If you read our post on sustainability—or if you haven’t but know what sustainability is (but, really, if you haven’t read the post you absolutely should because it is packed with info and even sustainability wizards might learn a thing or two!)—then you’re probably excited to get started with some sustainable gardening practices into what you do at home.
And if you're truly interested in being one with nature, we suggest incorporating the principles of permaculture.
Permaculture is a portmanteau of “permanent agriculture,” a phrase coined in the 1920s by geographer J. Russell Smith, one of the pioneers of agroforestry—a specific land management practice that calls for growing trees and other crops together. Smith promoted the idea that intercropping trees with other food crops had a variety of benefits: improving soil quality, increasing crop yields, reducing soil erosion, and providing variety in the number of products farmers would be able to produce (and sell).
In the 1970s, science educators Bill Mollison and David Holmgren introduced the term permaculture as an agricultural design philosophy that described “working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.” Mollison and Holmgren had studied both Western industrialized agriculture and various Indigenous methods, and determined that most industrialized practices were not only unsustainable but actually injurious to people and to the planet.
Permaculture was suggested as a way of bringing the Western industrialized world back to the Indigenous practices foundational to human life.
For one thing, it’s sustainable! Actually, permaculture was designed from the outset to be sustainable in every way. It is less about modifying existing systems to be sustainable, and more about developing a set of principles and guidelines rooting everything we do, agriculturally, to be sustainable from the ground floor. For those of us who believe deeply in the interconnectedness of everything, permaculture is the “how.” How we honor and learn from the connections we observe in the natural world, and how we sustain ourselves while maintaining balance.
So, how do we bring the principles of permaculture into our home gardens?
By familiarizing ourselves with the principles of permaculture! There are twelve of them—presented visually as a flower—and each principle is a world of ideas on its own. Here are some of our suggestions, categorized by permaculture principle.
Principle 1: Observe and Interact
The starting point for any successful plan is observation. So, simply, begin by looking around you. Get to know some of the native plants and animals in your community. If you can, observe how they interact with each other. You can best plan a garden in harmony with your natural environment if you know what that environment is. Observation can also help you set priorities. Have you noticed certain pollinators in your neighborhood? You might choose to research what plants those pollinators prefer, and plant those in your own garden to increase their food supply.
Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy
This principle takes on even more importance in a time of noticeably declining resources. What abundance can you harness for later use? For example, preserving and canning produce harvested from your garden stores the energy (nutrition) for the winter, when your garden may not be as productive. Or, particularly if you grow some plants indoors, you might consider getting your own solar panel and solar generator—which is essentially a battery that allows you to store the energy your solar panel captures. You could harness the sun’s rays with the solar panel, and use the generator to power grow lights—or your laptop.
Principle 3: Obtain a Yield
Although it may seem obvious, this principle is actually far deeper than it appears. Obtaining a yield is not just about growing plants that yield tangible produce for harvest—although that definitely counts! This principle of permaculture is about organizing your gardening activities to benefit your life, as rewarding ourselves is one of the surest ways to ensure we will stick with something. Here are a few more ideas:
- Produce something you can sell, and enjoy the profits (e.g., honey from beekeeping)
- Grow food that you can share with those in need
- Grow plants that support a hobby (e.g., lavender for sachets)
- Open your garden to people who might not have their own space to grow
- Get to know your neighborhood by seeking out places to forage (e.g., berry patches along creek paths)
- Get involved with a community garden project to increase fellowship
Principle 4: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
Contrary to the culture in the United States particularly, acknowledging the interconnectedness of everything means not doing whatever we want, whenever we want. What we do impacts others, and being thoughtful with our own behavior benefits everyone. Many of the actions implied by this principle take place largely outside the garden—for example, reducing consumption of non-sustainable consumables like plastic or energy usage in our homes. However, there are ways to bring self-regulation to our yards. Consider using a manual (push-style) mower instead of a powered mower—or a rechargeable electric mower (another good use for your solar panel!). Self-regulation also, however, includes living our life in balance and harmony. This means not neglecting yourself! Take breaks while working and allow your garden to refresh you, mind, body, and soul.
Principle 5: Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
We have already discussed renewable energy, but there are other resources out there that are naturally sustainable. One of the most obvious examples of this is rainwater catchment, but there are plenty of other possibilities. Take a cue from farmers and learn how to harvest and save seeds for next year’s plantings. If you have the room, consider animal husbandry to help “close the loop.” For example, goats and sheep can help “mow” your grass, and provide milk, meat, and companionship. Chickens provide eggs as well as manure high in nitrogen to your compost pile. Speaking of which, a compost pile is perhaps the ultimate example of renewable resources! Many of us are familiar with composting as a basic concept, but did you know that there is more to composting than a basic pile? Engaging the help of worms or microorganisms can increase the amount you are able to compost (more on this below).
Bokashi composting bin by Pfctdayelise, 2008.
