In Gardening, Permaculture, Permaculture Projects, Rob Avis, Soil & Compost, Urban Permaculture

Imagine a garden where every plant, insect, and drop of water plays a vital role in a vibrant ecosystem. This is the heart of an epic permaculture garden, a space that transcends traditional gardening to become a symphony of nature. Here, you’re not just a gardener; you’re an orchestrator of a living, breathing system where sustainability and biodiversity flourish in unison.

Embarking on this journey to create your permaculture garden is more than planting seeds; it’s sowing the future of harmonious living with nature. The Verge Permaculture team will explore how to intertwine nature’s intricate patterns into a self-sustaining oasis that feeds both body and soul. Whether you’re a seasoned green thumb or a budding enthusiast, this guide will light your path through the rewarding world of permaculture. 

“Definition: “Permaculture gardening is a sustainable approach to designing and maintaining gardens by working with nature, rather than against it. Permaculture gardens are designed to mimic natural ecosystems, focusing on the resilient and self-sustaining characteristics of nature.” 

This article will guide you through the essential steps and dive into the nuances of creating a thriving permaculture garden based on insights and practices from experienced permaculturists. 

What exactly is permaculture gardening all about?

Permaculture gardens are designed to mimic natural ecosystems, focusing on the resilient and self-sustaining characteristics of nature. Key elements include biodiversity, efficient water usage, soil health, and integrating plant and animal species.

Permaculture is more than just gardening. It’s a system based on relationships supporting communities’ ability to thrive through vulnerability. Permaculture combines permanent + culture + agriculture, so while organic gardening is a good tool, the cyclical nature of permaculture takes it further. It’s a design that integrates all components of nature and beings into one integrated system to support sustainable living.

A quick lesson on permaculture. 

At the simplest level, permaculture’s purpose is to ensure the continued longevity of the Earth and everything on it. In his book “Introduction to Permaculture,” Bill Mollison states, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”

It’s about creating a harmonious settlement where humans and ecosystems live and thrive together—changing our current trajectory to a more positive and sustainable one.

Have you heard of the 12 permaculture principles?

David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept, has formulated several principles of permaculture. When we think about designing our garden, we want to keep these principles in mind to help to guide us whilst practicing permaculture. Ultimately, these principles emphasize working with nature, rather than against it.

  1. Observe and Interact 
  2. Catch and Store Energy
  3. Obtain A Yield
  4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from Patterns to Details
  8. Integrate Rather than Segregate
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
  10. Use and Value Diversity
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Go watch this YouTube Video where Jen Nobel walks through these permaculture principles in more detail. 

Now that you’ve got a bit of background, Let’s explore how we can apply these principles of permaculture design when building our garden. 

Designing an Epic Garden begins with YOUR Vision

Dream big. Your vision is important. And begin with the end in mind. 

“Permaculture design is just a vision board” – Rob Avis. 

Permaculture design, whether applied to a property or even to one’s life, is essentially akin to creating a large-scale vision board. This approach integrates ecological principles to effectively address the fundamental needs for food, energy, water, shelter, and waste management in daily living. Engaging in such a transformative permaculture design process allows you to envision and plan a sustainable and harmonious lifestyle.

Designing Your Permaculture Garden

Now we’re going to walk through 8 key elements in designing an awesome permaculture garden including biodiversity, efficient water usage, soil health, and integrating plant and animal species.

Step 1: Planning, Site Selection, & Microclimates

Rob and Michelle Avis showing Mitch Rawlyk and Madi Vietch how to overcome design difficulties with a map of their land










A well-thought-out plan is the foundation of a successful permaculture garden. This involves analyzing your site’s unique characteristics, like sun exposure, wind patterns, and topography. Selecting the right location is crucial – it determines not only the health of your plants but also the efficiency and sustainability of your garden. 

For example: South-facing gardens receive maximum sunlight, which is crucial for plant growth. This orientation ensures your plants get ample sunlight throughout the day, promoting vigorous growth and higher yields.

Utilize existing structures like walls, fences, or hedges to create beneficial microclimates within your garden. These structures can provide necessary shade, windbreaks, or even heat retention, creating ideal growing conditions for a variety of plants.

Step 2: Understand Soil Health and Fertility

Healthy soil is the foundation of a successful permaculture garden. By focusing on enhancing soil fertility, adopting a no-till approach, and utilizing cover crops, you can create a thriving and sustainable garden ecosystem. By enriching your soil naturally, through composting and mulching, you can boost its fertility without the use of chemicals. 

Enhancing Soil Fertility

  • Incorporate Organic Matter: Adding organic matter such as manure, compost, or leaf mulch is essential in building fertile soil. These materials improve soil structure, increase water retention, and provide essential nutrients for plant growth. Manure from animals like chickens or cows is rich in nitrogen, while compost made from kitchen scraps and garden waste offers a balanced mix of nutrients.
  • Create Compost On-Site: Develop a composting system within your garden. This not only recycles organic waste but also produces a rich, natural fertilizer that feeds your soil. Composting is a way of accelerating the natural decomposition process, turning organic matter into humus – a nutrient-rich material that greatly benefits garden soil.

