We’re all stewards of the land, blessed to be living here, and it’s our critical responsibility to make sure we honor the natural resources that help us live. Permaculture design provides a great toolkit for doing this, and it can also help simplify your life and make your landscape more resilient. Practicing permaculture can be fun and rewarding on many levels.
Though it’s complex and can take years to learn, I’m going to help simplify permaculture for you. First and foremost, permaculture is rooted in ethics, which can act as a filter to help you make decisions:
• Take care of the Earth.
• Take care of people — starting with yourself!
• Share resources and abundance.
You can learn from a number of different ecological design principles, creation techniques, and even technical jargon, but I’ll let you save all that for your own adventures in learning permaculture. Here, I’ll focus on some easy ways to get started on your journey.
1. Become a Systems Thinker
Each one of us depends on many different systems to survive — food, water, energy, and soil fertility, to name a few. It’s important to examine these systems and try to understand the elements that make them work, as well as their connection to our lives, so we can create as many self-sustained, closed-loop systems as possible.
We must consider ways to design and build resiliency in these systems — take water, for example. We use it every day, and having access to a clean supply is critical for our survival. We should ask: What are our sources? Do we have a backup source in case of an emergency? How can we design backups for our water supply? How do we make sure we’re only using what we need? You can apply this same line of questioning to soil fertility, food, waste, energy, and even your laundry systems.
2. Start Small
Designing a new system can feel overwhelming, so a good permaculture practice is to start small — though the most important thing to do is to get started. Taking small steps means that if you make mistakes — which you will, and that’s the best way to learn! — the consequences will be minimal. If you want to try something new, look for and learn from an experienced mentor before jumping in headfirst. Select a system you want to work on and choose one element of that system. For example: For your soil fertility or waste system, start by building a compost bin or using a food digester to compost your organic matter.
3. Kill Your Lawn and Grow Food
Stop growing grass and start sowing produce. One of the most efficient techniques to begin with is sheet mulching: Cover your lawn with organic matter and smother it. You can use a variety of materials; I prefer burlap or cardboard with a good 6 inches of mulch piled on top. It may take several months to kill your lawn with this method, but then you can plant in the newly amended bed space. Or, if you don’t want to wait, simply remove your lawn manually.
4. Grow Perennial Food Plants
Annual food plants, such as tomatoes or carrots, are delicious when grown at home. However, they require resources year after year, and you only get one harvest. With perennial plants, you only plant once and then harvest each year! Think of food-bearing trees, shrubs, canes, and groundcovers, and start with those. Begin with what you eat most — maybe you love blueberries or are partial to raspberries. Perhaps you’re keen on perennial vegetables, such as asparagus. Some perennial food plants produce a harvest within their first year, but most will take three to five years to really get established.
5. Enlist and Nurture Nature’s Allies
Ecosystems contain a lot of elements that have specific jobs. They all work to keep a balance — plants, animals, insects, soil, and fungi. Some of the best allies, such as pollinators and nitrogen-fixers, are often overlooked when creating a functional garden space. I recommend clovers to many of my clients because they can be used as a groundcover or lawn substitute when nitrogen is needed in the soil. Birds and bats can help with pest populations and will be enticed into your garden with a small water feature, some forage plants, and a habitat, which could include seed heads left on perennials for winter food, stacked rock piles, or dead wood and snag trees left in place. If you create as much habitat as possible and plant for diversity, then many allies will come to help you.
6. Build Healthy Soil
Healthy soil is the foundation of our gardens and should be a high priority. Learn about the soil you’ve inherited and manage it as though it’s your lifeline. Carefully consider how nutrients are extracted through food production and forage, and make sure you’re amending properly. Be careful not to expose soil, never use chemicals, and employ mulch to keep your soil protected just as nature intended. A top dressing of mulch can be formed from a variety of organic matter, including wood chips, compost, composted manure or bedding, and leaves. Covering your soil will ensure erosion control, root protection, weed suppression, moisture retention, and temperature control.
7. Plant a Food Forest Garden
A forest has layers of plants that create a stable and resilient ecosystem, which we can mimic in our own gardens. We can also look to a food forest for more than food — it can provide medicine, fodder, fuel, lumber, wildlife habitat, and more. In each climate, the list of plants will look different but will encompass a variety of plants we can grow. For example:
Trees. The tallest canopy layer of trees can produce fruit or nuts, all while providing shade and potentially even fuel or medicine.
Shrubs. You can plant dwarf fruit trees of various sizes, a variety of berry bushes, and cane shrubs, all of which will produce food or provide habitat for wildlife. Currants, blueberries, and chokecherries are some of my favorites.
Herbaceous perennials. This layer can include a wide variety of plants, all of which will die back every fall and come back every spring. Consider medicinal or culinary herbs, or edible flowers. You can also choose from hundreds of perennial vegetables, such as rhubarb or even hostas, which are edible.
Groundcovers. This layer can contain berries, annuals, and perennials that cover the ground, providing a living mulch as well as a product to eat or use. For newer landscapes, use squash, which will grow large and cover the ground while other plants are getting established.
Soil layer — roots, tubers, and fungi. This layer can provide food and medicine from mushrooms and roots that are edible or medicinal. Consider inoculating small log rounds to grow your own mushrooms in the shade of your food forest.
Vines. The trees or nearby structures can provide support for fruiting vines, such as grapes or kiwi, or a beautiful medicinal, such as passionflower. Be sure to match the structure to the mature weight of a fruiting vine, as they can become heavy!
8. Let Animals Be Animals
All animals have roles or jobs within an ecosystem, which we can look to as a way to let them help us. For example, enclosed chickens aren’t able to do nearly as much for us as they can free-range. Free-range chickens keep pest populations down, help turn the soil, and manage weeds in landscaped areas. However, when we employ animals, we must create a safe environment and system for them to work in. Every animal we invite into our lives can have multiple functions, including land management, food and fiber production, fertility management, and even security.
9. Create Resiliency in Yourself
Resiliency is an important aspect of living sustainably. Life can hand us difficulties that we don’t anticipate — financial strains, medical problems, divorce, trauma, and grief. All of these can be hard on us emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Consider what might happen in an emergency of any kind — would you be ready? To continue taking care of the land we live on, we must prioritize and plan for self-care and personal growth. This could include specific routines. One of my favorite ways to stay healthy and centered is strength training and practicing yoga, both of which are great for anyone at any age. Emotional resilience is often overlooked, but it can help us keep calm during the roughest times in our lives.
Permaculture embodies the idea that we can live in harmony with the land while it meets our human needs, which is quite achievable in most cases. Every situation is different, though, so there’s no magic formula to follow. Go forth and learn to find the permaculture practices that work best for you.