An old friend asked me what I did for work, and I said I do permaculture designs. They had no idea what that meant, and I realized they might not be the only ones. After all, it took a long time for me to get permaculture (and I’m still learning a lot). So, I put together this guide as an introduction to permaculture.
The name permaculture comes from permanent-agriculture. It’s a way of managing land to mimic natural systems. Examples of permaculture are planting flowers near fruit trees, harvesting rainwater from a roof, and using the sun for passive heating in homes. The result is a self-sustaining and self-sufficient lifestyle.
While this may help, more questions come up. Let’s take a closer look at each of them and how you can get started with permaculture.
In this article:
- What is Permaculture
- 10 Examples of Permaculture
- How to Practice
- 10 Fun Permaculture Ideas
- Is Permaculture Sustainable?
- FAQ & Glossary
What is Permaculture?
Google’s definition of permaculture is:
“The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.”Google
This may help a bit, but it doesn’t mean a lot.
To help with this, let’s take another look at the bolded paragraph above.
Permaculture is a design philosophy with a goal to mimic sustainable systems found in natural ecosystems. In other words, permaculture is a way of working with nature, instead of against it. Examples of permaculture are planting flowers near fruit trees, harvesting rainwater from a roof, and passive heating in homes.
The key phrase here is “design philosophy”. I first heard this explanation from Geoff Lawton and it stuck with me.
I admit, I heard the word “philosophy” and almost stopped listening (I love philosophy, but the word can look so…boring sometimes).
But philosophy is the perfect word. Because in order to understand permaculture, we have to reshape how we think. And it’s not our fault.
We’re just used to thinking about nature as something to take advantage of, like a coal mine. But by thinking of it like a fruit tree, ever-bearing and part of a larger system, permaculture starts to make more sense.
I first heard about permaculture almost 10 years ago. It was this mystical and abstract idea I couldn’t fully wrap my head around. Then, after the pandemic and the homestead boom, I dug in deeper.
After reading many permaculture books, practicing it in my backyard, and writing about it for years on this website, I ended up getting a Permaculture Design Certificate.
Now, with more context, I’d like to help you understand permaculture even further.
10 Examples of Permaculture (Basic & Advanced)
For me, one of the best ways to understand something is to see it in context.
However, I can still get lost if I’m tossed into more difficult examples. So, let’s start with some basic ideas of permaculture, followed by some more advanced examples.
- Home vegetable gardens: Growing your own food is a simple and rewarding way to start practicing permaculture. You can use companion planting, natural pest control, and composting to create a thriving ecosystem in your backyard.
- Rainwater harvesting: Collecting rainwater from your roof and storing it in barrels or tanks is a great way to conserve water and reduce your reliance on the municipal supply.
- Hugelkultur beds: This method of gardening involves using logs and branches to create raised beds. As the wood decomposes, it provides nutrients to the soil, helps retain moisture, and reduces the need for irrigation.
- Chicken tractors: Mobile chicken coops allow you to keep chickens on your property without having to worry about their impact on the soil. The chickens can be rotated from one area to another, providing natural fertilizer and pest control while also producing eggs.
- Vermiculture: This simple and low-maintenance method of composting involves using worms to break down organic matter into nutrient-rich compost. Vermiculture can be done indoors or outdoors and is a great way to reduce waste and improve soil fertility.
- Food forests: A food forest is a designed ecosystem that mimics a natural forest, with different layers of plants and animals working together to create a self-sustaining system. A food forest can include fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, herbs, and vegetables, all growing together in a way that mimics the diversity and interdependence of a natural forest ecosystem.
- Keyhole gardens: Keyhole gardens are circular raised beds that incorporate composting and permaculture principles to create a highly productive and sustainable food-growing system. They are particularly well-suited to arid climates, where water conservation is essential.
- Aquaponics: Aquaponics is a closed-loop system that combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) to create a highly efficient and sustainable food-production system. The waste from the fish provides nutrients for the plants, while the plants clean the water for the fish.
- Natural building: Natural building uses materials and techniques that are derived from, or mimic, natural processes to create durable and environmentally friendly structures. This can include cob houses, straw bale homes, and earth-bermed homes, all of which use natural materials and building methods to reduce their impact on the environment.
- Ecovillages: An ecovillage is a sustainable, self-sufficient community that incorporates permaculture principles into all aspects of its design and operation. This can include community gardens, shared resources, and green building practices, all aimed at creating a more sustainable way of life.
While these examples are helpful, what does this mean for your garden? How can you start practicing permaculture in your backyard?
How to Practice Permaculture
I first started practicing permaculture by mimicking what I saw others doing in YouTube videos, books, and more. Some of the first things I dug into were companion planting, composting, and hugelkultur. However, there are so many ways to practice permaculture.
