Permaculture Examples in Our Garden and Yard
By: Mark Hoffman
Over the past few decades we have integrated permaculture principles into our property. Since a picture tells the story better than anything I might write, this page provides examples with accompanying photos and descriptions of how we have applied these principles.
Permaculture design encompasses all aspects of living in one's environment. It touches the way we garden, how we construct our buildings, the placement of our buildings and plants, our transportation options, and even how we shape the land. Permaculture involves wise usage of energy and energy flows. Most energy used in the permaculture system originates from the sun, and can show up as heat, wind, or water. Energy can also originate from gravity moving elements, in particular, moving water.
Because our B&B property is flat and our building locations were already established when I first studied permaculture, we have less flexibility in fully utilizing the principles than if we were to start from scratch or have land that slopes or has natural water features. Therefore, we have worked primarily with the simple concept of harvesting maximum sunlight. Most of our permaculture ventures involve innovative means of raising plants, although we built our sunroom to "harvest" sunlight and thus provide supplemental heat for our home.
Many plants do not need full sun in order to be productive, and in fact, perform reasonably well in partial sun. See our shade plantings page for highlights of our experiments planting vegetables, flowers, and herbs in shade. By integrating plant systems into guilds, observing the cycles of nature, and experimenting with simple season extending structures, we have increased the productive capacity of our gardens and reduced our energy costs. Read on....
Arguably, observation is the most important principle in permaculture. Without the ability to observe nature's responses and changes throughout the seasons, it is nearly impossible to design systems that integrate with nature. Ideally, observation would be so thorough that the changes one makes to the system would be minimal, yet produce significant output. The photos above provide an example of using observation in design.
The first photo (on left) is of a volunteer asparagus plant that grew underneath, but on the south side, of an Eastern red cedar tree in our backyard. Asparagus ferns out as it reaches full height. Despite being shaded in the summer, this asparagus plant is very productive. Observing that asparagus would grow this well at the drip line of a tree with heavy shade, I decided I could emulate that design to plant a new asparagus bed. Interestingly, this location produces the earliest asparagus in our yard. I suspect that is because in early spring, it receives warmth from the south-tilting sun and is protected somewhat at night from the cold sky.
I didn't want to break out a new rectangular garden bed in order to plant another asparagus bed due to the amount of space that requires, so considering that a circle would provide the largest perimeter for the smallest area, I decided to plant the bed in a circle around a tall black cherry tree in the front yard from which I had pruned all the low branches. In the second photo, you can see the approximately 4-year old asparagus growing around that tree.
I tried growing a number of different plants inside this circle - potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, and butternut squash. The potatoes and tomatoes produced well, some others not so well. In the second photo, you can see tomatoes growing in the center.
Broccoli provided the most interesting results. Broccoli will continue to grow florets that are fine for cooking, after the main head has been harvested. The plant can grow to over 3 ft. tall and spread out like a bush. Broccoli grows best in spring and fall, but during the hot summer, the florets will become hot and bitter when exposed to the heat of the sun. I had planted the broccoli on the south side of the tree. During spring, when the sun was still in the south, the plant grew a tasty head which we harvested. During summer, the shaded plant continued to grow florets that, while slightly hot, were acceptable for cooking. During fall, they continued to grow florets, but since the weather was cool and they receive adequate south-tilted sun, another tasty crop was produced. Planting in this manner allowed us to harvest the entire growing season.
The last photo shows the asparagus after two decades of growth. It is very hardy and has both spread toward the tree and reseeded itself inside the circle to the point that much of the circle is now filled with asparagus. The last thing I planted inside the circle was some slow growing mint, which has done ok, but due to it being shorter than the asparagus, is slowly being crowded out by the over-towering asparagus stealing its sunlight.
This system represents a guild. Guilds are an important part of permaculture design. Guilds are a close association of species clustered around a central element. In this example, the black cherry tree (which could be harvested for lumber if desired) is the central element and the asparagus and other vegetables grown under the tree comprise the rest of the guild.
