Permaculture 101: Five steps to get you started

G Magazine

Put the ideas of this gardening philosophy to practice in your own backyard with these handy pointers.


Permaculture is about effective use of energy and resources, including yours.

Credit: iStockphoto

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I'm standing in the backyard in the pouring rain, watching intently. It sounds odd, but I have good reason. What I'm looking at is water-flow: what happens when the falling drops hit the ground, where the water travels to, whether it pools or disappears. This way I can see if it's getting to the places that I want it to, minimising resource waste, recycling and diverting water that might otherwise run down the drain. It's just one aspect of the permaculture concept.

The permaculture movement started in Tasmania in the 1970s and is credited to the developments of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren (See G20, p44).

"They were looking at how they could model growing food based on natural systems like forests," says Dan Palmer, co-director of Melbourne's Very Edible Gardens (VEG), permaculture design professionals.

"It started as this backyard experiment, where they were taking trees, understorey plants, nitrogen fixers, hardy perennial plants that produce food and modelling their designs on forests. They found they didn't need to use fertilisers, they didn't produce waste, and the food took care of itself with minimal pest problems. So, essentially, they were using lessons learnt from nature to provide for their own needs."

Permaculture, derived from permanent agriculture, is described by founder Bill Mollison as "the harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way".

Getting started

It's a lot to take in and picking a place to start can be daunting. But don't be overwhelmed! Some change is better than none and, say the guys at VEG, the ideas can be broken down into easy tasks to get you going. How much you do depends entirely on your resources.

First, assess the space and skills you have and define what you want to achieve from these. By putting time into developing a design at the beginning, you'll have a system that works better and requires less interference later.

Are you simply looking for a productive vegetable garden, or do you want fruit trees and animals too? Once you've established what you want from your space, achieving these goals can be addressed in five considerations:

1. Water

Knowing the water resources your property offers will inform all other decisions about your space.

"What you're...trying to achieve with water in a permaculture design is to catch and store as much as you can," says Palmer, noting that storing water in a variety of ways allows for multiple uses, from habitat to watering. So think about tanks, ponds and directing run off into fertile ground.

Palmer says to divert water from paths and hard surfaces into areas like garden beds. If you're putting it into the ground at a place where plant roots can access it, then you're on track.

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