6 (More) Permaculture Principles For Your Edible Landscape

My first post about permaculture talked about six of the 12 permaculture design principles and how they can be applied to your garden.  The principles covered were observe and interact, catch and store energy, obtain a yield, use small and slow solutions, apply self-regulation and accept feedback, and use and value renewable resources and services. 

This post will discuss the next six principles: produce no waste, design from patterns to details, integrate rather than segregate, use and value diversity, use edges and value the marginal, and creatively use and respond to change.  To see my first post and read a brief intro on permaculture, click here.  Here are the final six principles:


6 - Produce No Waste

This principle is about finding uses for things that may otherwise be considered waste.  It looks at creative ways to use waste as a resource and opportunity. 

An example of this in nature is the earthworm.  Worms eats plant litter (waste), break it down, and produce castings (poop), which is natural fertilizer for the plants.  This cycle creates a better living environment for itself, surrounding plants, and other soil micro-organisms.

In your garden:  Compost food and garden scraps on-site, reuse wood chips from local arborists as mulch (often free of charge!), plant appropriate species so that excessive irrigation is not necessary, collect urine for fertilizer (human feces may be used too - research safe methods before beginning any humanure project), swap extra garden seeds or plant starts within your community, limit your irrigation, irrigate early in the morning with a drip system, direct your downspouts to your garden rather than the sewer system (where it is safe to do so), use composted chicken manure as fertilizer, plant a low maintenance lawn alternative or even better - more food crops or pollinator plants instead of a lawn.


7 - Design from Patterns to Details

As a landscape designer, this principle is one of my favorites.  It takes a step back and looks at the entire picture, rather than focusing on the details of a few areas.  Designing from patterns to details considers the various elements of the design, where they are placed, and how they work together as a whole. 

One way this is done is through zones and sectors.  Zones are areas of intensity of use.  On a residential site, for example, the house would be Zone 0, the area immediately surrounding the house that is most used is Zone 1, and as the distance increases, so does the scale, all the way to Zone 5, which is wilderness. 

It is likely that all zones will not be present on a residential lot in the city, but Zones 0-2 may be represented and if you imagine zooming out on a satellite map, Zones 3-5 will appear around the urban area as you zoom out from your central Zone 0.

Permaculture Zones

  • Zone 0 - Homestead

  • Zone 1 - Irrigated garden

  • Zone 2 - Orchard and small livestock

  • Zone 3 - Commercial crops, pastures, dams, large livestock

  • Zone 4 - Managed rangeland, forests, wetlands

  • Zone 5 - Wilderness

Sectors radiate out from your central point, or Zone 0 (picture a star pattern, with points in multiple directions).  Sectors look at the direction from which external energies come into your site.  This could be sunlight, cold winter winds, cool summer breezes, direction of the rain, and even noisy neighbors and views (either good or bad).

Apply these tools to your landscape design: When planning your garden, consider your zones and sectors.  Zones aren't necessarily concentric circles radiating out from your house.  More often, they follow the patterns of your daily routine.  Identify your Zone 1 by paying attention to the areas you visit daily outside of your house. 

Your Zone 2 will be the sections of your property that are visited less than once per day, with the exception of small livestock which are often best located on the edge of Zones 1 and 2, to allow for easy access for you (Zone 1) and space for them to roam (Zone 2). 

Within these zones, what external energies (sectors) do you observe?  Plan your garden so that you are maximizing the sunlight, place your small livestock in a protected area, and either highlight or block views as needed.


8 - Integrate Rather than Segregate

This design principle encourages connections between things so that they can support each other.  Two permaculture statements sum up this principle:

  • each element performs many functions (stacking functions)

  • each important function is supported by many elements (use multiple methods to achieve the same function - create a back-up system)

Stacking functions is a common phrase in permaculture.  It's a way of designing so that each element does more than one thing.  In nature, this is how things naturally work.   One gardening example is the "three sisters" planting of corn, beans, and squash.  The corn acts as a trellis for the beans, the beans help fix nitrogen for all of the plants, the squash is a groundcover that helps hold in soil moisture and reduce weeds, and eaten together they create a balanced diet.

Back-up systems are important for your garden (and you, as a consumer of your harvests!)  Consider watering your garden.  You may have a huge cistern that you'd like to use for irrigation, but maybe your summer climate is very dry.  What happens when your cistern runs dry?  Can you easily switch to irrigating another way? 

