How to Create a Permaculture Garden
By Scott McDermott
You may have heard the term before, but what is permaculture? Permaculture can be defined as a system of agricultural and social design principles that are directly modeled after patterns found in the natural world. Similar to organic gardening in some ways, the term, coined in the late 1970s by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, means not only “permanent agriculture,” but also “permanent culture.” It is a philosophy that includes elements of sustainable design, environmentalism, and eco-friendly construction.
So what does that mean for us, and how do we create a permaculture garden? Below are the main principles to follow when planning a permaculture garden, including ideas for what to include in it.
1. Emphasize the Use of Native Plants
Permaculture gardens incorporate the use of native plants, which are important not only for their benefits to wildlife, but also because they are already built for your existing site conditions. Generally, native plants require less care, less fertilizer and water, and will be hardy in your horticultural zone.
2. Design a Space That is Both Functional and Ornamental
Sometimes this can be achieved through the use of edible plants in the landscape such as a hedge of blueberry bushes or a row of espaliered apple trees, but also can be accomplished by native plants that are beneficial to wildlife.
3. Avoid Using High-Maintenance, High-Input Plants
This means avoiding plants that require a significant amount of water, fertilizer, and spraying like non-natives, roses, and the like.
4. Use Local Resources and Native Materials Whenever Possible
Instead of trucking in materials like topsoil and fertilizer, which increase the carbon footprint of a project, think about what resources are available to you locally, and perhaps even on site. Compost on site whenever possible, and utilize the concept of green manure.
5. Mimic Nature’s Own Designs
Encourage high biodiversity through the use of many types of plants. Take advantage of your site’s microclimate by planting things that will be happy in hot, sunny, exposed slopes for example, or wet, shady areas. Use these microclimates to your advantage instead of trying to change what conditions are already naturally present.
6. Preserve Your Soil
Avoid having bare, exposed soil in your garden. In nature, soil wants to be covered up, by naturally occurring layers of leaf litter or other mulched materials (a.k.a. organic matter). Emulate nature by either incorporating groundcovers, or through the use of mulch in your design. Remember to build up your soil’s organic matter through additions of compost and green manure, which can include grass clippings – an excellent addition as they act as a natural fertilizer, maintain moisture, and shade your soil.
7. Follow the Principle of Plant Stacking
Plant stacking is a term that refers to the layers found in nature. Picture a canopy of tall trees up above, followed by a lower level of shrubs and small trees, then perennials below and so on (see image below). Try to copy this in your landscape or garden. This form of design increases your ability to be the most productive with your site and your soil.
8. Plant a Water Garden by Using Aquatic Plants
This will provide habitat for important wildlife such as frogs, fish, and other amphibians, while having the added benefit of recharging your local groundwater or aquifer. Understand why native plants matter, and remember to use native plants whenever possible.
9. Practice Companion Planting
By planting things that are beneficial to one another, you not only increase productivity, but you attract beneficial pollinators and maintain a healthy ecosystem that will help keep the good insects around, and the bad ones in check.
10. Avoid Monocultures
Monocultures are when one species or even one variety is planted in mass, with little else planted around it. This system of growing makes that plant more vulnerable to pests and diseases, and ignores the otherwise high biodiversity that is found in nature. Encouraging biodiversity and an increased variety of species will support a healthier overall ecosystem, while making your landscape more resilient and stronger.
Scott McDermott is a landscape designer, ISA certified arborist, and NOFA accredited in organic land care. Owner of McDermott Landscapes, Scott designs residential gardens throughout New England area.