A Beginner’s Permaculture Garden Make-Over

A collection of patterns for an easy, low-work home garden.

One of our Permaculture principles is “Design from Patterns to Specifics.” These patterns create a garden that minimizes some of the most common draw-backs of home gardening: the work, the weeds, maintaining paths, watering, fighting pests and getting haphazard harvest results. They’re especially chosen to bring new life to that old, over-grown garden everyone seems to have in the back yard. 

This single key-hole design works for a garden between 10′ * 10′ to about 15′ x 15′. 

We use most of these patterns in all of our beds at Lillie House. Here are a few notes and details: 

Narrow entry path: paths are often difficult to maintain and a perfect place for weeds to invade.

Double-reach beds: at their widest (the corners) the beds should only be about 5′. This allows you to reach to everything in the bed (2 1/2′ reach from the inside and out) without ever having to step on the bed. 

Planted border: everyone loves border rocks and bricks, but they also make the perfect niche for difficult weeds to invade. Plant these niches yourself with mat-rooting herbs like thyme and deny weeds a foothold. 

Mulch basin “keyhole;” the narrow path opens to a more spacious work space. This mulch basin can be dug out to collect water much like a rain garden. The heavy mulch will break down quickly to feed your plants. Perennial plants might provide most of the material you need to keep this pit mulched. 

Perennials around the outside, room for annuals on the inside! This makes your garden an eco-system that’s hard to invade. Unlike most annual gardens, this one won’t quickly get over-run by grass. 

Nitrogen Fixers: Help your garden fertilize itself. 

Flowers: this will be a beautiful garden, too! 

Perennials: Perennials help ensure a good harvest year-in and out, even if you don’t have time to “plant your garden.” You might discover that you like the perennials so much you just let them take over! Just a note, I forgot to include a few of my favorites: Turkish Rocket, lovage, artichokes (needs winter protection) and rhubarb. 

Applying these patterns to an old under-utilized garden plot will “yield” a perennial harvest for little labor for years to come. Better yet, they will provide plant material to help expand a Permaculture design to other parts of your yard. 


What is Permaculture?

For all of our evolutionary history, feast or famine has mostly been the “luck of the draw.” While one family found themselves well-fed and wealthy in the environment of an oasis, the next had to make due in the desert. One valley was green and fertile while the next was a barrens and we human inhabitants simply accepted our lot.

Or we fought to take someone else’s. 

The primary insight of Permaculture is that this does not have to be so. We can design our human habitats to meet our needs by emulating and working with nature instead of wasting energy struggling against it. The family in the barrens can analyze what makes the other valley fertile, how it catches and accumulates life enhancing elements like water, sun, bio-diversity, and shelter. And if they can design their own valley to do the same, then they will have the same abundant result. 
While this approach seems utterly obvious, it is revolutionary, and very real. Take the example of the Loess Plateau in China.

Looking at this landscape, it’s no surprise that the residents here are the poorest in China. And besides poverty, they have a myriad of other problems stemming from their ecology: frequent natural disasters, poor health, malnutrition, poor academic achievement, crime, disease…. 
But scientists have found this was not always so. What you see above is a man-made landscape, degraded by thoughtless human use, and a degraded situation followed for the inhabitants that they could never escape – until they repaired their ecology. They studied how healthy ecosystems caught and stored life-enhancing resources like water and fertility and they transformed their environment:

Just 15 years later, the median income has risen 4 times! People are returning to the area and measures such as health and education are on the rise, too. And the environmental effects of carbon sequestration and water quality can be felt across the country and even globally. 
But it doesn’t stop there. 
We can use the same approach to our cities. Permaculturists are analyzing the elements that make great neighborhoods, with vibrant community, security and livability, and they’re applying those to broken neighborhoods. The results are stunning. It works.

