Permaculture: What Is It?

By Rachel Turiel

Permaculture is a term coined by author and biologist Bill Mollison based on the phrase “permanent agriculture.” Mollison explains, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

Some permaculture basics are: make gardening easier by planting perennials, which produce every year. Forget tilling – spread compost, manure and straw and let the worms do the work. If you’ve got a cold spot in your house, use it to store root crops. If you’ve got a slope, grow moisture-loving plants at the bottom, where rainwater collects. If you’ve got oak trees where you want a garden, trim their limbs and use them as trellises upon which to grow grapes, hops, and other fruitful vines. Harness the strengths of your property to yield an abundant, permanent garden.

Five Easy Ways to Bring Permaculture to Your Yard This Season

By Grant Curry

Create Treasure to Bury: Compost
Compost helps build soil fertility. Find a spot outdoors that is close to where you generate food wastes (i.e. your kitchen) and start making a compost pile. Reserve a pile of brown matter (leaves, sawdust, etc.) and a pile of aged manure (bunny and goat manure don’t really require aging) to mix with your food scraps. Depending on how fluffy your brown matter is, you can add 2 parts brown matter (only 1 part if it is finely shredded like sawdust), 1 part manure, and 1 part food scraps. Once your pile is 3’ x 3’ x 3’ fork it over to the next spot in line and start a new pile in first position. After you have moved the pile a few times and it has a lovely coffee color and pleasant smell, it is ready to work miracles.
Capture the Elixir of Youth for Plants
Nothing makes plants happier than rainwater. Since catching rain off your roof is still illegal in Colorado, it is more important than ever to at least make the roof runoff follow the most beneficial path before leaving your property. (For an indispensable guide, check out the free preview of Brad Lancaster’s book Rainwater Harvesting on Amazon). Run your downspout or rain chain into a shallow trench. Using an “A” frame level, lay out a shallow trench that will allow the water from a large rain to spread out gently on your little corner of paradise (planted with food crops) and sink slowly into the ground.

Build an Easy Street Garden Bed
Pick a spot in the path of this elixir of youth (rain) to put down a wonderful bed of fertility on top of the native soil. The first layer can be all the slashed vegetation from the spot you are developing, then aged manure, then cardboard or newspaper, then more manure, then rotten hay/straw (try to ensure no materials with systemic herbicides), then 1-2 inches of the compost you have just produced. The top layer will be mulch on the whole area after you are finished planting it.
Anchor With a Tree
As you learn more about permaculture, you will stumble upon this quote: “The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago. The second best time is right now.” In the garden bed you prepared, plant one fruit or nut tree as space permits. This will be the anchor of your miniature food forest. Accompany it with successively lower layers of food-producing plants. Try to pick plants that will “guild” with each other. If one plant is the “odd duck” and does poorly, replace it with something else the following year. Permaculture is about not getting bogged down with self-recrimination when you make a mistake. One combination you might try is an apple tree surrounded by Siberian pea shrubs, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, horseradish, daylilies, and wild strawberries for groundcover.
Take Advantage of the Perennial Gift
While growing annuals creates significant labor each year, perennials will return year after year with greater vigor and more food! Perennial roots go deeper annually, mining nutrients in the earth that annuals can’t reach. In addition, those deep roots are more effective at erosion mitigation, reaching water reserves, and out-competing weeds.
Some edible perennials that are thriving at our Montezuma County demonstration site are: Buffalo Berry, Nanking Cherry, Aronia, Chokecherry, Elderberry, Siberian Peashrub, Saskatoons, Gooseberry, Sea Buckthorn, Daylilies and Jerusalem Artichokes. All of these provide great foods and will continue to deliver the goods for years to come.
Another plant that will produce the maximum abundance with the minimum effort is Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). Find some at the farmer’s market in the fall or online any time and dig them into soil virtually anywhere. These plants do spread and need to be dug up to prevent this. I find that any plant that produces delicious healthy food and has the propensity to spread is the very definition of a “good problem.” In fact, digging them causes them to grow even more vigorously. Their flowers smell like chocolate and their leaves and stalks make great goat and chicken food. Your holiday table in the fall will be incomplete without a bowl of buttered “chokes” and, best of all, they will come back year after year with no additional plantings.
You Are Ready
These five steps will insure that your small plot will produce wonderful food year after year with little additional labor. Having not disturbed your soil but merely covered it with fertility and then mulched it, you will minimize new weeds. By placing food crops downstream of your rain catchment you insure a grotto that stays cool and moist even on hot summer days. Each trip to the compost pile adds to your garden’s fertility. You will also have a wonderfully beautiful test plot to observe as you explore permaculture more and realize your Eden is just around the corner…in your backyard!

Grant Curry is an RN and a certified permaculture consultant who operates the nonprofit Permaculture Provision Project – a permaculture demonstration site at Hananiah’s Rest Ranch in Cortez, CO. More information at