6 Permaculture Principles for Your Edible Landscape

When I first learned about permaculture, I was blown away by the profound accessibility to the design principles.  Reading over the 12 principles, I remember thinking, "This makes complete and total sense.  Why is society not applying these principles to our everyday lives and gardens?  Wouldn't the world be a more healthy place if we did?"

Before we explore the 12 permaculture principles, you may be wondering "What exactly is permaculture?"  Permaculture was created in 1959 by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.  The word is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture". 

Applied to our gardens, permaculture is basically a design system which is intended to mimic patterns and relationships in nature while also providing food and energy.  In a nutshell, it's very smart design that focuses on the relationships between things, rather than on separate objects or pieces of your landscape.  This interconnectedness reduces your work, increases your harvest, and returns nutrients back to our wonderful earth. 


The three ethics of permaculture are care for the earth, care for the people, and redistribute the surplus.

Permaculture can be applied to anything: your work, business, home, everyday life, and of course your garden.  If you are a gardener or are considering an edible landscape, this is a great post for you. 

In this blog post I will talk about six permaculture design principles as they relate to landscape design, gardening, and even food preservation and offer some ideas about what you can do in your garden.  Stay tuned for a follow-up posts on the remaining six permaculture design principles.


1 - Observe and Interact

When I visit a client's house for the first time, it's not uncommon for me to spend most of my time looking and listening.  Why?  There is so much to experience!  I observe the existing site conditions, look at where the sun is hitting the ground, feel which direction the wind is coming from, notice soggy ground, pay attention to the sites and sounds from the neighbors' houses, and I listen to the property owner who has much more experience interacting with the space than I do.  I begin to notice patterns and details and begin to think about how to make the least change for the greatest effect in my edible landscape design for my client.

Observing and interacting with the space is essential to creating a design specific for each client and their individual needs.  This is always the first step in landscape design and permaculture design.

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What you can do: Pay attention to your garden in every season and avoid making any major changes the first year.  Find your sunny spots, rain drenched area, dry shade, views that you'd like to hide, sounds you'd like to accentuate or block, and notice where the cold winter wind comes from.  Identify your existing plants and learn more about them.  Consider which ones you'd like to keep and which ones you'd like to replace. My best advice: get a hammock and spend your first year observing the space.


2- Catch and Store Energy

There are so many ways that your garden naturally catches and stores energy: plants photosynthesize sunlight, the soil soaks up rainwater, and plant material decomposes to build soil.  You can help your garden catch and store energy by collecting resources when they are abundant to use in times of need.

What you can do: Compost your food scraps and garden debris.  If you're a lazy (or smart?) gardener like me, simply chop up your garden clippings and drop them right back into the garden.  This saves you the task of managing a compost pile and spreading it back onto the garden later.  Composting in place also provides an immediate mulch layer for your garden, which will help hold in moisture and discourage weeds. 

A few other easy tips: create a raingarden or swale to encourage the rainwater to soak back into the ground, keep your fallen leaves on-site in the autumn to add organic matter back into your soil, and consider catching and storing energy for yourself too at the peak of harvest by preserving some food for the winter. 

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I often find myself with large quantities of fruit in the summer.  It's more than my family could ever eat so I make jam, applesauce, and dehydrate fruit to eat during the winter when my garden is less productive.  Root cellars and chest freezers provide an even easier way to store your garden harvest.  



3 - Obtain a Yield

One of the best things about growing food is harvesting it.  If you're new to gardening, start with a couple easy crops in a small garden plot, or even a few pots in a convenient place.  It's best if the location is right outside your door or in a place that you pass by daily.  This way, you will naturally visit your new garden daily, notice when it needs water or is ready to harvest, and you can easily harvest it without going out of your way.

Once you have felt (and tasted) success in your garden, expand your garden and begin growing more food. 

I feel like obtaining a yield is closely tied to principle # 9 - Use Small and Slow Solutions.  By slowly testing your new skills and observing your progress, you can expand your gardening efforts at a comfortable pace.  There is nothing more frustrating than a huge garden full of weeds or a hasty design that isn't really what you needed.

