Permaculture Gardening – Edible Ecosytems

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

permaculture gardening

Easton Community Garden in Bristol

Most people interested in practicing permaculture are doing so in a domestic situation – a house or apartment with a garden or in a community garden space. Here are some of the most distinctive permaculture gardening methods you can adopt for a healthy, low-maintenance and highly productive garden on any scale.

No Digging

Soil is the very foundation of life on our planet, and we need to understand how to take care of it so that it can support the plant life which feeds us. The soil food web is complex and fragile and about the most damaging thing we can do to it is regularly turn it over, break it up and squash it. Traditionally we dig in order to relieve compaction, create a fine tilth for sowing into, incorporating fertilisers and removing weeds. There are various ways in which we can avoid the necessity for routinely digging, so not only do we save the soil, but we save a lot of energy too.

Raised Beds

Raised bed gardening is a wonderfully simple way to garden without digging. The growing area is divided into permanent beds made to the right size for the gardener, ie. The middle of the bed can easily be reached from the paths. Topsoil is then rescued from the paths and added to the top of the raised beds which are also generously composted. This creates a slightly mounded effect, hence the name. Raised beds don’t necessarily have solid sides, although some people choose to create them to keep grass out, raise the veg above the reach of rabbits and white fly, or to make them easier to reach for people with limited movement. The beds have a lovely deep, rich topsoil which can support a higher density of crops, so planting distances can be closer. This makes raised beds very productive, and especially well-suited to growing polycultures (more on this below). When it comes to harvesting root vegetables, you may not even need to dig them out, the soil is often so soft and friable that they pull out easily. Compost is added to the top of the beds each year and, as in nature, the soil life incorporates it from the surface down and converts it into plant food.

Digging has its place of course. It may be necessary to dig initially, perhaps for a couple of years if soil is very compacted or devoid of organic matter. The ideal is to get the soil in to a condition that can become fertile, then allow the soil life to move in. Without the worms and micro-organisms, the soil is dead and the only way to grow plants is to use chemical fertilisers. These creatures live and feed on organic matter – they are what turns your kitchen scraps into compost. When you add compost you are adding life, and the soil life feeds the plants.

Raised beds at Charles Dowding’s market garden


A polyculture is the opposite of a monoculture, it means growing more than one kind of crop in the same space. This could be as simple as growing salads in the gaps between cabbages, or as complex as a 2-acre forest garden. Picture a huge wheat field -that’s a monoculture. A whole bed of broccoli is also a monoculture. When club root bacteria encounter a whole bed of brassicas (the cabbage family plants) they have a field day and procreate like mad, causing the grower a serious problem. Pests and diseases tend to be species-specific, that is they have one particular plant they are looking for. In nature they have to work hard to find their prey, but our gardens are like an all-you-can-eat buffet. This is why traditionally we rotate families of crops around different growing areas to avoid these pathogens building up. A polyculture mimics nature and makes pathogens look harder for their chosen plant, and when they find one they don’t find them all.

There are many other advantages to mixing up our crops. From observing nature, we can see how plants live together by being different – different sizes and shapes; light, nutrient and water requirements; growing speed and harvesting times. Diversity makes optimum use of the available resources; every niche is filled with life. A cabbage takes a long time to grow from a small seedling to a large, round fully-formed cabbage, and in the meantime the soil around it is bare and unproductive. It never stays bare for long as there are seeds everywhere waiting to move in. The seed bank which accumulates in the soil from air born seed or those dropped by surrounding plants can be gradually buried over time by not digging and adding compost and mulches to the top of the soil, but there are always more seeds blowing in, so the soil needs to be covered, ideally with useful plants. If a weed can occupy the space between your vegetables, you could be growing another vegetable there.

By being different, crops can create beneficial conditions for one another, like lettuces under purple sprouting broccoli for example – the lettuces will benefit from a little shade in the summer months. Fast growing crops like radish can be broadcast beneath slower crops to make use of the space and protect the soil, or to show you where you have sown slow-germinating crops like parsnips, so they don’t accidentally get hoed. Peas and beans can support the growth of green, leafy veg and hungry crops like pumpkins by adding nitrogen to the soil. Through experimentation in our gardens we can find groups or guilds of plants which grow very well together. By filling our beds with produce we have less weeding to do and more veg to eat. But of course, we need to replace what we take out and growing this intensively means we need to ensure we have plenty of compost to replenish the beds each season.

