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Applying Permaculture Design

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Anyone who has tried to describe to someone what ‘Permaculture Design’ is will know that it can be surprisingly difficult. So when trying to apply permaculture design principles we need to be sure that we know where we’re trying to get to, and how we plan to get there. This is where ‘frameworks’ for the design process can be really useful. Frameworks are like stepping stones which we can follow to take us through the process from beginning to end while helping to remind us of our main objectives, and the guiding principles we are committed to.



The ‘Action Learning Cycle’ is a simple cyclical framework which illustrates how we can achieve the best outcomes – by continuously learning and improving.





Based on the same premise Patrick illustrated the design process like this:


The importance of observation or the ‘receptive’ phase cannot be over stated, as this is when we gather all the information with which to make our design decisions. Oversights at this stage can lead to significant errors which could affect the integrity of the whole design. It can be difficult to resist the temptation to start designing immediately. We will undoubtedly have a multitude of judgements, ideas, intuitions and desires from the outset, but in order to create a truly effective design we must do our best to keep such thoughts at bay – or perhaps confined to a notebook, until we have fully observed every relevant aspect of our design subject. It could be that our immediate thoughts about something are very astute and relevant, and that an intuitive feeling about where something should go, or how it should work is in fact very sensible. However, until we can see every piece of the jigsaw puzzle we can’t be sure where the pieces fit, so it’s safer to follow a clear and rigorous process. Processes and frameworks can also help to prevent us from feeling overwhelmed by complex situations. Most situations have a level of complexity which taken as a whole can feel unfathomable. Breaking things in to steps can make things feel more manageable.

What separates permaculture design from other kinds of design is very much about ethics and principles. The ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares are the foundations upon which the design principles rest. There have been many interpretations of these principles, in fact the two original founders David Holmgren and Bill Mollison each created their own lists. These can be helpful to keep us on track in terms of our overall aims, and we can use them to check the decisions we’ve made as a form of evaluation. However, it’s difficult to distil the principles in this way, and lists can be a confusing and convoluted. I prefer to focus on a general approach and attitude which embodies the principles and creates a holistic designer.

The following excerpt from Patrick’s book The Earth Care Manual shows how he characterised the permaculture design approach:

Des Meth 1

Think like a System

When creating a design we need to think like a system. We humans are very good at looking at the different elements within a system, but not seeing the relationships which connect them. The diagram below shows how human habitats are currently designed following a period of unlimited fossil fuel consumption, and what we are aiming for in permaculture design.


The red arrows are the inputs and outputs of each element (the block shapes). By this I mean the energy and resources which go in to (eg. electricity, time, skills, feed) and come out of them (eg: food, earnings, materials, etc). Currently the inputs and outputs of elements tend to be addressed independently, and the human is considered separate, managing it all from the outside. In permaculture we realise that we are very much part of the system as we are reliant upon it for our survival

Permaculture was originally inspired by ecology – observing nature. Nature comprises of systems within systems. Boundaries between these systems are largely conceptual, as none of them could exist without the others within them and surrounding them. Everything really is connected, and it is the nature of the connections which is important. When we mimic nature by creating dynamic systems based upon diversity and beneficial relationships we can move closer to creating self-sustaining, resource building environments, and away from energy intensive, resource depleting environments.

Not only are we aiming to increase the level of outputs of our system while reducing the level of inputs (ie. Use less energy, increase yields) but by understanding the concept of systems we can make the outputs of one element become the inputs of another. Therefore the relative location of each part of the design is crucial in relation to the location of every other part. In the wonderful Tale of Two Chickens we see how our current systems create many unwanted outputs which could be made use of. If not made use of these outputs become a problem to dealt with – a pollutant. While pollutants require energy to manage and cause environmental damage, the inputs of the system are being met with yet more energy and environmental destruction. We’ll stop there on the negativity and simply acknowledge that we clever humans can do better than this and that’s why we are practicing permaculture! So one of the questions I ask myself when designing is: How can I do it better? How can we reduce waste and increase efficiency and abundance.