This asparagus experiment capitalized on a number of permaculture principles, such as; the importance of relative location, multiple functions for the layout and design of this system, diversity in plantings, natural succession as the asparagus spread and reseeded, maximization of edge since the entire outside of the asparagus bed is an edge, and all of this arose by observing the growth of asparagus and its relationship with the sun angle.
The first photo (on left) is of horseradish growing at the base of a sour cherry tree. For 17 years, this cherry tree had produced little fruit, and birds normally ate its few cherries before we could harvest them. In 2004, one year after planting the horseradish, this tree produced an abundant crop of cherries. For the first time, we were able to harvest and preserve all the cherries we wanted. The large cherry crop may have been coincidental with the planting of the horseradish; however, abundant crops have continued from this tree over the next two decades.
There are other advantages to planting the horseradish in this location. For example:
The area under this tree previously required regular weeding. This is no longer necessary since the horseradish chokes out almost all weeds.
Horseradish is more compatible with trees than is grass because grass exudes chemicals intended to suppress tree growth. Having horseradish in this location keeps grass further from the tree roots.
We now have a horseradish crop that can be harvested at any time, and it requires virtually no maintenance.
In early summer the horseradish produces a small but attractive white flower that can be used for flower arrangements.
The young horseradish leaves add a tangy flavor to a green salad when used in moderation.
Horseradish is a broad-leaf plant. Broad-leaf plants generally tolerate shade or partial shade since their leaves allow the plant to harvest more sunlight. Therefore, it is not surprising that horseradish grows well under this cherry tree. In fact, this horseradish was transplanted from a full sun location and its growth is at least as hardy as in its earlier full sun location - while utilizing a heavily shaded location that was previously unproductive. Note the dark leaf color. This allows the leaf to absorb more sunlight. The leaves were a much lighter green when the horseradish was planted in full sun.
The second photo displays a similar situation. Here cannas are growing under a small persimmon tree. Cannas are tropical plants with wide, dark leaves and colorful flowers at their top. The cannas grown in this location far outperformed those grown in full sun and did not seem to have any negative impact on the persimmon tree. The only disadvantage to this location was that the leaves of the persimmon tree hid the canna blossoms.
These photos illustrate companion and succession planting. The first photo (on left) shows a row of lettuce growing in between rows of garlic. In our northern Illinois zone, garlic is planted in early November and harvested in mid-July. Lettuce is planted in mid to late April and harvested in May and June, thus allowing harvest of two crops from the same bed.
We have also planted carrots in between the garlic. We plant the carrots in mid to late May and they grow all summer and through the fall. After the garlic is harvested, mulch is added and the carrots are allowed to grow into the area previously occupied by the garlic. This is illustrated in the middle photo (taken in August), although this particular bed of carrots did not sprout completely. Carrots are notoriously hard to sprout. I have found that covering the seeds lightly with peat rather than with soil helps hold moisture needed for sprouting as long as weather is not too hot and dry.
The carrots can be harvested at any time, but we prefer to leave them in the ground as long as possible. Carrots are biennial plants, which means they go to seed in their second year. To determine the best time to harvest carrots, it is helpful to study their lifecycle.
In our climate, carrot seeds won't sprout until late April - early May after the soil has warmed somewhat. Since they are slow to grow, it can be difficult to obtain large carrots early in the summer, however, they grow quite well during August - October if they have adequate moisture. In preparation for winter, carrots increase their sugar content. The sugar serves two purposes - one is to provide an energy source for the next spring when the carrot rapidly sprouts and produces seeds. This expends its stored sugar and hardens the root into inedible cellulose. The other purpose is to protect the carrot from freezing temperatures, since a sugar solution freezes at a lower temperature than pure water. Therefore, based on the carrot's lifecycle, it is apparent that the time to harvest the largest, sweetest carrots is during the winter months after the plant has gone dormant.
