A Beginner’s Guide to Permaculture Gardening – The Ecologist | Directory Mayhem

A garden philosophy. gardening and philosophy. In any case, it seems strange to the uninitiated. However, what permaculture is not, to the surprise of many, is a cult. So what exactly is it?

Permaculture is a design system that emerged during the 1970s oil crisis in response to food insecurity and a desire for self-sufficiency. Blending attitude and practical application, it encompasses everything from recycling, reusing, and regenerating to simply observing.

Applied to gardening, this suggests that not only can we grow food almost anywhere—from fruit bushes in patio pots to vines on fences—but we can achieve higher yields with less effort, simply by mimicking nature.

When I started looking at each niche as a potential food growing zone, the world became one big gingerbread house for me.

Unlike many modern farming methods, a natural growing system maintains a continuous cycle of turning dead plants into mulch for new growth. Permaculture gardeners attempt to replicate this cycle by turning food waste into valuable compost, replacing slug pellets and weed killers with natural enemies and natural competition. According to co-founder Bill Mollison, it’s about working with nature, not against it.

Measure your property

Permaculture is not mandatory and the methods should be applied to each garden or balcony individually. So the first step is observation. Although common sense, this aspect particularly surprised me while attending a permaculture class in north London on a chilly weekend in February.

The group was asked to stand in a forest garden (a permaculture design concept in which a garden is created to mimic a young forest ecosystem) and simply observe a small area for 15 minutes. Still standing in front of an apple tree in the bitter, fading light, looking at lichen patterns and wondering where the sun rose and set, I began to see the garden differently.

I realized that it’s important to learn how much light, wind, and water a property receives before jumping in with a trowel and a packet of seeds to avoid ending up with lots of shriveled plants. Ideally, this phase should last a year to observe changes over the seasons.

Every outdoor space has a microclimate, and where a south-facing wall protects delicate plants, a wind-swept balcony may be better suited for fruit trees like gooseberries and plums, as it provides a natural, edible windbreak.

If you want to start growing before the year is out, try a few things in a small space first. This is a perfect time to strengthen green thumbs and build skills, compost and avoid biting off more than you can chew. Green manure is an excellent preparation for future vegetables.


A key aspect of permaculture garden design is growing a diverse range of foods with mutually beneficial relationships. Marigolds, for example, deter eelworms from nearby tomatoes, while lovage and sweet clover attract aphid predators.

Plants are carefully selected, often native varieties, of which we currently only eat a fraction. Those best suited to local conditions require less maintenance—another important permaculture box: minimum effort for maximum gain. A mix of annuals and perennials can be aesthetically pleasing while providing year-round nourishment.


When planning your property, think about it: Which plants will I visit most often? Which ones require the most maintenance? These will live in the ‘zone’ closest to the house, zone one (or inside, zone zero). In this way, ripe food is picked in good time and tender plants do not shrivel unnoticed in the back of the garden.

If zone one is the “busiest,” zone four contains the more distant plants that require the least attention. Traditionally, zone five will be a wild, undisturbed sanctuary for natural predators and wildlife. This can be present even in a small plot.


Because permaculture is a low-impact model, it embraces a no-dig philosophy. It sounds more like a dream come true than a practical method: it’s possible to change what’s growing in a space without digging up the ground. The keyword here is mulch, and I was educated on the benefits during my permaculture class.

This method works best for potatoes, cabbage, and squash. After weeds are knocked down, a layer of cardboard, newspaper, or natural fiber rug kills the weeds by blocking their light. Some mulch or compost on top will provide nutrients to the plants and by piercing the cardboard layer you will help new roots reach the soil. Then add compost or topsoil before sprinkling on top with straw or grass clippings and leaves (often in excess in municipalities).

forest garden

In nature, diversity does not only exist on a two-dimensional level, but each plant family will grow to different heights. A permaculture forest garden known as “stacking” sees tall fruiting trees over a layer of dwarf cultivars and nut bushes, which in turn host fruiting bushes with perennial herbs and vegetables, eventually rooting underground. Planting the soil with plants protects it from water loss and erosion.


UK households use vast amounts of pesticides on every invertebrate. In a natural ecosystem, predators do this job with no negative impact on the environment—frogs, for example, do the same job as snail repellents without the need to keep the shriveled corpses or the children away. After visiting a Froglife booth last year, I filled a planter in my garden with water and within three weeks one frog moved to permanent residence. It doesn’t have to be Lake Baikal and could be a lifetime home for your own natural snail patrol.

The modern transition town movement grew out of the permaculture model in response to concerns about peak oil. With a little thought, it is possible to grow food in a sustainable way with hands-on skills while benefiting ourselves, our communities and wildlife. That’s a satisfying thought when you’re enjoying your own home-cooked dinner.

Further information:
Web pages:


  • Edible Forest Gardens: Part 1 and Part 2 by Davejacke with Eric Toensmeier, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005
  • Permaculture in a nutshell by Patrick Whitefield, Permanent Publications, 2008
  • Permaculture: A Beginner’s Guide by Graham Burnett, Spiralseed, 2009

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist

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