And why stop there? We can all design our homes, neighborhoods and cities so that they better provide for us and meet all of our needs while reducing our negative impacts on the environment and other human communities. And we can do this good work for the world while improving our own quality of life, building a better connection with nature, surrounding ourselves with beauty and feeding ourselves with delicious and nutritious food from our own communities. 

And let’s take it further still:
What is it about the great “destinations” the places we go on vacations, that makes us feel rested, renewed, alive? We can analyze the factors that make those places thrive and we can design them into our own habitats. Instead of spending all our time, money and effort on our dreams of going some place else, we can design homes so beautiful, communities so beloved, and lives so meaningful that we kiss the earth and thank the stars each day that we get to wake up in such a paradise. 

That’s what Permaculture is all about. It is a system for designing “human habitats,” our homes, neighborhoods, cities and beyond, so that they meet all of our needs by working with nature, rather than against it. It’s a way we can build more secure, joyful, wealthy lives without burdening others or causing more problems. 

For people new to Permaculture, my two top recommended resources are:
1.  The book “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway. For me, this has become the classic Permaculture resource. 
2. The Permaculture Principles site, compiled by Permaculture co-originator David Holmgren: http://permacultureprinciples.com/ These are often called the “Holmgren Principles.” Consideration of these principles, the three ethics and a system of “zone” and “sector” site analysis (covered in Gaia’s Garden) are the core of the Permaculture Design System.  

Creative Language

Creative artists often speak a strange other-worldly language–the mother tongue of a land where anything’s possible, the laws of physics aren’t enforced and nobody’s paid their syntax in years.

John Frusciante speaking of ghosts in my previous post isn’t too unusual in the world of artists. Captain Beefheart also described songs as ghosts and spirits. And sculptors often say they just reveal what’s already there waiting in the stone, chipping away the stuff covering it up. Almost universally, creative artists feel their works come from somewhere else and that too much rational thought only gets in the way.

To be truly creative, the mind has to be free of the dull limitations of the daily grind, boring reality, the pedantic same-old thinking that has created the too-often dysfunctional and conformist world around us. It’s that world that has formed our thinking, our rules, our habits, our conditioning, so when we come to creative work stuck in that mindset, we’re unable to break free and find anything new. 
So it’s only with this artist’s language that one can speak of solutions that don’t yet exist and bring dreams into the the waking world as art, music, sculpture, dance, literature… 
But gardens? Architecture? Neighborhoods? 

It’s quite unusual to hear modern professionals in these realms to speak of the mystery of the creative process. Too often, these “arts” are reduced to being just another “product” for our “consumption.” Our gardens are just “landscaping” and even landscaping is little more than a sort of advertising we use to “improve the curb appeal” of our “biggest investment.” We speak of our HOMES as though they were just an inconveniently 4-dimensional 401k! 
But the greatest Permaculture Designers, like David Holmgren and Geoff Lawton, speak the language! The first “Holmgren Principle” is “Observe and Interact.” Both Lawton and Holmgren describe this part of the process in a way that would probably sound familiar to John Frusciante. They both invoke a “zen” state of observing without thinking, taking in the landscape in an intuitive way free from conditioning and preconceived notions. And this is just the begining of a creative process that finds many ways to keep the designer open to what nature, the ecosystem and human communities have to say about it. 
And finally, what strikes me most about them is the obvious passion  that they bring to design work. Geoff Lawton doesn’t just install somebody’s “landscaping!” He changes their lives! 
One of my voice teachers used to say, “never sing a single note until you feel like you’d die if you didn’t.” This is another common saying throughout the arts. Kurt Vonnegut used to say it “respect the readers time, never write a word that the reader doesn’t have to read.” 

