Do you feel like you have a black thumb? Everyone around you seems to garden effortlessly, with tremendous yields, but you struggle? I’ve been there. Permaculture is the answer.
Permaculture lawn
I became a student of permaculture by necessity. We purchased our current farm four years ago. The house had a huge, beautiful, lush, green lawn around it, with rows of dying poplar trees at the perimeter. There were no gardens, no fruit trees, and the surrounding pastures were nearly completely devoid of vegetation, except for one that had tall, thick weeds growing over a deep layer of horse manure. 


I couldn’t get anything to grow

After living here for a couple of months, we realized that the lawn had been sustained on large quantities of fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals, and copious irrigation, and was incapable of growing any other way. Not only was our lawn dying, due to my more natural approach to lawn care, but the trees, all 30 of the same type of poplar, were dying of wet rot. 

Because Cottonwood Poplars are not particularly valuable trees and these had nearly reached the end of their short lifespans, I chose not to work to save them. Instead we are gradually removing them and replacing them with more valuable trees.

I planted lots of trees at our last home, 10 miles down the road from this one, and I had researched trees suited to our climate and rainfall, so I knew what I was doing as I purchased fruit trees to start our orchards here and other trees to replace our dying ones. Our soil is alkaline, so I chose trees that would not be bothered by alkalinity. 

I ordered 57 trees our first year in this house, and we all worked hard to plant them properly. Despite vigilant care, fewer than 20% of the trees survived the first summer, and only 4 of them survived that first winter, only to die the second summer. I ordered about the same number of trees again the second summer, and tried again. 

That second summer we had only slightly better results, which was incredibly frustrating, and I began to look for growing methods that could overcome adversity, which in our area includes strong winds and aridity. 

I stumbled upon a permaculture video and was astounded that Geoff Lawton was gardening in the desert, near Jordan, with immense success. Surely I could obtain even better results in my more hospitable climate? I learned all I could (though I have still not learned anywhere near all there is to know) and began to apply permaculture principles to my own property.

Our third spring in this house, I again planted myriad fruit and pioneer trees, but utilized several permaculture principles as I did so. This time I was met with almost immeasurable success! Every single tree and shrub I planted grew and thrived! The secret to my success was permaculture.


What is permaculture?
Permaculture is a system of agricultural design principles centered around simulating the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. The term permaculture was developed and coined by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in 1978, and referred to as ‘permanent agriculture’.It includes both ecological design and construction, as well as water resources management, sustainable architecture, and agricultural systems modeled on natural ecosystems.To quote Bill Mollison: “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

The three core tenets of permaculture are:

  • Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence
  • Return of surplus to the Earth: This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness. 

Permaculture design is modeled on patterns of natural landscape. Permaculture maximizes useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements in the way they relate together; the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Permaculture, the best way to gardenPermaculture design seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building synergistic systems. The designs evolve over time by taking into account these relationships and elements and can evolve into extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.

By applying permaculture principles to our daily life we can make the transition from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible producers. This journey builds skills and resilience at home and in our local communities that enable us to live providently.


The 12 Principles of Permaculture:

The techniques and strategies used to apply these principles vary widely depending on the location, climate and available resources. Though the methods may differ, the principles of this wholistic approach remain constant. 

1. Observe and interact

By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation. Permaculture relies on an understanding of your site and local conditions. Ideally, you should observe your site for a year in all seasons, learning the patterns of sun, wind, precipitation and your sites unique challenges and blessings. It will also be valuable to visit nearby gardens to see what grows well in your area.

2. Catch and store energy

By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of scarcity. There are many ways to do this. For instance, a greenhouse can catch and store the sun’s energy during the day to keep plants warm through the night. Canning and drying abundant summer produce for lean winter months is a way of storing food energy. Harvesting rainwater or recycling grey water from the house prevents valuable irrigation water from being lost to runoff or the sewage system, and provides water energy during dry months.

3. Obtain a yield

Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards, such as crops from an edible garden, as part of the working you are doing.  But there are other less tangible yields, too, such as the exchange of skills or information from one gardener to another. 

4. Apply self-regulation and respond to feedback

As you observe and interact with your systems, you will see what does and doesn’t work. This feedback, if evaluated and applied, will guide further actions. Responding to feedback can also mean remediating our own mistakes or those of our predecessors. Examples include planting more appropriate trees in the most appropriate sites and improving soil that has been impoverished by poor gardening practices. 

5. Use and value renewable resources

Make the best use of nature’s abundance to put renewable resources to their best use. Trees are an example of a renewable multipurpose resource. From trees we get fruit, nuts, seeds, building materials, and fuel. They also provide shade during summer for cooling our homes, blocking the wind, filtering the air, and releasing oxygen. And they provide places for children to play and for wildlife to live.

Once the trees have finished their productive years, we can chop them down and use the wood to construct homes, cultivate mushrooms, or chip them to create mulch. No portion of the tree is wasted, bringing us to the 6th principle.

6. Produce no waste

By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste. Instead, we find ways to re-use the leftovers from our gardening efforts. We feed our garden leftovers, including the entire plants at the end of the season, to our chickens and cows. They then turn the scraps into valuable commodities like milk, eggs and meat.

Another example of reusing waste is composting. This is where creatures in the garden efficiently convert organic wastes like vegetable scraps into soil amendments. This is a complete edible plant life cycle: from harvested crop, to kitchen trimmings, to the compost bin, and finally back to the garden as fertilizer.

