The discipline of permaculture is all about trying to work with nature and not against it. This means trying to organized the eco-systems at work within your growing space so that they work in relative harmony with one another. One of the key things to be aware of then when attempting to design a garden to permaculture principles is how plants typically grow when undisturbed in nature.
Generally in the wild, plants organize themselves into layers. These include:
The Canopy Layer
The canopy layer is the topmost layer of any ecosystem and comprises almost exclusively of trees. The high branches and leaves of the tree provide shade and shelter for other plants and animals and in some cases fruit and food.
The Shrub Layer
Ground growing plants that don’t grow up to the height of trees form the second layer of a natural plant eco system. They themselves also often provide shelter, protection and food to smaller plants and animals in turn.
The Herbaceous Layer
The smaller plants growing out of the soil are the next layer. Comprising actual herbs and herb like plants such as grasses, these have a valuable role in holding the top soil together and preventing erosion.
Below the herbaceous layer are those plants that grow primarily underground. Examples include root vegetables such as carrots and turnips. Many of these plants benefit from the shelter of their larger brethren.
Vines and Vertical Plants
Vine and vertical growing plants grow in between the different layers, taking advantage of other plant types for support and shelter as they grow. These include vegetable crops like tomatoes as well as Ivies.
Other Tips on Permaculture Design
Avoid empty soil. Soil that is empty except for what people want grown in it is a mainstay of agriculture and much gardening but works completely against nature. In nature, if there’s some soil available, something will attempt to grow in it. These will often be plants that are considered weeds in other fields of agriculture.
While some plants are indeed detrimental to your overall goals and will leech from and undermine those things you do want growing, it is important to remember that exposed soil is at risk of being eroded and washed away which will leave it unable to support plant growth and in need of repair.
To counteract this, you need to plan right down to the herbaceous and root layer what plants you will use to keep the soil together.
Groups of plants growing together in arranged layers create subtle but noticeable changes to the humidity and temperature where they grow. Permaculture planning needs to be both aware of this as well as constantly looking for ways to take advantage of this.
Take Advantage of the Cycle of Life
In nature, new plants frequently grow using nutrients left over from old ones that died before them. You can take advantage of this by arranging the planting of new plants to coincide with the natural dying off of older ones This way, your new plants get to take advantage of the fertilised soil and it goes to plants you want growing rather than weeds.