Before we even get to these permaculture principles today, it’s a good idea to take some time to choose your goals.

You may want fresh, healthy food, a space to relax and be inspired, impressive flowers to brighten up the street, a play zone for kids – the potential benefits are as diverse as people.

Conventional landscape design tends to look at gardens mostly in terms of aesthetics (e.g. bright fall color) and function (e.g. a privacy screen).

But this approach often doesn’t do a great job of designing the garden as a living ecosystem.

Click for video transcription

Phil: Check, check, check, one two. Check, check, check, one two.

Hey guys it’s Phil from If you haven’t checkout out my free online organic gardening course you can do that right on the homepage of

Today we’re talking about permaculture garden design. What conventional garden design often focuses on is the aesthetic of the garden and the functionality of the garden so just where things go and how the garden looks. 

Which is fine for most people especially if you’re a non-gardener you just want to have a tree that looks nice or a plant that looks nice. Like, I have a Redbud in the background here. It’s not the best specimen which is why I actually took it and planted it.v

If the redbuds are in flower, people come out they want to buy that tree because they just want something that looks nice. That’s entirely fine and that’s a lot of what gardening is, just making something that looks nice.

What we’re talking about today is making an ecological approach to garden design where of course we want it to look nice, we want it to work well, but we also want to look at nature and we want to think about it as a integrative kind of system where we’re trying to improve biodiversity and clean up the soil and filter water, do a bunch of things that are just improving the health of our little space here.

And not only because we want to be good to the planet, because we want to have a garden that works really well and that doesn’t always require our inputs that takes care of itself.

And so that’s what we’re getting into today with this permaculture design. Permaculture really got started or at least the term was coined in the 1970s and it was the combination of permanent and agriculture. So permanent is really talking about sustainability and something that can take care of itself sustainably and then agriculture is a lot about growing food. 

The principles in permaculture are going to look different in every situation. Sometimes there’s a probably that I see in permaculture is where solutions that have maybe worked elsewhere are imposed into our garden because we think we need them. 

So an herb spiral is a way to grow a bunch of herbs in a small area and it’s kind of a cool thing in the right situation but now a lot of people think they need an herb spiral because it’s a permaculture thing, but with permaculture we really want to focus on the design, on the strategy and on thinking about the principles.

So, the principle is really trying to work with nature instead of trying to conquer nature we’re trying to use the energies that are coming on our site, and trying to manipulate them just in such a way that it can help do some of the work for us.

A big thing with permaculture that we’re trying to do is to observe and interact with our landscape. If we can somehow spend a few seasons looking at our landscape and observing it we can learn a lot and these are fairly common sense things.

It doesn’t have to be difficult if I just look at my forest garden, this very young forest garden I’m putting in behind me, basically kind of a holistic orchard, I noticed observing, that there’s a wet area down there seasonally during the spring and sometimes in the winter and so that’s where I put – you can maybe see the white blossoms back there – my pear trees, my pear trees can take a little bit moisture whereas my apple trees aren’t into that so I have an apple tree right here and another one off camera here, they’re up on a high spot.

So that’s pretty common sense but it’s just things like that. Maybe you can see behind my redbud which has the nice purple flowers right now, there’s a cherry tree. 

It’s kind of right behind there, but it’s a little bit marginal in this area and so I have in the sheltered part of the garden where it’s protected from wind it’s kind of nice and warm in there, so it’s just a fragile tree and that’s going to help with that.

So it’s really just common sense all the time but it gives us a lot of clues as to how we can work with the landscape and it really can minimize our labor and the inputs we need to bring in and then the problems we encounter if we do this kind of working with the energies and all the things that are going on in our site.

So in nature nothing is lost and that’s what we’re trying to mimic in our landscapes, too. If we can look at all of the elements in our landscape and figure out how we can provide for them then we can do a lot of good.

And what I mean by elements are things like fruit trees like an apple tree or a veggie garden or my compost pile or a pond or a greenhouse or any kind of major part of the garden. That’s an element and that element needs some things in order to be optimal and that element can give a lot of things to us, too, if we can learn how to use them. 

