Try these 5 easy gardens to understand permaculture first hand

If you’re thinking about converting your lawn into a functional member of the household (a garden), you’re probably a little overwhelmed with the prospect of changing the whole landscape with little or no experience. Rest easy, here are a few designs to get your feet wet (by watering your plants) and start the permaculture revolution in your own space.

5. Perma-tainer –. When making a mini-permaculture garden in a container, the root structure, height and width of the plants used need to be highly considered. A simple example is Broccoli, Beans, Lettuce and Carrot. You’ll want to plant the broccoli directly in the middle because this plant will take up the most root space in terms of width and depth. To help with feeding the surrounding plants, place the beans just inside of the imaginary circle your broccoli roots would grow out to. In permaculture, you place plants close together to maximize yield per square foot and to allow roots to intermingle, like in a natural ecosystem. Just inside the bean’s “sphere of influence” you’ll plant the lettuce and finally towards the edge of the container will be the carrots. Bringing the carrots to the edge of the container encourages an easier extraction of the vegetable when it’s time to harvest. A little disruption of the lettuce roots is permitted. The more you learn about the science behind polycultures, which is a grouping of plants that benefits each other, the more interesting ways you can build your perma-tainer!

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4. Three Sisters – There’s a reason why Native Americans have lived on this continent for thousands of years. They know how to work with nature to benefit society. A perfect example of this is the Three Sister Guild. A guild is planting design that includes all the elements of a healthy ecosystem. The central element of the design is corn, next to the corn beans and squash can be planted. As the cornstalk grows, it creates structure for the beans to climb. As the beans grow, it fixes nitrogen into the ground to feed the squash and corn. As the squash grows, it covers the ground reducing competition from “weeds” making a healthier bean and corn plant. Boom, a healthy ecosystem at its simplest! Variations can be made with the guild. For example, Sunflowers or other fast growing plants with a strong stalk in place of corn.  You can also use any other legume for nitrogen fixing and broad-leaved vine plants for groundcover.

Three Sisters.jpgMore on Three Sisters:

3. Tree Guild – Tree Guilds are great ways to understand “stacking functions” in a permaculture design. First you start with your central element, which is typically a dwarf fruit tree but any you want will do. Next you figure out where the “dripline” for the tree will be. The dripline is how wide the tree will grow when it’s mature and will be the perimeter of your design. Along the dripline, place grass suppressing bulb plants like daffodils, chives or garlic. Within the perimeter of the dripline with be the rest of your guild which includes plants that has a certain “function” either fixing nitrogen, attracting beneficial insects, accumulating nutrients, creating mulch, groundcover and/or repelling pests. The sky’s the limit on what you’d like in your guild. The “stacking functions” concept comes in when you have a plant that does multiple functions and another plant may be redundant plus another function. Having multiple nitrogen fixers is smart for new gardens and tree guilds. If the plants are feeding each other, adding compost in the future is unnecessary!

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2. Key Hole Garden –Turn row agriculture on its ear and create a Key Hole Garden by bending it into a horseshoe shape. Here you a save space that would have been unproductive pathway.  When you’re in the middle of one of these designs, it feels like the garden is hugging you for being so thrifty with space. Plant placement in these gardens can be either straight horse shoe shapes, staggered or both. A good tip is to plant your taller plants to the north to maximize southern exposure.

To take it to the next level place multiple key hole gardens in different shapes to fit your yard. Ultimately, you’ll have more plants for maximum benefit.


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1 Herbspiral – The beauty of a herb spiral is not just in its cool shape. By creating a three-dimensional bed, you are conserving space by making a larger planting area in a small footprint. Imagine how much more surface area exists on 1,000 square-acres of mountain than on a 1,000 square-acres of flat desert. It’s this topographical fact that makes this quasi-vertical garden design so beneficial.

The shape of the spiral also creates micro-climates that maximize your plants viability. Because all life is influenced by the sun and its shadows, low-laying northern parts of your spiral will be cooler and wetter than the southern side of your mini-mountain. With this knowledge, you can plan plant placement.  Also, species that usually don’t hang out together can create interesting arrangements in a relatively small space.

Be creative with the materials you use to build the spiral.  Try rocks, bricks, even logs placed vertically. You don’t even have to plant herbs in your herb spiral! Plant pollinators, medicinals, fruits, vegetables, natives or whatever you’d like! The more inventive you are the more awe-inspiring your spiral will be.

Large or small, bricks or wood herb spirals are the coolest!


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Well, there you go! 5 easy projects to get your permaculture gardens going. Work smart and hard! But not too hard!

Adam Hintz – Southern Heights Food Forest Project Coordinator