Here’s a good starting point:
- Observe and interact: Before diving in, take a step back and observe your backyard. I remember watching the sun’s movement, identifying microclimates, and noting down where water pooled after rain. Understanding your backyard’s unique features will help you design a space that works with less work and more reward.
- Start small: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your permaculture haven. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to redesign the entire space at once. I started with a small herb and fruit garden next to my back door, and it was a great learning experience. You could start with a small raised bed or even a container garden. The key is to learn as you go and expand gradually.
- Plant guilds: I like to think of plant guilds as nature’s BFFs. These are groups of plants that support each other by providing shade, attracting pollinators, or repelling pests. One classic example is the Three Sisters – corn, beans, and squash. In my garden, I’ve found that planting basil and tomatoes together not only helps keep pests away but also makes my tomatoes taste even better!
- Composting: Don’t let those kitchen scraps go to waste! Composting is an easy way to recycle nutrients and create fertile soil. I started with a simple compost pile in the corner of my yard, and now I’m a vermicomposting geek. Find a composting method that works for you and watch your garden thrive.
- Harvest rainwater: Begin by observing rainfall patterns in your area and choose a location for your system, such as a rain barrel or cistern. Choose one that fits your needs and filters out debris and contaminants. Proper installation and maintenance are essential for efficiency and effectiveness.
- Embrace natural diversity: One thing I learned early on is that diverse gardens are resilient gardens. Think of your backyard as a buffet for pollinators, birds, and other beneficial critters. The more variety you have, the merrier. Mix and match plants with different varieties, heights, colors, and functions to create a balanced ecosystem.
- Be patient and learn from mistakes: Of course, not everything I tried worked out. Don’t be too hard on yourself if something doesn’t go as planned. It’s really the best way to learn and improve.
10 Fun Permaculture Ideas & What to Make
The above list has some great steps to start practicing permaculture, but if you’d like more one-off projects, here’s a list of even more fun and easy permaculture ideas.
- Herb Spiral: Creating a herb spiral is a great way to add visual interest to your garden while also maximizing space. You can use bricks, stones, or wood to create a spiral-shaped bed and fill it with herbs that grow well in your area. Place the herbs that need less water towards the top.
- Composting Toilet: A composting toilet is a great way to reduce your water usage while also producing nutrient-rich compost for your garden. There are many different designs available, including DIY options that you can build yourself.
- Chickens: Keeping chickens in your backyard is a fun way to produce your own eggs and meat while also reducing food waste by composting kitchen scraps. Make sure to provide them with a comfortable coop and plenty of space to roam.
- Solar Oven: A solar oven uses the sun’s energy to cook food without using any electricity or gas. You can build your own solar oven or purchase one online.
- Perennial Vegetables: Planting perennial vegetables is a great way to reduce the amount of work required to maintain your garden. Perennial vegetables like asparagus, rhubarb, and artichokes will come back year after year without needing to be replanted.
- Beekeeping: Keeping bees in your backyard is not only fun, but it also helps to pollinate your garden and produces honey. You can start with a simple beehive or take a course to learn more about beekeeping.
- Mushroom Cultivation: Growing mushrooms at home is a fun and delicious way to produce your own food. You can grow mushrooms on logs, straw, or even coffee grounds using kits or by following online tutorials.
- Vertical Gardening: Vertical gardening is a great way to maximize space in small gardens or urban areas. You can create vertical gardens using trellises, containers, or specialized systems like hydroponic towers.
- Seed Saving: Saving seeds from your garden is an important part of permaculture, as it helps to preserve heirloom and native plant varieties and reduces the dependence on commercial seed sources. You can learn how to save seeds from your favorite plants and exchange them with other gardeners in your community.
- Rain Gardens: Rain gardens are designed to capture and filter rainwater runoff from your property. They are planted with water-loving plants that can absorb and filter pollutants (such as reeds), while also reducing erosion and providing habitat for wildlife. You can create a rain garden in a low-lying area of your yard or near a downspout to capture rainwater runoff.
Is Permaculture Sustainable?
Permaculture’s main goal is to create a self-sufficient and sustainable ecosystem that can produce food and other resources in a way that is environmentally friendly, socially just, and economically viable.
It’s a truly noble goal, but many believe it’s too good to be true.
So, what’s the truth?
Arguments For Permaculture
One of the main reasons why permaculture is considered sustainable is that it mimics the natural world and creates a closed-loop system that minimizes waste and maximizes resource use.
By using techniques such as companion planting, crop rotation, natural pest control, and water harvesting, permaculture farms can reduce impact on the environment while producing healthy and nutritious food.