Imagine the world we’d create if we brought that urgent passion to our human habitats? Never a house built for ease and profit, never a subdivision of boring dime-a-dozen designs, but instead, neighborhoods where every home was a statement about life and how to live it–so important to the designer that she felt she’d die if she didn’t scream it out to the world! 
What would that world look like? Can you see it? Perhaps it’s already there, like the sculptor’s art, just waiting for us to chip away the dysfunctional system we’ve carelessly built overtop of it…


There’s a story that the Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s second guitarist, John Frusciante, used to tell that I just love. When john was recording his first album with the Chillis, they’d play pieces back, and he’d start yelling “listen to that! Do you hear the ghosts there?” John said that he heard ghosts and spirits all over their records. Of course, at this time, John was looking deeply ravaged by drug addiction, so people started giving him some worried looks when he’d mention ghosts. Understanding the danger here, Flea, their bassist, took John aside and said “buddy, not everybody can hear the ghosts, only we can.” And so john stopped talking about ghosts… for a while.

Years later, a healthy, sober and drug-free Frusciante started talking about ghosts in his interviews again. There’s some footage of him sitting in a beautiful victorian hotel lobby where the band was recording and in it he explains why he always insisted that the Chillis record in such places. He points to all the fine craftsmanship of the crown molding, and to the obvious signs of age and wear, and he says “all these little things, these spaces, they hold ghosts and spirits. So when we record in a place like this, we get those energies inside us, too.” 
“How else could we get them onto the records?” 
That’s one of the most beautiful descriptions of the idea of an “emergent property” that I’ve ever heard. 

At some level of “complexity” the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. We call that an “emergent property.” A human being seems something more than a big heap of cells, tissues and organs. A forest feels like more than a collection of trees. And when a song becomes more than a collection of notes, we say it’s got “soul.” 

To some, John might sound crazy, but he’s just speaking the language of “magic,” “spirits” and “energies” that the human intuition has always used to speak of “emergent properties.” 
When we walk into an old house, we see the amazing craftsmanship–work that few can replicate these days. We see the signs of age, and wear and living. There’s a large gash by the back door. And signs of care and love, too. The human brain is sophisticated pattern-recognition software–of course all of these things will speak to us, they’ll tell us all their bitter-sweet stories. 

Artists in most every culture work in “movements” such as “Romanticism” and “Modernism.” The emergence of these movements are always a response to what proceded them, and in turn, what had preceded those movements, too. Each generation works together, developing and exchanging ideas and perfecting techniques… and because of this, they put so much more into their work than any individual ever could. A painting might be the work of a single painter, but if she was any good, she didn’t just put her own soul into it–she got all the stink of her generation in there, too: their history, their struggles, their ideas, their philosophies of life, and what they thought of those who came before them. She knows her paint brush is a divining rod, with it, she can coax the ancestors into that canvas. 
If we can allow ourselves to be open to it, we can intuitively “get” those layers of meaning, something that seems alive, that moves, speaks and sings to our very souls: an emergent property. 
Every couple of years, I try to visit Iargo Springs up on the Au Sable river. 
This place was considered sacred by the Ojibwa, who brought the sick here to heal in the curative waters. Since I was a kid, I have always felt the healing energies of this place. In the pilgrimage down the long flights of stairs the temperature can drop 15 degrees on a hot day. I felt envoloped by this coolness and the soft light through the high forest canopy. It was like entering into… some tangible and real force much larger than myself. The clear pools of water seemed to radiate with a deep stillness and the energy of the hills behind seemed comforting and safe. 
I can come to this place and sit all day, and its energies get inside me and still my own. when I leave I am changed. 

People of all cultures have recognized the “Genii Loci,” the “Spirit of the Place.” Virtually every hill, valley, and settlement–any ecosystem with enough complexity–had one. These anthropomorphized versions of place were the first gods and spirits that we humans worshipped. It was often the shaman, the one who knew how to relate with these spirits, who sited new settlements, told where to plant the orchard or sew the grain crop, or planned the temple. In his designs, he’d bake brownies for ghosts, whisper to the ancestors, crack jokes to the genii loci…
How else would he get them in there? 