In our cold winters, carrot roots will normally freeze and rot if unprotected. To protect them, we have covered the plants with a foot or more of mulch. We have used loose hay, but anything will do as long as it doesn't blow away. We then harvest carrots all winter long (as you can see in the photo above on the right taken at the end of February). They are normally sweet, and because they have grown for such a long period, they are oftentimes very large. I have harvested carrots up to 16" long and 3" in diameter that were sweet and crunchy throughout.
There is one caveat, however - the carrots must be harvested before the warm spring weather arrives, otherwise they will sprout seed tops and quickly use up all their sugar. Also, the longer they stay in the ground into warm weather, the more likely they are to rot or be eaten by underground insects. Typically they will only rot if the top of the root has partially frozen. It is very easy to grow carrots in this manner - and a pleasure to dig under the snow for a healthy meal.
I have also harvested them in late fall before the ground freezes and stored them in buckets of damp sand all winter in a cool location. This works well if you have a cool location that does not freeze.
One final note on the photos above: You will notice an unusual plant in between the carrots in the middle photo. This plant, Euphorbia Lathyrus L. - a.k.a. 'Gopher Purge', which is in the milkweed family, exudes a sap that is distasteful to voles. We have occasional challenges with voles eating our crops. It seems they have a sweet tooth preferential to carrots, sweet potatoes, and strawberries, although they will eat other roots when nothing else is available. Including this milkweed plant in our garden has reduced crop loss due to voles. Interestingly, we still have voles in our yard, however, they now generally stay out of the garden when these plants are present.
This vole-repellent milkweed reseeds itself, so rather than replant, we simply allow it to go to seed, then while weeding, leave enough of these plants in strategic locations to keep the voles out of the garden. This method of 'vole prevention' sure beats trying to trap them, although a cat can serve as another effective deterrent.
Unlike what I described in the garlic and carrot examples above, the true permaculture approach, would be to not annually replant if the plant could reseed itself. With some plants in our northeastern Illinois climate, the reseeding approach works well. For example, we never plant dill anymore. It faithfully reseeds itself every year as you can see in the first photo (on left). We seldom replant sunflowers, and we have let our parsnips reseed themselves, although we also collect their seeds. If plants self-seed too thickly, we simply thin them as desired while performing normal weeding.
A similar plant that provides better results when reseeding itself is the winter, "Egyptian", or walking onion seen in the middle photo (taken in mid-April). This onion variety is very hardy and requires virtually no care. It begins to grow in February or March, depending on the temperature and is the first garden crop available for harvest in spring. By June it goes to seed. It's green shoots as well as its white base can be harvested from February till April, after which, the onion becomes hard and very strong tasting, although the seed heads can be later used as pearl onions.
In the last photo, the walking onion plant has died and its seed head has fallen over, i.e., walked a few inches from its original location. In this walking process, which occurs in July and August, the onion spreads readily. Over the years, it can spread extensively if allowed.
The winter onion is the best example I can think of for our climate of a permaculture plant with multiple functions, including the following:
Requires little weeding due to its thick planting
Is available for harvest in early spring and again in late summer as seed heads mature
Requires virtually no work - only harvest
Can be planted around the base of stone fruit trees to naturally ward off borers. This is especially useful for peach trees as the peach borer is notorious for killing peach trees. This borer is what causes thick sap to exude from the tree's bark. While the onions do not keep the borers away from the upper parts of the tree, which can eventually die due to borer attacks, they protect the bottom of the tree, which allows the tree to regrow branches and start over without needing to plant a new tree.
When we purchased our property in 1986, the area pictured here was all lawn adjacent to the road ditch. In 1987, we planted a row of three hackberry trees (one seen behind the bench in the first photo.) On the other side of these initially tiny hackberries, we created a garden bed, seen just beyond the bench, that for the next decade contained a range of vegetables including strawberries, sweet potatoes, and others. Beyond that bed lies the road ditch. The hackberry trees, it turns out, have a very extensive and entangled root system close to the surface. Furthermore, these trees consume a lot of water due to their heavy leaf production. As a result, over about a decade this garden bed gradually became too dry to use for vegetables due to their short root systems.