Permaculture also promotes the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, which reduces the reliance on non-renewable sources such as fossil fuels.
Arguments Against Permaculture
However, there are also some criticisms of permaculture, particularly in terms of its scalability and ability to feed large populations.
Some argue that permaculture is more suited to small-scale, subsistence farming rather than large-scale commercial agriculture.
Others point out that permaculture farms may not be able to produce enough food to meet the demands of a growing population, especially in areas with limited land resources.
Additionally, permaculture techniques can be labor-intensive and require a significant amount of knowledge and expertise, which may be a barrier for some farmers.
Despite these challenges, some solutions can help make permaculture more sustainable and scalable.
One approach is to combine permaculture with other sustainable farming practices such as agroforestry, which involves planting trees alongside crops to improve soil health and increase yields. This can help increase the productivity of permaculture farms while also providing additional environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation.
Another solution is to invest in research and development to improve the efficiency and productivity of permaculture techniques. This could involve developing new crop varieties that are better suited to permaculture farming, improving water harvesting and irrigation systems, and developing new technologies to reduce labor requirements and increase yields.
In addition, policies that support sustainable agriculture and permaculture farming can help promote its adoption on a larger scale. This could involve providing incentives and funding for farmers who adopt permaculture techniques, creating regulations that promote sustainable farming practices, and supporting research and education initiatives to improve knowledge and skills in sustainable agriculture.
Overall, permaculture is a promising approach to sustainable agriculture, but it also faces challenges in terms of scalability and productivity.
But, by combining permaculture with other sustainable farming practices, investing in research and development, and promoting policies that support sustainable agriculture, permaculture can be made more sustainable and scalable, and ensure it plays an important role in feeding our growing population while protecting our planet.
To learn more about if permaculture is sustainable, check out my other post: Does Permaculture Work (Can It Save or Feed the World)?
My Thoughts on Permaculture
In my opinion, the pandemic and global issues have highlighted the need for self-sufficiency and growing one’s own food again.
20 million Americans grew much of their own food with victory gardens during WWI and WWII, and we’ve been doing it for thousands of years before that.
Combine that with the forgotten knowledge we once had of the land (including knowing which wild plants are edible, eating most if not all of an animal, and an emphasis on tribes and community), and I’d say permaculture sounds like a good bet.
Does that mean that we’re all going to live like the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar movie?
It’d be pretty cool, but I think we’re past that point.
I believe that with supply issues, the health crisis, and environmental concerns, a focus on permaculture and rural communities may be exactly what we need.
FAQ & Glossary
As with any subject, there are some terms that can be more difficult to understand. I also wanted to address common questions about permaculture. So, here’s a quick FAQ & Glossary.
Q: What is a permaculture zone? A: A permaculture zone is a way of organizing a permaculture system based on proximity to the home or center of activity. Zones are typically numbered from 0 (the home) to 5 (the wilderness), with each zone representing a different level of activity and intensity of use. For example, keeping the herb garden closer to the home since it’s visited much more often.
Q: What is a perennial? A: A perennial is a plant that lives for more than two years and typically has a deep root system that allows it to survive and thrive in a variety of environmental conditions. Perennials are used in permaculture to provide long-term stability, biodiversity, and ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and soil improvement.
Q: What is a guild? A: A guild is a group of plants, animals, and other organisms that are intentionally planted or introduced into an ecosystem to create mutually beneficial relationships and improve overall ecosystem health and productivity.
Q: What is a swale? A: A swale is a shallow trench or depression dug into the ground to capture and hold rainwater, allowing it to slowly infiltrate the soil and recharge groundwater resources. Swales are often used in permaculture to prevent erosion, increase soil moisture, and support plant growth.
Q: What is a chicken tractor? A: A chicken tractor is a movable chicken coop that is designed to allow chickens to graze on fresh grass while also providing protection from predators. Chicken tractors are often used in permaculture to improve soil health by allowing chickens to fertilize and till the soil, as well as to control pests and weeds.
Q: What is a keyhole garden? A: A keyhole garden (one of my favorite designs) is a circular or oval-shaped garden bed with a small indentation or “keyhole” in the center. The indentation provides easy access to the center of the garden for planting, watering, and harvesting, while the circular shape maximizes growing space and allows for efficient use of resources.
Q: What is a food forest? A: A food forest is a type of agroforestry system that mimics the structure and function of a natural forest by planting a diverse mix of perennial plants, such as fruit and nut trees, shrubs, and herbs. Food forests are used in permaculture to produce food, medicine, and other resources, while also providing ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
Q: What is a hugelkultur bed? A: A hugelkultur bed is a type of raised garden bed that is built by layering logs, branches, leaves, and other organic material on top of the soil. The organic material decomposes over time, creating a nutrient-rich soil that supports plant growth and retains moisture. Hugelkultur beds are often used in permaculture to improve soil health and maximize growing space.