And this has never gone away. In more intuitive cultures, people still speak of fairies and spirits in the woods, in the waters. This language is the tool they use to understand that there are some places that are curative, and some that are best avoided. People still build little nooks and crannies for elf-folk, gnomes and dhakinis hoping that if they attract the right energies, they can recreate the sacred feeling of a place like Iargo Springs. 
Even in our culture, urban ghost tours remain incredibly popular. 

As a maker, gardener and Permaculture designer, I have a deep desire to get as many ghosts as I can into the human habitats I co-create with communities, ecosystems, ancestors and the Genii Loci around me. While it’s important to have our designs grounded in research-based approaches, it’s equally important to find ways of translating the strange language of intuition. 

Despite all our technology, in this regard we moderns are no different than the thousand thousand generations before us. 
There’s only one door to this place, 
you must find it in moonlight,
find a sincere desire,
put on the shaman’s cloak, 
beat the drum, 
carve the antler, 
seek the fae, 
speak to ghosts…. 

Designing a Permaculture Hedgerow

Last night, I had the opportunity to join in a permaculture discussion where hedgerows came up, and people who know me know that I’m crazy about hedges. As modern agricultural research turns towards perennial crops, and polyculture plantings, the hedgerow stands out as a traditional and uniquely adapted system for utilizing both. Better still, these woody perennial polyculture systems can do extra work by providing building and craft materials, ample carbonaceous material for composting, providing windbreaks, wildlife shelter, fences for wildlife, create fire and erosion barriers, provide forage, protect livestock or humans, and greatly increase the biodiversity that has a positive benefit on pest and disease problems and system health and resilience. 

Far more than mere shrubbery, hedgerows represent the original “food forest” technology of cold temperate climates, with their linear nature being a perfect adaptation of forest gardening to northern latitudes where light penetration becomes key. And since forest gardening has been called “the world’s oldest land use” by anthropologists, it’s no wonder that where you find hedgerows they’re fundamental to cuisine, medicine, magic, shelter… and life in general.

If the hedge-bug bites you, you can delve deeply into our cultural heritage with a Google quest across the the rich topic of the Hedge, by exploring:
Hedgerow foraging
Tapestry Hedges
French Hedgerows in WWII
The Hortus Conclusus


At Lillie House, our research into hedge-tech has focused on adapting the traditional systems of British and French hedgerows, especially the English “cut and lay hedge” and the French “woven hedge” to the Great Lakes region by using bio-mimicry of the spontaneous, natural hedge-like systems that arise throughout the region. Some of our favorite foraging areas have been these natural hedgerows and we’ve aimed to study and recreate them at our home.

A generalized European planting would typically use:
A “thorny” main structural planting of 60% Hawthorn or Blackthorn (wild plum) or 30% of each of those. In addition to thorns, these species spread by sucker to fill in dead sections, and take very well to “coppicing,” and creating tight woven hedges. 
10-20% Hazel. Hazel was sometimes used as the “main planting,” especially in more urban areas where nuts were desirable and 
And a mix of: roses, brambles, elder, crab-apples, damsons, sloes, and wild apples and pears.
Hedgerows intended as wind breaks might include 10-30% evergreens, including yew. Science has verified the wisdom of this traditional approach, finding that a greater density of evergreens increases the turbulance of winter winds, actually increasing the problem instead of reducing it.

To get an idea of these plantings, try looking at some of the offerings of the many British companies selling traditional Hedgerow plants:

For the Great Lakes region, many of these plants could be adapted at least in function, though Blackthorn may experience problems with black rot. Good substitutes for the primary planting could include Sea Buckthorn or Goumi, which both fix nitrogen and coppice well. 

Our US wild plums do not generally coppice well, so they aren’t good choices, however other prunus species like Nanking Cherry make good substitutes. 

Rugosa roses make an excellent choice for the US, as do our native elders. Blackberries  or wild black raspberries would also be quite at home in such a planting. Mulberries are commonly found in natural hedgerows here, and I suspect that after some extra work to get it established, Paw Paw would be very happy with life in a hedgerow, too, as it suckers, tolerates shade and takes to coppicing well.  

