Permaculture farming is based on the principles and ethics of permaculture. Farms can look quite different than conventional organic farms. Permaculture encourages fostering the mutually beneficial relationships between different plants, so it’s highly unlikely a permaculture farm would have a large uniform field with only one crop growing in it.
Many permaculture farms are designed into the existing landscape to take advantage of natural resources such as fresh water and sunlight. They often incorporate many perennial crops to reduce the amount of planting labour as the farm matures.
Check out this list of gardening and permaculture experts for more information on large-scale permaculture farm design.
More about Permaculture Design
All posts related to the topic of permaculture design can be found in the Permaculture Article Library.
Check out the Organic Gardening Page to learn more about how organic gardening relates to permaculture. While you’re here try a few of these Garden Ideas! Reviews of gardening tools can be found in the Garden Accessories Section.
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