Polyculture – more than one type of plant growing in the same space



A mulch is simply a non-living ground cover. Soil doesn’t really want to be bare, in nature it is usually covered by a carpet of fallen leaves, dead plant materials and animal manures. Soil organisms have evolved in these conditions and a healthy fertile soil can really thrive when covered as nature intended. For gardeners, mulches can serve various functions, depending on what they are made of and when they are applied:

  • A barrier to weeds – to kill or supress existing weeds, and to prevent seed from germinating and colonising.
  • To prevent soil erosion by wind and rain
  • To reduce water evaporation from the soil
  • To clear an area of lawn or weeds, ready for cultivation
  • To add organic matter

Mulches may take the form of black plastic or weed-stop fabric if the purpose it simply to keep weeds out or clear new ground for growing. It could also be organic materials like layers of cardboard, manure and straw. In an established growing space, it could be straw placed around crops while they grow to keep out the weeds, or compost added to raised beds to bury weeds seeds and add fertility. It is best to work with the materials you have, either in your own garden, or locally. In gardens make use of the bulky winter die-back on herbaceous perennials like bracken, Montbretia or flag iris. In towns and cities, you may be able to get hold of wood chips from the council or local tree surgeons.


Mulch- keeping soil covered has many benefits


The principles of permaculture come from observing eco-systems and many of the gardening methods we recommend mimic nature in order to increase the general health of our own little eco-systems – our gardens. If we take good care of them, they will take good care of us.


The Land Course Online is an affordable online permaculture course with five modules to choose from: Soil, Ecology, Organic Horticulture, Sustainable Forestry, and a fully certified Permaculture Design Course.

Caroline Aitken teaches two residential weekend courses on Kitchen Gardening at The Sustainability Centre in Hampshire each year. See our course diary for dates and content.

The Minimalist Gardener

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Patrick Whitefield spent many years tending his vegetable garden and feeding himself and his wife Cathy with it’s produce. There is a popular misconception that Patrick was a farmer or smallholder, but in fact, he spent most of his adult life living in a bungalow in Glastonbury with small, steeply sloping gardens to the front and back. Like most people, Patrick did not have access to a huge amount of land to support himself from but, like many people, he did manage to grow an awful lot of  fresh food. As a permaculturist he had ways of gardening that worked with nature rather than against it, and over the years he found ways of making the work simpler and less arduous, while equally if not more productive. Through observing, season after season, he found the middle road, the sweet spot between productivity and ease.

I loved to watch Patrick pottering in his garden. His apparent excitement in showing off his splendid leeks, while casually grazing on some perennial broccoli was contagious, and the series of short films he made about growing vegetables leave one in no doubt of his passion for it. But unlike some allotmenteers who seem to delight in the graft of annual double-digging and love a good leaning-on-the-gate type grumble about the poor weather and the slugs, he was all for taking the grunt out of it and focusing on the joy of letting nature do the hard work while we enjoy the bounty. He used to tell students that the ultimate permaculture design would require one simply to get out of bed in the morning, walk into the garden, lay on the ground and allow the food to fall into your open mouth! If this was his aspiration, he came fairly close at times, with his modest suburban garden looking something like a miniature Garden of Eden.

His acquired wisdom from this life-long passion is now distilled into the pages of a new book, published by Permanent Publications, entitled The Minimalist Gardener. Patrick was a contributor to Permaculture Magazine and wrote quarterly seasonal articles about gardening, particularly drawing upon his own gardening experience and the wealth of experienced gained from his years as a permaculture teacher and consultant. The articles have been edited and organised into a comprehensive guide for the domestic kitchen gardener, with top tips for all of the seasons, and guidance on design and the different methods you might use.

The advice that Patrick offers through his articles is so helpful because of the way he encourages the reader to think. If you asked 100 gardeners the same series of questions about how to grow vegetables, or manage the soil, or make good compost, you would get 100 different sets of answers. The real answer is, it depends. The key is knowing the right questions, examining what you want from your garden and knowing how to understand the unique characteristics of the space. The best thing we can do as gardeners is to experiment, keep on watching and learning, and most of all enjoy the garden and the fruits of our labour.

Fruit Cages and Netting

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Soft fruits are one of the most pleasing crops to get from your garden, but also one of the most vulnerable. Blackbirds, squirrels, mice and voles are just a few of the garden visitors who enjoy a juicy berry as much as we do and can strip a bush at alarming speed. It is common practice therefore, to cover soft fruit bushes with protective netting while they are fruiting. If you find you are losing a significant proportion of your crop, this is a good idea, so it’s worth considering the design and materials you may use.


Martin Crawford’s espalier cherry tree

I am often asked whether it’s necessary to net soft fruits at all. The extent to which you fruit is pilfered will depend on the wildlife you have in the garden and what other food sources they have. The extent to which you mind your fruit being pilfered will depend upon how much you want for yourself, and whether you can afford to sacrifice some. If it’s a business, it will be worth investing in protection, and if you have only a few bushes, the crop will be more precious and worth guarding. In Martin Crawford’s 2 acre research garden the only thing he bothers to net is an espalier cherry tree growing on the south facing side of his shed. Cherries are a firm favourite with birds and you can lose a whole crop to them easily. By training the tree against the shed it has a good microclimate, is easy to harvest and can be easily netted by attaching bird netting to the wall with a baton, and clipping it down over the tree while it’s fruiting. All other fruit in his garden is left unprotected because he has so much of it, he can afford to share it.

