10 TIPS FOR STARTING YOUR PERMACULTURE GARDEN
Permaculture is not just about gardening, but it is an enjoyable, tasty, and ecologically beneficial place to start. Here are some tips to get you going, and each one comes with a permaculture concept!
1. Think big, start small
If you’ve never grown anything before, build your confidence by seeing those first few seeds germinating. You can start with a window box or a couple of pots – sowing some salad greens and legumes for sprouts and micro-salad leaves in a couple of weeks’ time! Your confidence will grow with your plants, and your garden empire will expand accordingly!
Permaculture concept: Use small and slow solutions
2. Get your compost in the pipe-line
Plants need healthy soil, and a healthy soil needs feeding. So you can never get enough compost to feed your soil! You can make your own by turning your waste kitchen scraps into compost – there are many ways to do it, and you can even succeed within a city flat if you plan it well. My favourite way is to use a wormery (see ‘worms and other animals’).
Permaculture concept: Produce no waste
3. Think before you leap
Before you start a whole load of projects, do some design thinking first! Here are two things you won’t regret considering.
- Design from patterns to details. Consider how much sun do different parts of your garden get in summer and winter? How windy is it? How wet is it? Where are the best soils? What kind of soil do you have (acid or alkali?). Who is using surrounding land? This information will help you maximise useful resources (like the sun or incoming water), and consider what to do about unhelpful influences (like too much wind, vehicle pollution, or people who might trample your plants). Armed with these insights, you’ll make wiser decisions about what to put where.
Permaculture concept: Scoping analysis
- Everything in its place. Design your space so the things you visit most often, are closest to where you live. Don’t shove your food garden out of sight beyond your ornamentals, or you’ll never see it and you’ll neglect it! Keep it close and make it beautiful!
Permaculture concept: Zoning for energy efficiency
4. Learn your weeds – you might be able to eat them!
Many ‘weeds’ are not undesirable at all, but very helpful plants that feed wildlife, feed us, and improve your soil! Best of all, they grow by themselves without any effort from us except picking! These might include stinging nettles (heat before eating!), cleavers (a herbal tonic), dandelion, chicory, plantain, and much more! But learn your weeds, just in case they’re NOT edible!
Permaculture concept: The problem is the solution
5. Plant perennials
In the 70s, the founders of permaculture began by considering what a sustainable agriculture would look like (a ‘permanent agriculture’), and decided it would largely involve replacing annual grain crops with perennial crops. Perennial plants live for 3 or more years, so unlike annuals, you don’t have to sow them and nurture them every single year. Many perennials live so long you’ll feel like they live forever, getting stronger all the time and needing almost no work from you. We permaculturists like to emphasise perennials because we’re lazy, and because year after year they provide habitat for wildlife and build the soil.
Start with aromatic herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage: they’re expensive in the shops but you can produce your own abundant supply and they are simply the best things in life, giving zing to your cooking and zap to your health.
Plant some trees! The world needs more trees to stabilise the climate and create rain and oxygen! Best of all, your fruit and nut trees will provide your biggest crops year on year even if you forget to look after them at all. Even on balconies in Lisbon people commonly grow their own little citrus trees in pots.
Permaculture concept: Permanent agriculture – perma-culture
6. Be organic
No messing around with pesticides or herbicides or synthetic fertiliser – it’s all unnecessary and just causes health problems for the planet and us. Work with nature and enjoy it. If you start off organic, you’ll never understand why others are spraying death everywhere.
Permaculture concept: Earth care & people care
7. Provide for wildlife
We share this planet with millions of other creatures, but we’re rapidly wiping them out. Leave some land free for nature to do it’s thing, or if you’re gardening on a balcony or in window boxes, plant some wild flowers to bring in the pollinating insects and possibly natural allies that will eat your pests. If you have space, think about a pond for amphibians and dragonflies (great garden allies). This isn’t just a nice thing to do, you’ll enjoy the natural spectacle more than anything.
Permaculture concept: Zone 5 for nature
8. Worms and other animals
When you’ve become confident with your plant systems you might think about introducing some animals. The first beasts to consider are mini-beasts: worms! You can keep a wormery, or ‘worm hotel’, feeding them the best vegetable based kitchen scraps. They not only eat it and turn it into super good compost, you will also collect a constant supply of ‘worm pee’ that you dilute and use as plant fertiliser. You will be (very) surprised how much you come to love worm pee!
Chickens are probably your next option (for eggs, or meat if you’re not vegetarian). Study the type of animals you are interested in first and you might discover that you can utilise their natural behaviour to help you in the garden. For example, chickens like to scratch and peck at the soil – you can rotate them around your vegetable areas when you’re not growing anything and they manure and loosen the soil and scratch up any insect pests. They will also happily eat many of your food scraps, including meat.
But don’t keep animals unless you can meet their needs for a genuinely good life.
If introducing domestic animals doesn’t appeal to you, you can still appreciate the animals that visit your garden anyway. You may well get to enjoy birds, insects like butterflies, honey bees (another option for you to cultivate!) and hoverflies, reptiles, amphibians, and more! As Bill Mollison said, ‘everything gardens’, and many of these contribute to your efforts by eating garden pests, recycling nutrients (through droppings), and so on. Just keep the pigeons off your cabbages!
Permaculture concept: ‘Everything gardens’
9. Be water-wise
Water is a precious asset we need to be use wisely. Plus, it’s time consuming watering all your plants manually (but it can be a nice meditation!). Here are some options for being water-wise.
Harvest rainwater: Save your water bill and avoid hurting your soil with chlorinated water, by catching rain water. There are loads of ways to do this, but if you’re gardening by your house, some guttering and a water-tank are the obvious starting points. If you get really into this, in future years you might be planning swales and natural swimming pools!
Water wisely: Set up your pot plants in wicking systems where there is a reservoir of water in a separate pot into which your plant pot is inserted – with a wick (of soil, or rope) through which the water can be drawn up to your plants’ soil at the rate the plants need it. It takes a couple of hours of setting up, but means you can water them and then leave them alone except to check every now and then to ensure the reservoir isn’t empty.
If you have a garden, you might consider running drip-irrigation through your vegetable beds. Drip-irrigation is exactly that – instead of a big gush of water, the hose has little holes that you set up only next to your plants, and they drip slowly, saving tons of water. You can also set them on a timer, for instance at evening, so you know how much water you’re giving, and you’re giving it in the cooler hours of the day when it won’t be lost to evaporation.
Permaculture concept: Capture and store energy (and water!)
10. Grow towards the sun
Permaculture teaches me that, like all the green things in nature, we have to grow towards the sun. What are our lives like, if we don’t grow towards what is bright and good? We wilt and become diseased. Pursue your dreams as your source of energy.
When it comes to pursuing permaculture, you’ll find the time will come when you realise you can connect your house to your garden – and that’s when you’re really doing permaculture and beginning to think in systems. Can you collect water off your roof? Can you divert your grey water (bath and kitchen water) into the garden? What about all the nutrients you excrete down the toilet? Could you use a compost toilet and feed your trees with it? Before long, you’ll be asking yourself about how you can acquire and save energy for your home; thinking about draught-proofing, solar panels and rocket-stoves! Once permaculture gets its claws into you, the way you live in the world will never be the same…
in a good way
Permaculture concept: Integrate rather than segregate
And to finish on a high note, here’s an online class “Introduction to Permaculture” by Tom Chambers.