Understanding Permaculture

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”

Bill Mollison

Permaculture is a ‘do no harm’ approach to farming. It is a method of farming in which all things are taken into consideration when planting from the root layers all the way up to enivornmental impact. I became interested in permaculture when we moved to our property which was once an apple orchard. We found the soil was in very poor condition. Pests were a major problem, but we knew we didn’t want to control pests with chemicals. We needed a better solution; one that worked to improve the soil while supporting a variety of species that might provide food, shade, medicinal value, etc.

After first reading about permaculture, our family was on a hike out a the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. My children and I ate berries right off the bushes, enjoyed the high canopy offering shade overhead and never once saw an infestation of any kind along the entire stretch. In nature, diversity creates stability. Where one system fails, another is there to step in and fill the niche. The raspberries grew so well because there was enough habitat for a variety of other beneficial species that these kept the real “pests” in check and enough was grown to sustain hikers, birds and even a few insects.

In the “edible forest garden” these same rules apply. We rejuvinate the soil by adding a rich layer biomass (composting material) and then plant in diverse layers mimicing habitat found in a mature ecosystem. In the permaculture orchard, fruit trees are planted in guilds. Within a guild we plant companion groupings that will not compete at root level with the tree, but also benefit the tree by suppressing grasses and deterring deer and rodents (as daffodils will) or mining down below the root level of the tree and holding nutrients at leaf-level (comfrey, chicory, dandelion), but also serving humans and providing habitat for birds and the 90% of insects that are either harmless or beneficial.

A shrub layer, woven within the orchard, serves a number of purposes: It becomes a natural habitat and food source for birds, humans and the like, a windbreak, and a way to guide people through the orchard.

As these layers mature, they find balance and order. The human becomes less important in the maintence of the orchard while at the same time enjoying the fruits of their initial labors for many years to come.

Welcome to Healing Tree Farm!

Permaculture Design Process

Sample fruit-centered guild: HTF DeYoung Guild Design

Plant Function Worksheet: PlantFunctionWorksheet-1

Soil Building

Permaculture Principle and Ethics



The steps in creating our ecological garden design are:

Observation What are the conditions and constraints of the site? Are there immediate resources available?

Visioning Consider the needs of the site, the ecological role of the site, and personal objectives.

Planning What resources are needed to establish our vision for the site?

Development Create a final design that may be implemented. Create timetable for delivery.

Implementation Bring your site design to life.


Observe your site, making note of all aspects. Consider:

  • Areas of shade and sun
  • Wind direction, intensity, and change over the seasons
  • Temperature highs and lows, dates of first and last frosts
  • Points of sunrise, sunset, winter and summer solar zenith
  • Microclimates (cool, hot, wet, or dry spots)
  • Rainfall amounts and seasons (snow, hail)
  • Creeks, gullies, water movement during rain, flooding zones. Identify sources of water, analyze for quality and quantity, and reserve sites for tanks, swales, or dams. Wherever possible, use slope benefits (or raise tanks) to give gravity flow to use points, and detail plant lists that will grow (as mature plants or trees) without irrigation. Define water pathways in use, so that water use is economical in houses, and that grey water is used in gardens (via filtration beds) or forests.
  • Soil (drainage, heavy or light, sand or clay, rich or depleted, stable or slumping)
  • Rocky outcrops
  • Views in various directions
  • Activities of neighbors that may affect design (noise, children, pets, visits, etc.)
  • Utilities: Power, phone, sewer, and gas lines
  • Traffic and access roads, frequency of traffic, heavy or light vehicles, pedestrian traffic
  • Location and impact of structures: house, garage, fences, walls, etc.
  • Vegetation: species present, invasive or noxious plants, rare species, and their state of health
  • Animals: Native and introduced, pests, “scary” animals (snakes, spiders)
  • History of the land (talk to locals, study old books, maps, photos)
  • Resources in neighborhood (sources of organic matter, soil, and building materials): Cafes, grocery stores and markets, other farmers, etc.


This is the time for dreaming and brainstorming.

  • What do we want and need from the landscape? What can it offer? Possibilities include food, herbs, wildlife habitat, cut flowers, privacy, income, play space, or all of these. We will research what’s available, and go into a little detail, remembering that this is just the dreaming phase.
  • What does the landscape and region need? Has previous abuse caused a problem that can be corrected by good design? Does the soil need rejuvenating? Are trees dying, plants struggling? Would the land benefit from a pond, from wildlife habitat? Are rare native plants growing here that can be nurtured? Could the design regenerate and replenish a damaged landscape, and offer a chance of survival to endangered species?
  • What are our skills, physical and financial resources, limitations, likes and dislikes? How much time and money are we willing and likely to spend on the design, implementation, and maintenance? A design cannot succeed without a realistic picture of the resources and limitations that constrain it.
  • How should the new landscape feel? Like a forest, a Garden of Eden, a meadow, a sanctuary?
  • What will we do there?
  • What kind of food, herbs, medicinal plants, firewood, timber, or other products, can the land provide sustainably, for the long haul?
  • Will the place have an overall theme or function such as education, sanctuary, demonstration site, simple living, or market gardening?



