What if your garden grew food with little effort from you? What if your house stayed cool when it was hot – not because you turned on the air conditioning, but because of how you’d located and designed it? These practices are all part of permaculture – a method of ecological design.
Permaculture is a system that encourages people to design their homes and gardens to be inherently functional. After observing ecosystems and learning from different cultures around the world, Bill Mollison developed Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual to help people learn how to design in ways that are in tune with their ecosystems. Permaculture is useful for those of us who are thinking about ways to be efficient with our time, money, and energy.
Oddly enough, many of our homes and gardens aren’t designed to function well in their surroundings. Think about your home in the summer’s heat. It’s likely that there are a few rooms that get really hot. Our townhouse certainly does. One of our very warm rooms is my daughter’s bedroom. If I were to design a house from scratch, I’d think about designing a home that would maintain bedrooms with a fairly constant temperature throughout the year. This sort of forward thinking saves energy, money, and time – and it would make us all more comfortable in the summer’s heat!
The same applies in your garden. Becoming a savvy garden designer can help save you energy, time, and money. Most importantly, it saves you effort, so that you’re free to work on other areas of your home. Permaculture has a set of design principles that are useful for anyone, whether you live on an acreage or in an apartment. Here are a few principles that can help shape you into a permaculture-savvy gardener.
Begin with observation. Before you rush into a project in the garden, take some time to observe what is going on. Is the site wet or dry? Cool or warm? Really assess your site and consider whether it suits your plans. Would that area of your garden be more suitable for another type of plant or animal instead?
Think about your garden’s proximity to your home and its relationships with other elements in the surrounding environment. For example, if you’re finding a site for a chicken coop, you’ll want it to be close enough to care for but far enough so that pests won’t be close to your home. You’ll want to put it in a place where the chickens can get out and roam without damaging your vegetable garden, and you’ll want to make sure that it’s not in a place where passing people or predators can easily access your chickens. For each element in your garden, there are many outside influences that affect where you locate a project.
Make the smallest change with the largest impact. Sure, it might be tempting to hire a backhoe to reshape your garden, but if you can simply move a few plants to more suitable locations, that’s probably a better use of your time and energy.
Think about how your garden can produce multiple yields at the same time. A fruit tree might produce fruit, but it can also be a wind break and provide shade to plants that would wilt in the summer’s heat. Its flowers provide pollen and nectar to local bees, and its leaves can become a wonderful summer or winter mulch as well. This principle is particularly useful in small gardens.
Learn from what you’re doing. If something’s not working, it’s all right to change it. Accepting feedback is all part of the ongoing design process. It’s all right to move slowly as well. Adding mulch to a garden to improve soil water retention takes time, but it’s cheaper than installing a big watering system.
Are you looking for more design ideas that will help you become a savvy garden and home designer? The Permaculture Principles site has a beautiful graphic interface that leads you to a description of each of the permaculture principles and examples of how these apply in your home.