We also need to remember that the design site is continuously evolving as illustrated in the excerpt from the Earth Care Manual. Mollison coined the phrase Multi-dimensional Design to describe not only the use of space (the many layers of a forest garden compared with a field of wheat for example) but the use of time. A ‘finished design’ is only a snapshot in time, so the design process will continue as the site develops and the designers/occupiers periodically re-evaluate their aims, needs, wants, resources, etc. If you were designing a forest garden on a grassy paddock for example you would be designing the succession from grassland to emerging woodland. This won’t happen immediately, so the stages in between will need to be planned. How will you make best use of the space around the trees in the time they take to reach maturity? Dealing with the aspect of time gives another opportunity for creativity and dynamic uses of resources.

As a teacher I am constantly impressed by the solutions that students come up with for the particular challenges of their design projects. But I am most delighted by the pleasure they get from thinking holistically – it’s the difference between thinking outside the box and refusing to get into the box in the first place!

Nitrogen Fixing Plants & Dynamic accumulators

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Eleagnus Umbellata also known as Autumn Olive has delicious edible berries.

In permaculture we aim to work with nature to create healthy, functional and productive systems. Natural ecosystems are self-supporting; they don’t need us to come along and fertilize them because of the interactions between species which facilitate nutrient cycles. By understanding some of these beneficial relationships we can benefit from them too.

Nitrogen is one of the main plant nutrients associated with plant growth and is also important for producing the chlorophyll needed for photosynthesis. Plants can’t absorb nitrogen as gas from the air because they require fixed (combined) forms of nitrogen known as nitrates. Some plants, known as ‘nitrogen fixers’ interact with certain types of microbes in order to transform nitrogen gas in nitrates. There are two main groups of bacteria that can do this: Rhizobium & Frankia.

These microbes live on the plant roots and turn atmospheric nitrogen (‘breathed’ in by the plant) in to nitrates that the plant can use as food. In exchange the plant provides the microbes with carbohydrates produced using photosynthesis. This relationship enables the plant to produce nitrogen-rich leaves and seeds. Leaf fall, seed fall and root die-back then makes this nitrogen available to other plants in the surrounding area, thus benefiting the whole system. We can make use of this natural symbiosis in organic gardening systems where we choose not to use chemical nitrates, in forest gardens where we aim to create a self-sustaining system, and in vegan gardening where animal manures are not used. Other nutrients will also be depleted as we harvest food from the plants, so these will need to be replaced in other ways, using mineral accumulators like comfrey for example.


Frankia, are a group of Actinobacteria. Plants which partner with these bacteria are known as the actinorhizal nitrogen fixers and include the following:

Rosaceae, the rose family (hawthorns, Bramble, raspberry, strawberry, quince, apple, pear,cherry, etc)

Elaeagnaceae, the oleasters (Eleagnus, eg: Autumn Olive Eleagnus umbellata)

Betulaceae, the birch family (Including Alder and Italian Alder)


The huge botanical family Fabacae (previously known as Leguminosae) forms a relationship with Rhizobium and Bradyrhizobium bacteria. These are the plants we call legumes and they are commonly used in Organic agriculture and also in main-stream agriculture in the form of ‘green manures’ (more about this below). These bacteria form nodules on the plant’s roots which are visible to the eye. They also turn nitrogen gas in to nitrates to feed the plant, which then contributes the nitrogen to other plants via its seeds, leaves and annual root replenishing cycles.

alfalfa-herbal-remedies-1These plants include:

Peas & beans

Alfalfa & lucerne

Clovers & Vetches

Lupins & Phacellia


When planning a forest garden we refer to a ‘Nitrogen budget’ which helps us to ensure that we have enough nitrogen fixers in our system to replenish what we take out as a yield (crops). There are ways to calculate this (Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden) but sometimes it’s easier to include as many nitrogen fixers as possible and choose species with multiple functions, eg: insect attracter, edible fruits, windbreak, etc.

Dynamic Accumulators

GARDEN 10These are plants which are able to absorb minerals from parts of the soil that other plants can’t reach, and accumulate them in their roots and leaves. As leaves and roots die back the minerals are added to the top soil and become available to surrounding plants. This natural process can be encouraged by ‘Chopping and dropping’ these plants periodically as a mulch, adding them to your compost heap, or making a liquid plant feed. Examples of dynamic accumulators are: comfrey (always plant Bocking 14 rather than native comfreyy as it can be invasive) dandelion and teasel. These plants tend to have very long tap roots which enter the subsoil and extract minerals, while also gradually opening it up and allowing in air, water and other plant roots, which can help to increase the depth of the topsoil over time.

