3 Inspiring Stories Show How Permaculture Can Solve Garden Problems

These case studies show how small-scale permaculture can help the most challenging of gardens.

Prickly pear
A garden design in California includes a wide array of edible cacti and succulents. Julien Mcroberts / Getty Images

As a permaculture designer, I am inspired every day by the gardeners who contact me; they are helping to solve the world's problems in their gardens. In seeking to find solutions, they implement elements of permaculture – agriculture designed using the principles of natural ecosystems – and have started, or plan to start, growing their own food at home in an organic, sustainable way.

Here are some details from three recent garden projects that show how certain problems can be solved by putting small-scale permaculture into practice:

A Long, Thin Garden in England

No matter where and in which climate zone you live, a long, thin urban garden can be a challenge from a design perspective. This particular garden is 21 feet wide but stretches from north to south for almost 100 feet. The site has a lime-rich loamy and clayey soil, stony and with slightly impeded drainage.

Average summer highs are around 70 F, and winter lows are around 34 F. About 24 inches of rain falls annually, and though water shortage is not usually a major issue, periods of drought in spring / early summer are increasingly common.

But the client's main concern, in approaching me for the design, was to guide her in layout and design that would allow for permaculture in practice, and provide a space that the whole family could enjoy, as they were not making much of the garden before, especially the end farthest from the house.

Permaculture zoning was useful in determining the best layout of the different elements of the design. In zone one, just beyond a patio and outdoor kitchen, rainwater harvesting, and composting area, I suggested creating the first garden room – the kitchen garden. Herb and flower edging around this area helped to zone the space.

Beyond the kitchen garden, I suggested creating a small wildflower meadow, with washing lines where laundry could be hung out to dry. And just beyond this, a small polytunnel / greenhouse to aid in growing year-round. This structure also serves to break up the sightline and make the garden feel less long and thin.

Zone two, an abundant forest garden, fills around half of the space, with a path winding through it to reach a wildlife pond and a pergola-covered patio (covered with vines) adjoining a summer house.

Mixed hedgerows along the east and west boundaries are also zone two, providing a number of edible and other yields.

Finally, a small, wild area behind the summerhouse at the far end of the garden, beneath mature trees, is to be left largely undisturbed, for wildlife. But could also allow for mushroom cultivation.

Permaculture zoning in this design makes for a practical garden, where elements visited most frequently are closer to the house. But also encourages the use of the whole garden, by making the summer house a "destination" at the end of a series of beautiful garden rooms.

Edible Xeriscaping in California

With this garden design, water shortage and drought conditions were the main limiting factor.

The client intended to install a rainwater harvesting facility and to implement drip irrigation systems. They also had plans to embrace drought tolerant xeriscaping planting in the front of the property, which is particularly hot, sunny, and unsheltered. They were particularly keen to maximize the potential to grow food on the site.

I suggested wicking beds and an aquaponics system for wise water use in the main food-producing zones. But I also suggested options for edible xeriscaping in the front of the property. It is this part of the design that I wish to briefly explore here because it shows the potential for food production even on the most arid of sites.

Due to the lack of potential for substantially increased shade cover in this particular spot, my plan instead explored the potential of cacti and succulents suited to the climate and microclimate conditions to provide edible yields.

Along with palms, I suggested the use of dragonfruit, Ferocactus wislizeni (barrel cactus), and opuntia (prickly pear). Other edible cacti include Cereus repandus (Peruvian apple cactus), Echinocereus (Strawberry cactus), and Echinocactus acanthodes (not very tasty, but it has edible fruits).

Edible succulents for the design included yucca, agave, sedums/ stonecrops (including stringy stonecrop), purslane, Dudleya lanceolata, Carpobrotus edulis, and Salicornia.

This case study exemplifies the idea that in embracing permaculture ethics and practices, we need to think carefully not only about how we grow food, but also what we eat. Embracing additional edible yields from cacti and succulents increases the food-producing potential of an arid site.

Slope Management and Forest Garden, Washington

This next example comes from a design for a property in USDA planting zone 8b. The frost-free period is typically 225-250 days. The area generally has around 21 inches per year of rainfall and 2 inches of snow. Precipitation happens, on average, 138 days of the year. Soil type is predominantly Tukey Gravelly Loam, which is moderately well-drained, with low available water capacity. The site can be prone to erosion and run-off.

The aim of this design was, first and foremost, to manage water and stabilize soil on the garden site, which has a slope of 20-30%. A series of 12 terraces, with on-contour swales, was its defining characteristic.

Once developed, the goal of these land management techniques is to develop a forest garden system with plenty of fruit and nut trees, fruiting bushes and other perennial plantings can also be established.

What this example of small-scale permaculture in practice shows is that earthworks can be undertaken to manage water effectively on a garden-scale, and, if undertaken properly, can maximize the site's food-producing potential.

These three examples show just a few of the ways in which small-scale permaculture can solve problems in a garden.