So that could be so many different things it can mean that under my fruit trees I’m trying to plant herbs and other beneficial plants that are going to help that fruit tree and we call that guilding a fruit tree, we call that a guild.

It could be that I put my compost bin somewhere where I can take the heat from that compost and do something with that heat – maybe it helps to heat a greenhouse – or maybe on the other hand maybe the greenhouse…if I put the compost bin in the greenhouse maybe the greenhouse helps to keep the compost bin warm throughout the winter.

So what we want to do is just keep looking at all these elements and on and on and on with the greenhouse I should be capturing water off that greenhouse maybe down in some plants that need a lot of water.

And so on and on we try to think about all these integrations. So what you really want to do is think about all the things you need in your garden all the products you want to get from it, all the things you need and also list all the major elements. 

So fruit trees, greenhouses, all the things I’ve listed…compost…and think about how those things can all integrate with each other and provide for each other.

[Phil’s mom shouting] Hey Phil, how’s it going?

Phil: Great, just filming!

This was just a brief introduction to permaculture today what it means is observing your site, working with nature, trying to learn from nature. How can we mimic nature in our garden so that our garden takes care of itself? So we don’t have to do so much work and spend so much money and then we can go and start and permaculture somewhere else.

If you have any questions for me ask them down below and I will answer them. If you haven’t signed up for my free online organic gardening course you can do that down below. You can join me over on Facebook with my sister at  

A holistic, integrated approach considers the ecological impact of the garden, which actually improves aesthetics and functionality in many ways, but also has many other benefits…

What Is Permaculture?

Permaculture Principles In My Garden
I filmed the video this spring, but this photo shows there was a lot more going on by August, and there will be a LOT more going on next year.

In the 1970s, a movement developed to create ecosystems that meet human needs by imitating natural systems.

A contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” permaculture principles have come to include a cultural component as well, encompassing everything from building design and energy generation to social and economic systems – and of course, food.

In some ways, it’s just a set of common sense principles, based on an ethic of care for the earth, care for people, and sharing the surplus.

These principles will look different in each situation. There are no set formulas that guarantee a good result.

Permaculture design is about learning to be good relationship managers. This is what I learned when I did my permaculture course in 2007.

Rather than seeing ourselves as conquerors imposing our will on a passive landscape, we learn to guide the interactions of the many living elements in our space with as light a touch as we can…

Permaculture Principles – Observe And Interact

If we want to imitate nature, the first step is to observe what’s already there.

Rather than jumping in immediately with a preconceived idea of how we want our permaculture garden to look, we’ll get a much better result in the end if we take time to watch through a few seasons.

We can notice things like where sun and shade fall through different seasons, what plants and weeds are thriving in which locations, where water pools in winter/spring or where the grass turns brown first in summer, what kinds of birds and other animals visit the yard, and so on.

This permaculture principle of observation doesn’t have to be difficult.

For example, I have a low spot in my garden that gets seasonally wet, so I put my pears down near there because they can take it. My apples are happily up higher where they won’t have to deal with that.

My one cherry tree is in a warm, sheltered spot protected from harsh winds because it’s a little more fragile.

It’s just common sense design much of the time, but it gives us clues to how we can work with the landscape.

We can minimize our labor and problems by cooperating with the natural energy flows of the space, and intervening where it will have the greatest effect…

Permaculture Design

Permaculture Principles In My Garden
Under my fruit trees, I have comfrey, nasturtiums and garlic (all in this photo), plus lots of other herbs, many of which will hopefully contribute to the health of the tree.

In nature, nothing is lost – there is no waste.

We can create gardens that work in a similar way, by considering each element we’ll include in terms of its needs and yields.

An element is simply anything we want in our space, like an apple tree, an organic vegetable garden, a compost pile, a greenhouse or a pond.

Each element needs certain things in order to function well, and can yield a variety of products or functions, including things we might not usually think of.

That could be herbs planted below an apple tree to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects for the tree, or a compost pile generating heat for a greenhouse (or vice versa).

It’s great to make use of as many of these as possible.

Start by taking time to make a comprehensive list of your own garden needs, and follow this with a list of the elements you’ll need to meet those needs.

