Permaculture (first introduced by Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer and later developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and affiliates) is a holistic, long-term, ecologically oriented practice that requires an understanding of plants, animals, and their relationship to each other. The term comes from the phrase “permanent agriculture“, and many of the techniques and strategies used in permaculture have been around for a very long time.
Farmers and gardeners all over the globe are showing us that it is possible to have a high yield from a small area with little or no dependence on mechanical, unnatural measures, by carefully observing what nature is showing us about environmental interrelationships and putting those patterns into practice in our gardens.
There are many principals to consider when implementing permaculture techniques, but this discussion will focus on the importance of diversity, and the benefits of multi-functional and mutually beneficial relationships in the garden.
Learn to invite diversity into your garden. Diversity builds resilience. Let go of segregation, where each plant has its row and is kept from other types of plants. Instead, grow herbs, flowers, and food in the same area (known as poly-culture). Permaculture uses this system of layering. Picture Fruit trees with onions, garlic, or chives planted underneath. The plants from the allium family don’t compete for resources with the trees and they nourish the soil beneath. Putting the right things together can provide a mutually beneficial relationship for both.
Flowers among food crops bring in the insects. Suppress your urge to kill the insects and see what happens. Permaculture activist Alex Ojeda tells us it is good if the insects come and eat some of your plants, because it’s a great way to bring the right kind of insects into your garden. Don’t worry, carnivorous wasps will arrive and go after the bugs that devour your food crops. After awhile nothing will be eating your food but you.
Problem with aphids? The common ragweed will attract aphids. Plant some ragweed around the edge of your garden and the aphids will go to it and leave everything else alone. Another option – plant anything from the allium family to repel aphids. Or you can introduce ladybugs to your garden. Ladybugs will come to eat aphids. Be patient.
Get the bees into your garden by planting Bidens alba. They love it. Or if you want to experience the intrigue of learning about a whole new society while helping out the pollination in your garden, become a bee-keeper. The honey will also bring some sweetness onto your table.
Nature knows how to multi-task
Everything in a permaculture garden serves more than one function. Alex Ojeda invites us to learn to love our weeds. They have great purpose. Comfrey, borage, and dandelion are just a few of the plants that can so easily be considered a nuisance, yet are essential providers in the garden.
Comfrey has been referred to as the “benevolent invader” by many permaculture enthusiasts. Toby Hemenway, best-selling aut hor of Gaia’s Garden, praises comfrey as a multi-functional plant that is not only considered to be a great healer, but attracts beneficial insects and has a nutrient dense root system that makes an excellent mulch.
A strong tea can be made from comfrey leaves and added to compost as an accelerant and directly to the plants as a natural fertilizer.
The vast root system of the comfrey plant pulls in water and disperses it to nearby plants. It is considered to be a bioaccumulator that pulls in the good minerals from the soil and concentrates them into the leaves which eventually fall onto the soil, and provide the nutrient dense mulch. Comfrey is a weed that is your friend.
The leaves of borage are also known to be an excellent medicinal plant for both humans and gardens. Steep the leaves in water and add to the garden for another natural fertilizer.
Ever wonder why dandelions grow in unattended lawns? Soil needs protection because direct exposure to sun dries it out. Furthermore, when soil becomes compact, it cannot hold essential nutrients and water, so nature sends in the dandelion to penetrate the ground with its roots to soften the soil and act as a natural aerator. According to Toby Hemenway, the roots are mineral accumulators as well. If you have a taste for bitter greens, they are great in a salad, and are revered as great cleansers and rejuvenators for the liver.
Stinging Nettles, bracken, mullein, yarrow, and parsley, are some more plants that build the soil and are considered to be nitrogen-fixing plants. Get to know your weeds before you yank them.
Animals can also help your garden. Ducks, for example, are garden multi-taskers. They don’t eat most plants so they are safe to let wander around in your garden leaving their poop behind as a natural fertilizer. Ducks, unlike chickens, will also run through your garden tracking down and eating slugs. It’s not a pretty sight, but the outcome is welcome! Consider placing a bucket or small pool around and they will poop as they swim. This gives you a fertilized ‘tea’ to add to your garden.
Even more help
Micro-organisms eat what plants don’t want while also making their own precious waste available to the plants. They love newspapers and rotten wood. Mycelium is a fungus that loves such conditions and is beneficial for your soil.
To help build micro-organisms, place newspaper in small ruts that have been dug into the ground, preferably at the bottom of a slope so that the rain water runs into it and keeps the paper continually moist. Use lots of newspaper. Micro-organisms will love it and flourish and the paper will be broken down in no time.
Let's fit it in
Gardens based on permaculture features are designed with the organic flow of patterns found in nature. They are pleasing to look at and take up relatively little space, compared to typical western agriculture. Alex Ojeda claims it is possible to have a hundred plants in a ten-foot square area. This provides opportunities for gardeners with limited space. You can apply permaculture techniques in your front yard without offending the neighbors and it can dramatically enhance your landscape.
Using sustainable, accessible systems that can meet human needs while regenerating the environment is a best practice for living in abundant harmony with the earth. After all, we are part of nature, so we might as well learn to flow with what is already working in the natural world.