Through your next drive through the country, a quick look out the window and you’re likely to see exactly this kind of plant community growing wild in the ditches. One even happens to be growing along the bike trail down the street for us, which is the one we copied for our planting. There are probably several near your home that could serve as the basis for your hedgerow. 

But not all trees will work well. French and British models typically excluded trees that would be allelopathic (toxic to other plants) or those that quickly sucker and are very tolerant of shade, as they become weedy in a hedgerow. Norway maple, willows, certain dogwoods, and even English elder (a stereotypical Hedgerow tree) were often avoided, depending on the site. Tall trees such as oak, linden and maple were often included, but spaced at least 2 or 3 times mature orcahrd spacing, perhaps 200′ apart. These rules typically aimed to keep hedge maintenance low by reducing pruning and weeding. 

Once you have your trees chosen, you’ll have a wide variety of perennial vegetables and fruits that are ideally suited to the conditions of a hedgerow. At LillieHouse, these include: strawberries, sea kale, asparagus, good king henry, sorrel, endive (chicory) nettles, poke, comfrey, stinky bob, perennial alliums (we have over a dozen varieties) cleavers, milkweed, turkish rocket, sweet rocket, jerusalem artichokes, japanese yam, grapes, kiwi, ground nut, ground pea, ladies thumb, clover, salad burnet, spring beauty, mints, and many others! Hedgerows naturally take advantage of “edge effect” making them an ideal place for a huge variety of species. 


Once you have an idea about what plants you want in your hedgerow, you’ll need to make a plan for establishing it. Like all things in appropriate technology, traditional technology and Permaculture, the trick here is finding the right balance of “intensive” and “extensive” tools for the job. Traditional European hedge systems provide us with a wide range of options here, from the careful and deliberate plantings of urban French Tapestry Hedges to the nature-assisted systems of “dead hedging.” 

Any one hedge is likely to use a mix of hedging approaches, but arranging them in order of intensive to extensive, they might look like this:
1. Intensively planted urban or “zone 1 or 2” hedges close to the home: Hand planted at high density around 1-2′ apart, relying on selected short tree species chosen to give a yield of fruit, nuts, berries beautiful folliage and flowers. Shorter species make the hedgerow less labor to maintain.  
2. Semi-intensive: hand-plants pioneer species like elder, prunus species, and hazel at a greater distance of 3-5′ or more. Birds, mamals, and suckering fill in the hedge. Oftentimes, hedge-layers would encourage the process by throwing fruit cores and seeds into the hedgerow. 
3. Sacrificial planting: very fast growing trees are planted at a useful density 2-3′ and quickly woven into a hedge. Later, these trees are selected out as more desirable species fill in. Trees especially suited to this might include empress tree, toon tree, and hybrid poplar.
4. Dead hedging: using available materials, pruinings and fallen wood to build a temporary fence to meet your needs. Over time, perching birds, and mammals help fill in the planting, reliably creating a hedgerow of useful mast and fruit species. The hedge-layer can help the process by occasionally planting in a few desirable species and selecting for the best plants. 

One of my favorite gardening blogs has a great post on how this mix of procedures is covered in the French literature here: 


And finally, if you’ve come this far into hedge-geekery, thanks for your time! You can find even more info on our hedgerows by searching this blog, if you like. Better yet, take a minute to look at some pictures of these traditional French and British systems:

1. Google search for British “hedge laying.”

2. French tapestry hedges:

And finally, if you’re planning a hedgerow, please drop me a comment and let me know about it. As a certifiable hedge-geek, I’d love to hear about your project. 


Edited to add a section of recommended hedge-related resources:

http://www.thesurvivalpodcast.com/plants-for-food-hedges-fedges a piece on food hedges, with a good understanding of traditional hedge systems.