Designing with nature: the wisdom of permaculture

Barbara Faurot GARDEN NOTES
Posted 6/12/24

The practice of permaculture was developed and nurtured by indigenous people for thousands of years. Today, permaculture combines traditional knowledge with current research, and its principles can …

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Designing with nature: the wisdom of permaculture


The practice of permaculture was developed and nurtured by indigenous people for thousands of years. Today, permaculture combines traditional knowledge with current research, and its principles can be applied to many aspects of home gardening, landscape and farm design, and more.

Erin Hoover, WSU Master Gardener and certified permaculture designer, explains that “permaculture is an integrated design system that uses sustainable practices to mimic nature and benefit the environment.”

The term permaculture was coined in the 1970s by the late Australian researcher and author Bill Mollison. He wrote that “Permaculture Design is not the rain, the roof, or the garden. Permaculture Design is the connections between these things. Permaculture brings cohesion where there was once isolation.” Mollison attributed much of what he learned to Aboriginal tribes in Tasmania as well as other, indigenous people throughout the world. 

Permaculture is a complex system with a set of guiding ethics that emphasize care for the earth, for people, and for fairness. Jeanmarie Morelli, who specializes in sustainable garden design, shares the philosophy that “permaculture guides people towards restoration of degraded ecosystems by mimicking natural ecosystems. It reinforces living lightly on the land and not using more than we need.” At its heart, permaculture is about recognizing patterns in nature and developing the ability to emulate natural systems. 

Hoover agrees that “the key principle is to work with nature rather than against it. If we assist rather than impede natural elements and processes, we’ll receive healthier plants and healthier habitats. If you’re growing food, you’ll see better production, too.”

The practice provides a framework for understanding natural systems and the relationships between elements like plants, wildlife, soil, water, wind, and sunlight. It also offers sound, practical steps to try in the home garden.

Here are some examples:

* Catch, store, and recycle energy and materials like rainwater, duff, cover crop residue, and plant trimmings. Hoover used old logs, soil, and grass clippings, burying them about 6” deep to create a woody bed on a slope. The materials added nutrients to the soil and the mounded bed absorbed and slowed down water run-off. The idea is to produce as little waste as possible, using natural materials that are already in your system rather than bringing in outside resources. 

* Try using “stack functions” like companion planting to realize the benefits different plants can provide for the ecosystem. The traditional practice of inter-planting the Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash — is one example. The corn provides a natural trellis, beans add nitrogen to the soil, and squash vines act as living mulch.

* Adopt the idea of a tree or plant “guild” to include small trees, shrubs, flowering perennials and annuals, herbs, and ground covers. Individual plants may sequester carbon, fix nitrogen, attract beneficial insects, support pollinators, or suppress weeds. Woven together, they take advantage of natural patterns of biodiversity to contribute to the overall ecosystem. 

* Experiment with keyhole gardens, a design rooted in African traditions. Use materials at hand — stones, branches, bricks, ashes — to design a small kitchen garden. Place a basket in the center to collect and compost food and garden waste. The compost is recycled back into the garden to improve soil and help retain moisture.

*Build a hedgerow using diverse, woody vegetation to create a living fence that can help stabilize a slope, offer shade and wind protection, and reduce noise. Hedgerows also contribute to neighborhood ecosystem health by providing a safe corridor to connect wildlife and pollinator habitat. 

* Create an herb spiral to experiment with permaculture in a small space. Build the spiral with natural materials — stone or brick, for example — to form a vertical garden. The lowest, wettest point supports moisture-loving plants like dill or cilantro. The upper layer with the most sun and wind might hold Mediterranean plants like rosemary and thyme. In between, sun-loving herbs such as lavender and sage can be planted to face the west or southwest. Parsley, chives, and other delicate plants can face east toward the gentler morning sun. 

Hoover adds that “these elements aren’t unique to permaculture, and there’s no right way to do it. It’s the relationships and interactions that make it permaculture — how the different elements depend on and use resources from each other.”

The world of permaculture is broad and multi-dimensional, but it offers straightforward, sustainable ideas that can be integrated into virtually any home garden. In fact, one of the principles is to start with small and slow solutions, using local resources and relying on your own observation as a guide. 

For more information, check out the permaculture episode on Hoover’s podcast, “Evergreen Thumb,” at the master gardener foundation website. Oregon State University offers a free book and online course on permaculture. Visit

Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.