Adopting a No-Till Approach

  • Preserve Soil Structure: Traditional tilling disrupts the soil structure and can harm the microbial ecosystems essential for a healthy soil. By avoiding tilling, you maintain the natural composition and layers of the soil, which is beneficial for plant roots and soil organisms.
  • Promote Microbial Life: Microbes in the soil play a crucial role in decomposing organic matter, fixing nitrogen, and making nutrients available to plants. No-till gardening helps preserve these microbial communities, leading to healthier soil and plants.
  • Reduce Erosion and Water Loss: No-till methods also help in reducing soil erosion and conserving water. The intact soil structure allows better water infiltration and retention, making your garden more resilient to dry conditions.

Utilizing Cover Crops

  • Improve Soil Health: Cover crops, such as clover and rye, are planted not to be harvested for food but to enhance soil fertility and structure. They protect the soil from erosion, suppress weeds, and can improve soil organic matter.
  • Enhance Nutrient Cycling: Certain cover crops, especially legumes like clover, have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, making it available for future crops. This natural process reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers.
  • Promote Biodiversity: Cover crops can attract beneficial insects and promote biodiversity in the garden. They provide habitat and food for pollinators and other beneficial wildlife, contributing to a more balanced ecosystem.

Implementing these strategies in your permaculture garden will lead to richer, more productive soil, supporting a diverse range of plant life and creating a more resilient garden ecosystem.

Step 3: Learn About Water Management techniques

Effective water management is a cornerstone of permaculture gardening, ensuring that plants receive adequate moisture without wasting this precious resource. Three key strategies that we like to use in permaculture water management include rainwater harvesting, swales, and drip irrigation systems.

  1. Rainwater Harvesting: Implement rainwater harvesting systems to capture and store rainwater for irrigation. This practice reduces reliance on municipal water and provides plants with high-quality water. 
  2. Swale Trails: Swales are shallow trenches that follow the contour of the land, designed to capture and slowly infiltrate runoff water. Urban swale trails transform stormwater management into water-harvesting paths, using level ditches and mulch to absorb and store water. Water flows from the roof to the pond and overflows into the first garden “swale” trail. 
  3. Drip Irrigation: Consider installing a drip irrigation system for efficient and targeted water distribution. This system delivers water directly to the plant roots, reducing evaporation and water waste.

Want to dive deeper? We’ve got tons of video content on both rainwater harvesting and swales. Here are 2 videos to get you started. 

Step 4: Plant Selection and Biodiversity

A permaculture garden thrives on diversity. Incorporating a mix of plant species that fulfill various ecological roles not only contributes to the health of the garden but also promotes a balanced ecosystem. Here’s how we approach plant selection and biodiversity at our gardens:

Diverse Planting

stefan sobkowiak hodling an herb

Stefan Sobkowiak demonstrating diverse plantings

  • Incorporate Multiple Roles: Choose a mix of plants that perform different functions. This includes nitrogen-fixing plants like clovers and legumes, which enrich the soil, as well as pollinator-attracting flowers and herbs that support beneficial insects.
  • Create Layers: Mimic natural ecosystems by creating layers in your garden. This includes tall trees, shrubs, ground covers, and root crops. Each layer plays a role in the garden’s ecology, from providing shade to fixing nitrogen in the soil.




  • Edible and Medicinal Plants: Incorporate plants that provide food and medicinal benefits. This not only contributes to your garden’s productivity but also encourages you to interact with and learn from your garden.

Consideration of Sunlight

  • Understand Plant Light Requirements: Different plants require different amounts of sunlight. Assess the patterns of sun and shade in your garden throughout the day and season, and choose plants accordingly.
  • Utilize Shade-Tolerant Species: In areas with less sunlight, plant shade-tolerant species. This could include certain herbs, leafy greens, and ferns that can thrive with minimal direct sunlight.
  • Adapt Planting Strategy: Be adaptable with your planting strategy. If a certain area receives less sun due to a new structure or growing trees, be prepared to adjust your plant selection to suit these changing conditions.

Balancing Perennials and Annuals

  • Stability with Perennials: Perennials are plants that live for more than two years. They form the backbone of your garden, providing stability and resilience. Perennials often require less maintenance and can provide habitats for beneficial insects and wildlife.
  • Seasonal Variety with Annuals: Annuals, plants that live for only one growing season, offer the opportunity to rotate crops and bring seasonal variety to your garden. They can be used to fill gaps, provide quick harvests, and contribute to soil health when used as green manures.
  • Synergy Between Perennials and Annuals: Plant perennials and annuals together in a way that they support each other. For example, fast-growing annuals can provide ground cover around slower-growing perennials, helping to retain soil moisture and suppress weeds.

By thoughtfully selecting a variety of plants and understanding their roles and needs, you can create a diverse, productive, and ecologically balanced permaculture garden.

Related: Learn more about choosing the right plants for your garden. 

Step 5: Intercropping and Succession Planting

seedlings in a greenhouse









Intercropping and succession planting are vital strategies in permaculture gardens for maximizing space, enhancing soil health, and ensuring a continuous harvest. These techniques involve thoughtful planning and understanding of how different plants interact with each other.

