Permaculture, or “permanent agriculture,” was first developed in the 1970s as a reaction against increasingly industrialized agriculture. The founders, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison wanted to establish a more natural approach to gardening and agriculture that would encourage people to work with, rather than against, nature and the natural rhythms that surround us every day. And so the design system, known as permaculture, was born, and it has been reshaping how green thumbs approach their gardens ever since.
Permaculture promotes a variety of different gardening techniques; however, all permaculture designs are structured around the 12 basic principles and 3 essential ethics of permaculture. In this guide, we’ll walk you through what those principles are and give you some suggestions on how to employ them in your garden. You’ll find that permaculture is a surprisingly accessible gardening approach, and it’s easy to include permaculture principles in vegetable, flower, and container gardens.
- What is permaculture?
- The 12 principles of permaculture
- 1. Observe and interact.
- 2. Catch and store energy.
- 3. Obtain a yield.
- 4. Use self-regulation and feedback.
- 5. Use more renewable resources.
- 6. Produce no waste.
- 7. Design from patterns to details.
- 8. Integrate, don’t 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.
- The 3 ethics of permaculture
- Frequently asked questions
What is permaculture?
When most gardeners hear the word “permaculture,” they imagine a complicated system that would be difficult to implement in their own gardens. But one of the great things about permaculture is that it is a very flexible design approach, and it includes many basic gardening methods and techniques. In fact, you may find that you’re employing some permaculture techniques in your garden already!
Permaculture gardens are built to last, and they emphasize a slow and steady approach to gardening. Rather than using quick fixes, like certain fertilizers, which need to be applied again and again, permaculture gardens focus on building soil and creating garden designs that can sustain themselves over time. Ideally, permaculture gardens should need minimal interference, and they should be able to grow and thrive for many years without depleting soil or putting a lot of extra demands on gardeners.
Permaculture is ideally a “closed loop system,” which produces no waste, and it emphasizes the natural relationships that exist between people, animals, plants, and the environment. In a way, a permaculture garden is its own unique ecosystem, complete with insects, birds, plants, soil microbes, and humans too! By utilizing natural resources in a thoughtful and sustainable way, permaculture gardens give back to the environment, but they can also be incredibly productive places lush with vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers!
The 12 principles of permaculture
Permaculture is a holistic design system that challenges the way we approach space and the way we consider the natural materials in our garden. But to get a better understanding of how to employ permaculture in your own landscape, it’s helpful to explore the 12 principles that guide the permaculture approach. While you don’t need to include all 12 principles in your own garden, the more principles you follow, the more benefits you’ll receive from permaculture gardening.
1. Observe and interact.
The first principle of permaculture, “observe and interact,” encourages us to take a step back from our gardens and admire the landscape with a careful and discerning eye before we start planting. This principle brings to mind the old adage, “Measure twice, cut once.” Or in other words, it’s important to understand the unique properties of our landscape if we want to grow a thriving garden.
There are many different ways to observe your garden, but I find keeping a garden journal is always useful. In the pages of your own journal, you can keep track of how the sunlight moves across your landscape throughout the day, and you can also jot down information about what pests emerge in your garden at what times of the year. Understanding the basic rhythms of your garden can help you plan for the season ahead and choose plants that will tolerate your specific soil type, light conditions, and climate patterns.
2. Catch and store energy.
A lot of energy, resources, and time are wasted when we use inefficient gardening methods. For instance, driving out to your local garden center to pick up a bag of mulch can waste gas, produce plastic waste, and cost money too. But the second principle of permaculture, “catch and store energy,” asks us to carefully consider the energy and resources that are naturally available on our properties and to think of creative ways to employ these resources in our own landscapes.
What energy and resources exist on your own property will vary, but rainwater and plant debris can be a great place to start. Capturing rainwater can reduce the amount of supplemental water you need from your garden hose, and plant debris can be repurposed into mulch or homemade compost. Even the pollinators that visit your garden can be viewed as a natural energy source as they are busy pollinating your plants for you!
3. Obtain a yield.
Permaculture gardens are productive places, and they are meant to produce a “yield” or a harvest of some kind. What that yield is depends on your interests, but most permaculture gardens produce a harvest of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. However, permaculture gardens can offer other “yields,” too, which may be a bit unorthodox, but they’re equally rewarding.
Aside from garden produce, permaculture gardens can educate us, which is a particular type of “yield.” You can learn a lot from observing your own garden, but you can also host events, classes, and workshops in your permaculture garden to teach others about all of the gardening tips you’ve learned.
Permaculture gardens also benefit wildlife and pollinators, which is a type of yield too. And when you watch hummingbirds darting around your flowers or you catch the sweet aroma of roses on a summer breeze, you are enjoying your garden, which is a yield as well!
4. Use self-regulation and feedback.
As the English poet John Donne once said, “No man is an island,” and that premise holds true for gardens too. Gardens exist within a larger landscape, and the changes you make in one section of your garden can influence your garden as a whole or have lasting implications for the environment around you.
