8 Patterns for a Permaculture Kitchen Garden Make-over

Check out this new short video of Geoff Lawton’s Kitchen Garden Make-over at Zaytuna farm:

The garden beds you’ll see in the video above, like most of Geoff Lawton’s kitchen-garden designs, look very much like the kitchen garden beds you see in our pictures at Lillie House, and that’s no coincidence. 

I wanted to share this video because it shows a collection of classic Permaculture patterns that go together well to create a style of vegetable gardening that work well almost anywhere. This video is at Zaytuna, Geoff Lawton’s farm in subtropical Australia, but the patterns can be adapted easily to the Great Lakes growing region. 

Anybody can use these 8 patterns in their garden for less work, more productivity and a more natural ecosystem that’s better for the planet. 

Together, these patterns create a garden that is self-weeding, self-watering, self-fertilizing and easy to maintain.

1. Garden beds designed to collect water. When on a slope put beds and paths “on contour,” as you see in this video. On flat land there are other strategies, such as collecting water from downspouts. 

2. Permanent, no-till beds that last many years before needing to be dug again (if ever!)

3. Double-reach size beds, where you can reach to the center from both sides. Typically, this is said to be 4-5 feet, but may be smaller depending on your body and reach. 

4. Right-sized paths. Geoff made his paths large enough to run a rototiller through, since maintaining paths is one of the most time-consuming garden chores. I’ve seen other Permaculturists take this route derived from traditional French gardening. This is often called “dust mulching.” In our climate, and because I want to access the garden even when it’s wet, I prefer to mulch deeply and periodically use the composted mulch to fertilize the beds. But the general rule in Permaculture is that narrow paths (1 – 2 feet) reduce maintenance and weed pressures, while wider paths increase access. So, the general  recommendation is to have a few nice, wide paths (4 feet or more) for access and keep other paths small. Since, some people find small paths uncomfortable to work in, so there’s nothing wrong with wider paths, but remember that each wide path take significantly more time and energy to maintain. 

5. Use of nitrogen fixing plants. Of all the “fertilizers” required by garden plants, Nitrogen is often considered the most important, usually because it’s the most in demand. And since it’s water-soluble, it’s hard to keep around in a climate with much rain. Nitrogen fixing plants have a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria that actually allows them to pull nitrogen from the air and deposit it in the soil where it can be used by plants. At sub-tropical Zaytuna, they’re using cow pea, pigeon pea, and alphalfa. Here at Lillie House, we use lupines, blue false indigo, lead plant, clovers and nitrogen-fixing bushes like goumi. In climates with cold winters, it’s also important to plant winter ephemeral plants that catch and hold nitrogen from dying plants and keep it from washing away in winter rains and snow. 

6. Close plantings that create a “living mulch.” If you plant closely, you shade the soil, actually conserving water. The old thinking was that close plantings would create competition and deplete resources, but new research indicates the opposite is true. Cooperation between plants actually helps more than competition hurts. Gee, I guess that’s why natural plant communities tend to be tight, rather than at botanical-garden spacings…. 

7. Chop and drop mulching. First you chop it. Then you drop it. No trip to the compost pile with that weed you just pulled, you just put it right there on the ground to “tuck in” your prized plants. Geoff shows this in the video. In tight natural plantings, as plants grow, we harvest some and cut some out to make room for the important ones we want to encourage. Ideally we want every plant to get lots of sun, but not the soil underneath. As we pull plants, we can use these fallen comrades, especially nitrogen-rich ones, to mulch and fertilize the garden. 

8. Well-designed, mixed Perennial/Annual “polyculture.” Rather than just planting one plant per bed (monoculture,) the gardens at Zaytuna and Lillie House both use a polyculture designed to be scatter sown over the garden to reduce maintenance. Here, we’ve even designed ours to be “self sowing” by selecting cultivars and species that are known to self-sow well. This dramatically reduces the time we spend sowing crops. Whenever we harvest something, the seeds are already there in the seed bank, ready to spring into action when a space opens up. We just select the ones we want as they grow. The “thinnings” either get used in salads or “chop and dropped” back onto the soil as fertilizer. 

And of course, you can select plants that are not only useful and edible, but also beautiful, for a garden that’s both attractive and functional. 

If you want more Permaculture inspiration for this year’s garden plans, come out to the showing of Geoff Lawton’s Urban Permaculture video at 7:00 in Kalamazoo. For more info, visit:

And if you liked this post, consider signing up for our free mini-series on Forest Gardening:

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