Complementary Planting (Intercropping)

  • Synergistic Combinations: In intercropping, different plant species are grown close together for mutual benefit. For instance, planting onions with carrots is a classic combination where onions deter carrot rust flies, a common pest for carrots.
  • Maximize Garden Space: By intercropping, you use the garden space more efficiently. Tall plants can provide shade for more shade-tolerant, low-growing plants. Likewise, deep-rooted plants can be grown alongside shallow-rooted ones to utilize different soil layers without competition.
  • Natural Pest Control: Many plant combinations naturally repel pests or attract beneficial insects, reducing the need for chemical interventions. For example, marigolds can deter nematodes and other pests when planted near vegetables.

Succession Planting

  • Continuous Harvest: Succession planting involves staggering the planting of crops to ensure a continuous harvest throughout the growing season. As soon as one crop is harvested, another is planted in its place.
  • Adapt to Seasonal Changes: Different plants thrive in different temperatures. Cool-season crops like lettuce and spinach can be planted early in the season, followed by warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers, and then finished with another round of cool-season crops as the weather cools.
  • Plan for Crop Rotation: This strategy also involves rotating plant families in different areas of the garden each year to prevent soil-borne diseases and pest buildup. For instance, avoid planting tomatoes in the same spot where potatoes were grown the previous year, as they belong to the same plant family and are susceptible to similar diseases.

Step 6: Get creative with your strategies

After you’ve taken care of the fundamentals for your garden, you can try tackle some more advanced permaculture gardening techniques. 

  • Build a Worm Farm – to complement your composting system.
  • Construct Raised Garden Beds – for better soil management and accessibility.
  • Backyard Chickens – Yes, chickens! 
  • Hügelkultur – involves raised beds made from decaying wood and organic materials
  • Sheet mulching – great for soil quality but also suppresses weeds. This method involved applying nutrients to the soil, followed by layers of cardboard and wood mulch.

Step 7: Remember that Permaculture is community

Brewing Compost Tea

Doug Weatherbee (The Soil Doctor) teaching Verge students about making Compost Tea. 

Permaculture extends beyond individual gardens; At the heart of it all, it’s about building communities. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of sharing your permaculture journey with the community. Involving your local community in starting the first community garden and sharing resources can lead to a more sustainable and connected way of living. 






Some great community resources hubs are this facebook group and this other resource. And for more advanced permies, you can join the Verge Permaculture Academy.

Some other things to consider

What to Grow in your Permaculture Garden?

What vegetables can you grow, what types of plants do you need, and how should you configure them? 

Carmen walks us through the common setup she uses at the Urban Farm School. 

Video: Stacking Functions and Intercropping Plants in your Annual Permaculture Garden

Thinking about your property as a whole

When we look beyond just the garden in a more holistic sense, we can see how all the systems work together and support each other. A key aspect of this philosophy involves understanding and effectively implementing three core concepts: Needs and Yields, Permaculture Zones, and Sectors. 

Understanding needs and yields is fundamental in permaculture. A house meeting most of its needs and yields on-site reduces external energy and pollution costs. Zones guide the optimal spatial placement of elements for efficient system management. Sectors analyze a property’s energy flows, including sun, wind, rain, livestock, and wildlife. Mapping energy interactions and understanding zoning informs the placement of structures and gardens. Poor zonation, like placing a garden far from the house or in a shaded area, reduces productivity.

Head over to this blog post where Robs talks through these 3 specific design tools you can use to when designing a property. There is some great Q&A at the end of the video too, if you stay around until the end

Take it to the next level

Verge offers two workshops for those wanting to take their learning further. Both on-demand courses are available through the Verge Academy. Join the waitlist via each course page to be notified when enrollment opens. 

Resilient Garden Fundamentals – 8-module Masterclass

Garden Design Strategies for Year-Round Nutrition – Live 4-week webinar


Let’s wrap up! 

What does a healthy, resilient permaculture garden look like?

A healthy garden is not solely about having the correct composition of plants or creating good soil, though these elements are crucial. It’s more about establishing a stable and secure supply chain for food, energy, water, shelter, and waste management. And it also involves building resilience into every single component of your system.

Dream Big. Don’t Limit Yourself

As we’ve hinted before, your vision is vitally important. 

When you limit your vision based on your current resources, you risk not achieving what you truly want. Therefore, we emphasize to our students the importance of expanding their vision – making it more positive, fun, and functional. So embrace your goals, while using the concepts taught in a permaculture design course, and trust that the necessary resources will materialize in time.

Good luck and you’ll know that you’re doing the right thing, when the resources start to pool around you! 


About the Author

About Rob Avis and Verge Permaculture:

In less than 10 years, Rob Avis left Calgary’s oil fields and retooled his engineering career to help clients and students design integrated systems for shelter, energy, water, waste and food, all while supporting local economy and regenerating the land.  He’s now leading the next wave of permaculture education, teaching career-changing professionals to become eco-entrepreneurs with successful regenerative businesses. 

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