One example of how gardens can influence the landscape are chemical herbicides, fertilizers, and pesticides, which can wash into waterways, seep into the soil or drift in the wind. Choosing organic pest control and fertilizer options can limit the impact that your garden has on the world around you. In this way, the fourth principle of permaculture asks us to be conscious of our impact and use feedback from our plants and the environment to inform our gardening techniques and strategies.
5. Use more renewable resources.
Chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are generally made of synthetic materials, and they aren’t natural or renewable. Swapping these products out for organic soil additives like compost is a great way to incorporate more renewable resources into your permaculture garden. Companion planting with strongly scented herbs is another option, and it’s ideal for organic pest control.
The challenge with using more renewable resources is that it makes us think outside of the box, but it also reduces our environmental impact and helps us to work in alignment with nature. If you give your imagination a moment to run wild, you may find that there are a lot of renewable resources that already exist in your garden.
Need new trellises or tomato cages? Why not prune some branches from your overgrown shrubs and use them for plant supports!
Need shade cloth to shelter sun-sensitive turmeric plants? Why not skip the shade cloth and grow your turmeric in the shade of taller veggies instead!
6. Produce no waste.
Gardens can produce a lot of plant debris that’s often bagged and thrown in the trash. But throwing plant matter away creates unnecessary waste, and it diverts valuable resources away from your garden. Plus, once organic matter ends up in landfills, it doesn’t break down properly, and it releases methane and other greenhouse gasses as it degrades in the anaerobic environment of landfills.
In response to this, the sixth principle of permaculture encourages us to think critically about the waste produced from our gardens. Autumn leaves, branches, and other old plant matter can usually be composted, which eliminates waste and produces a valuable soil amendment too. If you do buy bagged mulches and other soil amendments in plastic packaging, you can often repurpose that plastic packaging into temporary frost protection for tender plants, ties to hold up vining plants, and more!
7. Design from patterns to details.
Permaculture gardens are meant to work for you and your landscape, so there’s no reason to follow a set design when establishing your permaculture space. While you can certainly use websites like Pinterest to inspire your garden layout, you can also make your own sketches and designs based on how you actually move around your landscape.
If you’ve been keeping a garden journal, it’s much easier to keep track of climate patterns, sunlight patterns, and other elements that will influence how your garden plants grow. Using this information, you can determine where to plant sun-loving and shade-loving plants and how much winter protection particular specimens will need. Beyond that, you can also use the patterns of how you like to move around your garden to determine where to place vegetable beds, herb pots, and garden walkways.
8. Integrate, don’t segregate.
Permaculture gardens are tiny ecosystems that include a diverse array of plants, animals, and insects. Celebrating this diversity by creating more complex garden bed designs can make your garden look more finished and alluring, but it can also benefit the plants in your space.
Growing a variety of different plants together can make a more colorful landscape, but it will also attract beneficial insects and pollinators to your garden, which boosts harvest yields. Plus, if you grow vining plants along with short and tall perennials and annuals together, you can make a layered garden design that draws the eye in. Often you’ll see permaculture gardens that use a combination of inground gardens, raised beds, and container plants, and you can employ any or all of these elements in your permaculture space.
9. Use small and slow solutions.
Quick fixes, like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, may work in the short term, but they often need to be reapplied regularly, and they can leave lasting negative effects in your garden. For example, the overuse of synthetic fertilizers can deplete garden soils over time and lead to a buildup of salts, which can damage plant root systems. In response to this, the ninth principle of permaculture emphasizes the need for slower and more holistic remedies to common garden woes.
When we were children, many of us grew up hearing the fable by Aesop, known as the “Tortoise and the Hare.” And we all know the moral of that story: “Slow and steady wins the race.” This concept is easy to apply in permaculture gardens, and it can make a lasting impact.
What small and slow solutions are needed for your garden will depend on your space and the plants you’d like to keep, but one of the best examples of this permaculture principle is how we approach soil building. Healthy soil is generally built slowly over the years by adding annual applications of aged manure or compost to garden beds in spring or fall. Companion planting is another example of a small and slow solution that can help reduce garden pests over time and increase the yield of your crops.
10. Use and value diversity.
Companion planting is one way to increase the diversity in your garden, but you can also try out different plants and grow flowers with different bloom shapes and bloom times. Using an assortment of plants in your garden is highly beneficial for pollinators, as many pollinators prefer to feed from particular plants. Making a complex planting arrangement is also more rewarding for the eye, as layered plant designs are bursting with colors, intriguing forms, and different textures as well.
While increasing diversity in gardens has aesthetic appeal, it also has very practical benefits. Plant pests and diseases are often species-specific, so if you include a variety of plants in your garden, there’s a good chance that at least some of them will be resistant to pathogens.
Certain plants can also be used to improve your garden. For instance, including legumes in your garden design will boost the nitrogen levels in your soil and improve your soil over the course of the season. Short plants can be used as natural groundcovers to suppress weeds, while larger plants can be used to provide support or shade for sun-sensitive species.
11. Use edges and value the marginal.
There’s no wasted space in a permaculture garden. Unused corners of garden beds can fit small, low-growing herbs or a trellis full of beans. Garden margins can be planted with strongly scented, insect-repelling herbs, and that shady section of your property can be a great place to keep a compost bin or a worm farm.
