The 5 Key Principles of Permaculture, the Easiest Organic Gardening Method

How to Easily Grow Your Own Organic Veggies with an Ecological Garden

By Jonathan White

Growing your own food is typically seen by the average person as either an art or hard work. As a result, it’s no wonder so few people do it seriously.
But what if there was a technique that was so easy and prolific that even the busiest single mom or corporate executive could grow a significant portion of their family’s food in less time than it takes to drive to the grocery store each week?
Ecological gardening just might be the answer. In my experience, it’s the ultimate modern-day convenience veggie plot.
I didn’t have a light bulb moment that said, “Oh, so this is ecological gardening”. My vegetable garden was no different from anyone else’s for many years — until I made a few significant changes.
The first change was squeezing far more plants into a given area. The second change was to never dig the soil. And thirdly, I upgraded my composting system. With these simple strategies my garden took on a life of its own.
Weeds virtually stopped growing in the beds and plants started living much longer. The garden could endure longer periods without water. I was yielding far more than I ever had and I could harvest every day of the year.
I wanted to know what was happening at a scientific level and applied my university training as an environmental scientist to understand why I was getting such amazing results. I had to completely let go of all my preconceived ideas as a gardener and look at the plot through the eyes of an ecologist. After some time I realized that I had created an ecosystem made up of edible plants, and it behaved in exactly the same way as a natural habitat.
I became more of an observer than a gardener and the role of head gardener was pulled from under my feet as nature took up the reins.

Nature works for free

The wonderful thing about mother nature is that she works tirelessly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nature follows very simple laws and works in the same way everywhere. When you create an ecological garden you are creating a living, breathing ecosystem. By doing this, you get nature working for you — not against you.

Why "Niche Spaces" are important

A pristine ecosystem is made up of thousands of living and non-living components all coexisting in a given area. Each living component occupies its own niche space and the role of the niche space is very important to understand when creating an ecological garden.
Let’s look at an example… Imagine a giant rainforest tree crashing to the ground after standing for hundreds of years. Such a large tree would have filled an enormous niche space. Lying in the soil, hundreds of dormant seeds spring to life, desperately fighting for their opportunity to occupy the best real estate in the forest — the empty niche space. Harmony is restored when that niche space is quickly filled.
When you look at a traditional vegetable garden with this type of insight, what you see is a very unnatural system. There is very little diversity and a lot of empty niche spaces. Nature enforces her will on vegetable gardens in exactly the same way she does a rainforest. This means that empty niches spaces will be filled as quickly as possible. However, in a traditional vegetable garden there are no desirable seeds waiting to fill the niches spaces, so weeds fill them instead.
The solution is to create a garden that has tightly filled niche spaces so that weeds don’t have any opportunities to grow. You can do this by planting the garden very tightly with a diverse range of plants of differing shapes and characteristics. The result is a dense jungle-like planting arrangement that can yield an unbelievable quantity of high quality food. The denseness also creates a highly protected micro-climate. This ideal growing environment causes your plants to last much longer. Cold sensitive plants are better protected and your greens don’t turn to seed as soon as a hot spell hits.

Managing an ecological garden – permaculture 

Managing an ecological garden – also known as a permaculture garden, or "forest gardening" – is different from managing a traditional vegetable garden. With an ecological garden, there is far less to do. As you become the observer and allow nature to take over as head gardener, you’ll notice that the garden is in a continual state of gentle change, just as with a natural ecosystem. In fact, the main labor in this style of gardening is harvesting!
Humans usually feel the need to control things and it can be difficult for the traditional gardener to stand back and simply observe. This style of gardening calls for a great deal of faith in natural laws. Certainly there will be times when you need to step in and direct the system in a certain way. However this is almost always because a certain plant species is too successful and the system is at risk of losing diversity.

The 5 Key Principles of Ecological Gardening

  • Plant densely
  • Plant a diversity of plants within a given area
  • Get a good composting system set up and use the compost as a surface mulch on bare patches
  • Allow some plants to go to seed
  • Only interfere with the system when a single plant species over-dominates (excessively crowding out other plants)

Controlling Pests Naturally

Pests generally locate their target plant species using sight or smell. The dense, mixed-up nature of the ecological garden creates a natural form of pest management. Imagine how much more difficult it is to see your target plant when its outline is blurred by a sea of green. And how could you smell your target plant when there are so many conflicting smells?
In addition, more plants create more types of plant-eaters. These different species of bugs compete with one another, sometimes even eating each other. Some plants attract certain predatorial insects such as lady bugs and centipedes, which in turn will each roaches and aphids. Many insects eat mold, keeping crop rot minimal.
The more types of plants you have, the more types of bacteria and insects you'll have. And the more types of insects and bacteria, the less that any one plant, bacteria or insect will be a problem. You'll also notice that more diversity of plants attracts butterflies and beautiful birds, further adding to the richness of nutrition and beauty of your garden.
If the above wasn't enough, many different herbs repel certain pests. But the herbs that basil repels are different than the pests that eat basil. The same goes for fennel, onions, tomatoes and so on. By planting them close together, even without research, you increase the chances of the diversity protecting your harvest.

Goodbye Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is practiced by dedicated gardeners for good reason. Different plants require different minerals from the soil, in different proportions. After an area has been planted with a certain species, the soil is left depleted of certain minerals. To lessen the effects of this depletion, a different crop will be planted in the area the following year. Additionally, many gardeners rest their garden beds periodically. Crop rotation simply isn’t necessary with ecological gardening. The mixed-up planting arrangement counteracts the effects of mineral depletion because a single species doesn’t dominate a single area.

