Urban Permaculture Maximizes Garden Productivity

Story at-a-glance -

  • “Urban Permaculture” teaches you how to design a productive garden that takes care of itself, even in the smallest of spaces
  • Permaculture epitomizes sustainability by harnessing mutually beneficial relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems
  • Watch in amazement as Geoff Lawton transforms an ordinary yard into a maximally productive, sustainable garden landscape

By Dr. Mercola

Modern industrial farming, deforestation, overfishing, and other unsustainable practices are exhausting Earth's natural resources at an alarming rate. More than a billion people have no access to safe drinking water, while 70 percent of the world's fresh water is going to agriculture.1

Our soil is depleting 13 percent faster than it can be replaced, and we've lost 75 percent of best soils in just the last hundred years. Almost one-third of all vertebrate species are currently threatened or endangered, and 60 percent of the world's ecological systems are nearing collapse.

Researchers believe we've entered the beginning stages of Earth's 6th mass extinction event—this one the result of human activity. With all of our scientific acumen and innovation, we MUST do better than this.

One of the ways to turn this around is by returning to sustainable farming practices, and this can start in our own backyards by growing our own food. You don't have to be wealthy to eat organic food and you can easily reduce your grocery bill.

The film "Urban Permaculture" features Australian permaculture expert Geoff Lawton, who teaches how to set up a productive garden that takes care of itself with minimal time and energy, even in the smallest of spaces.

The film is particularly helpful because Geoff ties the whole concept together with a fantastic garden makeover! He transforms a standard yard into a biodynamic, high-production garden before your eyes, demonstrating how a variety of permaculture principles can be adapted to any space, large or small.

What Is Permaculture?

The prnciples of permaculture bring in the best of organic, biodynamic, and regenerative agriculture. According to the Permaculture Institute:2

"Permaculture is an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how to design natural homes and abundant food production systems, regenerate degraded landscapes and ecosystems, develop ethical economies and communities, and much more."

Permaculture is an agricultural system in which the parts of the system are all interconnected, working with nature as opposed to against it. The word "permaculture" derives from "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture."

The focus is not on any one element of the system but on the relationships among them—animals, plants, insects, microorganisms, water, soil, and habitat—and how to use these relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems.

Permaculture Is About the Symbiosis of Nature

According to an article in Organic Gardening,3 the ultimate purpose of permaculture is to "develop a site until it meets all the needs of its inhabitants, including food, water, shelter, fuel, and entertainment."

While it's rare that a home gardener can implement all of the permaculture principles, most can implement some of them to create a new way of landscaping based on production and usefulness.

For example, instead of a hedge, you can plant a "fedge"—a multifunction hedge that provides food as well as a visually attractive barrier.

Permaculture emphasizes the use of native plants that are well adapted for your area. Plant varieties you like, as long as they provide an abundance of benefit for the landscape. For example, choose varieties that support your local pollinators—the Pollinator Partnership guide4 is a great resource for this.

In permaculture, every part of the system plays multiple roles. For example, the film shows a bed of reeds operating as a filtration system for the greywater from a house, which is then channeled as irrigation.

The quick-growing reeds can be shredded and used as mulch. Fruit trees provide food, as well as shade and beauty and a visual barrier between you and your neighbors.

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Allow Fish, Frogs, Goats, and Chickens to Do Your Work for You

Aquaponics is a common feature in permaculture systems. Aquaponics is the symbiotic cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment.

It's similar to hydroponics except instead of adding nutrients, the fish themselves serve as little nutrient factories. You feed the fish, and the fish excrete waste that's converted into nitrates (plant food) through a nitrification process (bacteria).5

There is no need for commercial fish food because the fish feast on algae and insect larvae—like mosquitoes—which also helps with pest control. Geoff shows a swimming pool that's been converted for aquaponics—and you can still swim in it, alongside the fish!

In addition to fish, animals, birds, and amphibians are also valuable in permaculture systems—pigeons, rabbits, quail, chickens, ducks, frogs, and just about any other form of life can make beneficial contributions.

Water loaded with chicken manure can run down a slope to feed your vegetable garden. Chickens can help by doing your cleanup in harvested vegetable beds. Goats can be used to keep weeds and other plants "mowed down" along roadways—and they provide free fertilizer as they mow!6

By combining plants and animals together, your work is reduced significantly as nature does what it's intended to do.

A Few Basic Permaculture Principles to Get You Started

A permaculture design is never finished as a site's ecosystem is always changing. Work with materials you have nearby, as much as possible. There's no set formula for designing a permaculture garden, but there are a few basic guidelines to consider:7

  • Copy a forest blueprint, with a tree canopy that gives way to smaller trees, flanked by shrubs, with smaller shade plants under the canopy
  • Group plants by compatible roots and canopy systems, and by soil type, such as acid lovers in one area and drought resistant in another
  • Identify microclimates in your yard and use them to your advantage, such as cooler shady corners, full sun, rocky areas, and areas that receive abundant drainage
  • Incorporate as much diversity as possible, focusing on native plants and animals
  • Plan your area in zones based on use and accessibility; for example, plant your herb garden and greens in the areas easiest to access, such as along the driveway or along a path near your deck

Industrial Farming Spells Ecological Disaster

Why do we need permaculture? Because our modern, chemical-based farming practices are exacting an incredibly heavy toll on the environment. Conventional "industrial farming" is devastating our soils, depleting water tables, and creating massive pollution in our air, water, and food.