Then you can brainstorm the needs and yields of each element, and see how they interact with each other.

You can place the elements in your garden in an integrated way that maximizes the beneficial relationships between them.

Do you have any interesting integrations between elements in your garden?

Or do you have questions about these permaculture principles, about permaculture design?

I hope so, because I’d love to answer them down below…


  1. Txblbnnt on September 28, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I like your idea of integrative gardening. I stumbled upon fennel simply because I loved the fine foliage and fresh luscious aroma of the plant and discovered it attracted catapillars which in turn turned into these beautiful butterflies,and attracted bees, and they all busily go through the garden pollinating and eating bugs I don’t want in the garden like aphids. In addition to all the benefits it is a plant that I completely use, from the root to the leaves to the seeds. Because I ‘m new to integrative gardening I would love a cheat sheet for other plantings that are beneficial in addition to adding beautiful foliage to my small garden space that also doubles as landscaping leading to our front door.I’ve enjoyed your blogs and look forward to learning new (or maybe I should say old ) secrets to return to gardening like my grandmother did on a tiny budget.

    • Phil on September 29, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      Thanks for sharing! I’ll make a ‘note to self’ about the ‘beneficial plants’ topic.

  2. Jim on September 28, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Nice job Phil. Well stated. I have not had time to read the entire article, but just your opening statements are “inspiring”. These same principles can be applied to many areas of life. I am glad to see someone who is willing to take the time to share such thoughts. Sorry for being so philosophically sappy, but I just received a response from one of my state representatives regarding an email I sent encouraging the labeling of products using GMO ingredients. His response was kind of a thank you, but sorry I can’t help you feeling. I am beginning to feel the only way to help get the point across is for everyone to quit buying groceries and grow their own – a return to rural agriculture and self sufficiency. It seems the only way to get peoples attention is to hit them in the pocket book. But, if everyone else is like me, they are probably too lazy to take action. I just wanted to thank you for not being too lazy. Keep up the good work.

    • Phil on September 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks for sharing Jim, and for working on the GMO issue. We will get labeling at some point – it’s just a matter of when.

  3. Gardensuz on September 28, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Great discussion! I have to ask about your guilding of the pear tree. Is that like companion planting?

    • Phil on September 29, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Exactly – all of these plants offer some help to the tree, like attracting insects, becoming a nice mulch, taking up minerals from deep in the soil and depositing them on the soil surface when they die, etc.

      • Zane Tamane on August 19, 2020 at 12:18 pm

        One thing that has been bothering me lately is path covers in a permaculture garden. Hay/straw does not hold back a lot of weeds and i would also like to make something more permanent, like mulch/gravel/old clay bricks for paths, and make edges for the beds (raised beds), but i am afraid it will hold back natural inhabitants like toads, hedgehogs, lizards. Is it so?

        • Phil on August 22, 2020 at 10:44 am

          That’s an interesting question about toads and such. My guess is that, as long as you’re providing them with habitat, a brick or gravel path isn’t going to dissuade them much. As for a raised bed, most animals won’t be excluded, although a few may be (toads can’t jump very high, for example).

  4. Keith Taylor on September 28, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    I didn’t realise how lucky I am! In your e-mail you say “…perhaps sigh a little bit at the thought of having to wait 7 months before we can plant anything again…” We only have to wait 4 months at most!I have a few rock and log piles in my Permaculture garden, in which lizards, snakes and toads shelter. They do a stunning job of keeping down the crickets and other pests. Here in South Africa we have a snake (Duberria L. Lutrix) that eats only slugs and snails. I welcome all snakes in my gardens and surrounds as they do a fantastic job of keeping all sorts of pests at bay, including rats and mice. I’ve been an amateur herpetologist for over 40 years and my wife simply keeps still when she encounters one she doesn’t know, studies it carefully and then we look for it in one of the books so that she can identify it next time. Most snakes lose interest and will not strike if one just remains still when they are encountered.

    • Phil on September 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      Thanks for sharing! Snakes are a big help in the garden. I only have harmless garter snakes in mine.