Wishing to utilize permaculture design in utilization of this space, I realized that crops having deep roots could likely compete with the trees, especially if located close to the road ditch since, due to "improper" construction of the ditch, the ditch holds water up to a foot deep during very rainy periods. That water gradually seeps deep into the underlying soil, building a water source for deep rooted plants.
In nature, berry bushes live harmoniously with trees, typically growing at the tree drip line, with grasses extending beyond the berry bushes. With that in mind, I concluded that planting berry bushes at the edge of the road ditch and under the tree drip line would likely work out well. Having grown up in central Kansas where black currant bushes were abundant, in 2001, I planted a row of black currants. Those tiny plants can be seen in the first photo along the road ditch just on the other side of the mulched garden bed.
The second photo shows that row of black currant bushes about ten years later when viewed from the road ditch. For reference, the bottom of the road ditch lies just at the edge of the mulch and in extended rainy periods, the road ditch from this point to the road intersection floods with water that can take days, or even weeks to subside. As you can see, the currant bushes have grown vigorously and for over a decade produces tremendous amounts of the largest black currants I had ever seen. As with all berries though, over the next decade or so, the plants began to die out and production dropped. Nevertheless, the design worked wonderfully for many years.
The example shown here employs and illustrates the following permaculture principles:
Permaculture is not just about planting systems. It is more broadly about designing human living systems harmonious with nature and integrating those systems with nature's systems. That includes our physical structures, the most important of which is our houses.
These photos show our south-facing sunroom. The first photo (on left) was taken in mid-April before the catalpa tree growing in the deck had leafed out. The second photo shows that same tree leafed out in late summer.
When we bought this property in 1986, it had a dilapidated porch where the sunroom is now located. My first thought was that it was an ideal location to build a sunroom and that this would be a useful heat source in winter as well as a pleasant room year round. For that to be realized, the room needed to be designed properly.
With the idea of building a sunroom in mind, in 1987, I planted the catalpa tree such that by the time we had saved enough money to build the sunroom, the tree would hopefully be approaching a height where it could begin to shade the future sunroom in summer. The catalpa has large, heart-shaped leaves as seen in the last photo that provide deep shade but has minimal branching to block winter sun. This tree does have the downside of producing a long, cigar-shaped seed pod that blocks the sun, so I remove those as needed in the fall.
We built the sunroom in 1991 and followed up in 1996 with the deck. The sunroom eave overhang is designed to maximize sunlight entering the room at the winter solstice while stopping entry during the heat of summer around the summer solstice. This maximizes heat gain in winter while minimizing it in summer. Combine that with shade from the catalpa tree, and the sunroom remains remarkably cool in summer.
We replaced the glass doors in 2015 because the wooden frames of the original doors were rotting. We had originally used clear glass, but that allowed a lot of heat to escape at night during winter. I wanted to choose the most appropriate glass for the new doors to ensure optimal heat management. No one at the lumber yard selling me the doors, nor at the company that made the doors knew anything about choosing the proper type of glass. Apparently, everyone only uses glass designed to block all incoming and outgoing heat. I ended up calling the glass company and no one there knew until I spoke to the engineer who designed the glass and gave me the information I needed.
Choosing the proper type of glass for the sunroom doors is the last important feature in its design. The glass company engineer told me I needed double pane glass with the film placed on the outside of the inside pane as that would provide optimal heat control. That design maximizes the amount of heat entering during winter days and, combined with full-length shades inside the doors, minimizes the amount of heat leaving during winter nights.