One system that helps manage garden layout is called the Zone-and-Sector method. This permaculture method helps decide where to place all the pieces of the garden so that they work with each other and for us—most effectively, according to intensity of human intervention, on-site energy and resources management or physical characteristics (slopes, temperature variations, etc).

Zones organize the pieces of a design by how often they are used or need attention and sectors help locate the pieces so they manage the forces that come from outside the site. Using zones and sectors together, we can make the best use of the connections within a design. Typically zones are numbered from 0 to 5.

Zone 0
The house, or primary location. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, and generally creating a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live, work and relax.

Zone 1
The zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often, such as salad crops, herb plants, soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, worm compost bin for kitchen waste, and so on.

Zone 2
This area is used for sitting perennial plants that require less frequent maintenance, such as occasional weed control (preferably through natural methods such as spot-mulching) or pruning, including currant bushes and orchards. This would also be a good place for beehives, larger scale home composting bins, and so on.

Zone 3
The area where main crops are grown, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal (provided mulches and similar things are used), such as watering or weed control once a week or so.

Zone 4
A semi-wild area. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as timber production. An example might be coppice-managed woodland.

Zone 5
A wild area. There is no human intervention in zone 5 apart from the observation of natural eco-systems and cycles. Here is where the most important lessons of the first permaculture principle of working with, rather than against, nature are learned.

Once we know what plants and structures we want in our design, we can use the Zone-and-Sector method to organize them. Using a base map, and sketching our ideas on overlays of tracing paper or clear plastic sheets, we can arrange the pieces of our design to connect sensibly with each other in their zones and sectors.

Thus, we have created three zones in this forest garden: An intensively cultivated Zone 1, a well-mulched but lightly planted (for now – in preparation for possible expansion) Zone 2, and a long-term set of soil-building cover crops beneath the young shrubs and trees of Zone 3.


Now we can collect the design elements—plants, structures, tasks, functions that will make our vision come alive. How do we choose and assemble them? The guiding principle here, once again, is that we’re not creating a static collection of objects, but a dynamic, living landscape full of interactions between its inhabitants.

What will satisfy our vision for the site?

  • What kind of fruits do we want to produce in the garden?
  • What companion plants might be included?
  • What kind of medicinal and culinary herbs do we wish to include?
  • List other species that may we interplant to attract or repel wildlife, form mycorrhizal relationships, compliment other planted species, etc.

We make detailed lists of species and structures. These lists generate a lot of individual pieces.


What are the most urgent problems or desires that we need to address? Is it getting rid of the energy-gobbling lawn, redirecting runoff from the front walk, growing some food? Examine the least important aspects of the vision too; perhaps these contradict the more important ones, or can just be dispensed with.

If it helps, break priorities into several categories: Personal, aesthetic, problems to be solved, environmental/ecological, etc. Determine and make note of which categories and items stand out.


Sketch in the various planting beds, trees, walls and fences, patios and decks, and other design elements. At first, don’t go into any detail; draw rough circles and outlines of the major components, showing their relative placement.

Now consider the goals and installation of the final site plan. Ask:

  • Personal: Is our most urgent desire food production, a patio, shade, a flower garden, or some other consideration?
  • Environmental: Does the land most need soil building, erosion control, habitat, or something else?
  • Technical: Will the design require earthmoving, concrete or stonework, or other hardscaping? These often must be done first to avoid disturbing the rest of the design, and to reduce the expense and potential for damage done by multiple bulldozer visits. Trees and shrubs should also be planted early in the work, conforming to the old advice, “the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago.”
  • Seasonal: What can be done during the season appropriate to the work? Earth moving in the wet season will ruin soil structure; planting in summer heat may bake the transplants.
  • Financial: Is enough money available for the whole design? If not, what aspects make sense to phase in first?


Install the design, and be flexible enough to deal with the surprises that appear when a paper design meets the real world.