Q: What is a graywater system? A: A graywater system is a system that collects and recycles household wastewater, such as from sinks, showers, and washing machines, for use in irrigation and other non-potable applications. Graywater systems are used in permaculture to conserve water resources and reduce the environmental impact of wastewater disposal.
Q: What is sheet mulching? A: Sheet mulching is a gardening technique that involves layering organic materials, such as cardboard, newspaper, straw, and compost, over a section of soil to create a rich, fertile growing environment. Sheet mulching is used in permaculture to improve soil health, suppress weeds, and conserve water.
Q: What is a composting toilet? A: A composting toilet is a type of toilet that uses natural processes, such as aerobic decomposition and evaporation, to break down human waste into nutrient-rich compost. Composting toilets are used in permaculture to conserve water resources, reduce pollution, and produce a valuable resource for soil fertility.
Q: Does permaculture use pesticides? A: Permaculture aims to minimize or eliminate the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, instead relying on natural methods of pest control and soil improvement. Permaculture uses techniques such as companion planting, crop rotation, and integrated pest management to promote a healthy and balanced ecosystem that can resist pests and diseases without the need for synthetic chemicals.
Q: What is monoculture? A: Monoculture is a farming practice that involves growing a single crop species on a large scale. This method of farming has been criticized for its negative impact on the environment, including soil degradation, increased pest and disease susceptibility, and loss of biodiversity.
Q: What is polyculture? A: Polyculture is a farming practice that involves growing multiple crop species in the same field. This method of farming can improve soil health, reduce pest and disease susceptibility, and increase biodiversity.
Q: What is organic farming? A: Organic farming is a method of agriculture that avoids the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This approach also emphasizes the use of sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, such as crop rotations and natural pest management.
Q: What is homesteading? A: Homesteading is a lifestyle and a set of practices that involves living self-sufficiently on a small piece of land. This often includes growing food, raising animals, and using sustainable and environmentally friendly practices to minimize reliance on outside resources.
Q: What is biodynamic farming? A: Biodynamic farming is a method of organic farming that emphasizes the holistic development and interrelationships of the soil, plants, and animals as a self-sustaining system. This approach also involves using specific planting and harvesting practices based on lunar and astrological cycles.
Q: What is regenerative agriculture? A: Regenerative agriculture is a farming practice that focuses on rebuilding soil health and increasing biodiversity. This approach emphasizes the use of cover crops, reduced tillage, and crop rotations to improve soil health and increase carbon sequestration.
Q: What is agroecology? A: Agroecology is a farming practice that emphasizes the interrelationships between agriculture, ecology, and local communities. This approach promotes sustainable and socially just food systems that prioritize environmental health, food security, and social equity.
Q: What’s permaculture vs agriculture? A: Agriculture is a broad term that refers to the practice of cultivating crops and raising animals for food and other resources. Permaculture, on the other hand, is a design philosophy and set of practices that aim to create sustainable and self-sufficient ecosystems by mimicking natural patterns and processes. While agriculture often involves large-scale monoculture and the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, permaculture emphasizes diversity, soil health, and natural pest control. Permaculture also places a greater emphasis on social and economic considerations, such as community involvement and equitable distribution of resources.
Q: What’s permaculture vs horticulture? A: Horticulture is the science and art of cultivating plants, often for ornamental or aesthetic purposes. Permaculture, on the other hand, is a holistic design philosophy and set of practices that aim to create sustainable and self-sufficient ecosystems by mimicking natural patterns and processes. While horticulture can be a component of a permaculture system, permaculture encompasses a broader range of elements, including energy systems, water management, and social and economic considerations.
Q: How much land do you need for permaculture? A: The amount of land needed for a permaculture system varies due to the goals and needs of the system, as well as the specific site and environmental conditions. Permaculture systems can be designed to fit any size of land, from small urban lots to large rural properties.
For example, a permaculture homestead on a 1/4 acre lot could include a variety of elements such as vegetable gardens, fruit trees, chickens for eggs and meat, rainwater harvesting, and a composting system.
Alternatively, a larger permaculture farm on 10-20 acres could include additional elements such as animal grazing areas, ponds for fish and irrigation, and a food forest with a variety of perennial crops.
The key is to use permaculture design principles and techniques to create a productive and sustainable system that is appropriate for the available space and resources.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. Check out this list to see your local services.
- Permaculture Consultation: Need help with a bigger project? Send us a message.