I have often wondered why more people do not build sunrooms in our climate. The room has become a centerpiece of our home and is used as much as the kitchen. I had asked the engineer at the glass company why no one knew what kind of glass should be used for my sunroom? He replied, "We only really sell this glass to people in Colorado." For some reason, people apparently think solar gain only works in Colorado.
To provide additional energy optimization for our house, we grew oak and hawthorn trees on the east and west sides of the house. Along with opening the windows to cool the house overnight and closing the windows early in the morning, these trees reduce heat from the sun in summer to the extent that we seldom need air conditioning.
Here are a couple more plant guilds. The first photo (on left) demonstrates a guild of persimmon, oregano, and eggplant. Under this young persimmon tree grows a bed of oregano (lavender colored flowers). Interspersed within the oregano, four eggplants are growing. All members of this guild experienced healthy growth, and much fruit was produced by the eggplants. Not only do these plants perform well together, but the combination is attractive.
The second photo shows eggplants surrounding a tall pear tree. This particular pear tree has been pruned to have minimal upper branches for ease of harvesting, therefore the area below it is relatively sunny. These eggplants produced very well and planting in this location did not require garden bed preparation since the soil was weed free due to years of prior weeding and mulching. Planting in this unused location, we were able to expand our eggplant production without the need to create new garden beds. An added benefit was that the tree trunk served as a pole in October to which a sheet was hung for frost protection, thus extending the growing season of the eggplants by a few weeks. This tree/vegetable guild produced both pears and eggplants for serving our guests as well as for our own consumption.
The concept of guild planting represents what in permaculture is called 'stacking functions'. 'Stacking' means to multiply the production of a location through integration of components, be they plants, animals, or structures. In these examples, the stacking is vertical. Stacking can also be time based, such as when planting early bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths under fruit trees. By the time the fruit trees produce full leaf structure, the bulbs are nearing the completion of their spring growth cycle, and their sunlight needs are significantly reduced.
Permaculture incorporates appropriate, often simple, technology. The first photo (on left) illustrates use of concrete reinforcing mesh as a trellis anchored to the east side of our old corn crib. A bitter melon vine is growing up the mesh, its fruits hanging in an easy-to-harvest fashion. Bitter melon is commonly eaten by many of our Filipino friends, so it is easy to find takers for these nice specimens.
Even simpler as a trellis is the dead tree in the second photo with another tropical vine growing on it - fruits hanging from the branches. The vine has covered the dead tree so completely that our guests thought the tree was alive, and wondered what kind of tree it was. We have used other dead trees as a trellis, although in time, those dead trees eventually fall over.
Rainwater catchment is one of the most popular applications of appropriate technology in permaculture design. While many people employ rain barrels or bury a cistern for rainwater catchmebnt, we were able to use the old cistern that was used for storing drinking water in the original farmhouse. As seen in this photo, I routed a couple gutters underground and into the side of the cistern. I also piped the discharge of the basement sump (round pipe) so the ground water could fill the cistern (sump water can also be routed to the lily pond.) Lastly, I installed a pump in the house basement connected to the piping leaving the cistern in order to provide a pressurized rainwater system. We use the rainwater system for house plants as it is softer than our well water. We occasionally use it to water the garden.
The two white pipes on the left connect to the solar hot water panels mounted on the garage (not seen here).
These two photos are of tomato vines that we planted inside the drip line of a 20 foot pin oak next to our house. Tomatoes are vines that in nature grow under the forest canopy. Apparently, these tomatoes received enough light because they produced some beautiful yellow tomatoes (looking out our kitchen window, there appeared to be oranges growing in our oak tree!). These tomatoes had no insect or sun damage, and the tasty fruits were the size of tangerines. These vines had morning sun exposure for ~ 4 hours, and apparently that was enough for them to produce a healthy crop, although markedly less than in full sun. An added bonus was that, because of protection by the tree, these vines did not need to be covered for frost protection. As a result, they produced later into the season than our other unprotected tomatoes. To learn of an even more successful season extending innovation, check out our solar pod.