Endless rows of crops. Heavy machinery. Toxic pesticides. Synthetic fertilizers. All of these are common tools that largescale farmers use to get the crops we need to feed all the people. Can permaculture farming combat industrialized food production?
Industrialized crops have been heavily manipulated and require an intensive amount of work for them to grow and produce. It has become a vicious cycle where the soil gets decimated and must be amended with heavy duty synthetic fertilizers that take a huge toll on the environment. The crops themselves are dependent on pesticides and genetic modification just to combat being ruined by pests.
There was a time long ago when man foraged for fresh produce; these plants in the wild needed no nurturing, they produced a crop completely on their own.
When man decided to bring these plants closer to home, they required nurturing and work to get them to produce. Why was it that the plants produced in the wild grew completely on their own, while just by simply moving the plant it needed to be farmed?
That is what permaculture intends to address.
Table of Contents
What is Permaculture Farming
Essentially, permaculture farming is an enclosed agricultural system that uses natural ecosystems to be self-sufficient. There is a synergy that forms between the people and the environment for a socio-ecological relationship, a relationship that is all but disappeared in our modern world.
Permaculture farming goes beyond just expecting an end result from the crops, there is a philosophy behind it that uses observation and thoughtfulness throughout all of nature’s cycles as opposed to working for a means to an end.
Modern farming has a cultivated ecology that is human-centered; a permaculture farm has a foundation in the design of natural ecosystems that benefit both man and nature.
Permaculture gardens are completely scalable and can be applied to small urban gardens to large rural farms.
Permaculture thrives on developing multiple disciplines that include agriculture, water systems, energy systems, building naturally, forestry, managing and reusing waste, animal systems, appropriate tools, and community development if on a larger scale.
The 12 Principles of Permaculture
David Holmgren, an environmental designer and ecological educator, developed the concept of permaculture with Bill Mollison.
David created the 12 Principles of Permaculture that have become a code of ethics that are applied when designing and developing a permaculture farm.
- Observe and Interact “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”
- Catch and Store Energy “Make Hay while the Sun Shines”
- Obtain a Yield “You can’t Work on an Empty Stomach”
- Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback “The Sins of the Fathers are visited on the Children unto the Seventh Generation”
- Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services “Let Nature take its Course”
- Produce No Waste “Waste Not, Want Not” “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”
- Design from Patterns to Details “Can’t see the Forest for the Trees”
- Integrate rather than Segregate “Many Hands make Light Work”
- Use Small and Slow Solutions “The Bigger they are, the Harder they fall” “Slow and Steady wins the Race”
- Use Value and Diversity “Don’t put all your Eggs in one Basket”
- Use Edges and Value the Marginal “Don’t think because you are on the Right Track just because it’s a well beaten Path”
- Creatively Use and Respond to Change “Vision is not seeing Things as they are but as they Will Be”
As you have begun to see, permaculture is a deep and thoughtful subject that requires time, attention, and research. So how does a beginner approach building a permaculture garden?
Beginner’s Guide to Permaculture Farming
A harmonious mix of plants and herbs
Starting with Permaculture Zones
With permaculture farming, it’s all about the design, and the design is based on zones. The zones closest to home are the ones you will frequent and tend to the most, whereas the farthest zones call for the least tending, or no tending at all. Zoning is completely scalable and is flexible according to the needs of the plant or animal.
Zone 0: Your home. This includes any indoor gardening such as sprouts or microgreens, food production and processing and waste. Education also falls into the home zone, repairs, and the collecting of water in most cases.
Zone 1: This is where your most intensive farming will be. Plants that require frequent tending, herbs, and sensitive crops. You will be most active in this area. You can also place small animals in this zone like rabbits and poultry.
Zone 2: This area requires less work than zone 1 but still needs daily attention. This includes poultry, rabbits, milking cows, worm bed, orchard trees, bushy crops like berries.
Zone 3: low maintenance area for livestock that graze on their own, requiring littler attention. Seasonal crops like wheat, rice, and corn.