Principle 6: Produce No Waste
As with Principle 4, much of the work of this principle takes place outside the garden: reusable bags, refillable water bottles, choosing to repair instead of junk old items, etc. Recycling has gotten perhaps the lion’s share of the attention on ecological issues, but actually, recycling is probably the least important leg of the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle triad. Even many items that are supposed to be recyclable often end up in the landfill, or may require more energy to recycle than we realize. One of the most exciting things you can do at home (okay, it’s exciting if you always wanted to compost but aren’t a vegetarian and are thinking, but what about meat and bread and assorted leftovers?) is learning about bokashi composting.
Bokashi is a Japanese method of composting that ferments (in other words, changes the chemical composition of) foods that can then be added to a traditional compost pile and be broken down completely to be used as any other compost. Typically, you cannot compost meat and dairy because they can introduce pathogens to your compost pile, as well as attracting pests such as insects and rodents. Trust me when I say you do not want to deal with that. Bokashi fermentation is a process of mixing food scraps with the same microorganisms found in soil along with a mixture of bran and molasses to feed the microorganisms. When done properly, food scraps treated in this manner will be completely fermented in ten days and ready to add to a traditional compost bin or pile to break down completely.
Principle 7: Design from Patterns to Details
This principle goes back to the first one: start with observation. Recognizing the patterns in the natural world around you—as well as the world you create for yourself—can help you design a garden space, and a life, that is more harmonious. Observing the behavior of honeybees, for example, led to the design of a more humane hive more than one hundred years ago—one that is still the basis for most modern hives. For your own garden, this might look like making a plan for your entire yard before getting into the specific details of which plants you want to cultivate. Or, it might look like considering the pattern of your personal schedule and choosing plants whose care will fit into your schedule (such as hardy, drought-tolerant varieties if you’re very busy or frequently forget to water). It might also look like analyzing how you manage your household and eliminating inefficiencies in order to make more free time for yourself, to spend in your garden!
Principle 8: Integrate Rather than Segregate
Having specific zones for different plants might be visually appealing for some of us (I mean, just look at this beauty) but when it comes to permaculture that is not always the optimal strategy. As we’ve said, permaculture is about interconnectedness. That means the most advantageous state of the natural world is, typically, integrated. This principle is the perfect one for your pollinator garden project, the best ones of which integrate various types of plants to provide a holistic habitat and nutrition for pollinators. Sharing your garden space—opening fences with your neighbors, literally, if they are open to it—can ease the way for pollinators as well as providing opportunities for emotional and social connection with those you are physically closest to. Simply working in the garden integrates your physical, mental, and emotional experiences as well.
Principle 9: Use Small and Slow Solutions
Probably we have all heard the idea that small changes are more easily made, that it’s easier to stick to new habits when we start small. That is the heart of this principle. It is neither possible nor desirable to reorient your entire life toward sustainability over the course of a single weekend. This principle encourages us to lean into patience and acceptance, leaning into the rhythms of the natural world. To incorporate this principle in your own garden, plant a tree. Make a multi-year plan for your garden. Use the extra time to observe the changes you make and refine your vision.
Principle 10: Use and Value Diversity
This is another opportunity to use the lessons we’ve learned about pollinator gardens and biodiversity. Instead of rehashing that, we wanted to offer a new thought on garden diversity: learn to value all of the creatures in your garden, including those you don’t particularly love. We appreciate predatory insects like the ladybug and mantises—but we aren’t serving them if we use pesticides to rid our plants of the bugs they eat! The last thing you want is to banish these beneficial insects from your garden, only to have an infestation of bugs that eat all your vegetables. Grow a little more than you need, and keep pesticides out of your garden. Trust that the interconnectedness of everything will leave you with enough cucumbers for your salad.
Principle 11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Many of us either ignore the boundaries of our spaces or curate them to be appealing to our neighbors. We encourage you to think beyond that. Use the edges of your personal space to do more than present another stereotypical suburban lawn. Consider growing vegetables in your front yard—and post a sign encouraging your neighbors to pluck off a snap pea or three to munch on while on their evening walk. Or, choose particularly attractive native flowers to increase the beauty of your neighborhood. Believe me, the folks who walk their dogs in your neighborhood notice and appreciate it!
Principle 12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change
This may be one of the most important principles in this time of changing climate. Observe where we are going—as a species, as a society—and use your garden to forge a better path there. Don’t think you can do much in your own yard? Think again.
Planting a tree provides shade, oxygen, and habitat for decades to come. Using your garden’s yield to feed the hungry makes real change in your community. Responding to changes in the climate by switching up what you plant can increase yields. Researching natural ways to defend your home against natural disasters might lead you to plants that can help prevent destruction—such as fire-resistant landscaping or plants capable of tolerating standing water and flooded areas.
We hope this post has convinced you that incorporating permaculture into your own garden—and your life—is not only beneficial, but genuinely doable. Saving this planet and the species on it is a job for all of us, and it starts, yes, right in your own backyard.