Many gardeners are known for being resourceful in their gardens. They reuse, recycle and repurpose without a second thought, but in reality they are practicing parts of permaculture gardening.
Permaculture is a design system which began during the 1970s oil crisis, a reaction to food insecurity and the desire for self-reliance. Combining attitude and practical application, it encompasses anything from recycling, reusing and regenerating, to simply observing. It uses techniques and practices that combine the best of wildlife gardening, edible landscaping, and native plant cultivation into a low-maintenance, self-contained and productive ecosystem.
When applied to gardening, permaculture suggests that not only can we grow food almost anywhere, from fruit shrubs in patio pots to vines on fences, but we can get higher yields with less effort by copying nature. In contrast to modern agricultural methods, a natural growing system sustains a continuous cycle, with dead plants becoming mulch for new growth. Permaculture gardening seeks to recreate this cycle, turning food waste into valuable compost and replacing pesticides with natural predators and natural competition. According to co-founder Bill Mollison, it is about working with nature, not against it.
Permaculture gardens require less maintenance. Once a permaculture garden is established, you do nothing but water and harvest crops or add occasional mulch. Permaculture simply refers to a garden that can essentially take care of itself. Each plant in a permaculture garden has a specific purpose. Some are used solely for food and others for medicine. Some are planted to attract beneficial insects, while others are planted to deter pests. Then there are those that are strictly planted for improving the soil, and those that boost the permaculture garden’s beauty.
A key aspect of permaculture garden design is growing a diverse range of foods with mutually beneficial relationships. Marigolds, for example, keep tomato hornworms from nearby tomatoes, while yarrow and sweet alyssum attract aphids' natural predators. Plants are carefully chosen, often native varieties. Those most suited to local conditions require less tending (minimal input for maximum gain). A mixture of annuals and perennials can be aesthetically pleasing while providing food throughout the year.
Soil is always important and great care is given to this in a permaculture garden. Worms are essential in permaculture gardens as they help keep soil loose and healthy. A good soil structure consists of a large population of earthworms and a natural balance of beneficial insects. Compost piles are another important element in permaculture gardens. All materials for fertilizing and mulching are produced within the permaculture garden.
Water in a Permaculture Garden
Many permaculture gardens implement recycling practices for watering. For instance, rain barrels are often used to catch rainwater coming from the gutter downspout. This not only saves on water but is especially good for the garden as rainwater is loaded with nutrients. Water keeps the soil and plants hydrated, but it is also used to attract wildlife to the permaculture garden, making it pesticide free. Water often encourages insects, birds, frogs, and other small wildlife creatures, and many of these will feed on pests in the permaculture garden. Companion plantings also help keep insect and other pest problems to a minimum.
When planning your garden think about which plants you will visit the most? Which ones will require the most tending? These will live in the 'zone one' closest to the house. This means ripe foods will be picked in time, and delicate plants won't shrivel away unnoticed at the back of the garden. If zone one is the 'busiest', zone four contains the plants requiring the least attention, further away. Traditionally zone five will be a wild, undisturbed haven for natural predators and wildlife. This can exist even in a small plot.
There is much more to permaculture than a simple set of principles, so those seriously interested, I recommend taking a full permaculture design course.