Written by Angus Stewart
Permaculture is a system of agriculture developed to maximise productiveness of spaces and utilise resources in the most efficient way possible.
As a system of production, it emphasises reducing, reusing and recycling as guiding principles of the economic system - economic in the sense of a household being a small version of an economy (the word “economy” comes from Greek and means “household management”.) Permaculture is about making the best use of all resources in order to create closed systems and save resources and energy wherever possible. This might seem like the kind of project you could only do with some land, but urban settings are actually ideal for trying out permaculture designs because space is already limited and thus this encourages creative use of small amounts of space, matter and energy. Many of the basic features of permaculture design can be incorporated into the urban garden just by scaling them down.
Start by thinking about all of the things you use and produce in life and then think about creating systems where you can facilitate the most efficient use of all of these resources. Permaculture includes resources you might not think about right away, like energy, water and organic waste. There are many simple gardening techniques that will help to conserve resources, and a lot of these can be tried out in the urban garden. Energy can be saved by planting deciduous vines over the side of a house or building so that the leaves cool the structure in summer and let the light through in winter. If you plant an edible climber, such as a grape or kiwi fruit vine, then you’ll not only be saving energy on heating and cooling but you’ll also be producing food as well!
Another simple permaculture trick to try in the urban garden is to economise on space by planting multiple edible plants with different growing habits in the same pot. One of the best and most ornamental ways to do this is to grow a fruit tree or other tall edible plant in a large container and then plant herbs underneath which can spill out over the sides. This could be a citrus tree, bay tree, or native mountain pepper, and underneath you can place the herbs you use the most for cooking, or even a plant like comfrey which isn’t edible but has a variety of other important uses in the garden and as a topical herbal medicine.
Comfrey is a permaculture staple plant, and it is perfect for planting under trees in containers because it provides the curious benefit of accumulating nutrients from the soil using its deep taproot. One nutrient it concentrates particularly well is potassium, which is essential for plant health. Using comfrey is as easy as harvesting some leaves and cutting them up as a mulch for other plants, as the nutrients will simply leach out of the cut leaves. Comfrey is also known as a “compost activator” for the compost heap – it not only provides an extra boost of nutrients to the compost, it actually helps the compost heap to heat up and therefore to compost faster!
Permaculture design predominantly uses exotic plants, simply because they are the plants we know the most about and we are familiar with their history of use by humans, but it’s always a great idea to see what native species you can use as well. Our native flora has a long and somewhat neglected history by Europeans, most of which has only recently come to light as society finally recognises the immense and ancient knowledge of Indigenous Australians. Using natives fits perfectly with permaculture principles, as native plants are much more suited to our environment and generally use less resources than exotics. They also have a fascinating array of uses and flavours, so have a go at using some in your urban permaculture garden.
There are many more aspects to permaculture design, but the main applicable ideas for urban gardens are simply about following the basic principles of reusing water and energy wherever possible and maximising the use of space by growing multiple plants in pots, as described, or using vertical gardens. Learning the basics in a small space will help you become familiar with the design principles and thus it is valuable experience for any permaculture enthusiast!