Permaculture: How to start an organic vegetable garden?

Updated on
min reading

The planet’s ecosystem balance is altered every day, with vegetable species being depleted even faster than animal species. Permaculture helps us to rethink our vital spaces as harmonious ecosystems rich in biodiversity, whilst meeting our need for aesthetics or food self-sufficiency. But, what is permaculture and how can we start an organic vegetable garden?

What is permaculture?

Permaculture meaningPermaculture, a contraction of “permanent agriculture”, is a form of designing a vital natural space. By considering the space as a whole, we develop it from a harmonious, aesthetic, organic or autonomous point of view. It is cultivated as an ecosystem which combines different forms of life (animal, plant and human).

The term “permaculture” appeared at the end of the 1970’s, when Bill Mollison and David Holmgren realised the depletion of natural resources with our intensive agricultural model which was monoculture, de-localised and inadequate for sustaining our biodiversity. Permaculture is thus described as a “positivist” response to an environmental crisis (abundance of toxins, groundwater desertification).

Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.

Permaculture A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison (1988)

Permaculture includes concepts such as agriculture, bioconstruction, economics, renewable energy or the natural treatment of water. In this way, meeting the needs of man without exploiting natural resources or polluting, permaculture contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals.

What is regenerative agriculture?Permaculture and regenerative agriculture are similar in their philosophies and the idea behind them. Regenerative agriculture is a type of farming that focuses on how to reverse the impact of climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.

Permaculture: Ethical and design principles

Permaculture farming is also inspired by various philosophical principles: integrating instead of separating, imitating mother nature instead of competing with her. Permaculture is not, therefore, another approach to gardening, it is rather an ethical approach and belief.

Therefore, permaculture is based on 3 ethical principles and 12 design principles.

  • The three ethical transverse principles of permaculture:
  • Caring for the earth;
  • Caring for people;
  • Caring for the future, therefore sharing resources with equity.

The 12 design principles of permaculture:

  1. Observe and interact;
  2. Capture and store energy;
  3. Obtain a return;
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback;
  5. Use and value services and natural resources;
  6. Produce without waste;
  7. Design from patterns towards details;
  8. Integrate more than segregate;
  9. Use solutions which are slow and small;
  10. Use and value diversity;
  11. Use edges and value margins;
  12. Use and respond creatively to change.

How can you create an organic vegetable garden in permaculture?

organic vegetable garden

In order to attain permaculture, it is important to keep in mind these three big stages:

  1. Observe the ground: the type of ground (whether sandy, muddy, clay-like, calcareous, topsoil) may stop the growth of certain plants despite their efforts. For example, sandy soil may retain little water and therefore require plants that can resist droughts, such as oleanders. The exposure of the earth, as well as the type of climate (oceanic, Mediterranean, continental) can also influence outcomes. Thinking of the size and form of the terrain (number of square metres available, presence of a gradient) to optimise its availability.
  2. Defining your expectations: ask yourself what you want and what you need: medicinal plants for naturopathy? Fruits and vegetables for the whole year? Also ask yourself about your resources and capabilities: what is your budget? What amount of time per week can you dedicate to gardening? Do you have a green thumb?
  3. Design the space in a holistic and intelligent way: if you have a good space, think of zoning it by virtue of the necessary energy. If your water source is a 10-minute walk of your vegetable garden, you may not water it often. Do you want to create the sense of a larger plot? Avoid hard corners and opt for curves when zoning your garden.

Tips to identify your soil typeObserve the plants that naturally grow in your garden in order to get an idea of the type of soil you have and the plant species you should choose to limit the use of products. Dandelions flourish in topsoil, daisies in more clay-like and acidic soils and poppies in calcareous soils.

Tips to organise your spacePlace the plants requiring the most attention closer to your home such as fruit-bearing plants or plants you’ll pick (strawberries, aromatic plants, tomatoes) and further away place those that require less supervision such as your vegetable garden (pumpkins, courgette, potatoes) or your animals. Think about the location of your compost which often isn’t as pretty, emits smells and attracts insects.

In this way, each person can set up their own permaculture garden according to their own projects, needs and land. A little bit of creativity and adaptability is all you need!

