Permaculture: How Do I Start a Small Homestead?

Permaculture homestad Gardening

The principle of permaculture has been around since the 1970s. You can find out how to successfully implement it in your own garden here.

What is permaculture?

Permaculture is made up of the English words “permanent”, in the sense of sustainable, and “agriculture” for farming. It is a planning and design method for agriculture that is intended to enable survival in harmony with nature. The focus is on the multiple functions of individual elements and a closed-loop system. Ideally, with permaculture and a little patience, you can create a garden with which you can achieve a high yield with relatively little (material) effort – and in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

What is permaculture

The idea of permaculture

The concept of “permaculture” was coined by Bruce Charles “Bill” Mollison (1928-2016) and his student David Holmgren in the 1970s. The two Australians spent long periods of time with the Australian aborigines, where they learned about a respectful approach to nature. Mindfulness, close-to-nature cycles and preservation of natural resources are the most important teachings that come into play in permaculture. In 1978, Mollison founded the “Institute for Permaculture” in Tasmania. In 1981 he received the Alternative Nobel Prize for his work. Besides Mollison and Holmgren, the Japanese Masanobu Fukuoka should be mentioned, who represented a similar understanding of holistic agriculture in Japan.

Goals of permaculture

The development and maintenance of interconnected, multifunctional and sustainable ecosystems modelled on nature is the major goal of permaculture. Self-regulating ecosystems such as (rain)forests, wetlands and floodplains serve as models. In the application of permaculture, it is indispensable to treat the earth and its resources with care. Permaculture in the true sense does not only refer to gardening and agriculture, but strives for a regional and completely self-produced food supply. In doing so, existing resources are to be used efficiently, energy consumption is to be lowered and the consumption of consumer goods is to be reduced.

Three ethical principles and five R’s

For Mollison and Holgren, permaculture is based on three ethical principles: “Care for the earth”, “Care for the people” and “Fair share”.

It is also about respectful use of raw materials, which is described by the five concepts with “R”:

Refusing: Resist all superfluous consumer goods.
Reducing: Reduce energy, materials and waste.
Reusing: Use things more than once.
Repairing: Repair items.
Recycling includes – if possible – upcycling things, i.e. upgrading products that at first sight seem worthless and giving them a new function.

Permaculture principles and their application

Permaculture in the garden is based on principles that serve as planning aids – but can be implemented very individually. So simply fall back on those which are most suitable for your ideas and your project and which, according to your experience, can best be combined.

Permaculture homestad

Learning from nature

To design and manage a garden according to permaculture ideas, one principle is to recognise and understand the structures, patterns and forms in nature and to take them into account when planning. For your own garden this means: Mimic the natural processes in the rhythm of the seasons, get to know the native plants and animals, observe how the sun runs and where there are shady spots in the garden and those exposed to the wind. A sound knowledge of the local soil is indispensable. Is it clay, sandy or loamy soil and what nutrients, if any, do you need to add to improve it.

The better you know your garden, the easier it will be for you to plan vegetable, herb or perennial beds as well as ponds and border zones. One way to imitate nature in your own garden is, among other things, to have a wild soil, i.e. a section in your garden that you completely “leave to nature” and do not cultivate in any way. In addition, you can rely on perennial plants that require little care and still produce good yields. Berry bushes such as the currant are particularly suitable for this. Another rule in permaculture is not to leave the soil uncovered, i.e. either mulch it or cover it with plants. This protects them from extreme weather conditions and stores heat.

Designing a garden as permaculture

When designing your garden according to the permaculture concept, you should first be aware of what vision you have for the plot. After all, by making the best use of the natural conditions in your garden, permaculture aims to create a sustainable and long-term design. The following considerations are helpful: What grows on my plot? What do these plants need? What are the special features of my plot? What has not worked in the past? What are my financial possibilities? How much time do I have for cultivation? Which plants and which harvest make me happy?

When designing, alternate small, intensively used areas with large, extensively used areas. Plan zones and incorporate natural forms such as nets, meanders or waves.

The ideal model of permaculture consists of five zones (rings) that circle around the human being as the centre:
Zone 0: House or flat
Zone 1: Kitchen garden, herb garden
Zone 2: Vegetable garden or small animal husbandry
Zone 3: Fruit and/or nut trees
Zone 4: pasture land
Zone 5: Wilderness, resting place for man and nature

Of course, not all zones can be implemented in all gardens. Especially on a small plot, you must limit yourself to a selection. Scale sketches will help you plan your plot according to your wishes. Remember to keep the paths as short as possible, this way you will reduce the effort of implementation later on and save energy in long-term management.

Permaculture garden

Create diversity

“Mixed culture instead of monoculture” is the permaculture motto. Therefore, grow crops in alternating crop rotation that have proven to be good neighbours. So-called mixed culture tables are helpful here. Give your vegetable patch the opportunity to regenerate by planting green manure (for example oats, mustard or fenugreek).

Choose plant and vegetable varieties that suit the climate of your region and the local soil conditions. Make sure that there is a variety of habitats in your garden, i.e. both intensively used areas such as vegetable beds and extensively left border and transition zones. Companion plants in the vegetable patch such as comfrey as a mulch plant or oats for soil building are also very important. A milpa bed, as already cultivated by the Maya, has proven to be an ideal mixed crop. Here, the “three sisters” maize, beans and pumpkin are cultivated on one area.

Focus on multifunctionality

In permaculture, multifunctionality in the garden means arranging plants and structural elements in such a way that they can fulfil several functions and benefit each other. The example of a hedge illustrates this quite simply. A hedge on the north or west side of a property protects against the wind. If you plant a hedge of “sweet fruit plants” such as blackberries, gooseberries or blueberries there, you can additionally harvest. If you have a willow tree in your garden, a woven willow fence can be a windbreak, decorative border and recycling of the willow rods left over from cutting. Animals can also take on different tasks in the garden. Running ducks and chickens, for example, are welcome helpers in pest control.


Using energy efficiently

To use energy efficiently in your garden, it is essential to know exactly the daily solar radiation, prevailing wind conditions and the orientation of the plot. After all, they determine the microclimate in your garden. A south-facing (house) wall, for example, retains heat for a long time after exposure to sunlight. A U-shaped hedge facing north protects against north winds and therefore creates a pleasant microclimate on the south side of your garden. A greenhouse is almost a must for the permaculture gardener, as it allows you to get sensitive plants through the winter and cultivate seedlings early. Ponds are also ways to store heat. Earth cellars and rents serve as cool and dry places in winter where vegetables can be stored. This saves energy and, not least, costs that a large refrigerator would entail.

Don’t waste water

Permaculture in your own garden is about using water as profitably and sustainably as possible. In other words, collect the rainwater on your property with the help of rain gutters and a rain barrel, and, if possible, channel it into your own pond and use it to water your vegetable beds. Of course, you can also use the collected rainwater for irrigation with the help of watering cans and garden hoses. Remember that water also serves as an optimal heat reservoir. A greenhouse right next to a pond gets much more heat from the reflected sunlight.

Jonathan Harvey
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