Saturday, November 8, 2014

How to plan your backyard garden (a practical introduction to permaculture)

Considering what to do with you backyard, courtyard, balcony or acreage? Why not use permaculture principles as a starting point? 

Many of you may have heard the term permaculture; it seems to be gaining some widespread popularity which is a great thing (a friend currently doing an internship on a community farm recently told me that permaculture was right on trend at the moment - if there is anything that I like to be it is on trend!). But seriously, it would be fantastic if this developed into more than a trend as it gains more widespread attention; permaculture really does provide some keys to reversing much of the mess we’ve made on this planet.

With the above in mind, I thought I would give a brief introduction to permaculture and how that relates practically to your yard when planning a garden. 

Permaculture as a formalised design process/system was developed by Bill Mollison & David Holmgren as an integrated system of design “that encompasses not only agriculture, horticulture, architecture and ecology, but also economic systems, land access strategies and legal systems for businesses and communities.”

In essence, permaculture is based around a set of 12 principles from which to design living systems that recognise the interrelatedness of natural systems and seek to mimic those for success over the long term (permanence).

The Twelve Permaculture Principles are:
  1. Observe & interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change
Let’s pick a few of those and consider how you might apply them to say, a regular backyard on a suburban city block - once you start you’ll surprised how helpful it is to have a set of design principles to focus your attention.

Observe & Interact
Start by spending some time in the space and observe what happens. Ask questions.
What animals/insects are present? Where are the dark and light spots? Which areas receive sun first and for how long? Which areas receive little sun?
Which areas are exposed to wind and which areas are sheltered? 

All of these things should be considered before launching into any projects. Ask questions about what the space is capable of and what can be achieved in it and let that inform your design and planting choices. Too often we try to foist upon an area our vision and then spend the rest of our time fighting against what the areas wants to do naturally. 

Other considerations should include:
  • What is the aspect
  • Climate / rainfall
  • Sun light / arcs
  • Heat Zone
  • Existing assets  (i.e. fruit trees, veg beds, useful structures etc)
Catch & store energy

Again ask questions! Where is energy being produced (or where could it be)? How could you catch it for use in your garden. Energy sources typically include sunlight, water, wind and also include the conversion of sunlight into food through photosynthesis. 
Where could you put a little propagation house to harness sunlight and grow your own seedlings? Are solar panels an option for your house? 

Obtain a yield
Whatever you are doing, whether it's growing vegetables, animals (chooks, rabbits, ducks) or flowers, be sure to obtain a yield that you can use, reinvest and share with others. I consider beauty a valid yield (as Clive Blazey - founder of the Diggers Club - says,”There is no excuse for ugliness!”) but where possible you should always aim for multiple yields (food, beauty and soil enrichment for example). 

Produce no waste
Where possible, look for ways to eliminate waste and obtain a yield from products that would otherwise go to waste - you’re aiming develop systems that are self supporting (closed loops). There should definitely be no reason for you to use your green bin (get composting!). If you have a couple of chooks, there’s absolutely no reason why any left over food should leave you block - and you will be taking a "waste" product and obtaining a yield (in the form of eggs or meat)! How cool is that.

Integrate rather than segregate
Specifically in regards gardening this idea is priceless. Look to utilise intercropping and companion planting and you will limit your parasite/disease problems dramatically.
However, the integration idea extends further than just the garden bed. Look to have multi use spaces in proximity to others - this eliminates inefficiencies and promotes creativity. It also provides the opportunity to observes spaces whilst working on something separate.

Use small and slow solutions
This is a good reminder that most things worth doing take time. What you learn in the doing is a yield in itself.


Obviously there is a lifetime worth of stuff to unpack in these principles but I hope this quick starter inspires you to get going in your space. 

This little motto (that I first heard here) is a good way to live:
 - Start where you are
 - Use what you have
 - Do what you can

So what are you waiting for? 


  1. I worked for Bill for two years and left after his last stroke. I learned a lot whilst there and I think one of the simplest and best concepts is the herb spiral. I think everyone can learn a lot from the doing the simple things in their own space.

    Some of the best people I know are permies :)

    1. Wow Michelle - that would have been amazing. I can't imagine how much there would have been to learn. I've never actually done a herb spiral - I've seen a few but never done one myself.
      I will do one for my next herb seeds!!
      I agree that there is much to be learnt from simple things done slowly!

  2. I love these principles, so common-sensical and thoughtful of ALL that gardening and growing involve. Have you studied permaculture? I'd like to take a local course some time.

    1. Hi Sharolyn,
      I don't have any formal training - just lots of reading and doing! I would love to do some in the future though.
      You're right - so common-sensical!

  3. I'm a Certified Permaculture Design Consultant, and have been following your blog for awhile now. Love this post!

    1. Hi Kohana,

      Glad you liked it. Where do you work?

  4. Introducing the principles of Permaculture made me pretty interested! I think it will be a great thing for me to study! Great post! Thanks!


Thanks so much for your words of encouragement, advice and solidarity.

xo em