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How to Garden with Permaculture Principles in Your Backyard

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garden with permaculture principles

Permaculture has become a predominant practice since it was first brought to the public eye in the 1970’s. There are documentaries about how it may be part of the answer to global climate change and to the crisis of topsoil erosion that large-scale industrial agriculture has wrought. But, many of us may find it challenging to fully understand these global issues, much less how we can have an effect on them from our humble backyards…but, maybe we can? We can garden with permaculture principles.

What if we could make a difference? I believe we can contribute to solutions in our own backyards, or even our front yards, depending on your situation. Did you know there is roughly 40 million acres of turf grass in the U.S. (according to a study by Environmental Management in 2005) That includes lawns, golf courses and parks. This is four times more acreage than is used in growing corn, and grass is the nations largest irrigated “crop”. What if just some of that lawn could be turned into gardens? What kind of impact do you think that could make?

I’m a dreamer. I think it could make a dent with regenerative gardening. It could make a dent in the water usage, especially in areas of the country that are already experiencing drought. I think it could make a dent in the amount of carbon in the air. Regenerative garden practices naturally sequester carbon in the soil. What if collectively, home gardeners could make a dent in climate change by adopting permaculture principles? Even if it was just a 5% difference, is that worthwhile? I believe it is.

Creating an Eco-Friendly Garden with Permaculture Design

There is a lot of value in permaculture principles for the home gardener, if you can get past the jargon. Most of the content you find about permaculture can be very academic and the concepts may seem lofty, when we consider our little home gardens. However, when you understand these concepts, it is a lot easier to adopt them, one by one, into your own backyard. You can even stay on good terms with your Homeowner’s Association, if that is a condition you have to deal with. (more on that in another blog post!)

There are 12 permaculture principles that guide practices. Here is a very academic explanation: The 12 permaculture principles are a set of guidelines that help gardeners design and create sustainable and harmonious systems. I won’t get into the weeds for this post (pun intended). Instead, here are eight ideas to garden with permaculture principles in your own backyard garden:

Optimizing Your Garden Layout: Permaculture Principles

By taking time throughout the year to “observe and interact” with your yard, you can discover the important patterns of nature that will help you design a better garden layout. Where does the sun rise and set? How does it change each season? That will help you plant your sun-lovers where they will get the six to eight hours they need. If you plant a fall garden, then you’ll know how the sunlight changes as the days grow shorter, and plant accordingly.

Does the wind come through part of your yard at certain times of the year? Do you need to plant a windbreak, like a hedge, to protect tender plants? Observe how water drains in your yard. Are there any areas prone to standing water or runoff water?

Most gardeners have thought about their soil, but it’s worth mentioning. If you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to assess the quality of your soil, including its texture, drainage, and nutrient levels. You can do simple soil tests or hire a professional to analyze your soil’s composition and pH.

No-Dig Gardening: A Key Element of Permaculture

No-dig, or No-till gardening is becoming more than a buzzword as lazy gardeners (like me!)…er, savvy gardeners, learn about it. Repeated tilling is not a good practice for building soil. Not only does tilling release carbon stored in the soil, it also destroys the structure that has been built by the soil biology, the microorganisms that feed on organic matter and enrich the soil.

There is no need to dig and plow if you are building healthy soil. Healthy soil itself takes care of a lot of garden woes. It produces healthier plants that are more resistant to pests and disease. Healthy soil retains more water, reducing water loss and reducing the need to water as often. (You can see the appeal to us lazy gardeners!)

No-dig gardening methods protect the topsoil from erosion by wind and water. It also reduces the risk of soil compaction, which can occur with heavy machinery or frequent tilling. Fluffy soil is the gardeners dream! There are many advantages to no-till gardening. So how do you practice no-till gardening? That’s for another blog post…

Enhancing Biodiversity: Polyculture Planting in Permaculture

Polyculture, as opposed to monoculture (the practice of growing a single crop in a large area), enhances biodiversity in the garden in several significant ways. Polyculture involves growing a variety of plant species together in the same area. This diversity attracts a wider range of beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife compared to monocultures. Different plant species provide varied habitats and food sources for beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, and pollinators. This encourages them to stay in the garden and help control pests.

Planting multiple plant species together is one of the easiest ways to garden with permaculture principles. There are several methods to easily plant a polyculture in your garden:

Companion Planting

Companion planting involves planting different plant species near each other to get certain benefits, like organic pest control, or improved growth. There are a lot of claims about companion planting that haven’t been backed up by any “studies” or empirical evidence, but many gardeners will swear by the method, including me.

Some plants emit chemical compounds or fragrances that repel or confuse specific pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. For example, planting marigolds alongside vegetables can deter nematodes, and planting garlic can help repel aphids. For years I have planted herbs like thyme and basil with or near my tomatoes. I have never had a problem with tomato hornworm.

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The strong odor of smelly herbs like basil and thyme is said to confuse the pests. It makes sense to me. Think about it, if you have an entire row of tomatoes planted side by side, which we often do for ease of trellising, when the tomato pests come flying by they can’t miss the scent of tomatoes…or whatever it is that attracts them. If they are met with the scent of basil or thyme, or any other strong smell, they are confused. “I thought there were tomatoes here, but now I’m hit with this other smell that I don’t like at all…I’m outta here.” {As if bugs could think or talk, lol.}

Planting flowers next to your veggies or fruit is a great way to attract beneficial insects, which is known to increase pollination rates and enhance yields. The bright colors of zinnias or calendula, or the purple of lavender, are so attractive to the bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Flowers like alyssum, yarrow and sunflowers also attract the predatory insects, like ladybugs. Many gardeners welcome ladybugs because they love to feast on aphids, those nasty bugs who do such damage.

