The word “permaculture” has taken on meanings that include the practical, the ethical and even the magical — but according to the Australian “father of permaculture,” Bill Mollison, it is essentially:

"… To create systems that are ecologically-sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term. Permaculture uses the inherent qualities of plants and animals combined with the natural characteristics of landscapes and structures to produce a life-supporting system for city and country, using the smallest practical area."

More concisely put, it means an orchard or garden that’s designed to be a closed loop — a self-sustaining system that’s modeled on nature. Permaculture design works in every climate, every landscape and on every scale. You can apply permaculture principles to a sprawling California vineyard or a balcony container garden, with equal success. Think of a forest as the ultimate permaculture design: There’s no one there to till or weed or fertilize or spray, but the forest still manages to provide food for the creatures who inhabit it!

In addition, permaculture embraces a healthy lifestyle, pure food, clean water and conservation of energy and natural resources. It’s more than organic gardening, which focuses on the elimination of chemicals and synthetics from the garden.

First, it’s useful to understand permaculture’s basic design principles. You can read about more esoteric principles in book and on the Internet, but these are the main tenets:


Illustration of zones around a home

A permaculture garden is comprised of zones, and each zone is designed and constructed in conjunction with how frequently you attend to it. It makes sense that far edges of the property should be home to trees and plants that need little attention.

Consider Zone 0 to be your house. The higher the zone number, the farther it is from the house, though the zones are not in concentric circles (see the zones map).

Zone 1

This is where you visit most often, and it’s likely an area that’s close to your house. Take note that if you never visit the east side of your house, that is not part of Zone 1, no matter if it is directly adjacent to the house. All high-maintenance trees and plants should be located in Zone 1, for example:

  • Anything that needs daily watering
  • An herb/kitchen garden
  • A cut-flower bed

This is also where your compost bin is, because you probably go there every day.

Put seedlings in Zone 1, such that you have to walk over them to get to another daily chore. You’ll be more likely to notice if they need water or a temporary respite in a shady spot before any damage is done. Need fresh herbs for dinner? You’ll be much more likely to go snip them if you don’t have to venture down a dark path in the rain to get them.

Zone 2

Think of Zone 2 as a place where things will be OK even if you don’t attend to them every day. This would be where dwarf fruit trees, fruiting shrubs, berries and trellised vines would live, usually with drip irrigation and mulch. Also found here: herbs you use less frequently and perennial herbs you let go to seed and self-sow. Vegetables that don’t require frequent harvesting also belong here (onions, corn, root vegetables, cole crops, melons).

Zones 3 - 6

Zones 3-4 are only slightly “managed”. These are areas you don’t go to often, like a stand of standard-size fruit or nut trees. It is neither mulched nor irrigated. Zone 5 is for wild berries, wildflowers and timber, and Zone 6 is unmanaged woods or grass/marshland.

Zones are not defined areas, with borders; they flow into each other and can be as irregularly shaped as nature needs them to be.


Nothing can function and survive in a vacuum, especially a garden. It needs food, sun, water and benefits greatly from human attention via weeding, dividing, pruning and pest/disease control. A permaculture garden aims to take care of its own needs ... and if you can, why not let Mother Nature do the heavy lifting?

Bill Mollison used to advocate, “working with, rather than against, nature” and of practicing “protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.” Instead of using slug bait, have ducks around. The ducks will absolutely rid your garden of the slimy creatures, and will provide you with eggs, feather down, meat and eggs as a bonus. This is how you “maximize hammock time”, another goal of the Mollison philosophy.

To design your garden so that each element complements another, you must understand the uses of each element. There should always be at least three uses for each one. For example:

  • An apple tree can provide fruit, shade for understory crops and attract wildlife.
  • A blueberry hedge can provide privacy, fruit and a windbreak.
  • Cilantro, dill and mustard can used for cooking, saved for whole-seed pickling and planted as a harvestable filler for bare spots. They also attract beneficial insects that prey on the not-so-beneficial insects.
  • A fence can serve as a trellis, reflect or hold heat and provide privacy or shade.
  • A compost bin recycles grass clipping, fallen leaves and kitchen scraps into nutrient-dense food, acts as a soil builder and is a perfect home for a worm farm.

Location, location, location

Let’s go back to the compost bin as an illustration of this principle. Instead of lugging wheelbarrows of compost back and forth from behind the shed out to your orchard, start mini-piles under each tree, around the drip line, reined in by a circle of wire mesh. Look at the efficiencies:

  • When it rains, your tree is fertilized with compost tea
  • The compost serves as mulch
  • The fence keeps deer away from the tree
  • You can grow edible plants on the fence, which will automatically self-fertilize with compost tea and block the view of the compost circle
  • Each time you take a compost bucket to the tree, you can collect anything that needs harvesting (fruit from the tree or other edibles from plants that are growing on the fence)
  • When the trellised plants are done for the season, you can just yank them out and toss them on the compost ring, all with minimal effort

It’s fascinating how naturally these elements work together, and how much time and energy you’ll save by implementing a permaculture system. It’s the ideal setup for lazy gardeners!