Most conventional farmers tend to leave much of the soil bare, which allows water to evaporate and hastens soil erosion. On top of this are massive chemical assaults by pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers, which not only kill soil microbes but also play significant roles in the decimation of our bees, butterflies, and other flora and fauna—even earthworms.

More than one billion pounds of pesticides (not even including the herbicides) are used in the US each year, an amount that's quintupled since 1945. This overreliance on agrichemicals has resulted in weeds and pests that are resistant to those chemicals. The agriculture industry's answer to chemical resistance is to apply more toxic chemicals, sparking an insanely vicious cycle of devastation up and down the food chain. Now we're also facing the next-generation of genetically engineered (GE) plants designed to withstand even more chemicals, including 2,4-D (an Agent Orange ingredient), and dicamba.

GE Crops Destroy Soil Microbiome—Possibly Irreversibly

As GE plants overtake the major food-producing areas of the world, including the US, China, India, Argentina, and Brazil, there's a high risk of worldwide famine on a scale never before seen, due to reduced soil fertility. The mechanisms for soil fertility decline are just beginning to be understood as science shines more light on the consequences of introducing genetically modified organisms into the soil. Special genetic elements (vector DNA) are present in all GE plants.

This vector DNA enables unrelated microorganism species to mate, but it can also be transferred to soil microorganisms. Soil fertility depends on the presence of a diverse population of microorganisms, all serving different roles in balancing and optimizing the soil via symbiotic relationships. However, experience has shown that the mating of unrelated species causes a decline in soil diversity and therefore fertility. When you add up these assaults, the effect is monumental damage to essentially every branch of the ecological tree.

Healing Humankind Starts with Healing the Soil

Mineral depletion of the soil directly affects your health because it diminishes the quality of the foods you eat. A food's nutritional value depends on the quality of the soil in which it's grown. The progressive depletion of minerals in our food runs parallel to the implementation of agricultural practices like mechanization, nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, and agrichemical use. Fortunately, we've figured out how to regenerate soil, and basically it boils down to replicating the cycles of nature.

In nature, a soil's surface is never bare or very rarely so—it isn't cleared away as is done by plowing. And in nature, you'll never see a monocrop. Far from it—in one square foot of pristine prairie land, you'll find about 140 different plants. Plowing and tilling easily disturb soil's delicate structure, so regenerative farmers use no-till methods that minimize this disturbance. Soil restoration is one of the best ways to save our health, build a sustainable economy, and prevent global environmental disaster.

Woodchips Turn Your Ordinary Garden into a Soil Factory

Download Interview Transcript

I am very  grateful to Paul Gautschi, whose video "Back to Eden" helped me understand the value of using wood chips as an easy, economical way to optimize soil ecology. Before discovering his recommendations, I'd struggled for years to find the best way to grow nutrient dense food that achieves its maximum genetic potential. The key to soil fertility is increasing its carbon content and this can easily be done by topping it with abundant organic matter—and as it turns out, nature takes care of the rest. The method is brilliantly simple.

You just lay down uncomposted woodchips on top of your garden—whatever is available locally, usually a combination of leaves, twigs, and branches. Avoid palm tree clippings and seek to get hardwoods, preferably with the leaves still on them. The chips and leaves break down gradually and are digested and redigested by a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, and nematodes in the soil, which is exactly what happens in nature. Once the carbon can't be further digested, it forms humates that last in the soil for centuries and provide a host of benefits. You can also add BioChar, and it is ideal, but it's far more expensive.

After a year or so, you'll develop lush soil underneath the chips. You'll know you are on your way when you start seeing an abundance of happy large earthworms. The worms are a sign that you have optimized a microbial ecology that will happily support trees, vegetables, or whatever else you're trying to grow. The longer you leave the chips on and the deeper you heap them, the thicker your topsoil will be. Woodchips also reduce your weeding by more than 90 percent, because the weeds that do grow are super easy to pull out by their roots. Woodchips drastically reduce the need for irrigation and eliminate your need for fertilizers, and they provide great insulation for your plants and soil, moderating the temperatures in both summer and winter.

Getting Back to Our Roots

Spending time outdoors can significantly lift your mood, so it's no surprise that gardening has been found to be good therapy. In one survey, 80 percent of gardeners reported being "happy" and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67 percent of non-gardeners. Eighty-seven percent of those who gardened more than six hours per week reported feeling happy, compared to those spending less time in their gardens. Among volunteers at an outdoor conservation project, 100 percent said that participation improved their mental health and boosted their confidence and self-esteem.

Spending time outdoors also boosts your vitamin D level and helps you stay grounded. Whether you go full bore and turn your yard into a permaculture paradise, or start small by adding a few chickens to your vegetable garden, you can easily incorporate some of these permaculture principles to make your home more productive and earth friendly. Small urban living spaces offer the ultimate in garden productivity, and growing some of your own food is a great way to take charge of your health.

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You can watch more of Geoff Lawton's free videos at www.geofflawton.com