Permaculture Principles for Vegetable Gardeners

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I hear that permaculture gardening is a hot topic in Europe, but every time I decide to study permaculture, my eyes glaze over and I get sleepy before I find new nuggets of wisdom I can put into action in my garden. I think it's the somewhat abstract design principles that throw me off. After 30 years of organic gardening in several different places, I favor a "first things first and get it done" approach to creating a sustainable landscape that provides an abundance of good food. The five guidelines below summarize my personal approach to putting permaculture principles to work in a productive vegetable garden.

1. Use your best spot to grow vegetables in permanent beds

Growing vegetables involves a big investment of time, and many gardeners struggle with small spaces and too much shade. The sunniest spot is always the best place for veggies, which cannot reach their peak of flavor and nutrition without at least 6 hours of direct sun each day. Once you have selected the best spot, you may need to thin low branches from nearby trees as you gradually create deeply dug, permanent beds that provide fertile, well-drained growing space for your home grown veggies. Do everything you can to make sure your vegetable garden site is as good as it can be.

Save time by growing perennial vegetables like rhubarb

2. Grow perennial vegetables and herbs that are adapted to your site, soil and climate

Food crops that come back year after year like asparagus and rhubarb are huge time-savers in the garden, and the same goes for long-lived kitchen herbs. Upkeep is usually limited to pruning, weeding and fertilizing once or twice a year, and I think perennial plants help give a garden personality. Because they like it there, a distant area of my garden is becoming a preserve for medicinal herbs like echinacea, elecampane, lemon balm and valerian. A low spot that stays moist for a long time after it rains has proven ideal for rhubarb. Finding the perfect site for a productive perennial you love earns you a permaculture star.

3. Enrich boundaries with berries

Blueberries, currants, grapes, raspberries, blackberries and other small fruits can be used to structure the landscape's boundaries. Most benefit from a trellis or other support, so training them over or along a fence is often quite practical. Grapes are especially useful in small yards, because they can be trained.


4. Use mulching, drip irrigation and composting to minimize water inputs and eliminate waste

These are permaculture principles that smart organic gardeners follow anyway, mostly because they are good for our gardens and our plants. I always need more mulch and compost, so I cultivate several grassy areas for clipping production, and pull up and compost what seems like tons of cover crop plants. I am not trying to reform the world. Rather, attentive organic gardening practices such as these naturally transform any spot into a more beautiful and productive space.

5. Watch and learn

This echoes the permaculture principle to observe and interact, but my garden humbles my fragile human intellect season after season. Too often our tendencies are to take thriving crops for granted, and react with alarm when problems develop.

Drip hose
Drip hoses and mulching help reduce time spent watering vegetables

Taking the time to stop, watch and learn is critical to your development as a vegetable gardener - a complicated process that requires learning a little about ten thousand things, from soil science to plant pathology. The best way I have found to make sure I take learning breaks is to make myself walk among my beds for ten minutes without doing anything - just looking to see how the plants, soil, insects, and sun are getting along together. It's rare for me not to discover something new.

Just for fun, I like to imagine what my landscape would do if left to return to its natural state. What plants would keep coming back, and which would perish by the end of the first season? My human-enforced permaculture principles would crumble as trees took over, but until then many birds and beasts would eat their fill of berries and apples, and the asparagus and rhubarb would fight to the end to hold their space. I can aspire to permaculture perfection all of my days, but nature will win in the end.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"Great tips. Thank you. One more from experience with 50 acres of farm: Start SMALL!!! 1 acre is all that a single person can manage without power tools. Expand by sharing with other people. If you are (like me), a misanthrope, then confine your experiment to what you can do yourself. Don't fall for the technology trap."
Overwhelmed on Friday 20 July 2012
" Great post, Jodi! I enjoyed reading about the various hydrangeas. I have several but they can be tempermental at times. It's so nice to hear they can handle the sun. Now I understand better why we have blooms on one plant and not on others we pruned at the wrong time! Can't thank you enough! "
rohit on Thursday 16 August 2012
"Beautiful article, thank you. I have a question on hardscape--not sure if this is the correct place, so I apologize if it's not. My backyard vegetable garden is in its second year and I am trying to adapt it to its environment. (Plan is here: What I am stuck on is pathway material. There is a substantial slope (from right to left) of about a foot. There are many, many tree roots, and between them and slope, pavers won't work. I don't want pea gravel due to maintenance, plus I like to walk barefoot out there. Rubber mulch is very expensive here. I can't think of anything other than hardwood I missing anything? (I'm a little leery of mulch as I have it in my front yard and it seems to attract scores of pillbugs.) Right now the backyard paths are bare landscaping fabric. Any thoughts would be appreciated."
Megan O'Shaughnessy on Wednesday 10 July 2013
"I'm astonished that you find permaculture boring, Barbara - I think you must be reading the wrong books - maybe rather old ones? I'm a dedicated subscriber to permaculture magazine and every issue has some great ideas on how to save carbon, save money and (usually) have fun in the process. It's not just forest gardening and no dig beds (although those are pretty good too),but things like rocket stove cooking and straw bale cob buildings, getting free woofing help in your garden, living in low impact communities as well as, of course permaculture for people care and how we design better ways of living to make more sustainable and happier lives. I went on a brief week long people and permaculture course with Looby Macnamara last year that changed my life for the better - as a psychologist myself, I was really impressed. You just have to look at videos like greening the desert and the power of community to see how powerful - and totally non boring -permaculture can be :-) it also happens to be one of the most coherent tools available to us to reduce climate change and increase our resilience to the impact of climate change! Hope you get to experience real permaculture soon :-) Tania"
Tania thorn on Wednesday 26 March 2014
"We had a blinding flash of the obvious when planning our permaculture orchard. We fight with wild cherries that forward all over the place. Hmmm... Mother Nature says...grow cherries you dummies! So that is what we are going to plant there. Certain wild plants grow in certain areas, they indicate what the soil is like. We are planting our melons and pumpkins where wild cucumber vine grows...etc. I'm no permaculture expert by any means but two things I have gotten out of oermaculture that works for us... 1. Zones. Paying attention to where we seem to go all the time, and plan our herb garden, etc to be why have a path in the front of our house we don't use? Better to out the path we all beat the grass down cutting across the lawn anyway? The furthest away and less visited gets to be the place we plant stuff that thrives on neglect. 2. Working with Nature, or better yet, let her do your job. The cherries is a great example for us. Observation is a big one. If it is dry and Sandy in a spot, we pick something that wants to grow in well drained Sandy soil, etc.... There is no hard and fast rule when you look at permaculture. Just look at the principles, and apply what you can for you.?? "
Laura on Saturday 26 March 2016

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