Permaculture: A Primer

By Liam Davis

7 min. read

July 1st, 2021

This article is an ongoing body of work. It's basically a knowledge dump made up of what I've read about/experienced regarding permaculture over the last 5 years. It's nowhere near complete. If you have any advice, comments, or contributions you'd like to make, feel free to drop me an email or reach out on Telegram.

Moving Towards Permanence

Permaculture is a way of organizing systems in accordance with natural law and the local environment to make them self-sustaining - hence, a "perma-culture".

Think of a forest; how often do you have to go there and dump fertilizer on the ground to keep it from dying? Never. What happens when a forest system is out of balance? A corrective force emerges that brings the entire system back into balance - i.e., a forest fire that occurs there is an excessive amount of old, dead trees. The fire will burn away the upper canopy, enrich the soil with ash, and allow light to reach seeds and saplings.

If this sounds too good to be true, here's a suburban example. Here's another extreme example, where a team took completely infertile land (a desert) and turned it into what's called a 'food forest'.

These principles can be applied to any terrain or sized space, even an apartment in the city. This is because permaculture seeks to mimic the form and function of Earth's natural systems.

A food forest is an organic, self sustaining, closed-loop system that provides nutritional, medicinal, and economic yields.

Side note: Contrary to environmentalist belief, sustainable agriculture actually benefits from animals being involved. Grazed pasture is enriched with manure and aerated by the foraging action of any animals involved. Goats can even be used to clear out hardy, invasive brush - they get a meal while saving you hours of yard work. Successful examples of beneficial animal permaculture include Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm (he even supplies meat for Chipotle, a fast food chain in the United States). Mark Shepherd is another good example.

Cows grazing in a foggy pasture

0. Planning

Be prepared to wait at least 6 months before your garden or farm starts being truly productive. The soil must be prepared, perennial and supporting plants (nitrogen fixers, green manure, etc.) need to be put in the ground, and you must generally make sure you have your ducks in a row before diving in head-first.

While planning your design, take the following into consideration:

Over time, external inputs (fertilizer, landscaping, soil tests) should decrease and internal inputs (on-site animal manure, compost, water catchment) should increase. Plan to invest more time, energy, and money in the beginning for decreased costs down the line.

Attempt to source inputs from 'waste products' - wood mulch from tree removal services, cardboard boxes from a department store, or greenhouse parts from craigslist, to name a few.

Identify the slope of your property. Water runs down slope - fertilizer sources (like chicken coops) and rainwater catchment can be placed upslope. Water intensive crops are placed down slope in order to capture and hold water on the property. Identify areas where you can implement berms and swales into your design - along contour lines in the slope of your property, along the edges of walkways, etc. Capturing water that flows over the contour of the land is one of the most efficient means of increasing fertility, especially in dry environments.

Consider organizing your property in terms of zones to minimize the energy it takes for you to traverse your property. Remember that forests are inherently feminine, and utilizing circular designs in your garden can reduce energy expenditure on your part (and make things more interesting/visually appealing).

In the northern hemisphere, the southwest direction gets the most sun. Orient your design to reflect this by placing sun-loving plants facing toward the southwest (or generally sunniest part of the property), and shade-loving plants in the northeast/shadiest part of the property.

Think vertically, in layers, as a forest would be arranged. Any one spot doesn't have to house only one plant or only produce on yeild.

Try to fill as much space as possible while staying mindful of the danger of keeping plants in close proximity - for instance, poor airflow causes rot and fungal infection.

Always consider how each aspect of your garden or farm can have multiple uses. For instance, instead of planting non-productive trees at the edge of your property as a windbreak, plant nut trees. You can then silvopasture livestock through the forest, and place logs in the shade of the trees to grow edible and medicinal mushrooms on. Your garden/farm setup can provide many yields from a single space, just like a forest.

Don't solely focus on incorporating food-producing plants into your garden. Plant a mixture of nitrogen fixers, green manure, and pollinator habitat. These non-productive plants will serve to enrich the soil, attract wildlife, and improve plant health.

Furthermore, look into companion planting as a means of controlling pests and generally creating a hospitable environment for your plants

A row of companion plants such as chives and lettuce, planted in a raised garden bed

1. First Steps

Determine your budget, available area, project scale, source of inputs like fertilizer and seeds, etc. Try to research as much as you can and plan ahead as far as possible to minimize headaches. Experience is the greatest, though not the only, teacher.

A soil test can be helpful to identify mineral deficiencies and toxic metal levels. Some soil can be unsafe for growing food - for example, high levels of lead can accumulate in root crops such as carrots and cause chronic poisoning when consumed. Some farmers even use carrots to remove toxins from soil.

Here is a list of free soil amendments to alter the pH of your soil, add nutrients, etc.

Draw a design for your garden (as in this video), to play with ideas in your head and keep track of what is going to be planted where.

Begin by applying preliminary soil amendments to the area where you plan to grow.

Follow up by sheet mulching the area. This will start your garden off on the right foot by suppressing weeds, creating young topsoil, and providing a mycelial substrate in the form of wet, damp cardboard. Avoid cardboard with colored ink, or excessive amounts of any ink. It's best to do this in the fall and then resume building out your garden in the spring.

If you're planting any trees, mulch around the base after planting. Leave a 6 inch gap to prevent disease transmission from the mulch to the tree's bark. Water the tree thoroughly before leaving it to take root.

At the edge of your property/garden, consider planting bushes, trees, and smaller plants that provide food to birds, rodents, and deer. Contrary to common sense, this will actually prevent animals from stealing your produce by keeping them well-fed and focused on an area that isn't your garden.

Any plants that provide food or shelter for wildlife could also be used to bait wildlife for trapping purposes. I recall a mother robin flying out of blueberry bushes I was tending to. She left behind a nest of eggs. Had I needed the food, I could easily have had a lunch of robin eggs with minimal effort on my part.

If wind is an issue in your area, consider planting larger trees at the edge of your property for the purpose of creating a windbreak (aka a riparian buffer), space permitting.

A row of trees representing a riparian buffer

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