What is Permaculture? A Primer in Pictures and Patterns – Part 2

Note: This is the third installment in a series. See also:
Part 2: Gardens
Part 3: 
Part 4: 


So what is this Permaculture thing? In this post, we’ll be exploring Permaculture gardening in pictures and patterns, so we’ll keep the definition short and sweet. If you want a more in-depth discussion defining Permaculture, visit Part 1. But for now:

Permaculture is a system for designing human habitats (including homes, homesteads, gardens, farms, cities, etc.) which includes sets of ethics, principles, and design methods, and applies “patterns” derived from nature, sustainable societies, and research-based best practices. 

To begin our visual exploration of Permaculture gardening, I’ll empahsize that these patterns may be used in Permaculture, but they are not Permaculture. 

For example, Organic Gardening, MAY be used in Peramculture (though quite frequently it is  not) but Organic Gardening is not Permaculture. It is just organic gardening, used as one part of a Permaculture design! At Lillie House, we grow our food and nursery stock entirely without imported non-organic chemicals, free from biocides, and with almost no organic spraying! However, what we do has little in common with organic gardening, beyond the goal of sustainability and care for the soil. We don’t dig the soil. We try to minimize the use of plastics. We have no use for most common organic garden tools, sprays, or pest control techniques. We hardly ever even add compost to our beds! To explore the difference between Organic Gardening and Permaculture, visit this excellent article at Permaculturevisions.org

Likewise, Permaculture gardens are NOT native plant gardens, but may heavily use native plants. 

Native plant afficianados have commented that our Permaculture gardens at Lillie House may have more native plants than most – if not all – the native plant gardens in our city! Yet, our garden works to create additional wildlife habitat and habitat for native plants where it counts most – out away from our home in the city. If we can use our own land to meet our needs much more efficiently (while still benefiting wildlife locally) then that frees up larger areas of marginal agricultural land to go back to nature. And those are the areas that will have the greatest benefit to plants and wildlife! This is why many consider Permaculture gardening, or Ecological Gardening the ULTIMATE ecological landscape.

Permaculture gardens are “integrated,” not “segregated.” 

As you can see from the image above/right, there’s no seperate veggie garden, orchard, wildlife garden, herb garden and flower garden. It’s all one big veggie-orchard-wildlife-flower-herb garden. This maximizes diversity and takes advantage of what ecologists call the “diversity-resiliency principle,” that generally speaking, the greater number of species in a system, the more resilience it confers to the individuals in the system. The Permaculture garden recruits plants, beneficial insects, and wildlife to work for us. That means fewer pests, fewer diseases and less work for the gardener!

One of the most inspiring exemplars of this kind of integrated gardening is Bealtaine Cottage:


Polycultures are gardens where we grow multiple crops, rather than monocultures, with one crop alone. This is another technique that takes advantage of the diversity resiliency principle, as well as maximizing space in the garden. 
This includes annual polycultures, like the beds in this study from BALKEP….

and dynamic (ones that change over time) annual polycultures like this one at Lillie House. 

These are based off the popular Ianto Evans Polyculture, and it is a classic way we plant and establish new beds. 

And “mixed” polycultures of annuals and perennials. 


Guilds are polycultures that are designed to function like ecologies. We recruit plants to fulfill “guild roles” that might be found in a natural ecosystem, like “mulch makers, nitrogen fixers, groundcovers, insect attractors, and fortress plants.” We can even stack functions and use plants that are functional, edible, and beautiful to increase our yields. The most common guild example is a fruit tree guild, like this apricot tree guild at Lillie House. 

We can also arrange guilds to take care of our annual vegetable beds, as in my sketch of the annual garden guild concept going back to Mollison. 

This is the design you see in all our vegetable beds.

Deep Mulch Gardens

Deep mulching conserves water, builds rich soil, eliminates weeds, and enhances plant health and resilience. This image of “sheet mulching” is from Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. This technique has also been called the Ruth Stout method, Lasagne Gardening, back-to-eden (with wood chips) and sheet composting (by Rodale) but it likely as old as gardening itself!

These maincrop production beds at Zaytuna Farm utilize deep mulching and forms of polyculture and companion planting. 

Water Collection

Permaculture gardens tend to use a variety of techniques to havest and save water. Because of these techniques, at Lillie House, we have grown our garden with almost no irrigation over the last 5 years. 


And these techniques taken together reflect a deep concern for the health of the soil and the maintaining of fertility. Deep mulches build healthy soil while nitrogen fixers add fertility. One technique often used are “permanent beds and permanent paths” which helps beds develop soil structure and can make digging and tilling unnecessary. This sign is at the Peace Garden in Flint, a project we’ve supported. 


Many Permaculture gardens and farms work towards no-till gardening. At Lillie House we only dig on rare ocassion to harvest and shape new beds to collect their own water. We do not use “alternative tillers” like “tilthers” or harrows, as these have been shown to be the same as conventional tilling. This image shows our “slashmulch” garden, an ancient technique practiced around the world, where no digging is done to prep a garden. 

Grow Bio-intensive

No-till can be a challenge, especially for certain crops on a commercial scale. Many Permaculture gardens and farms use the “Bio-intensive‘ method, a proven research-based way to maintain fertility and soil health while minimizing tilling and digging. Other soil systems used by Permacultures include French Intensive Gardening, Korean Natural Farming, Biodynamics, and Natural Gardening. Many of these use microbial preparations to enhance soil ecology. From a Permaculture perspective, one could critique the highly sustainable garden pictured below on the grounds that the beds run off contour, wasting water and causing erosion. Bare soil may also be a problem. 


Finally, no introduction to Permaculture gardening would be complete without reiterating the idea of zones. Zone analysis shows us that different techniques work better on different scales and with different levels of care. In smaller, more intensive Permaculture systems closer to the home we’ll find more vertical gardening, trellises, water-harvesting beds, and greater diversity. Away from the home, on larger scales we’ll find more “extensive” systems. So any Permaculture garden may use any variety of the patterns above depending on the location and goals. That’s reflected in this classic image from the Permaculture Designer’s Manual. 

Up Next: Part 3 (Coming soon) 

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