What is Permaculture Gardening?

What is permaculture gardening?  And what differentiates a permaculture garden from any other garden?  Well, that's a big question.  And big questions get big answers...

If you're just getting started and you don't know what permaculture is, then start here.​  If you want to learn about the factors that separate permaculture gardening from traditional gardening, then keep reading...

What Defines Permaculture Gardening

​Permaculture gardens obey the 3 core tents and the 12 foundational principles of permaculture.  And they are planned and built using the process of permaculture design.

While they are typically centered around food production, permaculture gardens don't look like traditional vegetable gardens.  They incorporate many plants and features beyond the traditional garden fruits and vegetables.  They frequently include aspects of pollinator attraction, beneficial insect attraction, soil restoration, wildlife habitat, and more.  They almost always include perennial food sources.

"All the world's problems can be solved in a garden."  - Geoff Lawton

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These gardens are designed to serve many purposes, and they often include non-edible plants that serve some other purpose.  A few examples are plants that are useful as animal fodder, fuel, medicine, and plants that can be used to make or dye fabric.

Example of permaculture gardening

Permaculture gardening - By Lamiot - Own work, GFDL, Link

Common Features of Permaculture Gardens

No two permaculture gardens are alike.  In accordance with the design method, each garden is planned and built to function in harmony with the local ecosystem and preexisting natural conditions. 

There are some common features that will help you to identify a permaculture garden when you see one.  And some of those are listed here:

  • Herb spirals - Herb spirals use a design that spirals upward to create a diversity of different microclimates within one small area.  Herbs that appreciate dryness are grown towards the top, and herbs that prefer more water are grown towards the bottom.  Herbs that thrive in full sun are grown at the top and on the south side, while herbs that prefer shade are grown on the north or east side.
  • Hugelkultur - Hugelkultur (pronounced hew-gull-cull-cher) is a technique where soil is removed from a garden bed to create a deep hole, and that hole is then filled with organic matter in the form of logs, branches, sticks, leaves, and other dead plant material.  Soil and mulch are added to the top of the bed to create a mound, and plants are planted atop the mound.  The organic matter underneath retains water and provides a wealth of nutrients to the new plants as they grow.  To the unknowing eye, a hugelkultur bed just looks like plants growing on top of a mound.
  • Keyhole Gardens - Rather than planting in straight lines, permaculture garden beds are often arranged in a keyhole pattern, where the bed is circular and includes a pathway to the center.  This design maximizes the amount of area that can be planted, while minimizing the area dedicated to walkways.

These are only a few of the more common features that can help you to identify permaculture gardening when you see it.  As I said above, no two permaculture gardens are alike.  Some of the most intricately planned permaculture gardens may not look like a garden at all.

Herb spiral used in permaculture gardening

Herb Spiral - By Marcus Busby - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Common Concepts in Permaculture Gardening

It would be impossible to list all of the concepts that can come into play within the confines of a single permaculture garden.  Here are a few of the most common concepts that you're likely to notice:

  • ​Layers and Forests - Where traditional vegetable gardens frequently consist of only small annual vegetables grown alongside each other in a clearing, permaculture gardens often incorporate elevated layers of plants in the same area.  An example would be fruit trees growing among berry bushes, with vegetables and flowers interspersed between them all.  Gardens that take this approach to its full extent are often referred to as food forests.
  • Absence of Straight Lines - Straight lines do not occur in nature, with very few exceptions. Permaculture design mimics natural patterns and therefore avoids straight lines. Permaculture gardens follow the contour of the land, rather than cutting through it. They are built among the existing natural features, rather than replacing the natural features entirely.
  • Plant Guilds - Rather than separating plants out into separate rows, permaculture groups together plants that thrive in each others' company and provide some benefit to their neighbors. Each of these groupings is referred to as a plant guild. The visual effect is much different than neatly ordered rows. Intensively planted guilds have a natural and disorderly appearance.

Those are a few of the most widely used concepts in permaculture gardening.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of techniques that have become part of the popular permaculture toolkit.  If you want to see a more complete list, check out this page

Permaculture gardening pommegranates

Pommegranates - By JCesar2015 via Pixabay, CCO Public Domain

What is Permaculture Gardening?

As you can see, there are many factors that differentiate permaculture gardening from traditional vegetable gardening.  The few factors that we've listed on this page are only the tip of the iceberg.

The real difference is that a traditional garden is designed to please and meet the needs of one person.  A permaculture garden, on the other hand, has been designed using an approach that takes into consideration all of the stakeholders who are affected, including plants, animals, insects, and ecosystems.  It intentionally requires minimal inputs, generates no waste, and always produces an abundance of resources.

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