Companion planting can be as simple as planting some herbs or flowers at each end of your beds. Herbs easily fit at the feet of your tomatoes. Companion planting is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and results may vary depending on your specific garden conditions. Experimentation and observation, a great way to garden with permaculture practices, will help you discover which companion planting combinations work best for your garden.

Interplanting

While similar to companion planting, interplanting has a different focus and approach. Companion planting focuses on strategic pairings, whereas interplanting is a broader technique that involves planting different crops in close proximity, within the same garden bed or row. The focus is on maximizing space.

Interplanting Nasturtiums and Kale

Some simple ideas for interplanting can include:

  • You can pair crops that have low-growing or shallow roots between rows of taller or deeper-rooted crops, like planting lettuce or spinach between rows of corn or sunflowers.
  • Succession planting, or planting quick-maturing crops in between or alongside slower-growing ones. For example, you can plant radishes between rows of carrots. By the time the carrots need more space, the radishes are ready to be pulled.
  • If you are container gardening, you can plant different crops in the same large container or pot. This approach is ideal for small spaces or patio gardening, and allows one crop to support another.

When interplanting, it’s essential to consider the specific requirements of each crop, including sunlight, water, and soil preferences. Successful interplanting can help you make the most of your garden space, improve pest control, increase biodiversity, and enhance overall garden health and productivity.

Integrating the Pollinators

We’ve already mentioned the importance of bringing in pollinators. One of the most important ways to ensure that the pollinators come to your garden is to practice organic gardening. Avoiding synthetic chemicals not only is more pollinator friendly, it prioritizes soil health.

Another important point that applies to other aspects of gardening is to lean heavily into native flowering plants. Native plants are particularly attractive to local pollinators. Choose a variety of plants that provide nectar throughout the seasons. Include a variety of shapes and colors as well, to attract a divers mix of pollinators. Be sure to include fragrant flowers, too. Some pollinators are active at night, so night-blooming flowers, like evening primrose and moonflower are a smart addition.

If you’re aiming to attract hummingbirds, hang nectar-filled feeders in your garden. Red or brightly colored feeders are particularly effective. While hummingbirds primarily feed on nectar, they also consume small insects and spiders for protein. This makes them natural pest controllers in your garden, helping to keep pest populations in check. They are also just fun to watch, bringing the gardener out to the garden more often. We all know the best thing for the garden is the gardener!

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Discovering Nutrient-Rich Perennial Vegetables in Permaculture

Perennial vegetables and fruit are a smart addition to the garden. I love the fact that they come back year after year. Once established, they take less ongoing maintenance, and you only have to buy them once. Even though I consider myself a lazy gardener, another way to look at it is that perennials are more sustainable because of the reduced energy and resources needed for replanting, such as seed starting and transplanting. Their long lifespan adds to your savings over time.

Perennial crops often have deep roots, which improve soil structure and health over time. They help prevent soil erosion and increase soil microbial activity. They adapt to their local environment and are often more drought-tolerant, once established. Perennials tend to be more resilient in changing weather conditions and can withstand temperature fluctuations.

One of the most appealing things about growing perennials in the garden is that there are many unique flavors and varieties that are not readily available in stores. Adding perennial fruits and vegetables to your garden can increase biodiversity. They provide a habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife that support a healthy garden ecosystem.

Common perennial fruits and vegetables include asparagus, rhubarb, berries (such as strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries), fruit trees (like apple and pear), artichokes, and some herbs (e.g., chives and mint). Incorporating these plants into your garden can provide long-term benefits and add diversity to your edible landscape.

Mulching: garden with permaculture Techniques for Soil Cover

Mulching is a valuable gardening technique that offers numerous benefits, including organic weed suppression, moisture retention, temperature regulation, and soil improvement. Gardeners can choose from various mulching techniques based on their specific needs and preferences. Here are some common mulching techniques:

  • Organic mulches include materials like straw, leaves, grass clippings, compost, wood chips, and shredded bark. These materials break down over time, enriching the soil with organic matter and nutrients.
  • Straw or hay is often used as mulch in vegetable gardens. It helps suppress weeds, retain moisture, and keep soil temperatures stable. Straw is more quickly broken down and has a more balanced mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK), ideal for a vegetable garden. Be sure to use straw, which is seed-free, not hay, to avoid introducing unwanted plants to your garden.
  • Mature compost can serve as a mulch in gardens. It not only helps retain moisture and suppress weeds but also adds nutrients to the soil as it continues to break down.

Proper mulching techniques can significantly improve the health and productivity of your garden while reducing the time and effort needed for maintenance.

Conclusion: Permaculture Principles Can Improve Your Garden

In summary, learning about permaculture can be helpful for gardeners because it promotes sustainable gardening practices, enhances biodiversity, and contributes to a deeper understanding of the garden. It can lead to more successful and fulfilling gardening experiences. Because the practice of permaculture has become a world-wide phenomenon, there are many resources available for gardeners to explore permaculture and the many ways to adopt it into the home garden.

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