Permaculture is a big idea, but it doesn’t have to be big in scale. Even gardeners with small gardens can use the basic principles of permaculture to grow an efficient and resilient garden.
The word ‘permaculture’ was originally a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’, which gives you an idea of what it’s all about: a sustainable growing system that will integrate with our environment in a harmonious way – a backlash against the control-freak, monoculture ethos of most commercial agriculture.
That’s simplifying things to a degree that would appal any committed permaculturist, and doesn’t take into account all the other applications for permaculture, which are as far reaching as designing businesses and communities, as well as gardens and farms. But for the small-space gardener looking to explore permaculture, it’s a good place to start.
There are 12 permaculture principles in total, which can be used to plan your permaculture garden. Permaculture design principle number one is ‘Observe and interact’. Identifying and using your garden’s microclimates helps you to harness the power of permaculture to make your garden more efficient and productive.
It’s worth taking time to just stand still in your garden and look around from time to time, and especially before starting a new garden. See where sun and shade fall, and work out how this will change at different times of day and year. Identify where wind passes through and which areas are more sheltered. Take note of any low areas where water and frost are likely to settle. Then use your observations to decide what should grow where.
Permaculture principle number six is vital: ‘Produce no waste.’ Good planning will reduce issues with unmanageable gluts, and a thriving composting system will turn any vegetable waste that is produced into an incredibly valuable resource. Even a single compost bin (or two, if you can possibly squeeze them in) will make your garden much more sustainable. Consider in-situ composting solutions that require no dedicated space or equipment – invaluable when you have large quantities of organic matter to compost all at once. Even small gardens can produce lots of leaves and other plant material at the end of the growing season!
Three permaculture principles – ‘Integrate rather than segregate’, ‘Use and value diversity’, and ‘Use edges and value the marginal’ – are particularly important to keep in mind when designing your small permaculture garden. Smart gardening techniques such as intercropping and companion planting become even more useful, making the best use of limited space as well as providing natural solutions to common gardening problems such as pests, soil erosion and fertility. ‘Edges’ in nature, where different habitats meet, are highly biodiverse and productive. In small gardens there are lots of edges butting up against each other, providing the potential for impressive yields for the space.
Permaculture design uses a system of ‘zones’ which makes it easier to prioritise what to grow where in the garden. Crops that are the most time-consuming to grow or which are frequently harvested – for instance, salad leaves and herbs – are grown closest to the house, with plants like fruit bushes that require less input or which are harvested infrequently sited further away.
In the small garden some of these zones may be less relevant but it’s still worth following in principle. Trust me – on those grotty days when it’s freezing cold and chucking it down and all you want is a few salad leaves or a handful of chives, you’ll be much more inclined to harvest them if they’re in a pot by the kitchen door rather than against the back fence!
Permaculture Plants for Small Gardens
In a permaculture garden plants are grouped into seven distinct ‘layers’. The canopy is the tallest layer, and usually consists of tall trees. The understorey includes smaller trees and large shrubs, followed by the shrub layer, which can include fruit bushes such as blueberries and gooseberries. Tall trees are not usually an option in small gardens, but the understorey or shrub layer can effectively be used as the canopy where space is tight.
Next comes the herbaceous and groundcover layers – think annual and perennial vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, and green manures. The sixth layer is the rhizosphere, the edible constituents of which are root crops such as potatoes and carrots, and fungi. Finally, the vertical or climbing layer includes vining vegetables such as beans and peas. Vining crops are real space-savers, requiring a very small footprint for tremendous yields.
Non-edible plants are essential too. They can provide many benefits, including shade, windbreaks, climbing plant supports or ground cover. They can also be invaluable for deterring pests or attracting pollinators that might otherwise pass by your garden. When you’re small, shout loud!
Permaculture uses a system of guilds, or plants grown in sympathetic relationships, to encourage best use of space, protect the soil, and enhance productivity. The classic guild is known as the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. The corn provides sturdy stalks for the beans to climb up, while the beans help the corn and squash to access nitrogen in the soil. The squash sprawls along the ground, protecting the soil from erosion and reducing evaporation.
You can use similar principles to make up your own plant guilds, choosing crops that have compatible growing requirements and habits. At least one of the plants in the guild should attract pollinators or repel pests, one should provide ground cover, and ideally one should help to draw up nutrients to feed the soil too.
As highly-respected permaculturist Graham Bell says: “Permaculture isn’t a movement or a cause. It teaches you how to look at things and assess opportunities.” By using permaculture principles and techniques it’s possible to make the most efficient and resilient use of your garden space, no matter the size.