      • Keith Taylor on September 29, 2013 at 3:48 pm

        I don’t know how it works in your part of the world, Phil, but in the Southern African region, any snake that has stripes that run the length of the body (as opposed to across the body) is not dangerous to man. That’s not to say that all snakes that have other markings are dangerous, though.

  5. Dai on September 28, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    I feel you know “wabi” “sabi” or “Yin” Yang” of garden. I am still struggling with just growing single plant but I will get there eventually though. I have just moved into new house with big scale backyard and a small front yard with extra raised garden. My excitement of owing a house and gardening are my dreams which came true.I see beautiful flowers are blooming and growing organic raspberry, strawberry, sesame leaves, mints, eggplants, Korean chills and a lot more vegetables are growing but still those items are only during summer till early September. I always feel something is not enough in soil, have to improve to make flowers, shrubs and trees growing healthy. I can see from size of stems are very skinny although I mulched around. Hopefully, next year will be better. (I live in a mountain area in Vancouver, Canada a lot of rain though probably this is one of disadvantage.)Anyway, I just wanted to share my garden.

    • Phil on September 29, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Thanks for sharing Dai. It sounds like a really fun project.

    • FaerieQueene on October 2, 2013 at 1:56 am

      Hi Dai,The soil here in the Vancouver area is very acidic – especially in the mountains where the evergreens like to grow! Just keep amending it – Phil can tell you all about the benefits of deciduous leaves for building soil! Perhaps you have other tips for helping with acidic soil, Phil?Kind regards and happy growing!

      • Phil on October 3, 2013 at 12:17 pm

        Yes, other than adding compost and leaves, both of which will help, the other step is to send a soil test to a good organic lab and then follow their fertilizer recommendations to balance out the soil chemistry, which in turn balances out pH. The only problem is in Canada I’ve never found a good organic lab, so I often ship to Crop Services International in the U.S., but that gets expensive and is a bit of a hassle for casual gardeners. I do sometimes use A&L Labs in Canada, but that’s because I know how to throw out there recommendations and interpret the test on their own. I usually don’t want people to use most fertilizers without a soil test, but I have no problem suggesting 5 pounds of calcitic lime (not dolomite) per 1000 square feet in areas of high rainfall – it’s almost always warranted.

        • Bea on October 11, 2013 at 2:50 pm

          Just a question on the lime: You mention that it needs to calcitic lime, not dolomite. What is wrong about dolomite lime? I am living currently in Zimbabwe and we are growing our own vegetables and herbs. Thank you for your answer.

          • Phil on October 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm

            There’s nothing inherently wrong with dolomite lime – it’s just that it supplies a lot of magnesium in relation to calcium, which can cause compaction and other issues. If your soil needs a lot of magnesium and calcium, that may be okay, but the majority of us need to focus on calcium.

      • Theresa Curtis on December 1, 2015 at 1:34 am

        a sprinkling of wood ash on the soil after harvest (for next season’s garden)works really well. i can never afford all the lab work stuff myself.

  6. Alise on September 28, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Thanks for another inspiring lesson. I always thought that planting close to trees would set the plants up in competition with the trees. You are saying that this is possible. I have about ten young fruit trees – about three years old – which are surrounded by wood chip mulch to about a two foot radius. There are apples, plums, cherries and an apricot. What would you recommend as suitable plants to surround them.

    • Phil on September 29, 2013 at 2:26 pm

      Depends on your climate, soil, etc., but some favorites are pretty much any kind of edible herb, plus vetch or clover for the nitrogen, garlic and daffodils to keep grasses away from the tree – hmmm, the list can go on forever, haha.

      • Alise on October 2, 2013 at 2:48 am

        Thanks, Phil. I am in zone 4b and I have only dared to grow garlic but I will remove some of the mulch and try some of the others that you are suggesting…next year that is…the garden is shutting down for winter as we speak. Thank again for everything that you have shared with us in these lessons.

  7. Gayle S on September 28, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    Loved the video Phil!! I need to do that on our farm. We have areas that certain plants would like more than others. My gardens doing well. Working on making lost of my own compost to build up the organic matter in the garden and nutrients.