A general guide for order of implementation:

  • First, do any major earth moving. Grade the site to a rough contour, if needed. Dig any swales, ponds, and drainage ditches. Install utility lines and underground irrigation pipes and wires. Then backfill the trenches.
  • Add any broad scale soil amendments and compost. Mulching and shaping of intensive Zone beds can wait until later.
  • Complete any hardscaping, the term that designers use for wood, stone, concrete, and other constructed elements: walls, sheds, paths, fences, and the like.
  • Make any final adjustments to the grade contours with rake and shovel.
  • Lay down sheet mulches.
  • Install large plants, such as trees and major shrubs.
  • Plant ground covers, non-woody plants, lawn, and cover crops.
  • Adjust mulches, and fine-tune the irrigation system, if any.
  • Keep plants watered and help them get established by observing and caring for those that need a little extra attention.


Gaia’s Garden Sheet Mulch

Sheet mulch can be as simple as a layer of newspapers topped by 8 to 12 inches of nearly any mulch material. But if you want to build the perfect sheet mulch, here’s how:

If this is your first sheet mulch, start small. Sheet mulch gobbles up a tremendous amount of organic matter—the roughly 2 cubic yards held by a full-sized pickup truck will cover about 50 square feet. But don’t scrimp. It’s much better to blanket a small area thoroughly than to spread the mulch too thin to smother weeds or feed the soil properly. Choose a site that’s not more than 200 square feet, in the proper location for the intended plants, and preferably near the house. Remember your zones: Deeply mulched beds will soon be covered with a riot of plant life, and you want these awesomely productive areas right outside your door, to easily tend or to admire the many avian and insect visitors.

Here’s a materials list for the perfect sheet mulch:

  1. A 2- to 3-foot stack of newspaper, minus any glossy sections, whose inks may contain metal pigments (the black and colored inks on standard newsprint are soy-based and nontoxic), or about 300 square feet of corrugated box cardboard without staples or plastic tape. You can also use cloth, old clothing, or wool carpet, provided they contain no synthetic fabric, but these take far longer to decay than paper.
  2. Soil amendments, depending on your soil’s needs: lime, rock phosphate, bonemeal, rock dust, kelp meal,  blood meal, and so on.
  3. Bulk organic matter: straw, spoiled hay, yard waste, leaves, seaweed, finely ground bark, stable sweepings, wood shavings, or any mixture of these, ideally resulting in an overall C:N ratio of 100/1 to 30/1. Grass clippings are also good, but only when mixed with other, “brown“ mulches, otherwise their high nitrogen content causes anaerobic—and smelly, slimy—decomposition. You will need about 4 to 8 cubic yards of loosely piled mulch for 100-200 square feet, or 6 to 10 two-string bales of hay or straw.
  4. Compost, about 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cubic yard (6 to 12 cubic feet).
  5. Manure: 1⁄4 to 1 cubic yard, depending on the concentration and amount of bedding mixed in. About 6 cubic feet of composted steer manure or other bagged product will be plenty.
  6. A top layer of seed-free material, such as straw, leaves, wood shavings, bark, sawdust, pine needles, grain hulls, nut husks, or seagrass. You will need roughly 1 cubic yard or 2 to 4 two-string bales.

If you can’t find every item, don’t worry. Sheet mulching is very forgiving. As long as you have enough newspaper or cardboard, plus organic matter of almost any kind, you’ll end up with great soil. Store your supplies near the chosen site so you won’t have to move them too far on sheet-mulch day. Keep them dry, too.

The day before you mulch, water the site well unless the ground is moist from rain. The organisms that will be turning your mulch into rich earth can’t work without water, and once the mulch is in place, it takes a lot of water to moisten the bottom layers. Conversely, it takes a long time for the layers to dry out—you’ve got lots of water storage.

After the water has soaked in overnight, slash down any vegetation. Don’t pull up weeds—leave all the native organic matter right there, including the roots. Just clip, mow, scythe, or weed-whack everything down in place. It’s great worm food, and the nitrogen-rich greens and roots will be a tasty starter for the decomposers. Remove any stumps or big woody pieces.

Next, add any soil amendments. If your soil is acid, sprinkle on some lime. For alkaline soil, a little gypsum or sulfur will help. A dusting of rock phosphate or bonemeal will supply phosphorus. Greensand, kelp meal, or rock dust will add trace minerals. Use a soil test or your own understanding of your soil’s fertility to guide the type and quantity of soil amendments.

If your native earth is clayey or compacted, now is a good time to open it up a bit. Just push a spading fork into the ground, rock it a little, and pull it out. Do this across the entire mulch site. Don’t turn the earth, just poke some holes into it and crack it open to allow better moisture and root penetration and soil-critter movement.

Then add a thin layer of high-nitrogen material. This can be manure, blood or cottonseed meal, fresh grass clippings or other lush greens, or cast-off produce from restaurants or markets. For concentrated matter such as rabbit manure or blood meal, sprinkle down enough material to just cover the soil. Grass clippings or bedding-rich manure should go down about an inch thick. While this layer isn’t essential, it attracts worms and burrowing beetles, which will aerate and loosen the soil.

