Down in the Garden: is permaculture for you?

There are so many ways to garden and each season seems to bring us a new term, a new way of caring for and harvesting the plants we grow at home.

One of these approaches that is enjoying a resurgence of interest is ‘Permaculture’.

Created in the mid 1970s, this holistic approach to gardening is appealing to those wanting to grow safer produce to share with their families while protecting the environment.

But is it for you?

What is Permaculture?

You may be surprised to learn Permaculture was born here in Australia.

It was created by Bill Mollison, a biologist and David Holmgren, an environmental designer in the mid-1970s.

Often mistaken as ‘just another term for organic’, Mollison and Holmgren’s original concept, in their words was to create, an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to mankind.

Over the years this founding goal broadened considerably and today permaculture has been redefined to mean: Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.

The heart of Permaculture is sustainability – to create an energy-efficient home, garden and world that produces what we need while focusing towards permanent solutions to enable us to co-exist in harmony with all other living things and the environment.

For the home gardener, this isn’t hard, and it isn’t expensive or time consuming.

In fact, once begun, most find permaculture gardens save time and money.

It may sound a little challenging, but the skilled gardener can attest to how crops and plants that are natural to our Coast grow with greater ease.

These plants require less additional water, sometimes no pest or disease control and provide a more abundant harvest, maximum shade, flowers or other design features we desire in our gardens.


Any agricultural practice benefits from a foundation of ethics that are adhered to so that the intention and outcomes are sustained.

In Permaculture these are: Earth Care – rebuild nature’s capital, People Care – nurture self, kin and community and Fair Share – set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus.

If you want to dive in and work towards becoming a permaculture gardener then check in regularly with each decision by asking: Is this caring for the earth, the people and consuming fairly.

How do I start Permaculture in my Garden?

Although there are those who embrace Permaculture in its entirety, even if you are not ready to take the plunge, there are facets that you can easily introduce to your home garden that will make a positive difference to you and your environment.

All good gardening begins with design and although most of us, your gardening writer included, are guilty of just hobbling together things on the fly, design enables us to make best use of the land, resources and environment.

Permaculture design makes sure we are doing it responsibly and sustainably.

There are twelve principles that make up a Permaculture practice and while that may seem a lot to learn, they are mostly common sense. You can explore these principles as applied to a greater societal approach in any of Holmgren/Mollison’s work, but I am going to give you simple ways that you can see how they would work in your own gardens. These are just starting points as examples of each principle.

1. Observe and Interact

Watch what happens on your land and surrounds.

Learn what goes on and how you can find solutions to improve your area or work with what is already here. For instance, you can map the sunlight on your garden and plant accordingly, or record insects and identify pests from beneficial and native insects.

2. Catch and Store Energy

You could try installing a water tank, using solar energy or making wicking beds.

3. Obtain a Yield

This means ensuring that all possible assets (your land and your time) are used to ensure something becomes of them. Examples might include using roof space or balconies for edible gardening, growing more edibles, or collecting rainwater.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

Set limits so that you are not overusing resources and be realistic about what you are capable of and what is or isn’t working along the way.

Stop doing what is not working.

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

In a home garden setting this means limiting the use of outside resources and using what you can generate on your land and doing things by hand when possible.

6. Produce No Waste

The aim is to use everything in a permaculture garden – mulch created from clippings and leaves, compost from home and garden waste fertiliser from animals and worms.

7. Design from Patterns to Details

This is perhaps the most well-known Permaculture principle.

Gardens are created with zones that are conducive to working the garden as well as being harmonious to the environment.

They often mimic patterns in nature and nearly always include curves edges and circles to maximise the use of space and branched shapes to connect and improve movement through the garden.

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate

Bring it all together by planning a garden so that all the plants and systems are near each other or make sense in the overall design and subsequent usage.

Plant herbs close to the house for ease of use and situate high water-need plants situated in lower areas of the garden to use run-off.

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

Creating your own potting mixes, seed saving and starting your garden small.

These are just a tiny fraction of the small and slow ways to gardening that enhance our connection with the environment and garden while allowing us to see more and learn more.

10. Use and Value Diversity

Companion planting is one very important and successful way to work with this principle.

Another is by growing plants that repel pests and by planting is a more organic way instead of straight rows.

In fact, this later tip will help slow bugs that gain a taste for a particular crop.

If they are all in a row, you are setting out a smorgasbord for them to hop along!

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

When two ecosystems meet there is a chance for a new and rich environment to grow.

Look at our own lakes and coastline and the areas teaming with both wildlife and plants along them. This principle also means not overlooking what lies between. In your garden you can utilise this by planting flowers around a vegetable garden to encourage the bees, by making keyhole shaped garden beds to maximise the use of space by increasing the edges, or by using ‘dead areas’ of your garden productively.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Everything changes and even the most well thought out designed garden will change on its own and will at some point require you to change it as well.

For example, if your raised bed collapses and the wood you used is not suitable after all, leave the fallen dirt as an above ground bed and use the wood elsewhere in the garden as a trellis or stakes.

Can Permaculture Fail?

There are lots of theories out there as to why permaculture has not worked for some and although it is again rising in popularity, it has not ‘caught on’ more in the mainstream.

Most point towards an inability to stick with it, time constraints and even costs in setting up systems (water tanks, wicking beds for examples).

Personally, I think there is an ‘all or nothing’ approach by many and I find nothing wrong in beginning a new way of gardening by implementing it one step at a time.

If permaculture principles appeal to you, try a few and build from there.

Bill Mollison once recalled a student asking if he had given up permaculture after seeing him using petrol driven machinery to dig a dam.

The amount of water he could generate from available renewable resources, he replied, would have taken years to bring in by truck.

Small steps, with the best effort is always useful when looking towards change for a more sustainable gardening practice.

Where Can I Learn More?

On the Central Coast we have a local branch of Permaculture Australia, ‘Permaculture Central Coast’, which is a not-for-profit and very welcoming community group of volunteers who provide education and resources throughout the Coast.

You can find them at:

There are many courses online that focus on all aspects of Permaculture including design, lifestyle and gardening – start at

Those who love books will find the subject well represented and I can recommend the following for the home gardener:

Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway

Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, Rosemary Morrow, Rob Allsop (Illustrator)

The Permaculture Home Garden, Linda Woodrow

Permaculture for Beginners, Carrie Mitchell


‘Green Living Webinar – Water Wise Gardening’, 9:30-11am, 24th October 2020 – see (free)

‘Permaculture Garden Tour, Woongarah 10-11:30am, 25th October 2020 – see  ($15)

‘Succulent Workshop, Somersby’. 3pm – 4:30pm 31st October 202 – see ($49)

‘Native Plant Propagation’ online class 7:30 – 9pm, 2nd November – see:  (free)


Capsicum, spring onions, squash, zucchini, rosella, sweet corn, basil, pyrethrum, lemongrass, oregano, marjoram, mint, passionfruit, avocados, banana, daisies, snapdragons, marigolds, celosia

References: David Holmgren, Essence of Permaculture, Melliodora Publishing 2020 and Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway

Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator
and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘The Gardening Gang’ 8 – 9am every Saturday on Coast FM.
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