Gardens

Permaculture gardening – a guide to a no-dig garden

A permaculture garden is a design that mimics nature so that you can garden organically, encourage the right wildlife and have a low-maintenance yard all in one hit

a permaculture garden with tall wall
(Image credit: Future/Leigh Clapp)

Permaculture gardening will interest you if you are growing your own fruit and vegetables, particularly organically, if you want to garden without using chemicals to deter pests and weeds – or even if you are simply gathering kitchen garden ideas for a new garden design and are keen to do it the right way

The fact is, it should interest us all, because permaculture gardening is all about recycling, regenerating and reusing – and while these three 'Rs' capture something of the zeitgeist, they are also what nature does on its own.

Here, we look into how easy designing and maintaining a permaculture garden is – and offer advice on how to create your own.

What is permaculture gardening?

There are 12 guiding principles to permaculture gardening that many of us do without thinking about it: using food waste to create compost; minimizing waste; allowing dead plants to become a home-grown mulch; using companion planting to replace fertilizers and to deter pests; buying carefully – for example, avoiding buying new plants in plastic pots; planting for and encouraging diversity; letting nature take its course; building a nutrient-rich soil over time; preserving water and electricity. 

How to design a permaculture garden

How to plan a garden that respects the permaculture approach? It's important to stress that not every single part of your garden has to have permaculture elements to it – although this is something you might like to build up over time. The key is to copy nature by planting with these principles in mind:

  • Start a permaculture garden at the right time of year: the beginning of the growing season is best.
  • Begin with landscaping for practicalities – putting in water barrels to collect rainwater or ditches or bog plants to collect water where it pools naturally.
  • First put in larger plants – trees – working through plant-sizes to ground cover. Ensure there is space and resources to support them all naturally.
  • Choose plants that will naturally do well in the local soil. The easier you make it for plants to flourish naturally, the more nature can take its course without your intervention. 
  • Plant for the local environment – look for Mediterranean garden ideas if you live in a hot, dry area, for example. Consider the effects of wind, as well as rain and light.
  • Plant for low maintenance. For example, plan a dry garden if you live in an area with poor rainfall.
  • Plant what you can manage – fruit and veg will need harvesting; some plants need-heading – if this type of maintenance is beyond you because of time constraints, scale back.
  • Plant a wildlife zone that you will leave well alone. 
  • Consider the shade and sun your garden gets and plant accordingly.
  • Reconsider the shade, sun, wind... and so on in each part of your garden – some areas might be sunny, sheltered and hot; others will be subject to cold winds and shade.
  • Reconsider the climate, environment and weather not just in the planting season but throughout the entire year. Will the tender annuals you put in now survive the winter?

What to grow in a permaculture garden

You want a good mix of fruit, vegetables and pollinator-attracting flowers. We have covered some aspects of what to grow in a permaculture garden, but these are the basics:

Native plants – especially perennials – that are happy in the soil and conditions of your garden will be the most successful and will require the least maintenance. If you are not sure what these are, a quick trip around the neighborhood to see what is flourishing in gardens nearby will give you a good clue. Otherwise, ask at your local garden center. 

Companion plants will look after each other – put in strawberry companion plants next to your fruit and you will get a tastier crop, unbothered by crops (in theory).

Stacking plants: think taller trees at the back of a border; dwarf varieties in front; smaller shrubs in front of those... until we get to ground cover. Planting like this offers each plant shelter, while filling the borders can ensure less watering, soil erosion and fewer weeds. The key is to get the balance right at the start so that nothing is overcrowded – though worse comes to worse, you can move plants that aren't happy.

Succession plants – you may have this mastered already, but the basic principle is that as one plant dies off, another blooms or ripens, so you never have empty spaces or a lack of harvest. 

Perennials and annuals – perennials are of course the backbone of any garden, but permaculture gardening doesn't exclude annuals, many of which you might include anyway (think: tomatoes), others of which will be useful for filling as yet unfilled space, for adding color. And, of course, once annuals reach the end of their life cycle, they can provide useful bulk to the compost heap.

Fruit and vegetables – it goes without saying that vegetable garden ideas will be the main event in your permaculture garden.

Seed-givers – anything that will self-seed or provide seeds for sowing new plants next season will be welcome in a permaculture garden.

Spot plants – where you add a plant into an existing border or grass; this can be used in place of traditional mulching, too, to cover bare patches of soil. 

Permaculture gardening: soil, compost and mulch

Good soil is vital to successful gardening (permaculture or not), so approaching soil health, composting and mulching together makes sense – especially as permaculture  gardening is – ideally – a no-dig approach. Soil is improved by compost and protected by mulch – so let's look at each with permaculture heads on.

Soil health can be protected with these simple approaches:

  • No digging – let earthworms do their job and don't be tempted to turn over the soil which is a universe of nutrients and creatures all of its own.
  • No stepping – try not to walk on the beds you create – or at least minimize it – doing so compacts the soil.
  • Compost the soil to build up nutrients before you start the planting process.
  • Plant borders fully – this will cut down on water and weather erosion.
  • Allow plants to die off where they are so that their decomposition adds to the soil's rich nutrients.
  • Mulch.

Composting for permaculture gardens is a must. Having a dedicated compost heap or composter is the best approach, onto or into which you can continuously pile food and yard waste. 

Mulching is a must for permaculture gardens. Sheet mulching is when you cover borders with layers of different materials – cardboard or newspapers or even torn up fibrous sacks, then dead leaves, straw, compost, for example. This can be done over both soil and grass and is a soil-friendly way to prepare for next season's planting, which can be done through the mulch, too.

Permaculture gardening – and pests

Creating a wildlife-friendly, companion planted garden is the best way of deterring or killing pests naturally.

This might mean anything from considering garden pond ideas full of of frogs or toads to eat slugs and snails; onion companion planting to create a bumper, healthy crop, plenty of ground cover planting and mulch to deter weeds; planting pollinator friendly flowers; and building a carefully enclosed compost heap to deter or get rid of rats.

All of these methods are easily achievable so that you can ensure you can garden successfully without using harmful methods.