Zone 4: This zone utilizes the natural forest for collecting of wild edible and medicinal plants, nuts, and fruits. Gathering of wood, independent trees that self-seed.
Zone 5: The natural area that is rarely visited. This zone links into other wildlife corridors but may need some management such as creating a firebreak, reduction of flood risk, and other stop-gap measures that reduce the risk of catastrophes.
Zone 6: The greater bio-region and beyond!
It is important to note that many permaculturists start and stop with zone 1, which is completely fine. If you plan to only have a vegetable garden or you have a small space to work with, then mastering zone 1 is all you will ever need to do. There is always room to move onto the farther zones.
An example of permaculture zone layout
Start your Permaculture Journey in Zone 0.
You may be wondering why start with the home? It already exists! The symbiotic relationship between zone 0 (the home), and zone 1 (the garden) is the crucial foundation to achieving a successful permaculture space. It is all about the flow, how you access things on a daily basis, and finding a balance between the zones. There are many things you can do to renovate certain areas of your home to make your permaculture flow much better, similar to Feng Shui in a practical sense.
Declutter and repurpose items.
One aspect of permaculture farming is cutting down on costs, resources, and materials. Start by decluttering your home and identifying items that can be repurposed like tables and surfaces, cannisters, and storage containers. Organization is a must and getting rid of clutter gives us more time and energy to focus on the things we want in life. You can also repurpose spaces in your dwelling to accommodate your needs and goals.
Setup composting cannister and start collecting vegetable base food scraps for your compost pile.
Composting starts in the home by collecting the green matter in the kitchen. Place a composting cannister on your counter so you can collect kitchen scraps, reducing trips to the compost pile. Use a cannister you already have instead of buying a new one, such as a coffee can. Just make sure to poke holes in the top for air circulation. Check out my thorough Composting 101 Guide to get your compost pile started quickly and correctly.
Use small areas to start growing your own sprouts and microgreens.
You can use a small space for growing sprouts which are ready to eat in five days. Organic sprout seeds are extremely affordable and can be grown in a mason jar. You can learn how to grow sprouts with my easy-to-follow sprout growing guide. Microgreens are easily grown in a 10×20 tray and only require a small amount of light that can be from a LED growing light strip.
Use the immediate space around your home.
You can turn a portion of your patio into a greenhouse, thereby cutting down on construction materials. A small greenhouse is great for growing microgreens. You can learn how to grow microgreens here. You can also have a table on your patio where you clean and prepare your crops. Repurposing inside furniture into outside workspaces is a good idea, such as tables, chairs and shelving units.
Can you use external walls of your house to build outbuildings? You could build a shed that holds your garden tools and supplies, or possibly place your chicken coop by your house to help block the elements. Anything that can extend from the house is helpful as this helps cut down on building materials and is highly accessible, bridging the gap between Zone 0 and Zone 1.
Setup a renewable water system.
Collecting rainwater is typically involved in Zone 0. Rainwater collection systems are usually built on the side of the house, utilizing a rain gutter for catching the water into a barrel. Although water is relatively cheap and bountiful, using our resources available to us and reducing waste is apart of the philosophy of permaculture. Plus, its always good to have a backup supply of water.
Setup or save on power.
Another factor to consider is power usage. Although expensive, installing a solar power system is a great way to become independent from the grid. Over time, the system will pay for itself and decreases fossil fuel energy usage.Check out my Solar 101 Guide to get started with solar. If installing a whole system isn’t in the plan, you can use cheap solar panel kits to power outbuildings, garages, and heat chicken coops over the winter.
You can always work towards reducing your energy usage, saving you money and reducing the use of resources. Unplugging electronics after fully charged, turning off electronics after use and not running the cooler or furnace all the time are all easy ways to trim your energy consumption.
See! You are a permaculture pro and you haven’t even left the house yet!
A largescale permaculture farm – amazing!
