Permaculture: Why the best food growers swear by it

Market gardeners and knowledgeable gardeners in New Zealand are increasingly turning to permaculture principles to make their land more productive and sustainable.

The roster of permaculture growers is impressive, from Pakaraka Permaculture in Thames to Freeman Farms and Roebuck Farm in Taranaki. Many are using relatively compact plots to churn out our favourite veges using methods that are sustainable and kind to the soil.

The simple techniques and ideas at the heart of this design ethos can be useful even to a gardener on a small urban plot.

Whether your property is covered in trees (like a forest), swampy (like wetlands) or arid (like a desert), if you observe how those natural ecosystems operate you can pick up clues on how to manage it more sustainably.

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This doesn’t mean that you must allow it to revert to natural bush or a tussock plain. You may decide to incorporate only a few permaculture design principles; using the leaf litter and fallen branches to mulch and fertilise your garden, say. Or if you live in a dry climate, growing drought-tolerant plants and collecting rainwater.

A key principle of permaculture is that nothing is wasted, as in nature. This not only includes water, vegetation and animal manure, but your labour. Why spend it digging, weeding and spraying? In gardens designed according to permaculture principles, most areas are self-sustaining and the need for such tasks can be reduced.

The strawberry field at Yotam and Niva Kay’s Pakaraka Permaculture.

NIVA KAY/NZ GARDENER/Stuff

The strawberry field at Yotam and Niva Kay’s Pakaraka Permaculture.

From left: Nancy and Eric Zwaan (with Kip underfoot), and Jake, Sarah, Neesa, Danny and Tom Nicholson. The two families share a farm in Thames, growing according to organic and permaculture principles.

CLAIRE MOSSONG/NZ GARDENER/Stuff

From left: Nancy and Eric Zwaan (with Kip underfoot), and Jake, Sarah, Neesa, Danny and Tom Nicholson. The two families share a farm in Thames, growing according to organic and permaculture principles.

Permaculture 101: What beginners need to know

So where to start? Just as you would with a conventional garden design, begin by analysing your site. Even if your garden is already established you can experiment by gradually integrating some of the main principles.

For beginners, one of the easiest to follow is the idea of multiple functions. These functions should benefit you or other inhabitants of the site including plants and wildlife. So if you plant a hedge it should have at least two (and up to five) more reasons to be there besides decoration. It could also provide screening, firewood, fruit and shelter for birds.

In your analysis:

  • Look at every element in the garden and work out what it can provide and what it needs.
  • Combine the various elements so they can support each other in zones that are conveniently located, and require minimal physical input from you.
  • As you develop your garden plan, you can incorporate other permaculture design principles such as encouraging diversity and minimising water use.
  • Don’t forget traditional design principles such as balance, harmony, repetition and unity.
Dee Turner changed her raincoat for a dryer one three times during Sunday as she worked in her garden, Korito, which regularly features in the Taranaki Garden Festival. Turner took out 600 roses and 16 large exotic trees, replacing them with a productive garden that showcases various ways to grow food in a permaculture system.

VANESSA LAURIE/Stuff

Dee Turner changed her raincoat for a dryer one three times during Sunday as she worked in her garden, Korito, which regularly features in the Taranaki Garden Festival. Turner took out 600 roses and 16 large exotic trees, replacing them with a productive garden that showcases various ways to grow food in a permaculture system.

An ambitious goal when designing an organic vegetable garden is to aim to produce no waste. Instead find ways to re-use or recycle what would otherwise be thrown away.

In theory, at least, an organic garden is what is called a closed loop system. What does that mean in a home garden? A simple example would be that a permaculture garden would allow for composting green waste and kitchen scraps, and hard landscaping would be positioned so it functions as a heat sink to keep the energy of the sun and in the organic matter within the garden system.

It is still possible to apply permaculture principles if you are gardening exclusively in pots. Crops in pots always need lots of water, so adopting as many water-saving methods as possible is a good start.

Adding plenty of compost to the planting mix will improve its water-holding capacity as will mulching the surface. Invest in a rain barrel to harvest rainwater off your roof too.

Roebuck Farms in Taranaki.

SIMON O’CONNOR/Stuff

Roebuck Farms in Taranaki.

Another good permaculture principle to follow is grouping your pots in zones, according to their watering needs, soil requirements and your convenience. Planting water-hungry vegetables such as salad greens together in one or several pots will make irrigation easier and you won’t be wasting precious water on plants that don’t need it.

Position pots with herbs and greens you use frequently near the house so you don’t have to go far to harvest and tend them. Potted fruit trees and herbs such as rosemary and lemongrass that need less attention can be further away.

Encourage beneficial insects by planting dill, fennel, cosmos and marigolds as groundcovers. And layer your crops as you would in a large organic garden so you have plants of different heights, including climbers.

Vegetables that need regular care or are picked often should be handy to the house.

Amanda Warren runs Pandeia Te Taiao. “I design gardens for the wellbeing of people and nature in harmony with each other,” she says. Warren’s permaculture workshops aims to teach gardeners to grow productively and sustainably in compact plots and urban areas.

SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/Stuff

Amanda Warren runs Pandeia Te Taiao. “I design gardens for the wellbeing of people and nature in harmony with each other,” she says. Warren’s permaculture workshops aims to teach gardeners to grow productively and sustainably in compact plots and urban areas.

Other permaculture rules worth knowing

There are 12 basic principles of permaculture, and they are worth considering if you want to create a more sustainable garden.

1. Observe and interact: Getting to know your garden will help you make better decisions.

2. Catch and store energy: Not just water and sunlight, but also biomass and fertility.

3. Obtain a yield: Every plant should have a useful role to play.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Listen to both positive and negative feedback from nature… and from people!

5. Use and value renewable resources: Make the best use of renewable natural resources.

6. Produce no waste: Recycle, reuse and compost.

7. Design from patterns to details: Look for and replicate the patterns you see in nature.

8. Integrate rather than segregate: Create synergy between plants.

9. Use small, slow solutions: Good design takes time.

10. Use and value diversity: A more biodiverse garden is a healthier garden.

11. Use edges and value the marginal: Nature doesn’t waste space, so plant “edges” of ponds, or paths to increase biodiversity.

12. Creatively use and respond to change: Be flexible! Rigidity does not last long in nature.

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