Composting

Compost is an important part of the ecological garden and is a very valuable commodity. To me, composting is a way of building valuable nutrients that will, one day, feed me and my family. The average person buys food from a shop, consumes it and then throws the waste away. This is simply buying nutrients, taking what you need for that precise moment, and disregarding the remainder. It’s a nutrient flow that only flows in one direction.
Your goal is to keep the nutrients within your property where you can capitalize on them. This way you’re able to use the nutrients again without having to buy them a second time. In effect, you’re creating a nutrient cycle within your property that is self-sustainable and can go on indefinitely.

Time to throw away the hoe

Natural ecosystems don’t require gardeners with shovels and hoes to come along every season to turn their soil. Neither does an ecological garden. However, it’s best not to walk on the garden beds as this will cause unnecessary compaction. Of course, this requires the installation of permanent pathways that are positioned in a way that you can obtain access to the plot.
Digging soil upsets the soil structure which, in turn, reduces the soil’s ability to pass on valuable nutrients to plants. The loss of soil structure also reduces the soil’s ability to hold water. Developing good soil structure is actually the best water conserving technique I know. When practiced in conjunction with a dense planting arrangement, it creates a holistic soil ecology management plan. A dense planting arrangement will shade the soil’s surface, stopping surface crusting which causes runoff and nutrient depletion. Developing good deeper structure will allow soil organisms to do what they do best — turn organic matter into available plant nutrients.

Self Seeding: The future of your ecogarden

If you’re ever fortunate enough to visit a pristine rainforest, you’ll probably be awestruck by the towering canopy. However, the future of the rainforest lies in the soil in the form of seeds — tiny cells of life waiting for their opportunity to prosper. With an ecological garden, the future can be similarly ensured.
By allowing some plants to go to seed, you can build up seed stores, just like the rainforest. And like the rainforest, you should aim to have thousands of seeds of many varieties spread right across our plot. Most of these seeds will never germinate because in the ecological garden the niche spaces are so tightly filled that opportunities for new life are limited. However, eventually a plant will be eaten and an empty niche space will appear. If you have thousands of seeds lying dormant, any niche space will likely be filled with something desirable.

Who should set up an ecological garden?

Absolutely everyone from farmers to inner-city townhouse dwellers can have an ecological garden. It may seem strange, but if you’ve never grown food before then you are, in some ways, at an advantage. Experienced gardeners may like to see themselves as adopting some ecological gardening techniques, but find it difficult to let go of the need to control the system. As with all industries, the gardening industry can get stuck in doing things a certain way and most seasoned gardeners will inevitably over-work the garden.
If we can let go of our need to control every living thing on the planet, and start to work with nature, we actually gain more control by being able to grow food more efficiently than ever before. It’s a paradox — but it works!
To learn more about converting an existing vegetable garden to an ecological garden or how to start growing your own organic veggies, please click here.

About the Author

Jonathan White is a self-employed environmental consultant and landscape designer. He is the author of Food4Wealth, an eBook and video package that shows you exactly how to set up and maintain an ecological garden. Learn more here: Food4Wealth

12 Comment(s)

  1. I am desiring to put in a garden like you have described. definately need wisdom

    Ladell Neitzel | Reply

  2. Thank u i love it. How do u upgrade your composting system like u said u do?

    danny | Reply

  3. I live in the north–of Canada.  Very cold long winters here.  Will your gardening method work for me?

    Rosemary Thomas | Reply

  4. for those of us who have no outdoor space for gardening, would love to read a follow-up article on healthy food a person could easily grow inside a kitchen/apartment.   thanks very much.

    Hal | Reply

  5. This is such brilliant advice! I have to say as a novice my partner and I kind of stumbled upon these methods this last summer and we were utterly amazed at the incredible harvests we had, with very little intervention from us apart from watering and the very odd little bit of weeding. Thanks for this great summary of what seems like a perfectly logical way of working with Mother Nature. 

    Vera | Reply

  6. Hi Rosemary. Do plants, where you live, naturally grow together thick enough in winter that you no longer see the ground? If so, then yes. One of the most known successful permaculture "farms" in the world is actually in Canada, a bit North of Toronto. I'm not sure how that place may differ from where you are, but as long as you're mimicking what nature does in your own area, then you're on the right track.

    Hi Hal, you might want to consider a small aquaponic system, or hydroponic system (such as an Aerogarden). Or perhaps, focus on growing sprouts.

    Hi Danny, for answer to your question, you'd need to go to Jonathan White.

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  7. Johathan,

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful information. I will start my natural garden as you have said.

    I live in the tropical area of the world & I have been wanting to start my garden but overwhelmed by many instructions & gardening techniques.

    I agree with you that mother nature should take its own course & we should be sub stain with what it gives.

    Thank you very much.

    Bennie Brel

    Bennie | Reply

  8. Hi there

    This sounds really appealing, on many fronts.

    Would it work if we used large plant pots on a paved courtyard and were sometimes away for a few weeks at a time and therefore couldn’t always water the plants as/if/when needed?

    Thanks in advance.

    Linda

    Linda | Reply

  9. I am wondering about closely planting seeds like beat and carrots. Also tomatoes and vine veggies. I can’t understand how I would harvest a good crop of veggies.

    Katherine | Reply

  10. How does one go about growing tuber crops like potatoes, yacon, sunchokes or kumera (sweet potato) in this sort of garden. I have also been trialling more dense plantings but the weeds still seem to flourish!

    Rex | Reply

  11. Thank you for being a precision of wisdom! I love your post. It is like to hear a voice of our ancestors. Thank you.

    Vera | Reply

  12. Hi Linda – without rain, plants will always need regular watering!

    valarcher | Reply

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