Applying Original Permaculture to the Garden

Discover some of the principles of permaculture that will help you achieve a low-maintenance garden.

  • A raised bed polyculture of beans and sweet corn.
    Photo courtesy of Permanent Publications
  • Maddy and Tim Harland’s no dig, permaculture food forest.
    Photo courtesy of Permanent Publications
  • Michael Guerra’s garden, showing productive use of small space.
    Photo courtesy of Permanent Publications
  • Stacking of peas and spinach below wineberries.
    Photo courtesy of Permanent Publications
  • Stacking of sweat peas, beans, and lettuce.
    Photo courtesy of Permanent Publications
  • “The Minimalist Gardener” by Patrick Whitefield is a guide to permaculture gardening, with suggestions for both large and small spaces.
    Cover by Rozie Apps

No-Dig Gardening

In a natural ecosystem, disturbed or bare soil is very rare. An undisturbed soil, covered with plant material, either living or dead, is protected from erosion and free to develop its natural fertility. Moving and exposing the soil disrupts the biological processes of fertility and leads to the loss of precious organic matter.

So why do we dig our gardens? The main reason is to relieve compaction, and the main cause of compaction is treading on the soil. If a garden is laid out on a bed system, gardening without digging becomes a possibility. A bed system consists of beds alternating with paths, with the beds sufficiently narrow that every part of them can be reached from a path. The gardener never needs to tread on the growing area, so there is no compaction.

Doing away with digging saves a lot of work. What’s more, although quite a large proportion of the garden is composed of paths, the overall yield is usually higher than in a traditional vegetable plot. In part this is because the vegetables can be placed equidistant at their ideal spacing in both dimensions. Without a bed system they must be planted in rows, to allow space for the gardener to walk between them, so they’re too close to each other in one dimension and too far apart in the other.

No-dig is not a dogma. Sometimes it may be worthwhile to dig, perhaps to remove perennial weeds or to mix in compost in a raw soil. But these occasions should be rare in most gardens.


In nature, mature ecosystems are composed almost entirely of perennial plants, that is plants which live for many years, in contrast to most of our vegetables which are annuals and only live for one year. There are advantages for us in imitating this aspect of natural ecosystems.

Anyone who has grown both fruit and vegetables will know how much less work it takes to grow the fruit, which is perennial, compared to the vegetables, which need to be raised from seed each year. But there are a number of perennial vegetables, and other vegetables, that can maintain themselves in the garden by self-seeding.

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