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A growing culture

24 March 2021
The creator of the permaculture movement, Bill Mollison (1928–2016), at home in Enmore, Australia, 1989.

We lift the compost bin lid on the principles of permaculture.

Words Diana Noonan

When it comes to giving credit for discoveries, Kiwis are renowned for challenging their Aussie neighbours. But one thing is certain: the concept of ‘permaculture’ gardening originated across the ditch.

Tasmanian Bill Mollison first came up with the idea in the 1970s, while watching native animals feeding in his local rainforest. While observing them browse, he was inspired by the way the natural forest ecosystem was designed to self-support everything that was in it. This contrasted so starkly with the soil degradation he saw all around him, which he believed was being brought about by the industrial farming practices of ploughing, spraying and fertilising with inorganic materials. Mollison decided there was a better way, and ‘permaculture’ was born.

Teaming up with fellow Australian and environmental designer David Holmgren, Mollison devised a system of growing and living that he believed would function as well as one in the natural world. Over the following three decades, he refined it and encouraged others to adapt it to their own situations, whether they were in a dry, windblown coastal spot or perched on the edge of a wetland.

More than just growing food
While gardeners often associate permaculture with growing food (and they’re not wrong), the concept goes much further. Combining the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ (later to become a combination of ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’), permaculture also includes housing and social needs, and can be thought of as working with nature rather than against it. In practical terms, it plays out through organic growing, sustainability, diversity and waste-avoidance.

In your backyard
Natural ecosystems don’t rely on inorganic fertilisers. Depending on what that ecosystem is, the nutritional makeup of its soil may rely, for example, on fallen leaves and fruit, decaying wood, occasional deposits of animal manure, and naturally occurring minerals. That may sound ideal for a food garden, but if it’s not what’s actually going on in your own backyard then permaculture can help. That’s because this style of gardening is all about creating an environment that imitates nature.

For the home gardener, ‘imitating nature’ can mean substituting collected mulch for fallen leaves; compost for decaying fruit; or a sack of horse manure or nitrogen-producing plants for a deposit gifted by a wild animal, as well as adding lime, rock phosphate or other helpful minerals that may be missing from the soil.

While natural ecosystems often rely on a spring, stream or lake for moisture, most gardeners rely on a garden hose and a town supply. Permaculturalists, however, seek to harvest their water from a roof via a spout leading into a barrel, or they may create seasonal collection points in the form of swales, ditches and ponds.

In nature, vines cling to the taller plants around them for support. Shade-loving plants hide beneath a canopy of branches. Less hardy plants shelter behind larger trees and hunker down during winter beneath a mulch of their own dead foliage. The permaculture gardener creates supports for climbers (where possible, with natural materials from their own backyard, such as bamboo or willow) or allows vines to grow up other plants. While, in the short term, they may use shade cloth to protect sun-sensitive plants, their ultimate aim will be to grow shade (think of wasabi growing in the dappled light beneath a hydrangea, for example). They will plant hedges to shelter their garden, and eschew the post autumn ‘tidy-up’ in favour of leaving browning stems and dead blooms where they are.

And because permaculture is all about using what you have on hand, it will also involve collecting up twigs to use for kindling, sawing prunings for the indoor fire, and using the resulting sawdust on garden paths. It will be about installing natural heat-traps such as brick or stone paths in the greenhouse, and reducing lawn area so that there is less call on fossil fuels to keep them trimmed. Compost ‘bins’ may be fashioned by woven willow wands; raised gardens may be edged with fallen logs or driftwood.

The permaculturalist also thinks about energy-saving as it relates to their own bodies. Gardens that are harvested from most often will be closest to the house because they are visited frequently. Fruit, nut and firewood trees, harvested annually, can be further away. Plants are left to self-seed to save the labour of raising seedlings in containers. Spent foliage from suitable crops is cut down and left on top of the soil to decay rather than being carted to the compost.

Is permaculture for me?
Many gardeners are lured into permaculture by the thought that it will be labour-free, but true permaculturalists will tell you otherwise. While a permaculture garden will certainly save you considerable time once it is established, getting it to that stage is a labour of love. And maintaining a permaculture garden is not without some input.

When establishing a permaculture garden, mulch must, in most cases, be brought in. Nitrogen-fixing plants (including the actinorhizal group, such as sea buckthorn and chokeberry) must be sourced, and ground cover (such as dwarf comfrey and clover) planted and weeded until they become established. There will be a move from annual to perennial plants, and perhaps even the introduction of animals, such as bees, rabbits or chickens. And these are just a few of the many tasks.

But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of permaculture gardening is that each step you take will make a long-term difference to your garden, and is unlikely to have to be repeated – at least for some time. You will also be creating a garden that keeps producing food and which, eventually, has the ability, in many ways, to care for itself – and you!

Starting small
If beginning a permaculture garden sounds daunting, don’t be put off. Chances are you’re already incorporating a number of permaculture techniques into what you do every day. If so, these aspects can be built upon and added to.

If you are beginning from scratch, keep your permaculture garden small for a start, and think carefully about its design before you begin. Permaculture design can take many forms, such as food forests, urban forests, hügelkultur and keyhole gardening.

Permaculture plants to get you started
: walnut, chestnut, tall fruit trees, banana, avocado

Understorey: black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), citrus, dwarf fruit trees, hazel, tamarillo

Bush & cane: berries (blueberry, hybrid berry, gooseberry, raspberry, Worcesterberry, ugni), woody herbs (sage, rosemary, lemon balm)

Low-growing: lemongrass, rhubarb, asparagus, perennial leek, herbs (mint, parsley, chervil)

Ground cover: kūmara, ulluco, oca (yam), dwarf comfrey, creeping herbs, ginger, turmeric

Perennial vine: choko, grape, kiwifruit, passion fruit

Permaculture in New Zealand
Learn more about this exciting form of living and growing by visiting Permaculture New Zealand’s website ( Each year, Permaculture New Zealand holds a national conference. The next one is in Whanganui on April 23, 2021.

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