What you can do:  Notice what you buy most often at the grocery store.  Is it something you can easily grow in your garden?  Do a little research to find out what kind of growing conditions it likes.  Can you grow it in a convenient place in your yard?  Start small with one gardening project and add to it next year. 

Also, try not to get in the way of a yield that already exists in your garden.  Is your first instinct to pull that pesky dandelion?  Slow down, re-train your brain, and think outside the standard garden veggies.  What's growing in your yard right now that you can harvest without any extra effort (assuming your yard is pesticide free)?  Have you ever tried dandelion greens, bitter cress, or chickweed?  Once I even found morel mushrooms growing in our garden!


4 - Apply Self-regulation and Accept Feedback

This principle is about designing systems that involve less work and unnecessary repeated harsh corrective measures.  It encourages appropriate activity so that systems can function well. 

Have you ever seen a huge tree growing in a small space and noticed that it has been pruned way back more than once to keep it within the boundaries of it's physical environment?  Does the tree look healthy and happy?  Is it flourishing or suffering?  Do you think this was good planning and is anyone paying attention to the feedback from the tree?


What you can do:  When planning your garden, map out the space and consider the existing conditions.  Choose the right plants for the right place so that you are not constantly fighting nature to grow something where it doesn't want to be or doesn't physically fit.  Take time to observe the space on a regular basis and be open to feedback and changes. 

Arrange your garden in a logical way to reduce excess walking, trips back and forth, and unnecessary work.  For example, if every day you take your compost out, care for your chickens, and harvest a small salad, your garden could be arranged so that you stop by your chicken coop with your compost bucket, feed the chickens any scraps, dump the remaining compost in your compost bin, and harvest your salad from your garden that's located along the path back to your kitchen.

5 - Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

Renewable resources are those that naturally renew, without major non-renewable input.  To quote David Holmgren on page 93 of Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, "Permaculture design should aim to make best use of renewable natural resources to manage and maintain yields, even if some use of non-renewable resources is needed in establishing the system."

A couple things to consider are maximizing the use of every resource and using renewable services from nature.  An example of making the most of every resource is a project I worked on during my Peace Corps service in Mali, West Africa.  I worked with a village to rebuild their fish farm, which provided food and income to the village.  An additional benefit of this farm was the nutrient rich water.  This water was pumped over to irrigate the women's garden, located nearby.  This irrigation system provided more nutrients to the garden than well water would have and it eliminated the need for additional fertilizer. 

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I have seen two exceptional examples of similar set-ups in the US (one is at a private residence and the other is Growing Power farm in Milwaukee, WI).  The photos below are from Growing Power farm.  You can see that the gardens are literally designed on top of each other to make it super efficient for water to cycle from one part of the system to the next. 

renewable resources

Although these photos from the fish farm in Mali and Growing Power may not directly translate to most home gardens, they're such inspiring examples of maximizing resources within a system and stacking functions.  At Growing Power, fish below are harvested for food, mushroom logs on pullies can be dunked into the water, and plants above are irrigated (and fertilized) via water pumped up from the fish ponds below.  In return, the plants filter the water before it's returned to the fish ponds.  All of this is happening in an impressive greenhouse in the dead of winter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On a residential scale, a classic permaculture example of using renewable services from nature is the chicken tractor.  A chicken tractor is a portable chicken coop with an open bottom.  The chickens have direct contact with the earth and cultivate the soil with their natural scratching habit, offer pest control while they snack on insects, and leave organic fertilizer (poop) behind.

What you can do:  Look for ways to make the most of your garden's resources.  Can your chickens help till your soil, clean up a bed after harvest, and fertilize your garden?  Plant legumes to help make nitrogen more available for other plants, use cover crops instead of leaving your garden bare in the winter, plant fruit tree guilds, and compost in place.  Harvest bamboo for garden stakes or get creative and use it for interior projects like curtain rods.  Plant deep-rooted plants to pull up nutrients from the soil and help break up heavy soils.  Minimize soil disturbance and instead let the earthworms break down and turn in your chopped down garden debris.

With a little knowledge and creativity, permaculture design can be incorporated into any home garden.  Stay tuned for the last six permaculture principles and tips on how to apply them to your garden.

I'd love to hear from you!  What permaculture design principles are you already applying to your daily life and garden?  How can you design your garden to be more efficient?