Permaculture may seem like yet another way of gardening, but it’s much more than that. At the core lie 12 principles that will guide you throughout your journey, principles that have stood the test of time, and will help you obtain higher yields from your garden.
When we talk about permaculture, what immediately comes to mind is a rural landscape filled with crops and fruit trees, or perhaps someone who lives in the city with a large garden.
Whether you have a large piece of land, rooftop, a balcony, a back step or even just a window sill these principles will have you growing your own organic food. If we go step by step it will insure your success. So what are the principles and how can we apply them to permaculture?
Table of Contents:
Principle #1: Observe and interact
Observing and interacting, is just that, start to pay attention to the things happening around you. Pay attention to your space, things like where gets the most sun. This might not be your balcony, but perhaps your front window or kitchen window.
Your plants will need sun, so this is where to start. You also need to know what’s going on around outside your space. Look for others growing their own food, see what they are growing and engage them. Look where you can source things like grass clippings and leaves.
These will come in very handy when learning about soil and compost. Engage people who are thinking the same way as you on the internet, look for gardening or permaculture guilds (groups) close to you.
Get involved! The more information you have, the greater the success. If you have a small yard, balcony or rooftop, watch the wind and how it might affect your plants, figure out how you can catch some of the rain water.
Regardless, if you have access to all the water you need, catching rain water takes pressure of the system, and even if it’s a little bit, it helps.
Principle #2: Catch and store energy
Energy is one of the most abundant resources on our planet. Energy is and always will be sustainable if we start respecting it now. Just by reading this, you have begun.
Using plants and other renewable resources like rain, wind and sun to capture that energy is the key to a successful and sustainable permaculture garden. In the previous paragraph I mentioned catching your rain water. How do you do that if you’re living in an apt?
Pretty simple really, if you have a balcony put a big bucket on it, if you only have a window improvise a shelf that you can stick out your window and put a bucket on it. You might now be not be able to catch all the rain water you need, but every bit helps and your plants will appreciate it. How can we capture the suns energy?
A great example of this would be to have just a plain box and a piece of glass that fits over the top. You can use this to put your plants in when the temperatures get colder and it will create a passive solar system that creates warmth for your plants.
You can use the wind to turn a small fan, even the fan in your computer, to supply enough power to run some LED lights or a small pump that waters your plants. Where there is a will, there’s a way. The information is all at your fingertips.
Principle #3: Obtain a yield
When we talk about obtaining yields in permaculture, we are not only speaking about the food we harvest, but also the intangible yields. Intangible yields are the benefits to our physical and mental health by engaging in the earth. Providing healthy food and that feeling of accomplishment that nourishes our souls.
Through engaging all the elements and combining them, we build an environment that produces what is most essential to our existence, food, oxygen and the sense of wellbeing.
For this reason we must progress slowly when building or gardens or micro food forests. By carefully learning how all the elements interact with our plants we can obtain maximum yields.
Principle #4: Apply self-regulation and feedback
Understanding our success and our failures is vital to the learning process whether in permaculture or everyday life.
We should always evaluate and analyze the things we bring into our lives. Are they renewable? are they recyclable? what do they add to our wellbeing?
We can then start to make better decisions on how much and what we consume. The more we are conscious on what and how much we consume the more we are coming closer to sustainability.
Once your food forest is producing, it’s important to give yourself critical feedback. Ask your self questions like, are these the tomatoes I expected or am I applying my compost in away its improving my yields.
These questions will provide you with the feedback you need to overcome future issues, and help you to help others who are also on a path to sustainability.
Principle #5: Use and value renewables
By using the energy of wind, sun and rain we can power our homes and produce our own food. We can use windmills and solar for energy, catch and divert the rain to fuel the growth of our gardens. We all should understand that fossil fuels are not only destroying the planet they are not sustainable.
Moving to greener solutions such as solar and wind, we are saving money and helping Mother Nature. The old saying “You never miss your water until the well runs dry” says it all. Value what nature supplies us for free and be thankful.
Principle #6: Produce no waste
The ultimate goal should be to have zero waste. We can do this by being careful what we buy, ensuring it is renewable, reusable or regenerative.
Creating a compost with your organic waste to fertilize your garden, reducing how much you buy and using ethical suppliers who are also in a mindset of sustainability, are all ways of becoming a zero waste household.
The other part of this is to look to repurpose things that others discard. Walk by any dumpster near a mall or a restaurant and you will be amazed at what you might find.
You will see perfectly good vegetables thrown away. You can use these for compost or seeds. You can find cardboard and newspaper which can supplement your mulch, leaves and grass clippings for compost.
