Last Updated on August 1, 2020
Heard of permaculture but not too sure what it is? Whether you’ve heard of it or not, permaculture is something every gardener should explore. You can grow more food with less work in a permaculture garden. Here’s how to use permaculture for your best garden ever.
What is a Permaculture Garden?
Permaculture, short for permanent agriculture, is a system of growing food that focuses on perennial food plants and the ways they can be interplanted to benefit one another.
Permaculture principles are much more far-reaching and complex, applying what’s called “systems thinking” to the ways we use water, timber, fiber, and other natural resources, as well as some intriguing ethical and design concepts that are perhaps not what you’re after if you’re an eager but busy gardener like me who really wants to establish a perennial food garden as quickly as possible.
I’m going to grossly oversimplify what some very talented designers have written thousands of pages about and stick to the basics of principles that can benefit a home gardener with limited time and budget. Below are some excellent books to check out if you have the time and want to understand more of the nuances of permaculture design.
Advantages of Permaculture Gardening
In short, permaculture re-envisions the garden as a perennial “food forest,” mimicking the way plants tend to grow in nature while minimizing inputs like fertilizer and water. Permaculture design layers larger trees (the overstory) above smaller (understory) trees, underplanted with food-producing shrubs, an herbaceous layer, groundcovers, roots, and vines that can train up the sturdier trees. In smaller lots like mine, we skip the too-large overstory trees and begin with dwarf fruit trees.
The permaculture principle of layering serves several purposes. It makes the most of available sun and space, great for those of us with smaller gardens. It also circulates nutrients and moisture efficiently, helping to reduce the amounts of fertilizer and water needed.
Permaculturists have developed groupings called guilds that aim to create mutually-beneficial clusters of plants. They’ll add a nitrogen-fixer to help feed the soil, or find plants that are tolerant of other plants’ chemicals. Walnut trees, for example, give off a toxic compound called juglones that many plants cannot tolerate. A walnut guild includes understory trees and shrubs that can handle it, like hackberries and elderberries.
Other plants have flowers that attract pollinators (increasing yields), while some plants may be cut and used as a nourishing mulch.
Most importantly for those of us with limited time and energy for our gardens, once established, these perennial food plants produce for years with minimal labor on our part.
For busy gardeners, perennial food plants are a gift. Planting trees that bear you bushels of apples, pears, plums, peaches, and nuts takes a bit of an investment of time and money, but once those trees start producing, you get paid back many times over. Here’s a list of more than 50 perennial vegetables to consider including as well.
How to Use Permaculture Principles in Your Own Garden
Not all of us can (or want to) rip out our existing landscaping and install a professionally-designed permaculture food forest in its place. However, you can apply some select permaculture principles to make any landscape you have significantly more productive. Here are some permaculture principles to keep in mind if you want to get more food from your yard with less work.
Focus on Perennials: Plant Once, Harvest for Years
Lots of home gardeners only think about the annual food plants you typically find in a vegetable garden. While delicious annuals like spinach, tomatoes, garlic, eggplant, cabbage, and cucumbers are wonderful crops, choosing perennial food plants means less work for you. Perennial plants will also protect and build your soil, which can erode and degrade when left bare after harvesting annuals.
Choose Edible Landscaping
This may seem obvious, but when you have a chance to plant a tree or shrub, make it one that bears fruit or nuts. I’m always amazed how few people choose fruiting trees when they plant. Planting trees is always a good thing for cutting carbon and air pollution of course, but planting a tree that also feeds your family is better still!
Here are some excellent options for fruit trees to grow in your edible landscape.
When you’re selecting shrubs or groundcovers, pick berry bushes and herbs. I’m a huge fan of rhubarb, which besides being delicious in crisps and homemade fruit leather, is an absolutely gorgeous accent plant. Here’s more on how to grow rhubarb and how to get your plants for free.
Get to Know More Edible Plants
Plants already growing in your landscape are likely already adapted to your growing conditions, just as in a naturally-growing forest.
You can make the most of the edible trees you already have, from pine and spruce to maple and other trees you can tap for syrup to edible crabapples and even acorns. Spruce trees produce new growth every spring called spruce tips, which have a number of uses, and you can brew an excellent spruce tea from the needles all year round.
Some excellent medicinal groundcovers may already be growing in your landscape as well, masquerading as weeds. Yarrow, wild violets, plantain, purslane, dandelion, and clover are just some of the useful weeds you might have overlooked. Few people realize how many plants viewed as weeds are edible or medicinal. Here are some edible weeds worth knowing. Many are good in salads, while others can be brewed into delicious sun teas.
You may also be growing some of the many flowers you can eat in your yard already.
Make the Most of Layers
Rather than surround your trees with grass (not very eco-friendly btw; here’s why to consider ditching the grass lawn), underplant them with fruiting shrubs like elderberry and culinary or medicinal herbs. If you’re a berry fanatic like me, you might want to add a currant bush, honeyberries, or strawberries. Taller herbs like mints and lemon balm can grow alongside other multitasking, low-growing herbs like thyme, which besides being delicious has potent medicinal properties. Here’s a list of herbs that grow in shade if you’ve got spots with less sunlight.
Grapevines or scarlet runner beans can twine up your sturdier trees. They’re beautiful and add more food to your landscape without taking up additional space.
Finding Space for a Permaculture Garden
Think you don’t have room for a food forest? Look carefully at your yard and you’ll likely spot some areas that you can convert to food production, even if it’s just in a small way. You don’t have to completely makeover your landscape to significantly increase the food you can grow in your yard. I’m a fan of planting those useless patches of grass called parking strips with fruit trees, shrubs, and herbs and focusing “foundation plantings” on berry shrubs and culinary herbs.
For instance, add a mulberry or juneberry tree to your boulevard, and under it put in some blueberry bushes. You might consider a multitasking plant like one these berry bushes that also fertilize your soil.
Wonder whether it’s safe to grow food on your parking strip? I researched this question for a magazine article a few years back if you’re curious about what soil scientists say on the subject.
If you have a need for some privacy screening, consider adding a hedgerow of elderberries. In addition to the delicious and powerful medicinal fruit, you can harvest some of the tasty and also medicinally useful blossoms in early summer. Here’s what to know about using elderflower.
Another option for creating privacy and shade is a grape arbor. We have grape vines trained up the side of our screened-in porch, which not only hides us from view, it helps keep the porch cool in summer (saving energy) and provides us with plenty of grapes and edible leaves.
Think you might try a permaculture garden? What are your favorite permaculture plants?
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Photo credits: Hans Braxmeier, MrGajowy3, glacika56,
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.