7. Design from pattern to details

When you step back and critically observe nature, you will notice many patterns. Keep looking and see how the patterns encourage successful production, and then think of ways to copy those patterns in  your own gardens.

8. Integrate rather than segregate

Growing plants together in the right combinations helps them to grow synergystically rather than in competition. In this way, the whole garden ecosystem becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

For example, a pioneer-species tree will provide shade and mulch to the shrubs growing beneath it. In turn, a deeply-rooted shrub will hold on to water the tree needs. It will also bring minerals and nutrients to the surface as it creates leaves and then drops them, making deeper nutrients available to the tree. 

9. Use small and slow solutions

Slowly and steady wins the race. The objective of permaculture is to design a garden system that is composed of many small parts, each of which contributes in time to the overall function of the garden.

An example is an emphasis on perennial crops. Perennials don’t need to be replanted every year, so they save energy, and they don’t disturb the soil like most annuals. Although their yields can be slower at first, they yield much more over a lifetime, with fewer inputs, including labor. 

10. Use and value diversity

Diversity reduces vulnerability to threats. There is less vulnerability to a single disease or pest when different vegetables and varieties are planted in proximity.

During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–1852, approximately one million people starved and a similar number emigrated. The reason was that a single, widely grown variety of potato fell susceptible to a potato blight. 

Each year, a permaculture garden should feature some new varieties along with old favorites. This will build a diverse and resilient repertoire of plants, creating a balanced garden ecosystem. It will be able to tolerate some losses without the entire garden failing. 

We are interplanting different varieties of fruit trees in our orchards, in order to discourage pests and disease. Typically, an orchard will be a monocrop, acres and acres of the exact same fruit tree. 

11. Use the edges and value the marginal

The interface between things is where many interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

You can turn marginal spaces that may not be suitable for traditional garden beds into productive areas. You can grow heat-loving vines like beans, grapes, kiwis, melons, and squash on the side of a brick wall to benefit from the stored thermal heat. The vines also provide shade during the summer and let in light in the winter.  

12. Creatively use and respond to change

We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing and then intervening at the right time. Each growing season is different. Some years you will have an abundance of water, and other years too little. You will deal with varying pest problems. It’s inevitable. Find solutions that work with nature, instead of trying to control it. You’ll soon realize that in the garden, there are no mistakes, just lessons pointing you toward better solutions.



How Permaculture Principles solved my problems

Permaculture, the best way to gardenIf you have a hard time going from principle to application, you’re not alone. These principles made sense, but I wasn’t sure how to apply them to my own situation. Luckily, about the same time I discovered Permaculture, I also discovered several Permaculture facebook groups. I met great people who were willing to share their knowledge and expertise.

After observing, researching, reading and learning from my new friends, I made the following changes to my system:



  1. I integrated my planting beds, taking special care to plant comfreyguild plants and nitrogen fixers alongside all my new fruit trees. Comfrey has an expansive root system, which ‘mines’ nutrients, making it a dynamic accumulator.
  2. I deeply mulched my new plantings after observing that things in my area grew best where nature had dropped deep piles of mulch.
  3. I observed a white fungi in the piles of natural mulch, which seemed to break down into dark, nutrient-rich soil. So I dipped the roots of the new bare-root trees in mychorrizael fungi before planting.
  4. I observed that one area of my garden, protected from the wind by a berm, fared better than the rest. So I bermed the entire windward side of my garden, using stacked, dead tree limbs and cow manure. The edges of this berm are particularly productive.
  5. We created swales on contour through our orchard plantings in order to best preserve the limited rainfall we are blessed with. I heavily mulched  the edges of the swales and in between them, where the fruit trees are planted. We also planted the trees in more natural patterns, intermingling diverse varieties of fruit trees together. Commercial orchards typically plant a monocrop (all the same variety of one fruit, like pear) in straight rows.
  6. I turned my vegetable garden into an inverted hugel bed, helping mother nature to improve the soil’s water-and-nutrient-holding capacity. A typical hugel bed would not have worked in our dry, windy climate. However, the inverted hugel did a fantastic job. It increased our yield by more than 300 percent, while decreasing irrigation requirements by half. The vegetable garden area had previously been a shallow pond. We filled it with dead tree limbs and logs, moldy alfalfa and straw, then added two truckloads of carp (which is a testament to not interfering with nature). We then covered everything with a thick layer of manure, topped with a layer of dirt. 
  7. Oh, and my lawn is looking better each year. The soil is recovering from being constantly bombarded by chemicals. It is now growing a healthy crop of grass on it’s own. We are decreasing the lawn size, replacing parts with food forest.



Your black thumb + Permaculture Principles = Your new green thumb

Your solutions will differ from mine, because we live in different climates, growing zones, and have different constraints. But the best solutions will be based on Permaculture Principles. Try these principles in your own yard, and see if your black thumb becomes a green thumb. Let us all know in the comments what you tried and whether it was successful.


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  1. Oh my goodness. I didn’t know there was a name for people like me! haha These tips are amazing. I have tried so many times to have a garden and have failed. It’s so frustrating.

    1. Amy Saunders says:

      I hear ya, Renee!It is so frustrating to try again and again, and just be wasting your time and resources! That is definitely the time to learn new gardening skills and try new things. 🙂

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