What makes a permaculture garden?

Have you ever wondered how Permaculture gardens differ from ordinary vegie gardens? Okay, probably not…..but just in case you ever get asked again I’ll tell you.

For many people Permaculture is too conceptual but for me it provides the tools I need to create a sustainable, healthy and efficient garden system.

When we started setting up our garden last year we started by looking at the site features. Some are natural features and some are material. These are things like the slope and aspect which is important in determining where the sun, wind, rain, frost and fire come from; water sources: where will they come from and how will you provide water to your site; where will you place your structures like a shade house or windbreak; if and how you’ll use animals in your system and where will they be put; and what sort of access do you have to the areas that are going to be where you grow your food. In this regard, no two sites are the same but to create a functional, low energy garden they are fundamental elements that need to be considered.

Once you establish these points you can then decide where and how to place the functional elements of your garden like growing beds, chook runs and ponds. Sometimes there’s no choice in the matter and you have to work with what you’ve got but how the elements interact with each other will help to determine where they should be situated to create the greatest efficiencies.

In Permaculture we believe your compost bins need to be very close to the kitchen because you’ll probably want to deposit your food scraps a few times each week. There’s no point having a compost bin or system miles away from the house as it’s inefficient and the less time you spend on these daily chores the better and you’re more likely to manage your compost bin if it’s in sight. Well managed compost means a better end product which leads to healthier soil and greater productivity.  And when the compost is ready, you won’t have far to take it to your garden beds because your main herb and veggie growing area is also going to be close to the house.

As we’ve discovered and contrary to popular belief, keeping chooks healthy, productive and safe takes a considerable amount of time and effort so they need to be as close to the house as possible. How many times have you seen a chook house tucked right down in the back corner of the yard, out of sight and right out of mind. If you work away from the home like I do, you need to ensure these elements are placed nearby to reduce the time and work involved in managing them otherwise you’re likely to give up on them because they’ll become all too hard and time consuming.

In Permaculture we also zone our home environments and Zone 1 is where we do the majority of our food growing. Right outside my kitchen door is my herb garden and a few other plants I keep in pots. I also have a seedling tray that I tend to daily and a compost bin I can access very quickly from the kitchen. We also have a small pond which creates a beautiful microclimate and provides important habitat for insects and pollinators. The chooks have a special run called the ‘Summer Palace’ only metres from the kitchen so I can easily keep an eye out for them as our yard is open to stray dogs, foxes and the odd bush turkey.

The herb garden looking towards the kitchen window

It takes a while to get things right and it’s important to remember that the Permaculture garden is not a static environment and as ideas evolve and problems become apparent things should be moved or modified to create greater efficiencies. This is one of the reasons why Permaculture Design is so important as it aims to iron out many of the inefficiences before you get started.

I thought I’d share the key functional elements of our Zone 1 and briefly highlight their values and how we use them.

We have a worm farm, worm tubes and 4 compost bins, 3 of them operate in a system. We use all these elements to reduce the amount of waste leaving the site and to produce natural fertilisers and compost teas that do wonders to enrich our soils and increase soil microdiversity. The worm farm and compost bins are right outside the kitchen and back doors and the worm tubes are directly in the garden beds.

We shred and mulch leaves to make compost and soil cover and to reduce the amount of ground fuels for fire management. Our shredder is parked under cover and right near a large mulch storage bin. Shredded material goes straight into the bid for storage so we have a ready supply of good quality mulch.

We harvest water in tanks, re-use grey water from our washing machine and will develop a reed bed for filtration. Our water tanks are spread across our property, each one providing irrigation to a specific zone in the garden. Our grey water is used to irrigate some of our fruit trees and the surplus will eventually filter through a reed bed to be recycled into the lower garden. We use our on-site water to reduce waste, capture energy and utilise and recycle on-site resources.

We have 3 ponds at the moment in different locations and use them to create microclimates and habitat for insects, beneficial pollinators and predators. Our next pond will be purpose built for aquatic plant food as we currently grow our waterchestnuts in pots.

We only have time for two backyard livestock species: chooks and earthworms. The chooks live very close to the house for easy access and provide food, feathers and loads of pleasure. Both the chooks and earthworms provide manure, soil and aeration.

Our Warré beehive will arrive in spring so we’ll have our own supply of natural pollinators, honey and honeycomb. We’ll only have to access the hive a few times a year so it will be placed in the lower garden where it can also take advantage of a ready supply of flowering eucalypts and the bee line can be directed away from the neighbours.

Our paths, terraces and key hole garden beds have been built for efficiency and functionality and provide important edges where we grow herbs and tea plants. The terraces take full advantage of the northerly aspect and steep site which encourages deep watering and sequential gravitational drainage.

Our vertical gardens capitalise on heat sinks and utilise otherwise wasted spaces and we plant guilds and polycultures to increase diversity which encourages a chemical free environment through natural pest control. We also save seed to increase the cycles of productivity and diversity and grow most of our seedlings.

Permaculture gardening is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding and our garden is starting to provide us with a great range of healthy, chemical free food. We’re still developing it and will be for some time but so far it has started to save us money and helped to create a level of resilience. We’ll continue to grow with our garden and share our experience but in my next post I’ll tell you all about….the wonders of comfrey.

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