Moving onto Zone 1
Zone 1 is the area that surrounds the home and is the most utilized zone. Many will not have to build beyond zone 1 as this zone is primary for the garden and raising small animals like rabbits or chickens. Zone 1 is completely scalable and can be used in small yards and urban gardens.
Think of this zone as a flow to and from the home. The symbiotic balance between Zone 0 and Zone 1 is a highly important aspect. The energy needs to flow harmoniously and unobstructed between all the elements.
What do I mean by that? Within the design, everything is arranged for the easiest access with a flow to all the elements that require frequent tending. If you are making a daily trip to the compost pile, why place it in the back? Move it closer to Zone 0, possibly between the home and the garden. If you are growing hardier elements that require less tending, such as kale and potatoes, place those toward the back of the garden. Crops that require more tending get placed closer to zone 0. Fussy plants like herbs can be placed toward the front of the garden, or can even have their own special planting container like a tub or bin placed right outside of the door.
If you choose to have chickens, building the coop on the side of the house not only eliminates some building materials and provides an extra layer of protection from the elements, it also allows for quick access to the chickens, as opposed to tromping all the way across the yard just to feed and collect eggs. You can also keep a better eye on them if predators start skulking about.
Zone 1 should be nestled in with your day-to-day activities as this is the zone you will most frequent, possibly many times a day. Zone 1 can be in the shape of a block covering a larger area, but can also utilize the small spaces around you, such as your walkways and around entryways.
If there is a little strip of garden along the pathway to your mailbox, you could plant some herbs along the way. If you have some room around your entryway, you could try growing partial shade crops, like brussels sprouts. The sprouts grow tall and narrow and require less light than normal.
The goal is to use your high traffic areas in a thoughtful and meaningful way, costing you less steps and less time having to remember about all these things that needs tending. This equates in a savings of energy that you put forth to tend to all these elements.
Steps for Designing Zone 1
Consider the larger elements first.
Elements that require larger spaces, like the garden, chicken coop, and outbuildings are planned out first. Consider the needs of these spaces; certain vegetables require less light while others need full sun. Fruit trees require less maintenance and can be placed towards the back.
Chicken coops and outbuildings can be brought closer to the home for easy access and electricity, if needed.
With the larger elements in place, utilize the space in between.
Along the way to your garden, you can place your compost pile. You can plant lettuce and carrots in a strip along a path, saving space in your garden, or making your main garden more compact.
Consider your access to water.
If you are collecting rainwater, how will you access and use it? What is the distance relation to the rainwater and your crops? Will you have to drag your garden hose across your space just to water? Setup your water system to be as easy as possible and use the water you collect before utilizing a municipal source.
Also consider what crops will require the most watering. Keep plants that require more water nearer to the watering source and plants that require less farthest. Consider a passive way to water your garden.
Consider your soil.
Before going on a planting frenzy, you want to make sure your soil is sound to produce the best results. If your soil is not in good health, many things can be done to naturally amend your soil. You can add a mulch to the soil that will help protect it from the elements and help hold in water. You can use your homemade compost for mulch that also provides massive nutrients. You can use plants to add an organic layer to the surface.
Go small and slow, per the ninth permaculture principle.
Permaculture farming is basically an organic science experiment. Some things may work, and others may fail. Implement areas one step at a time and observe those areas well. If they are not working, then try something else. Learn from failures and adapt.
Sketch it out.
Time to bust out the notepad and colored pencils! Create a rough sketch of your home and outside space. Place all the elements you want into your sketch. You may find better solutions seeing it visually sketched out. Make a few of these sketches and compare. What could work better?
One cannot simply convey the concept of permaculture farming in a single article, or even an entire website! Deeper learning is required; it takes years of practice and gathering knowledge to become a master permaculturist.
This knowledge comes in the way of many books and even hands on courses. There are forums that you can use to connect with other permaculturists and help with troubleshooting and ideas.
I hope you have enjoyed my practical guide to getting started with permaculture farming. I would love to hear your feedback about my article! Also comment any questions or additions you have. Happy gardening!
– Regina C.