  8. Emily BH on September 29, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Yes, a permaculture food forest with perennial fruits and vegetables where you don’t even have to water is a great goal. It is certainly doable. Nature, with every forest and jungle that thrive without any care proves it works. It is man that has messed everything up thinking we can “improve” upon nature. “Back to Eden” is a great documentary people can watch for free on YouTube that shows how one man, using Nature’s methods turned lousy soil into a thriving food forest . Sepp Holzer, one of the fathers of permaculture even grows tropical fruit in frigid weather on the sunny side of a mountain. He proves it is all about finding the right micro climate although I don’t think many have duplicated some of what he’s managed to do though . Lots of people build cold frames and grow vegetables all winter long. You can always container garden inside. Everyone can grow sprouts. All you need are seeds for sprouting and clean water, a glass jar and a screen or sieve for that.

  9. Keith Taylor on September 29, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I am studying the “weeds” that grow in my gardens, as they are indicators of nutrient deficiencies. I let them grow until quite large, then cut all but one down and use them as mulch. That one that is left goes to seed, which I collect and plant next season to pull up more nutrients. A favourite is Mexican marigold (Tagates minuta), which helps keep nematodes and other pest insects away. One can make a “tea” with the leaves and use as an pest-repellent spray and a hot drink. The spray does not keep beneficial insects away, only pests such as aphids and thrips.

    • Phil on October 3, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      Good tips Keith. And yes, Mexican marigold is a beauty (most other marigolds don’t bring the same benefits).

  10. Jan Ashe on September 30, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    Phil, I am interested in using Permaculture in my yard. I live in NW Florida in the Panhandle. Can you recommend a web site or other reading material to get me started? I attended a seminar at the local college and have decided that this is the way for me after so many seasons of failed gardens. Where do I start? The speaker recommended growing oyster mushrooms to start getting our sandy soil in better shape, but after searching the web I am so confused. I’m not sure what to purchase to get them growing in my yard. I don’t live on the beach, but more inland. I have several papaya trees, citrus trees and blue berry bushes growing in pots that I would love to plant in the yard, but I want to plant them in gilds as the information I have read recommends, but I am just not sure how to start this process. Please recommend which reading material I should read to get me started.Thank you

    • Phil on October 3, 2013 at 12:11 pm

      “Gaia’s Garden” is an excellent permaculture book for beginners – I highly recommend it. For oyster mushrooms, go to and do some research there. The owner Paul Stamets is a leader in the field of mushrooms. I’ve grown his oysters indoors, but never outdoors.

  11. Phil on October 10, 2013 at 11:14 am


  12. Arlene Agustin on October 21, 2013 at 7:38 am

    It is my first time to enter permaculture and I really find it to be more complicated this must due to a newbie.Though you’ve given me some ideas on what to do and even the video got to love it! You’ve got more potential with your and share it with more if your open to new ideas there is a social gardening site that I stumbled on I think it would help you as well.

  13. Bonnie Best on January 27, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    How can I add in compost or help the soil in my old perennial garden .My soil is clay and in the past I did spread some sand in hopes of breaking down the soil. Help what can I do without disturbing my perennials ?

    • Phil on January 29, 2014 at 1:23 pm

      If there’s a time of year when they die back, that’s the time to do it. Otherwise you can take shovelfuls by hand and work it down in between them.

    • Theresa Curtis on December 1, 2015 at 1:41 am

      i also have clay. after harvest load on mulch, chips, and pee –and nature will break it down throughout winter voila! by spring it is good again. adding sand to clay soil can create cement.

  14. Cher Coleman on October 22, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    I’m a master gardener in texas beginning to learn about permaculture. Just moved into my “forever” house and planning the landscape to meet my needs over the long term. I like the idea of observing for a couple seasons but, here’s my question. I have quite few transplants from the old garden and it’s planting time here now. What can I do with these until my cardboard box mulch beds and other prep has time to mature? I Hate to lose grace notes from the old garden.

  15. Georgia Boothe on November 28, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    I love the idea of organizing and creating gardens by considering each element’s needs. This would really make gardening more efficient. I’ll have to do as you suggest and make a comprehensive list of my garden needs!

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