An Introduction to Permaculture

How to put the practices of permaculture to use in your own back yard.

August 9, 2011

Combining the best of natural landscaping and edible landscaping, permaculture aims for a site that sustains itself and the gardener. The ultimate purpose of permaculture is to develop a site until it meets all the needs of its inhabitants, including food, shelter, fuel, and entertainment. (The word permaculture was coined in the mid-1970s by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.) While it’s the rare home gardener who can follow permaculture principles to the ultimate degree, most can borrow ideas from permaculture to create a new way of landscaping based on production and usefulness.

Gardening and Permaculture
Permaculture emphasizes the use of native plants or those that are well adapted to your local area. Plant things you like, but make sure they have a purpose and somehow benefit the landscape. Plants such as fruit trees provide food as well as shade; a patch of bamboo could provide stakes for supporting pole beans and other vining plants. Along with a standard vegetable garden, permaculture gardeners would grow many types of perennial food plants too, such as arrowhead, sorrel, chicory, and asparagus.

Like all gardeners, permaculture enthusiasts love plants for their beauty and fragrance, but they seek out plants that offer practical benefits along with aesthetic satisfaction. Instead of a border of flowering shrubs, for instance, a permaculture site would have a raspberry or blackberry border.

Disease-prone plants such as hybrid tea roses and plants that need lots of watering or other pampering are not good permaculture candidates. Choose a native persimmon tree that doesn’t need spraying and pruning, for example, instead of a high-upkeep peach tree. Consider the natural inclinations of your site along with the needs of its inhabitants, and put as much of your site as possible to use. Work with the materials already on your site, rather than trucking in topsoil or stone. Remember that a permaculture design is never finished, because the plants within a site are always changing.

There is no set formula for developing a permaculture design, but there are practical guidelines. Here are some of them:
  • Copy nature’s blueprint and enhance it with useful plants and animals. Think of the structure of a forest and try to mimic it with your plantings. A canopy of tall trees will give way to smaller ones, flanked by large and small shrubs and, finally, by the smallest plants. Edge habitats, where trees border open areas, are perfect for fruiting shrubs, such as currants, and for a variety of useful native plants, such as beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax), which is used for weaving baskets. Mimicking these natural patterns provides for the greatest diversity of plants.
     
  • Stack plants into guilds. A guild includes plants with compatible roots and canopies that might be stacked in layers to form an edge. As you learn more about your site, you’ll discover groups of plants that work well together. For example, pines, dogwoods, and wild blueberries form a guild for acid soil.
     
  • Make use of native plants and others adapted to the site. Plan for diversity.
     
  • Divide your yard into zones based on use. Place heavily used features, such as an herb garden, in the most accessible zones.
     
  • Identify microclimates in your yard and use them appropriately. Cold, shady corners, windswept places in full sun, and other microclimates present unique opportunities. For instance, try sun-loving herbs like creeping thyme on rocky outcroppings; plant elderberries in poorly drained spots.
     

Permaculture designers are now working to conceptualize and create whole communities that embody permaculture concepts. If permaculture intrigues you, there’s a wealth of opportunities to learn more about it online. Here are few to get you started:

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