Some Simple Recommendations for Designing and Building a Permaculture Garden

Dr. Richard Freeman

Designed Ecosystems

This Weblog describes seven easy-to-implement recommendations for designing and creating a permaculture garden. The intended audience includes urban gardeners and farmers seeking to maximize production of sun-grown crops in limited space using sustainable practices. Because a permaculture garden is best understood as an element in a larger, integrated design and ecosystem, I highly recommend reading about the fundamentals of permaculture. I have provided a reading list at the end of this posting, but it is not comprehensive. Observe and assess!

1. Introduction

Designing for ecological function is the basis of the permaculture framework, from the largest scale, for instance, designing zones, to the smallest, like designing and placing individual polycultures. Using the permaculture design process, the gardener designs the zones first, then proceeds to finger-grain components like kitchen gardens, production gardens, food forests, patches, orchards and guilds, critter facilities and pastures, and so on. These recommendations apply to designing and creating kitchen gardens, which are most likely to be situated in zone 1, and to production gardens, which will commonly be in zone 2 or 3.

2. Desired Ecosystem Conditions

2.1. Functionality

The permaculture gardener’s task is to design landscape elements that contribute to long-term garden ecosystem production. Ecosystem production and surplus function require several functions – the various processes on which ecosystem production depends. For example, ecosystem production (including surplus production) depends upon fertility that the ecosystem provides, for example, fixing atmospheric nitrogen and weathering minerals from rocks. Some of these garden ecosystem functions include:

2.1.1. Fertility – sustained, abundant fertility supplied by the ecosystem and dependent on a robust soil food web and a functional assemblage of plants, especially perennial plants.

2.1.2. Water availability – available stored soil water depends upon soil organic matter (SOM), wise plant selections and effective irrigation systems. SOM includes roots, critters (all sizes… constituting the Soil Food Web), decomposing organisms (roots and critters) and char (“black carbon”).

2.1.3. Pest suppression – natural suppression and exclusion of pests, from microbes and insects to mammals and large birds.

2.1.4. Plant pollination – via several organisms.

2.1.5. Protection against mechanical stress – for example, gale force winds, flooding, hail or dust.

2.2. Resilience

Resilience is the ability of the garden ecosystem to continue producing after a disturbance, for example a hail storm that shreds large fruit or a pest that ruins a specific crop. A garden planted with a robust diversity of plants can increase the likelihood of attaining a yield despite a single crop failure.

Resilience is highly dependent on biodiversity, which includes diversity and redundancy in function, structure (mass, volume and shape) and composition (taxonomic representation).

2.3. Abundant surplus for harvest

Most gardeners will not be gardening an area large enough to produce enough food to sustain themselves through ecological functions inherent to the ecosystem. In these situations, even if the gardener is growing plenty of food for sustenance, that production depends upon resources outside and beyond the garden ecosystem – whether power for running the pump or manure to feed the compost piles or minerals to buffer against poor soils. So it ever was. Most “domesticated” land never supported sedentary agriculture.

2.4. Work efficiency and flow

The ability to work comfortably and easily move resources and tools between elements is fundamentally important to permaculture land management. Good work flow depends upon work spaces that are designed with room to work and turn around, with easy to access to work spaces, and so hauling resources is smooth (free of obstructions, corners and stops).

3. Seven common-sense recommendations for designing a permaculture garden

3.1. Build beds on contour

Building beds on contour minimizes water run-off and evens water distribution with any approach to watering.

3.2. Design perennial plants into every bed – including the annuals beds

At the end of each bed, plant small woody perennials that associate with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. In between, plant a few perennial food plants, and in the remaining space, plant some low-lying cover plant selections (chosen for their functions). Between paths and beds, plant low-lying perennials and self-seeding annuals that can stand some tromping. The gardener can easily chop-and-drop the cover plants and place annual seedlings or scarify and expose some soil for planting annual seeds in the spring.

3.3. Build deep, no-till beds rich in soil organic matter (SOM).

In the absence of tilling, a perennial soil food web can develop based on the perennial plants in the bed as described above. When building the beds, work or till large amounts of charged biochar into the soil for long term SOM, which in turn will absorb and hold available water. Also, add generous amounts of compost for more SOM and for abundant nutrients and microbes. If possible, bury some large pieces of wood (4-6” diameter) at least 12 inches below the surface of the soil after it has settled. However, be sure to surround each piece of wood with plenty of soil so roots can penetrate. If possible, use charred wood. The decaying wood will hold moisture and nutrients and provide surfaces for biofilms.

3.4. Grow annuals in groups or associations of selections that grow well together.

The gardener can emphasize one or two selections in the association or give them equal space. For examples, please see the tables in the appendix.

3.5. Design ecological pest management and pollinator support into the garden.

Ecological management involves managing the whole range of organisms that can bother a garden, from deer to pocket gophers and voles to weeds, arthropods, nematodes and microbes. Build effective fencing and gates to exclude the big critters, develop a strategy for rodents, select flowering plants that will attract and support pest predators and parasitoids and nurture a robust soil food.

3.6. Design uniform beds

The gardener can rotate associations every year to prevent pathogen build-up without redesigning the beds each year. Likewise, shade-cloth and season extension structures will fit every bed so the gardener can move them around when needed. I like 5’ x 8’ beds, length-wise on contour. Also, design basins 2-3” deep for perennials for more effective watering, especially while establishing the plants.

3.7. Design for work flow

Designing for work flow involves creating clear paths and roads for hauling tools and materials between elements and comfortable spaces to work

Build paths without sharp corners and place gates carefully, based on their intended function and accounting for work flow. (A word of caution: choosing a place for a gate based on the convenience and ease of building it there is a practice that will obstruct flow, decrease labor efficiency and cause constant annoyance. Placing the gate in the right place might require the added work of correctly setting a proper gate post, but it will save countless hours and grievances over time.) Build gates and paths that are accessible to everyone – including tall people. Avoid forcing people to stoop over and break work flow to walk or carry materials. Build beds that are accessible from either side and easy to work – no wider than the gardener’s ability to work the middle of the bed from either side.

4. Conclusion

All these recommendations seem pretty sensible and apparent from a functional design perspective, and they are. They are straight-forward, easy-to-implement recommendations that will build productivity and save significant time and labor. All of them are consistent with permaculture design as envisaged by the originators and developers of the permaculture design framework – Bill Mollison, John Holmgren, David Jacke, Toby Hemenway and others.