Finding ways to squeeze more plants and permaculture elements into your garden is a smart way to get a larger yield from your landscape. So if there’s a section of your property that doesn’t get used much, brainstorm some ideas on how to make it more functional. Perhaps a rain garden is in order, or maybe you’d like to try keeping a few beehives – just make your space work for you!
12. Creatively use and respond to change.
Nothing is stagnant in nature, and your permaculture garden should be in constant flux too. Throughout the seasons, garden beds evolve, and the flowers that bloom in spring fade away and leave space for summertime and autumn blooms to come. Embracing change is part of the permaculture ideology, and it’s the best way to create an evolving garden that’s perfectly suited to your landscape.
You don’t need to get everything perfect when you start a permaculture garden. Instead, experiment and try out different plants, planting designs, and gardening techniques. If certain plants and methods work, keep using them; however, if some plants don’t thrive or a garden technique doesn’t feel right for you, swap it out for something new.
Embracing the spirit of change is the heart of permaculture, and it will also give you more patience as you develop your permaculture gardening skills. Slowly, over time, you’ll find the right practices for your permaculture space, and the experience will help you grow the strongest and healthiest plants in your garden.
The 3 ethics of permaculture
Beyond the 12 principles of permaculture, the permaculture design system also emphasizes three main ethics, which should inform all practices in permaculture spaces. These ethics are relatively simple to understand and employ, but they make a big impact in gardens and the environment as a whole.
1. Earth care.
The first rule of permaculture is caring for the earth. In nature, all things are interconnected, and you can’t change one aspect of your garden without it having a larger impact on the environment as a whole. Because we are so integrally connected to the natural environment, it only makes sense that we should become good stewards of our planet and the ecosystems around us.
2. People care.
Caring for people is another important part of permaculture, as it connects us to ourselves and the communities around us. Growing our own organic food is a healthy choice for our families, but we can also use what we’ve learned in our permaculture gardens to help the people in our communities. Teaching others about the joys of permaculture or sharing our harvests with those in need are two ways to put this rule of permaculture into practice.
3. Fair share.
In modern society, many people live their lives with a “me first” mentality, but permaculture encourages us to think of the larger picture. Plants, animals, insects, and other people also need their “fair share” of resources, food, and shelter. And sharing these important elements can begin in our permaculture gardens.
After you’ve harvested what you need for your kitchen or flower vases, remember to leave some of your harvest behind to feed wildlife or boost your compost pile. You can also donate extra produce to your local food pantry and leave some of your garden space to grow wild to provide a habitat for wildlife. Considering yourself as part of a larger ecosystem is a great way to minimize your impact on the environment and live in alignment with the ethics of permaculture.
Frequently asked questions
Permaculture employs a variety of different gardening techniques; however, permaculture is also a holistic approach to land management. The goal of permaculture is to create a thriving ecosystem that includes plants, as well as animals, insects, and people.
The best way to convert your yard into a permaculture space is by making small changes a little bit at a time. Building your soil with compost or aged manure and converting sections of your yard to vegetable gardens or wildlife habitats can incorporate elements of permaculture into your space without breaking the bank or requiring you to make major, large-scale changes all at once.
Yes, permaculture gardens are ecosystems composed of animals, plants, and insects. Incorporating pollinator-friendly plants into your landscape design is a great way to employ the principles of permaculture while making your garden more active. If you have the space for chickens or other livestock, these animals can also be utilized in permaculture to enrich the soil with their manure, mow the grass without the need for a lawnmower or keep ticks and other garden pests in check.
Many people assume that they need a large garden space to practice permaculture, but that’s simply not the case. While you can include more permaculture elements in your garden if you have a large property, you can still utilize the principles of permaculture in a small space or patio garden. Composting, companion planting, keeping pollinator-friendly plants, and growing vegetables on vertical trellising are 4 easy ways to bring permaculture design principles into a container garden or small urban space.
Permaculture landscapes are meant to produce a yield, but most standard grass lawns don’t really contribute much. So if you’d like to make your lawn more permaculture-friendly, consider converting sections of your turf grass into a vegetable bed or wildflower garden. You can also overseed your lawn with clover to attract pollinators and benefit wildlife.
Permaculture gardens may be a bit pricey to start, depending on what elements you’d like to include in your space. But once permaculture gardens are established, they generally require less work and maintenance. Permaculture gardens are also great for pollinators and other wildlife, and they usually require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides.
Understanding the principles of permaculture is the first step towards creating a permaculture garden, but don’t get so caught up in the details that you stop experimenting with your space. While the principles of permaculture can help guide you toward creating a lively garden ecosystem, permaculture also requires us to be flexible.
If you find that some of the principles of permaculture work better than others in your garden, feel free to use what works for you. After all, you are an essential part of a permaculture garden, too, and these spaces are meant to adapt to your needs and your gardening style!
We hope this guide on permaculture was helpful! But if you’d like to learn more ways to add permaculture elements to your space, check out our guide on how to attract bats to your garden for natural pest control.