There are varying attitudes and varying methods, and you’ll need to find the way that suits you.


Permanent Netting:

For permanent protection you will need a structure that will outlive the fruit inside it. Soft fruit bushes can last for a decade, so go for sturdy materials. Scaffold poles are great because they are long lasting and easy to use – you can drive them straight into the ground using a post ram. They can also be upcycled – we used rejects from a local scaffolding firm and these are quite easy to come by now as there has been a change in the material used for poles so many firms are switching.

We chose 2 different grades of wire netting (chicken wire). At the base we used a fine mesh with openings of around 10mm to keep out rodents. At the top we used a larger gage, around 25mm to allow small birds (pest

chicken tractor fruit cage

Our fruit cage made from reclaimed scaffold poles, being ‘tractored’ by poultry

control) and flying insects (pollination and pest control) into the cage, but keep out fruit-gorging blackbirds and squirrels. Our cage (7x7m) is currently being tractored by our chickens and turkeys, preparing the ground for planting this winter, so there’s no roof on it yet. We plan to use a lighter bird netting for the roof, to keep out large birds and squirrels. If the squirrels start to break through it we will resign ourselves to using the mesh, which is very resilient but more expensive and probably harder to install as a roof.

We have been raising bushes from cuttings for the past few years while we had a carpet clearance mulch down to suppress some very vigorous weeds, and then a full season of poultry tractoring to clean up, manure and tilth it for us. I would recommend both of these methods if you are starting out with a dense grass or weed base, but it’s important to have enough chickens to keep the weeds from returning. If it’s a large area with few chickens, you can use something like lino or boards to move around so they have fresh ground regularly and a good supply of woodlice, while being able to keep on top of weed grow-back.

Many people build a wooden frame for their fruit cage as wood is easy to come by and to attach the wire to. We used cable ties to attach the wire to the scaffold poles, and a nick with

vegeatbles netting

Agricultural water pipe used as a frame for netting

an angle grinder allowed use to thread the top ties through the poles themselves to prevent the wire netting from slumping downwards. If using wood, it’s worth using large timbers: 2×4” is ideal. This means your hard work will last longer. Treated wood is best for outdoor use, or ideally something naturally rot-resistant like chestnut or western red cedar. If you’re lucky you may find good timber or old chestnut fence posts in skips, dumps, free-cycle or ebay – it’s worth a look because wood costs add up.

It is possible to buy fruit cage kits from places like B&Q or Garden Naturally. These are quite expensive and always look a bit flimsy to me, but I’ve never had one myself. When choosing netting it’s worth considering the durability of the material, and deciding what you want to keep out and let in. Places like Mole Valley Farmers and Garden Naturally do a wide range of nettings in different sizes and materials. We generally prefer to avoid using plastic nettings as they don’t last well and leave plastic fibres in the soil as they disintegrate, but they are cheaper and lighter and easier to handle than the wire netting.


Temporary Netting:

If you want temporary or mobile netting, there are various approaches you could take. If you have soft fruit against a wall or fence you could attach soft netting to it with a wooden baton and put in ties at regular intervals so the netting can be tied up when not needed, or when harvesting the fruit.

If there is no convenient vertical surface you can build a free-standing cage from light materials and put it where ever you want. A very popular material to use for this is agricultural blue water pipe. This can be bent into arcs and held into a solid rectangular base made of wood, with netting stretched over the top – a bit like mini polytunnel frame. Getting enough height for tall bushes could be an issue, but we have found that you can push lengths of bamboo or hazel into the ends of the piping to give extra height.

peach tunnel netting

Peach trees with half-tunnel structure to support poly plastic or netting

In a walled garden where I used to work, they had a row of peach trees against a south facing wall. Above it they had some poly plastic attached to the wall with batons, and a half-tunnel framework around the trees. This meant the trees could be protected from the cold in the winter, but open for pollination, harvesting and fresh air in the summer. A similar structure could be created with netting for small fruit trees and soft fruit.

By far the simplest approach to temporary netting, is to throw a net over a bush or group of bushes while it’s fruiting. This helps to protect against larger birds like blackbirds, so while some is still lost to rodents and perhaps some smaller birds, the majority is saved. sometimes the simplest solutions are the best!

With a little planning and the right materials you can protect your precious fruit crops and avoid the terrible disappointment of finding that someone has beaten you to it!

raspberry netting

Nylon bird netting fixed to wall above raspberries with batons.

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor