How to Use the 12 Principles of Permaculture Design in Your Garden

Permaculture design is an approach to gardening and landscaping based on learning concepts from healthy, thriving natural ecosystems. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term in 1978, and since then permaculture has grown and evolved as more people joined their movement. 

Today, permaculture mixes elements of philosophy, ecology, sustainability, and agricultural design principles to create a diverse, healthy garden, lawn, or landscape. A gardener who wants to create a permaculture garden will consider the whole system, including humans, animals, soil, weather, and plants. The end result is a garden or landscape that is largely self-sustaining and regenerative. 

David Holmgren outlined 12 permaculture design principles in his book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Using the following principles will help you grow a healthy garden that looks natural, supports wildlife and allows you to enjoy the befits of a low-maintenance landscape.

How to Implement Permaculture Principles in Your Garden

  1. Observe and interact. Creating a design solution that works with nature takes patience and observation of the environment and natural surroundings. 
  2. Catch and store energy. Collecting resources when they’re plentiful allows you to maximize your success. 
  3. Obtain a yield. No one wants to work for nothing, and meaningful rewards for labor add to the value of the work.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback. Don’t try to force something that isn’t working. Pay attention to what your garden is telling you.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services. Renewable resources are favored over those that are not. Allow resources time to replenish when they’ve been depleted.
  6. Produce no waste. This is a goal, but it won’t always be possible. Still, you can go a long way by taking steps to reduce your waste. Compost your vegetable scraps, use greywater to irrigate, and patch up old tools rather than discarding them.
  7. Design from patterns to details. There are patterns found in nature that you’ll want to use - where your garden is shady or has a lot of runoff after rain. Other patterns that might help with the details of your design include your own habits. What paths do you use to move around your garden? The places you intend to use the most ought to be the easiest to get to. 
  8. Integrate rather than segregate. Companion planting like a Three Sisters Garden is an excellent example of this.
  9. Use slow and small solutions. As you work to mimic natural systems, you’ll notice that change happens slowly. This principle can keep you from overextending yourself by taking on big projects that you can’t keep up with. Small changes are easier to make and sustain.
  10. Use and value diversity. When you have a lot of different types of plants, you’re less vulnerable to crop failure, disease, and pests. Diversity creates a more well-rounded harvest and helps you maintain your soil quality and keep a healthier garden.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal. The corners and neglected spaces in your property deserve some attention, too! In-between areas like borders can be used to achieve valuable results.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change. Don’t get stuck in your habits from two seasons ago. The weather changes, your property changes, and you change. Adapt and grow with those changes.

You don’t have to take a special course to start adding permaculture design elements into your garden. You can apply the wisdom from these principles for a more healthy, productive, and sustainable garden in almost any situation. Each of these principles can be scaled to a project as large as a food forest, or as small as a container garden. 

Written by Teresa Chandler