Now the fun begins: putting the sheet in sheet mulch. Lay down newspapers and/or cardboard to create a continuous light-blocking layer that will smother existing plants. Cardboard is very satisfying to use, since those big sheets, especially boxes from appliances and bicycles, cover the ground fast. Overlap the sheets by 6 inches or so to keep weeds from sneaking between them. Newspaper should be laid down 1/8 to 1/2 inch thick.

As you spread out the sheets, wet them thoroughly. Do this frequently if a breeze comes up—watching your sheet mulch flap away is pretty demoralizing. Soak the sheets several times to make sure the water seeps through. If you’re sheet mulching with a group, this is when hose-fights usually erupt, tugging any well-orchestrated work-party toward mayhem.

Try not to walk on the paper, especially after it’s wet, as this pulls the sheets apart and creates gaps. Pretend you’re painting a floor: Start at the far side and work toward the access or materials pile so you won’t walk on your work.

Next, toss down another thin layer of nitrogen-rich manure, meal, or fresh green clippings. This will entice the worms up through the soon-to-be rotting sheets, and coax plant-roots downward.

On top of this, pour on the bulk mulch, about 8 to 12 inches of loose straw, hay, or other substances listed above. Weed seeds in this layer aren’t a big concern, as a thick, seed-free stratum lies atop this one. Weed seeds seem to rot rather than germinate in the slowly composting mass.

Bales of hay or straw don’t have to be fluffed up to their original grassy bulk. Just break the bales into thin “flakes” about 1 to 2 inches thick, and lay down about three thicknesses of these. Broken into several layers and moistened, the dense flakes will expands and compost perfectly well.

To create an easily compostable sheet mulch, pay attention to the carbon/nitrogen ratio in the bulk mulch layer. If you’re using high-carbon materials such as straw or, especially, wood shavings, sprinkle on nitrogen in the form of blood meal or other nitrogen-rich source, or “dilute” the carbonaceous mulch with perhaps one part clover hay, seaweed, grass clippings, or other high-nitrogen mulch for every four of high-carbon matter (see table 4-1 for a list of mulch materials and their C:N ratios). A mulch that is extremely low in nitrogen, such as wood shavings, will be slow to rot down, and may cause anemic plant growth. You don’t have need a perfect C:N balance, just make such there’s some nitrogen in the mix to feed the compost critters.

As you build this layer, spray on water every few inches. This layer should be damp but not wet; you’re looking for that wrung-out sponge state. This can take a surprisingly large volume of water. It may take a couple of minutes of soaking every few inches to achieve the damp-but-not-wet state.

Atop the bulk mulch, add an inch or two of compost. If this is in short supply, add compost plus whatever soil is on hand to reach the final thickness. Or, if the pile will have a few months to compost before planting, you can substitute manure or several inches of easily compostable material for this layer. But if you plan to plant the sheet mulch within a few weeks, a layer of compost will be necessary to act as a seed bed.

The final layer is 2 inches of weed- and seed-free organic matter, such as straw, fine bark, wood shavings, or any of the others listed above. Besides smothering weeds, this layer gives the project, in landscaper jargon, “that finished look,” which will endear you to your more fastidious neighbors. For planting seeds and starts, push this layer aside to reach the compost/soil layer right below, just as you would with any mulch.

The above is from Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and may be found on www.patternliteracy.com.




4 thoughts on “Understanding Permaculture”

  1. Hi

    I’m doing a Permaculture Design course and would like to use this intro in our resentation – and edit it to use on some of our ‘interpretation’ boards, to explain whats happening.
    Thats real Appreciation of how you’ve put it.
    Would that be ok with you??
    All the best for your Healing tree farm…
    Any other things you’ve produced that explain why its done, educatuonal, would be very usefuul..minimum effort for maximum outout: building on work thats already been done rather than duplicating it all, is how I see it!


  2. Certainly Rosie! Thank-you for asking. I would love to hear more about what you are doing. Best of luck and thank-you for teaching about permaculture to others!

  3. Hi,

    Im currently doing an MSc in Town Planning and am very interested in sustainable development and environmental protection. I would like to do my dissertation on permaculture but currently know very little about it. Have you got any information or suggestions as to what areas of this subject need researching?



  4. Hello Stephanie,

    I would most definitely recommend two authors: Toby Hemenway and Dave Jackie. Hemenway’s book, “Gaia’s Garden,” offers an down-to-earth description of permaculture while Dave Jackie’s texts, “Edible Forest Gardens,” looks at the science behind the practice.

    Also check for farms near you. Biodynamic farms are likely to incorporate many elements of permaculture.


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"In healing, we teach others; and in teaching, we heal."

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