Planting a variety of food producing crops and using succession planting is a simple way to ensure a back-up system that will produce a harvest for you.  For example, if you only planted one crop in your entire yard and that crop failed, you would be left without a harvest.  A diverse planting provides a multitude of crops ripening at various times for an extended harvest.  Additionally, during the prime planting times for each crop, it's helpful to sow seeds every couple of weeks for a continual harvest.

Stack functions in your garden:  Consider a chicken tractor (or other portable system) to allow your chickens to do some work for you, plant cover crops to reduce weeds and give back to the soil, value your trees - they provide shade, leaves for mulch, food / medicine, wildlife habitat, erosion control, and block unwanted views.  Plant a living screen with bamboo and harvest some for garden stakes, attract bees and butterflies with your beautiful cutting garden to help pollinate your plants, and plant thorny roses to create a barrier and harvest the hips for tea.

Build in back-up systems:  Plant a variety of crops, use succession planting and companion planting techniques, plan for each element to perform multiple functions, plan for each function to be supported by multiple elements.


9 - Use Small and Slow Solutions

Read about this permaculture principle in my first blog post about permaculture.


10 - Use and Value Diversity

This principle encourages you to not put all your eggs in one basket.  Using and valuing diversity encourages a variety of different approaches within your design. 

Think about monoculture plantings, for example.  If you've visited or lived in the midwest during the summer months, you might be picturing the huge swaths of corn and soybean fields that cover the countryside.  What happens when those fields planted with single crops become infested with pests or diseases?  What natural balances are in place to restore health to the crops and soil?  Not much.  That's why there is widespread use of chemicals on monoculture fields. 

Now think about the opposite of monoculture plantings.  What do you imagine?  A huge diversity of plants?  Trees that produce shade, groundcovers that protect the soil and retain moisture while reducing weeds, and everything in between?  Diverse plantings like this help keep your garden healthy.  A variety of plants will attract a larger diversity of insects (both beneficial and not) so that your garden will better support itself. 

Use diversity to your advantage.  The goal is not only to plant a wide variety of crops, it's also about learning which crops naturally support each other and building those connections into your garden.  Companion planting is a good example of this.  

For me, this principle is also a reminder to grow non-mainstream plants or varieties of plants.  Help support plant diversity by choosing heirloom or uncommon garden plants.  In addition to the garden benefits, your diet will become more diverse and your body will thank you for the diversity of nutrients. 

Use and value diversity in your garden:  Plant several different types of fruit trees (or fruiting shrubs) so that you will still have a harvest even if one type doesn’t produce much in a given year.  Use companion planting techniques (check out this blog post for a companion planting book recommendation).  Select older, heirloom, or uncommon plant varieties for your garden.  Observe your garden to determine which plant combinations best support each other.


11 - Use Edges and Value the Marginal

The most diverse part of any landscape is where two ecosystems converge.  Think of a forest and a prairie side by side.  The place where these two ecosystems meet is a merging of both of them, creating a higher diversity in that area.  Animals from each ecosystem venture a short distance into the other ecosystem, insects from one ecosystem go to the margins and mingle with insects from the other ecosystem, plant seeds blow from one ecosystem to the other.  All of these interactions between ecosystems create an overlap in ecosystems that's a very unique and diverse place.  It is in these edges and marginal places that the most interesting events take place.

Use edges and value the marginal in your garden:  Work to create edges or margins in your landscape where you can maximize the merging of plant and animal communities.  Which garden edges can you locate next to each other.  How about a pollinator garden and a vegetable garden?  Another idea is to blur the edge between orchard and garden by planting a highly diverse food forest that extends the "edge" into your orchard.


12 - Creatively Use and Respond to Change

The final principle is about designing in a way that makes the best use of change.  My late permaculture instructor, Toby Hemenway, talked a lot about "making the least change for the greatest effect".  In class we would come up with the simplest solutions that would create the change (result) we desired.  

Even though some things seems to remain the same for a long period of time, there is always change happening.  The key to this final principle of permaculture design is how you work cooperatively with change.  Responding creatively and adapting to change is essential to any design system.  This principle is also a good reminder to think back to the very first principle: Observe and Interact.  To creatively use and respond to change, you first must observe the changes that are taking place.

Creatively use and respond to change in your garden: When designing your garden, think about how you can make the least change for the greatest effect.  How can you work with your existing site to create the garden of your dreams, without bringing in large equipment and reshaping the entire space?  What has changed within or around your property?  How can you use those changes to your advantage?

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?