Turn a challenge into a triumph

Most edible plants don’t like wet feet, and so low areas in a garden present a challenge. Not even grass or ground covers will grow well in soggy spots. Instead of ignoring the space and permitting it to be unproductive, perhaps install a pond, a small cranberry bog or a floral bulb garden. Use what nature hands you.

You can even turn a man-made eyesore into something naturally useful. If you’re stuck with an unsightly fence or wall, attach a trellis to it and grow some fruiting vines or flowers on it.

Don’t create problems that need solutions in the first place. If you live in the desert and are frustrated by long stretches of dry weather, plant succulents, not a cottage garden. If you live in New England, trying to grow tropicals is going to fail every time, unless you have a temperature-controlled greenhouse. If nature didn’t intend it, why spend your time, energy and hard-earned cash trying to force it?

The Importance of Diversity

Most commercial farms are monocultures, meaning they focus on repeating crops of only corn, soybeans, wheat or other staples. Farming this way depletes the soil, which then necessitates the application of synthetic products to amend the deficiencies. Home gardeners have adopted the monoculture notion that flowers go here, the vegetable garden goes here, and the orchard belongs out back. Not only is that notion inefficient, it deprives all of your plants the benefits of an integrated permaculture design that is less work and healthier for your entire landscape.

When you combine a variety of plants, you can:

  • Save space by planting tall, medium and short plants with different soil and food requirements in the same square footage
  • Capture nutrients in deep-rooted plants that have leached past nearby shallow-rooted plants
  • Create an entire understory garden, producing exponentially more food in half the space
  • Send pests scattering, because there may only be one or two plants amongst your diverse garden that attract them
  • Reduce the “bad pest” population by interspersing plants that attract “good pests”
  • Reduce disease, as they only transmit between similar plants
  • Enjoy the benefits of stronger, healthier plants as the result of companion planting

Again, look at nature: A woods, a lea, a salt marsh – they all have dozens and dozens of plant species and varieties, all intermixed and growing/supporting each other.

The Layout

The core of this principle is to plant what you need using as little space as possible, so it doesn’t interfere with what would naturally be there in its stead. Permaculturists use tactics called stacking and guild planting to accomplish this.


Stacking simply means vertical growing. A rainforest has stack upon stack of plant varieties; grasses and creeping ground covers; bushes and tall plants; tall trees; and vines that meander over all. In a home garden, most people would plant garlic and beets in separate rows. Garlic has shallow roots and grows in the surface soil; beet roots get their nutrients from much further beneath the top layer. Their needs don’t interfere with one another, so you can plant garlic on top of beets and double your growing space.

Let pole beans or cucumbers use corn stalks as a trellis. Look at the space under and around a fruit tree, a perfect space for nitrogen-fixing perennial herbs like dill and coriander.

Guild planting

Guild planting takes stacking, incorporates plants, trees, insects and animals, and adds companion planting and crop rotation to create a whole host of benefits. You’re essentially creating a self-contained village for whatever you choose as your main element. For purposes of this article, here is what an apple-tree guild would look like:

The tree: plant a dwarf apple tree that’s well suited to your region, and a pollinating companion.

Suppressors: Grass drains nutrients from fruit-tree roots. Bulbs do not. You can plant allium like chives and garlic, or better yet, daffodils, which deter deer. Plant them in a ring around the tree in a diameter that matches the tree’s mature size.

Repellers: Nasturtiums ward off many insects, especially those that attack apple trees, and the flowers are not only pretty, but edible.

Attractors: You want good insects around your trees, like bees for pollination. Plant dill or fennel, as the flowers are wildly attractive to them. The tree itself will attract birds, which also help with pollination and insect control.

Accumulators: Plant chicory, dandelions, anything with deep roots that will pull up nutrients from below to accumulate in the soil and nourish surrounding plants as well as the tree’s feeder roots.

Mulchers: These are plants you grow, then cut-and-drop the leaves so they dry, decompose and act as a deterrent to weed-seed germination while feeding the soil. Artichokes and rhubarb are wonderful mulcher plants.

Fixers: These are specific plants that fix nitrogen in the soil, an especially important nutrient for fruit trees. Legumes like clover, vetches, peas, beans and alfalfa all fit this bill.


Start small. Don’t bite off more than you can grow! If you start with a huge garden plot, you will invariably not have time to mulch, so weeds will take over. You won’t have time to make enough compost, so fertilization will be weak. Weak plants are targets for disease, and soon your garden will be on the road to ruin.

Start with Zone 1, and one garden bed that’s 10'x10'. Pick disease-resistant varieties that are zoned for your area and that are easy to grow (see our Stark® Picks for low-maintenance fruit trees). Design the whole bed up front, and once you understand how easy it is to maintain a good design, you can add another bed. If it’s designed correctly, it will largely take care of itself. Happy Permaculturing!