It’s time to shake up everything you know about gardening. While you likely envision rows of your favorite herbs and vegetables when thinking about a garden, resetting those ideas can provide a low-maintenance, natural balance of greater and healthier abundance for both you and the environment. It’s called permaculture gardening.

A cottage with a forest behind it. In the front yard is a garden of flowers and plants

What is permaculture gardening?

Stemming from the idea of “permanent agriculture,” the phrase permaculture was born in Australia from the father of permaculture Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, a graduate student at the time. The duo coined the phrase, wrote a book and gave birth to the concept of permaculture in the 1970s, but in essence, the practice has been in service for thousands of years. 

Related: Why regenerative agriculture will reverse climate change

It’s a little difficult to succinctly define, but permaculture is basically self-sustaining gardening. It’s a balance of natural materials combined with well-chosen plants that work together in harmony. 

Permaculture can be used to support the growth of food or medicine, attract animals, deter pests, improve the soil and add beauty. It’s more than just the plants themselves though. It’s a lifestyle and a mindset.

It might be best to understand permaculture through other types of agriculture. You might be familiar with organic farming, which is the act of growing crops without the use of unnecessary fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. You may also have heard of regenerative farming, which takes organic food farming a bit further by placing a focus on the health and biodiversity of the soil. Permaculture takes that idea even further with the focus on a lifestyle that extends beyond the landscape alone.  

Permaculture incorporates things like rainwater collection as a natural resource. For some designs, water might be collected and filtered from a house too. The water is then funneled into the garden for efficiency. Someone practicing permaculture may also focus on renewable energy practices, selection of natural materials and even conscientious purchasing. 

A man looking down with his hands in the soil of a tire planter filled with flowers doing permaculture gardening

How can you start a permaculture garden?

The essence of permaculture begins with observation and interacting with the landscape in your area. Look for what already grows well. Then match it with layers of companion plants, whether you’re planting on a deck, in a field or in a forest. Work with the concepts of vertical gardening, edible landscapes and wildlife gardening, which are all under the permaculture umbrella. 

The idea is to work with nature rather than against it. For some, they may find that means not being able to grow the types of foods they normally would. It’s just too resource consuming to grow plants that don’t match the environment. For this reason, the system relies on perennials more than annuals and the selection of plants that will grow well without the need for additional care. 

Permaculture developed through choosing native plants and creating layers of compatible plantings, adds the proper balance of nutrients to the soil, requires fewer resources, invites pollinators and eliminates the need for fertilizers. It brings a host of other benefits too. 

What are the benefits to permaculture gardening?

A permaculture garden brings diversity in a self-supporting way, eliminating the need for chemicals and the pollution that comes along with them. For hundreds of years, we’ve continued to build monoculture landscapes, which are fields full of single crops. This lack of biodiversity is a haven for pests and disease. In contrast, permaculture naturally stifles those issues and is low maintenance once established. 

A properly managed permaculture system doesn’t require weeding or other ongoing maintenance with the exception of possibly watering and occasionally adding mulch. Growing your own food is a recipe for avoiding long transport emissions and deforestation taking place around the globe. By encouraging carbon sequestering rather than release, permaculture supports efforts to reduce and even reverse global warming too. 

A close up of a planter filled with different kinds of food plants

What are some approaches to permaculture gardening?

There are several approaches to permaculture, and it can take place in both urban or rural environments. For the small garden, it can simply mean rainwater harvesting that feeds into pots on the deck. For larger expanses of sunny land, it might mean intercropping vegetables to make use of every foot of soil. Even hillsides and forested areas can support permaculture. In fact, it’s a natural match as a food forest, which is basically layers of trees, plants, herbs and flowers that work well together. 

No-dig gardening is a common characteristic of permaculture. This simply means leaving the soil intact and planting above ground instead. This commonly takes the form of raised beds. However, it might also look towards keyhole gardens, hügelkultur or sheet mulching, which are all types of gardening systems that start with a layer of nutrients and build up to the planting layer. The process can make use of compost for a full-circle system where the plant scraps feed the compost, which in turn helps grow new plants. 

This interactive system makes use of natural resources while feeding them back into the system to produce wood, compost, food and fuel without producing waste. Vermiculture, also known as worm compost, is another example of this. Mulching with leaves, branches and other natural materials is another way to encourage permaculture. 

Via Green Global Travel and Gardening Know How

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