Construction sites discard all kinds of great things to repurpose; old wood to build grow boxes, old buckets for rain water, old windows for solar. Remember principle number 1 observe and interact. Take advantage of what is free. We are a wasteful society, the smart ones take advantage.
Principle #7: Design from patterns to details
Whether it’s growing our own food or completely changing our way of life in order to become a model of sustainability, we must look carefully at the positive outcome and stay on the path, not getting set back by the smaller decisions.
Focus on how the path will impact your life in total, and the positive effects it will have on your life overall. Have a look at nature and the seasons. How do the seasons follow a pattern that benefits the growth of a forest? If you think about this you will understand how to design your food forest according to the elements.
Principle #8: Integrate don’t segregate
By observing nature we can see the diversity and integration of plants. Using polyculture or guilds (planting different plants together) is beneficial to our plants. These plants will support each other and produce healthier and more tolerant crops.
A great example of this is the North American native practice of the 3 sisters, corn, beans and squash. When all grown together, they have a much greater chance of success, each one benefits from the other. Basically the corn provides a pole for the beans to climb on, the beans take nitrogen from the air and supply the soil, and the squash provides a living mulch and shade and also protects the corn and the beans from insects and small animals.
Don’t be afraid to stack your plants, nature has its own way of sorting out crowding. Just keep in mind that certain plants are adapted to different kinds of soil and water conditions. Keep the types of plants that enjoy the same conditions together.
For example, growing cactus type succulents, which prefer dry sandy soil, won’t work well with a root vegetable that likes moist rich soil. This applies to us our neighbors and communities as well. We must rely on each other if we wish to become sustainable in the right way. We can all see how people are stacked.
Principle #9: Use small and slow solutions
Begin with small incremental steps, by starting small and slowly we prevent being overwhelmed and are more able to apply solutions in order to have success.
If you have success on a small scale, you have the formula to grow and maintain control. If you have never gardened before, start with a few sturdy plants that are tolerant to whatever temperate zone you are in.
Start you garden in 1 square meter of soil, or even in pots on your window sill. It’s important and actually very satisfying to be able to see the progress of your plants every day.
Plants like tomatoes carrots, peas, beans and most herbs adapted to your zone, will give you a chance to learn about germinating from seeds and how they help in producing and providing good soil, the time to plant and the time to harvest.
Using these hardy types of plants to begin with will give you a much higher chance of success and a real feeling of accomplishment. Again, don’t be afraid to plant different seeds together, like beans and cucumber or tomatoes and peppers. You will be very pleasantly surprised at how these develop together.
Principle #10: Use value and diversity
Observe how value and diversity work in nature, between plants and animals in an ecosystem, also how diversity adds so much value to our communities, and apply this to your design.
By using a diversity of plants and perhaps even including animals, such as ducks or chickens, you can greatly benefit both, your garden and your diet, this is all added value.
Sometimes it seems that we have forgotten the benefits of diversity. One organism, when in harmony will always benefit the next organism. When there is no harmony, the same organism becomes destructive towards the other.
Principle #11: Use edges and value the marginal
Only by effectively using all the resources at our disposal can we reach sustainability. This not only applies to our gardens but also to our interaction within our communities.
By using fringes we discover untapped resources. Might be an acreage on the edge of town where we can get cow manure to add to our soil or compost, or it might be that shaded part of the house we ignore but is the perfect microclimate for growing our own mushrooms.
Don’t ignore the edges of you food forest no matter how small it might be. Very interesting things happen in the places we ignore.
Principle #12: Creatively use and respond to change
We all are aware that change in life is inevitable. Permaculture is about designing now what will keep you sustainable in the future.
Being aware of environmental changes and adapt your system to compensate, will ensure both, sustainability and peace of mind, whether it is in our garden or in our everyday lives.
Be prepared to respond to change. Some changes are good some bad. You might have underestimated your tomato production and not have jars for canning.
This is an example of a good change and not being prepared. A huge hail storm is rolling in and you don’t have a tarp to cover your food forest. Now this is a bad change and not being prepared.
Whether you have a big space or no space at all, by following these 12 principles you can easily be on your way to producing your own food and living a sustainable life.
Dirk is Canadian permaculture designer with a certificate from Tagari farms, studying under the tutelage of the legends and founders of permaculture Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton. Dirk has been doing permaculture for more than 20 years, initiating and managing projects in Cambodia, Madagascar, Montenegro, and Vietnam. He’s been helping people use permaculture techniques in growing their own food, and in leading more sustainable lives across the world.