Green Manures

These are herbaceous plants sown onto ley (fallow) ground or ground which would otherwise be bare in periods between crops. Green manures add nutrients (mainly nitrogen) to the ground and reduce or negate the need to use compost or animal manures. They also form a protective ground-cover for the soil and can increase biodiversity and attract beneficial insects.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChoosing the right Green Manure will depend on:

  • why you are planting a green manure, eg: to add organic matter, to add nitrogen, to improve drought resistance (by protecting the soil).
  • how long you require the ground to be covered – some germinate and grow quicker than others.
  • what was there before and what you want to plant after (what nutrients need to be replaced and what does the following crop need)
  • the time of year (for green manure germination)
  • the type of soil (will affect which green manure will do best)

Three main kinds:

  1. Overwinter: to cover the ground between autumn harvest and spring planting.
  2. Maincrop: a fallow of at least a year, preferably three.
  3. Undersowing or bi-cropping: Sown around the crop during the growing season.

Some examples could include:

  • Beans and vetch followed by tomatoes
  • Beets & carrots and white clover (protects the soil over winter)
  • Squash and sweet clover followed by beets & carrots (if intercropping with alliums grow in the spaces where the squashes were as alliums don’t like sweet clover.)
  • Sweetcorn and soya beans (not great in uk) followed by potatoes as soya inhibits potato scab.
  • Brassicas and sweet clover –deep roots don’t interfere with shallow brassica roots.


Bi-cropping (also known as undersowing) is the practice of sowing a green manure around a crop. This is a regenrative agriculture technique used for large scale vegetable and cereal growing, but can also be done on a smaller scale. I have experimented with growing white clover around brassicas and pumpkins, which worked very well so long as the clover was ccut back hard to allow the vegetables to get going. I began by sowing the clover as a green manure to cover some empty ground and then cut it back and cleared space for my seedlings when they were ready to be transplanted. This practice has many advantages; it protects the soil, increases biodiversity, adds nitrogen and supresses weeds.


For extensive nitrogen fixing plant lists for temperate climates see theTemperate Climate Permaculture’ website.

Annual Polycultures – an easy way to ‘permaculture’ your plot

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Sweetcorn (maize) under-planted with squash

Permaculture began with the concept of edible polycultures with Mollison and Homgren’s observations of natural ecosystems. Their initial idea looked much like a young emerging woodland with a mixture of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, all of which were edible or useful to humans. Forest gardens are becoming increasingly popular and people are growing accustomed to the idea of edible perennials. But a polyculture doesn’t have to consist of only perennials. There is room for self-seeding annuals and planted vegetables in and alongside a forest garden. Or you can simply create a polyculture within your annual vegetable garden. Here are some good reasons for growing annual vegetable polycultures and a few helpful tips for having a go.

Benefits of diversity

All of the benefits of a diverse system will apply to your annual polyculture. The most important one perhaps is the improvement in the health of the plants and the soil. Pests and diseases tend to be species specific – that is they like to prey upon one type of plant. Club root for example is only found in the brassica family of plants; cabbages, kales, cauliflowers, broccoli, etc. Black fly colonise broad beans and carrot fly only eat…well you get the idea. As well as being unimaginative with their diet, pests are also easily flummoxed and less likely to find your crops if they are part of a polyculture. In nature you rarely see explosions of pests and diseases as they are kept in check by the challenge of finding their prey and being preyed upon themselves. Taking care of your soil will make a big difference when it comes to controlling pathogenic microbes, but mixing up your crops in the growing area will help to confuse the flies, bugs, beetles and other invertebrates which are looking for lunch. By including flowering plants which attract predator insects you can help to keep damaging bugs like aphids, white fly and black fly in check.


Insect attracter plants:

These can be either included in plant mixes or grown around the polyculture beds.

Angelica, chervil, dill, fennel, hogweed, lovage, sea holly, sweet cicely.

Cornflower, corn marigold, fleabane, golden rod, Michaelmas daisy, ox-eye daisy, Shasta daisy, yarrow, tansy, chamomile.

