Conventional gardening tends to use a one-size-fits-all method for growing food. Permaculture gardening is instead based on the concept of adjusting for the climate and utilizing only what works best for the local environment.
Dry climates require a different approach than humid climates. Hot climates support different flora than cold climates. So permaculture techniques are incorporated from many different sources, allowing anyone to adapt their permaculture garden to whatever methodology their plant hardiness zone‘s climate dictates.
Many permaculture methods work well across a broad variety of climatic conditions. Besides climate, permaculture gardening techniques also focus on building soils, making them more nutrient-rich and well-balanced over time. Soil, after all, is the base from which our food grows, providing the healthy benefits in it.
The following permaculture gardening techniques will help to establish sustainable soils that will make your fruits and vegetables as nutritious as possible:
No-dig gardens are a widely applied technique designed to preserve the soil life that converts organic matter into plant food.
When we dig or till, we kill beneficial bacteria, organisms, and creatures that keep the soils in good order. Initially, the decomposition of their bodies will feed the plants in our garden. But ultimately, when there’s no soil life left to decompose, the result will be nutrient-deficient soils. Therefore, we should try to encourage soil life rather than deplete it.
No-dig garden beds are built atop existing soil, which has several benefits. Beyond saving soil organisms, the topsoil we’re building the bed on and the soil and mulch we’re using provide a double dose of quality growing medium.
For those in humid climates, no-dig beds help to make sure that soils drain well. The use of deep mulches ensures soils stay sufficiently moist, cutting down on maintenance and water use. Popular no-dig methods include raised beds, sheet mulched beds (my favorite), and hugelkultur.
Permaculture gardening also emphasizes efficient design, and keyhole beds are a great example. In conventional agriculture, we only plant about 50% of the land we’re cultivating. The raised rows are planted, while the troughs are more or less left to weeds.
With keyhole design beds, we’re able to maximize ROI from the space we’ve got for our garden. Keyholes also encourage biodiversity, using mixed planting rather than rows of singular crops (which are more susceptible to diseases and pests).
With keyhole beds, more land goes to cultivation than dead space. This is accomplished by bending a row three to four feet wide around a central point. You’ll want to leave a small access path to that point so that the bed resembles a keyhole.
These garden beds can either be harvested from the center, or that spot can be where your compost is concentrated and leached into the raised garden. Because everything is condensed into one spot, it takes less effort to harvest, and we’re using more of our garden for growing plants.
Vermiculture is when worms create compost, and vermiculture buckets are a very efficient way of doing this.
Rather than having a single compost bin where we put all of our food scraps, we space many small bins (I use 5-gallon buckets) around the garden. Kitchen scraps are distributed into the different buckets, into which composting worms have been introduced. The worms break down the kitchen scraps into worm castings that are much more fertile than typical compost.
This permaculture gardening technique works great with both raised beds and keyhole designs. Simply drill a bunch of nickel-sized holes into the bottom half of a 5-gallon bucket. Then bury the bucket in the garden, with the bottom half beneath the soil surface.
Then fill the bucket with a bed of shredded paper and/or cardboard topped off with a layer of soil, manure and/or dried grass. Once composting worms are added, they’ll handle the rest. The nutrients of the vermicompost drain directly into the garden and feed the plants. When the bucket is full, the castings can be spread over the bed.
Mulching is another key difference between permaculture gardening and conventional gardening, which typically removes all organic matter.
Mulch, especially organic mulch, offers a wide range of benefits. It moderates soil temperature by keeping the sun off of it and insulating it from the cold. It prevents evaporation so that the soil stays moist. It stops heavy rains and wind from eroding the topsoil. And, as it breaks down, it reinvigorates the soil with more organic matter to feed on.
Chop-and-drop mulch is a technique that doubles up on the benefits. By growing nitrogen-fixing legumes and dynamic accumulators (i.e. plants with deep taproots that pull minerals up from deep in the earth), top-quality mulch material is produced right there on-site.
Nitrogen-fixing legumes provide natural fertilizer—nitrogen—while the decomposition of dynamic accumulators re-mineralizes the soil. Because the plants are in the garden, leaves and branches are simply chopped and dropped right onto the beds. These plants will grow back again and again, providing more and more organic matter to constantly improve the soil!
Biodiversity in the garden is beneficial because the nutrient needs of crops vary. Pests aren’t provided with rows upon rows of their favorite food. And harvests aren’t centered on the success of one crop.
Companion planting ups the ante with pairings in which the individual plants provide services for the other plants in the group. Having chop-and-drop mulch plants is an example of this, but there are many other aspects of companion planting.
Good plant combinations can help with controlling pests, attracting beneficial insects, filling vertical spaces, and providing fertilization. Most culinary herbs and many flowers, such as Nasturtium and Marigold, are fantastic repellents for garden pests. Flowering plants are very good for attracting bees and other pollinating insects.
The trinity of corn, bean, and squash are a classic combination of efficiently using vertical space in your garden. The corn grows high, beans use their stalks as poles, and squash winds along the ground. Corn, beans, and squash also have beneficial relationships at the root level, from which each plant’s growth is enhanced.
Perennial plants are a huge part of permaculture design because they supply food without needing to be replanted year after year. But that isn’t to say that permaculture gardening plans never include annual plants.
Annuals do have a place in permaculture, but the overall approach is more measured. Growing annuals sustainably requires rotating crops, which means changing the type of plants we are growing each time we cultivate a particular bed.
When the same plant (or plant family) is used in the same soil time and time again, that soil becomes depleted of whatever nutrients that plant likes. And diseases and pests that like that particular crop linger in the soil, waiting for the next round of feasting.
By rotating crops we can create simple sequences of planting that will revitalize the soil and keep pests and diseases at bay. A typical sequence starts with soil-enhancing beans and peas before hungry cruciferous vegetables. Then you switch to nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, with mineral-mining root vegetables as the last leg. Then, the whole cycle starts over.
Permaculture gardening centers on three core ethics: Earth care, people care, and fair share. In terms of gardening, “fair share” means that we can’t constantly take from our gardens without giving back.
Conventional agricultural has done this in the form of chemical fertilizers, which is neither necessary nor sustainable. Using fertilizer as opposed to organic matter to feed plants doesn’t help with feeding soil life and building new soils. The end result of this process is completely sterile earth that has nothing more to give in terms of nutrients.
Green manure is another way to give back to the garden. This process involves growing soil-amending groundcovers with the sole purpose of cutting them down and giving them right back to the garden as organic matter.
Natural systems work this way: Things grow, die, and go back to the earth so that the next generation can grow from them. If we only ever harvest from our annual gardens, the soil never gets back the energy lost in producing those crops. It’s only fair to our soil to occasionally grow something for it. Many gardeners grow green manure as part of the crop rotation (often after the root vegetables). -Jonathon Engels; header photo by Anastasia Limareva via Flickr