Tools and techniques of permaculture farming

Permaculture invites us to observe and imitate nature to mix the useful with the pleasant. Various techniques of permaculture are easy to set in motion to cultivate a different type of garden:

  • Provoke mutual help: the milpa (or “the three sisters”) is an ancient Mesoamerican practice which combines three types of crops: maize (corn), pumpkin and beans. Corn serves as a stake for beans and protects them from the sun. Beans enrich the soil with nitrogen thanks to their roots. Pumpkins maintain the soil damp, limit erosion and avoid the growth of weeds.
  • Combine smells to attract or repel: amongst herbs, chives keep beetles away from potatoes, which can devastate their growth. When it comes to flowers, marigolds repel ants and louse.
  • Diversify as much as possible: make the most of the existence of a variety of different species to foment animal and plant diversity. This will help your garden to develop an “immune system”.
  • Make space rhyme with density: plants need more or less space to grow. For example, leave 70-80 centimetres between tomato plants. Nevertheless these spaces do not need to be empty. On the contrary, make the most of the opportunity to maximise your spaces and reinforce your natural balance. Plant lettuce next to tomato plants to protect them from heat. Basil will keep parasites such as mosquitoes and flies at bay.
  • Reuse animal and plant residue: one of the first good habits to adopt is composting. If you throw out your scraps in the bin they will end up in the landfill and be incinerated and contribute to pollution. What a waste! These scraps could become fertilizer for soil and eliminate the need to buy manure. It is not necessary to throw out weeds or gardening waste either.

There are no weeds!We often refer to a plant as a “weed” when it grows spontaneously, when we don’t know its name and its many functions or when we simply don’t find it attractive. However, these weeds can house and feed insects such as ladybirds, serve as manure and fertilizer for soil or even can be eaten (such as dandelion tea or nettle stew). Weeding a vegetable garden is essential, but weeding other areas is not necessary.

Permaculture requires good tools:

  • Broad forks allow you to raise soil to air it out without disturbing it and therefore, without destroying galleries of worms in the different layers of soil. These animals fertilize the garden, so don’t destroy their underground habitat.
  • Hooks allow you to level plots to be cultivated, but also to easily extract large rocks.
  • Hoes help you to make space to plant, pull old weeds or make holes to plant.

Permaculture is not a doctrine which needs to be followed precisely. In fact, many advocate for maintaining soil fresh to keep in humidity for plants. However, this can also attract slugs, which can eat young buds. To avoid this inconvenience, some recommend planting seeds in the naked soil and filling them in once they have developed well (for example, lettuce) or protecting them with other plants (planting the ends of carrots). Nevertheless, avoid the possible use of products and be cautious of any products calling themselves “organic”, which can hide the practice of greenwashing.

Permaculture course: Go a step further

permaculture course

Being advised and accompanied can help you get your feet more quickly in permaculture. There are many ways in which you can learn more:

  • Watch documentaries about permaculture farming;
  • Read specialised blogs and join their newsletters;
  • Follow courses in person (initiation courses, etc.) or online;
  • Join associations or permaculture networks to promote the movement, receive advice or financial help for projects.

Permaculture in the UKPermaculture farming is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. There are a number of resources you can turn to should you want to find out more information such as the Permaculture Association or Permaculture magazine, which offers tips, ideas and inspiration.

Permaculture: The path to autonomy?

We often talk about the disadvantages of permaculture, but we forget about the many beneficial aspects. Of course, there are certain limits, such as the production of permaculture.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Permaculture
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Satisfaction: there is nothing more satisfying than working on the earth and seeing the fruits of your labour.
  • Savings: eating your own fresh produce, buying less cleaning products, depending on the variety, a tomato plant can cost around £1.25 and may produce up to 15 tomatoes: a saving that quickly leads to gains during the summer!
  • Positive health and environmental impact: there is nothing better than gardening in the fresh air to stay toned and invigorated. You will use less chemical products and more natural and recyclable ones.
  • Pleasant taste: you pick the fruits and vegetables when they are ripe, unlike some supermarket items that are picked early, without sunlight and which ripen in boxes.
  • Permaculture requires a lot of observation and trials before finding the plant combinations or the best places for certain plants. There is no book of miracle recipes: the particular context of each place requires personal trial and error.
  • It is important to read about the needs and uses of each species, learn different natural practices and create a balance and harmony in the garden. For example, chickens may lay eggs but may also fertilise the soil thanks to its excrements and suffocate weeds thanks to its discarded feathers which become manure.

Although permaculture is one of the most respectful practices with the environment, its financial model on a large scale cannot be considered to be viable.

The permaculture garden opens the door to food self-sufficiency, but it is still a viable and pleasant adventure on a family scale. On an agricultural scale, the profitability of permaculture is practically null and is therefore not currently conceivable.

Three growing techniques with different degrees of rigor in their environmental approach:

  1. Permaculture has a natural place in the garden in general, observing the interactions between different types of life. The space is conceived as a balanced ecosystem which is naturally maintained.
  2. Agroecology centres in the areas of natural growth, inspired in permaculture: management and reusing of water, compost, reforestation, etc.
  3. Organic agriculture is the least restrictive technique in terms of the number of practices. According to the European regulations, organic agriculture is that which does not use chemical or synthetic products, synthetic fertilizers or GMOs. Nevertheless, these criteria do not pay enough attention to the transport or commercialization phase.

Discover all our practical guides with regards to ecology to help you save money and avoid waste.