Winter flowering heathers, wild marjoram, spring flowering willows, Melissa, comfrey, borage.



A well designed polyculture can easily out-crop a monoculture if managed well. Each crop included must occupy a different niche. For example their specific root depth, light requirements, water and nutrient needs, seasonality and growth rate. Rather than competing with one another they will co-exist harmoniously, and ideally actually benefit one another. Some classic examples are lettuces around purple sprouting broccoli with a ground cover of radish. The lettuces make use of the ground between the PSB while it slowly fills the space over the growing season. As it grows more leafy in the summer it will cast a little shade on the lettuces and prevent them from bolting. Meanwhile any remaining gaps can be filled with fast growing radishes which will crop before the gaps are filled by the other two crops. Radishes can also be sown with parsnips. As parsnips are slow to germinate the radishes come up quickly enabling the gardener to see where the parsnips rows are, and thus avoid hoeing or weeding them – so a polyculture can be as simple as you like, so long as it has some benefit.

Growing two crops together can out-yield a monoculture by up to 150%. The more plants you add, the lower the rise in overall yield, but it will still always be more than a monoculture because of the different niches being occupied. The better the design, the better the yield.


camera July 390

As the plants grow much thinning is required and a constant level of attention to ensure plants have enough space and are not competing. Harvesting is fairly constant and plants are often picked when small or young to make room for other crops. Gaps from harvesting can be filled with seedlings for the next succession of crops.Ianto Evans (Cob Cottage) and Sepp Holzer (Hugelkulture) both broadcast seed mixes on to open ground. Evans advocates broadcasting each type of seed individually at a normal rate, while Holzer broadcasts mixes. The plant mixes or ‘guilds’ are chosen according to the different needs and qualities of each plant. You may choose to either broadcast seed, raise seedlings to plant out, or a combination of the two. I raise most things as seedlings as we have a serious slug problem. Remove any surface mulches in the spring and only mulch with compost if you have a lot of slugs.


When designing the polyculture crops can be sorted into different groups according to their needs. For example, choosing the most demanding plants as the main crop with less demanding plants around them. Some smaller non-demanding crops can be useful as space fillers and at the edges, like spring onions, radishes, garlic, thyme, parsley or flowers like French Marigold (Tagetes) or Pot Marigold (Calendula).

If you’re trying to get more out of your soil you will need to put more in to it, so make sure it gets plenty of compost –  2 or 3 times more than usual depending on how demanding the crops are. You can also use liguid plant feeds like nettle tea and comfrey juice to make sure everything grows abundantly. Growing a polyculture takes a little more care and attention that growing a monoculture, but it doesn’t need to be complex and the rewards are well worth the effort. You should spend much less time weeding, hoeing and dealing with pests and diseases, and more time harvesting and eating!

Top Tips:

  • Every garden is different and what works in one may not work in another. Be prepared to stray from the plan and make best use of what you’ve got as the season progresses.
  • Sow/plant densely and thin out if the slugs don’t do it for you.
  • Don’t over-seed as you’ll create too much competition. Sow each crop at the recommended rate for the area.
  • Use shade to your advantage to prevent bolting or hold back crops. This can be useful if you’ve sown too much in modules but don’t want to waste seedlings.
  • Some crops work best in fairly big blocks, eg: squash takes over, brassicas need netting. You can still get other crops in though – sunflowers work well through squash.
  • Leeks need a good groundcover that isn’t too thirsty, like parsley for example. Can also be planted in groups of three in the large spaces between young courgettes- the shade can help to blanch the stems.
  • Use plenty of rapid shallow-rooted ground cover crops to make sure ground isn’t left bare, eg: salads, spinach, rocket, radish.
  • Sow/plant plenty of self-seeding companion plants which will come back and compete with weeds.
  • If you see a gap, fill it with something useful before a weed finds it.
  • Harvest quickly, don’t wait for plants to mature. Pull out by the roots to make way for next crops.
  • Don’t use too many crops if you don’t have the time to maintain it.
  • Make sure you’re adequately feeding the soil to account for the extra productivity. Plenty of compost, liquid feeds and teas.
  • While the beds will lose less water from evaporation from the soil (it will be covered with foliage) there will be a higher demand from the plants in warm and windy weather. Look out for signs of wilting.

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor