Permaculture Gardening For Urban and Suburban Sites


As we move into an age of peak oil concerns and resource scarcity it is important to face these challenges with a positive acceptance and react with sound and well thought out decisions. The following piece is not meant to be a comprehensive description of permaculture, rather a primer describing some of the basic principles and design strategies relating to urban and suburban residential sites. It is a complicated and very far reaching discipline and this should only act as a guide for those who want to explore more. I have listed some texts at the end of the article to get you started.

First, lets briefly define permaculture. Permaculture is a design method and a set of skills for creating resilient human habitats and healthy ecosystems. It is modeled on natural patterns and addresses food production, shelter, energy, water, community, culture and health. Applying these principles to the way we organize ourselves in the landscape increases resilience in the face of energy, environmental, and economic uncertainty. It also presents us with one of our best opportunities to create healthy systems that continue indefinitely.

There are many strategies that can be used to achieve a highly functional, high yield, low input, beautiful garden. Here are just a few of the simple ones that can done by just about anyone.

Stacked Functions: This applies to just about everything in a permaculture garden. Donʼt just incorporate one element that serves only one purpose. Use elements that provide multiple functions and are also supported by many other elements. This is most easily seen in plants. For example, Comfrey. This plant is a groundcover, and has many uses. It provides a living mulch, meaning you can chop the foliage down multiple times per year and leave it on the ground to protect the soil and add valuable organic matter as it breaks down. Comfrey has far reaching tap-roots which draw up valuable nutrients from the soil which can be used by other plants around them. The fat roots also break up heavy clay soil and introduce air and organic matter to the soil as the roots die back. Itʼs beautiful purple tube like flowers attract bees and beneficial insects that keep harmful pests in control. The low growing large leaves protect the soil surface from erosion and damage from heavy rains. This is only one example of stacking functions! And plants are certainly not the only way it can be done. Use your imagination and you can make gardening a much less laborious activity.

Perennial Vegetables: If you have gardened before, you know how finicky and labor intensive growing vegetables can be. Annual vegetables have their place in a garden, there is no doubt about that. But what if you could plant things that would come back year after year and provide all the benefits of normal perennial plants but are also edible!? Gardening becomes just a bit easier. Of course, in this group you can also include berry bushes, fruit tress, and vines. For the most part they are sure bets.

Diversity: A diverse garden is a productive garden. If we plant vegetables or even flowers in big single variety groupings we invite one pest to very easily wipe out our crops. If we plant a diverse garden with many different food crops and flowers sharing space we build a more resilient garden that while may still be susceptible to pest damage, if the pests only are eat a few of our plants, we wonʼt go hungry or be left with absolutely nothing.

Catching and Storing Energy: The sun. The wind. The ground. Built surfaces. Depressions in the land. These are just a few things that we can use to our advantage when we are creating our gardens. We can use these factors in order help us create a more productive system. If there is a wall of your house that faces directly south, reflected sunlight will make the temperature there significantly higher than on an exposed high point that gets whipping north winds. Place plants here that like it hot and will thrive in these conditions. You will be surprised by what you can grow in microclimates like these. You may just have some delicious tropical fruits to share with neighbors! Use environmental factors to your advantage. Observe the site and react to those observations appropriately by integrating elements that will create a productive system.

Produce no waste: This is a very important one. We want to create gardens that are in balance. Low inputs and no “waste”. We want outputs in the form of food yield and beauty, but we donʼt want to create excess waste that has to be moved and processed and handled etc… which are usually done by machines and vehicles that are consuming fossil fuels. Gardens need to be whole systems, not just little bits and pieces. One element helps another, that helps another, that helps another, and then that final piece of the cycle helps improve the first. This helps us keep all of our resources on site. We make decisions that will help the system function as one whole unit. A very basic example is the traditional act of “mulching”. Nobody is going into the forest and putting down bark mulch. Forests are the most beautiful and productive systems I know. When your leaves fall, leave them. When you prune, throw it on the ground. Plant living mulches that you can chop and drop on the ground. Let all of this sit over the whole season and break down and I promise that when you pull all of it aside in the spring, you will be amazed at what is popping up. In the summer this layer will keep your soil cool and moist, reducing the need for demanding irrigation systems. Your garden will be so beautiful nobody will care about what kind of bark mulch you are using. And you didnʼt have to spend a ton of money to get. All you had to do was make some sound decisions and spend a bit of time in the garden.

Imagine yourself walking down your neighborhood street. Pears and apples are hanging down from the mature trees that cast shade on the area, cooling you from the summer heat. Small kiwi fruit hangs from a vine that is climbing up a Persimmon tree. On the ground is an assortment of herbs, native wildflowers, vegetables, and berry bushes. The ground smells rich and inviting because of the soil that has been built by this diverse and productive plant community. A neighbor comes out of to greet you and provides you with some vegetables that they grow specially in their garden, that you donʼt have. Turns out you have a wonderful complimentary element and next thing you know, you are hosting a small get together with friends, family and maybe even some people youʼve only just met, eating food grown in YOUR neighborhood, in YOUR garden.

The paragraph above is something to leave you with that will hopefully paint a picture in your mind and change the way you think about your residential landscape.

Every property no matter the size has the ability to be a catalyst for social interaction, education, and health. As permaculturalist Geoff Lawton says “you can solve all the worldʼs problems in a garden”

By Jonathan Koch, Project Manager at GRIGNAFFINI EARTHSCAPE

Visit to see our work and contact us for a design consultation.



Gaiaʼs Garden by Toby Hemenway
Edible Forest Gardens Vol. 1 and 2 by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates