Not all gardens are sources of joy. Some are a constant headache. For example, gardens in which the plants don’t suit the location require a lot of gardening and even drive away native insects and birds. But there is an alternative: permaculture.
This involves designing a garden so that it is as sustainable as possible – one that is ecologically, socially and economically viable. While also suiting the homeowner.
And there's a major bonus: you don't have to replant all the beds every year. Furthermore, it will address the problems of snails and mice that plague many a gardener, says permaculture designer and landscape gardener Jonas Gampe from Bischbrunn in Bavaria.What distinguishes a permaculture garden from an ordinary garden?
The difference lies in the objective. An ordinary garden usually has a flat lawn, and the design is based on ideas from the neighbourhood and what is available at the garden centre.
Permaculture is about your own wants and needs: What do you want to do with the garden? What should it be able to do, what is important to you?
The second step is to look at the geographical characteristics: Location, soil, light, and wind conditions and the existing resources such as plants, buildings, and water. In this way, a garden is created that fits the location and the needs of the residents.
In most cases, by the way, the result is not a garden with a south-facing terrace and large gravel and lawn areas.
But rather? A low-maintenance, ecological garden with wilderness zones and comfortable seating areas.
How is that different from an organic garden?
An organic garden doesn’t really differ in its layout from an ordinary garden; the difference lies in the details. In permaculture, even the basic structure is completely different. It's about creating a basic framework with permanent ecosystem structures, so that vegetable beds, for example, don't have to be replanted every year.
How does that work?
Around 80% of the area is planted with perennial crops – wild fruit, nut trees and berry bushes, for example. In addition, there are herbs, vegetables, and edible wild plants such as perennials or plants that self-seed easily – for example, perennial cabbage, garden cabbage, wild garlic – depending on what grows well in the particular location. Annual crops are just in one or two beds that are intensively managed.
All this not only saves labour in terms of planting and tending. Over time, it also creates a self-regulating ecosystem with more species richness, higher pollination, better soil, and more water storage. Even snails and mice are no longer a problem in the long run.
Can permaculture be implemented everywhere?
The larger the area, the easier it is to establish a self-regulating ecosystem. Thousands of species can live on one hectare of land. In a small home garden, on a balcony, or a windowsill, however, that becomes difficult.
Here, it's less about establishing a comprehensive ecosystem and more about designing efficiently and using cycles: making your own fertiliser from organic waste, gardening in large containers, growing perennial fruit and vegetables. If you only have one square metre, then it certainly needs more attention. But also, the smaller the area, the closer you'll be – unlike in a large garden or field.
In addition, the proximity to the house allows you to draw on completely different resources. You can grow fruit from trellises on the walls, collect water from gutters, and maybe even have electricity outside.
What elements are indispensable in permaculture?
Apart from the planning and design process at the beginning, there is nothing that absolutely has to be included – and also nothing that has to be excluded. As long as you plan and act as ecologically, socially and economically as possible, there are no no-gos and no must-haves.
The concept is practical, not dogmatic. It also means that the garden can and should always be developed further. Nothing is set in stone. Even the permaculture concept itself has been evolving for more than 40 years.
How are the social and economic aspects incorporated into a permaculture garden?
When it comes to economics, it's all about efficiency: What are the optimal walking routes across the site? How can the area yield as much as possible with as little effort as possible? How can you optimally use and conserve resources such as water? How can you buy less fertiliser, less soil and fewer seeds?
The social component is about community. Self-sufficiency is very inefficient, in my opinion, if everyone does everything themselves. If there is only room for one apple tree in each garden, you can plan and agree together who will grow a good canning apple, who will grow a juicing apple, who will grow a storage apple, and who will grow a dessert apple. You can trade crops – as well as seedlings, seeds and equipment.
What are the challenges involved in permaculture?
You need to be calm and relaxed. Permaculture is a long-term process. The garden changes over time. Some processes take a few years to settle down – so do plants and ecosystems. – dpa