I have been asked what the difference is between a conventional garden and a permaculture garden. So I thought I would try to answer that question in this article. There are a lot of moving parts to a permaculture garden, so let’s go through them one at a time.
A permaculture garden is not just organic; it is beyond organic. It uses natural processes to grow food, and protects that food by natural processes. No chemical substances should touch your permaculture garden.
Let’s start with how to build your garden. What goes into it, and what sets it apart? There are many ways to build a permaculture garden, so you can’t necessarily recognize one just by looking at it.
I have written about a few different ways to build a garden, so take a look back through the other articles here, and choose whichever style works best for you. Hugelkultur, raised beds with wooden sides, keyhole gardens, herb spirals – you’ll have plenty of styles to choose from.
Building healthy soil
The most important thing is to always work toward creating more and more healthy soil. That should be the basis of every permaculture garden. Healthy soil equals healthy vegetables, which equals a healthy you.
Adding layers of compost to the garden each year; refraining from tilling; encouraging the presence of earthworms; and feeding the soil microorganisms are how you make soil. Keep adding organic matter in the form of compost to your soil and it will only get better year after year.
Mulch and cover crops
Once you’ve got a good soil-building system in place, it’s time to look at how you’re going to protect that soil. Rain can really drain a soil of its nutrients, and the sun can dry it out, killing the microorganisms living there. So you really want to keep it covered.
You can protect the soil a few different ways. Adding a mulch is the easiest way to protect your soil. You can use a variety of things for mulch, such as straw, grass, compost, hay, or wood chips.
But mulching doesn’t always work well in every climate. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have a lot of slugs, and they love hiding in mulch. So it’s not always a workable idea.
You can also protect the soil by always having something growing in it. A cover crop can add nutrients to the soil. Legumes such as peas, beans and alfalfa will add nitrogen to your soil, while also keeping it covered during the rainy season. Or mix peas with oats to also add more organic matter to the soil
Cover crops are excellent ways to add organic matter to the garden, generally through adding it to the compost, or using it as mulch. You can plant a quick-growing crop in the spring, such as buckwheat. Or you can plant a hardy crop that will stand through the winter to protect the soil.
So get a good cover crop system sorted out; and then you can start thinking about other things you’ll need to do for your garden. For instance, what will you do when the insects come calling?
Natural pest control for the garden
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a system that uses natural ways to keep your garden safe from the insects that really want to eat it. Sure, you could just buy chemicals, but that would not only kill the insects, it would kill you too. Just don’t even go there.
The key is to have patience. Insect pressure will eventually balance out, if you give it time. The pest insects – the ones that eat your crops – will be a nuisance for a while. But then all of a sudden you will see an influx of ‘good’ insects. They will come to eat the nasty ones.
If you want to attract the beneficial insects, and have them handy for when the evil ones drop by, there are quite a few plants you can grow. Beneficial insects generally seem to be attracted to umbellifers. You can get those by letting some things go to seed such as cilantro. Dill is another umbellifer that attracts the beneficials.
Growing a variety of flowers in the garden is your best defense, as the flowers will attract and feed the beneficial insects. And they’ll look purdy too. Now let’s look at some other ways to increase your yield.
Increase edges in the garden
Edges in the garden are very beneficial. I talk quite a bit about it in this article. Learning to use and increase edges in your growing systems is so important in permaculture that it was made one of the 12 Permaculture Principles.
Try to increase the edge in the garden so you can take advantage of the natural benefits. Increasing your yield is the main goal of growing a garden; so it’s up to you to take advantage of all the techniques at your disposal.
You can increase edges in the garden by making path edges wavy instead of straight; planting some sort of cover crop in the paths (low growing clover is nice); and even integrating trees and shrubs in the garden.
Another technique that you can use in your permaculture garden to increase yields is succession planting. Succession planting means that you plant one fast growing vegetable in the spring, and when it’s harvested you plant another one.
Sometimes you can even plant the second crop while the first one is still in the ground. This really gives the second crop a head start. You can do this with any crop that you can remove the bottom leaves and branches from. You can start carrots under broccoli, fall root crops under peas, and other fall crops under garden tomatoes.
You can also do something I call relay planting. It works great for things such as carrots, lettuce, or broccoli, when you don’t want them to all be ready for harvest at once: plant short rows a few weeks apart to spread the harvest out over the whole season.
Okay, so we’ve worked out our soil creation system, and learned how to implement Integrated Pest Management to keep our crops safe. We know how to protect our soil with mulch or cover crops, and we’ve integrated more edges. What else makes this a permaculture garden?
You might have heard about monoculture – the practice of growing only one crop, rather than a mix or crops – and it’s role in, well, killing soil all over the world. Monoculture is not natural. Nothing in nature grows as a monoculture. Plants grow together, supporting each other, and helping keep the balance between the beneficial insects and pest insects.
So what is the alternative to monoculture? Why, polyculture, of course. Polyculture is the practice of growing many plants together that all benefit each other. In a garden it can come in many forms. Polyculture is about diversity.
You can have a full-on polyculture by just mixing all the seeds together and flinging them into the garden beds. Or you can make things a little more organized, and plant alternate rows.
Even scattering beneficial herbs and flowers throughout the garden increases the diversity, and offers some of the benefits of a polyculture. So do what you can to mix it up in the garden, just like in Mother Nature does.
You have all the pieces to build a permaculture garden
Are you getting a better picture of what a permaculture garden is? It is an attempt to grow your food as nature would grow it. It is an integration of natural processes, designed to grow the healthiest food possible.
It’s pretty simple: Healthy, nutrient rich soil will produce the healthiest and most nutrient rich vegetables. So keep working toward creating a truly natural system, and you will create a permaculture garden that will give you the healthiest food possible.
So, did I answer the question, what is a permaculture garden? I hope you have enjoyed this article, and that you learned a little something about permaculture gardening. If you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below.
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