One of the permaculture design principles is to use as little space as possible. There are several reasons for this.
The less space you use the more natural environment is left untouched. Permaculture tries to interfere as little as possible with nature.
Of course, if we want to grow gardens and food we have to interfere somewhat...
But even if you have a very small garden, by using it efficiently you can grow a year round supply of fresh herbs and vegetables and set some space aside for wildlife.
There is another advantage to smaller scale designs. They are a lot more time and energy efficient. Why travel across many acres every day when you can grow the same amount of crops in a fraction of the area?
You can minimise the space you use and maximise your harvest by using techniques like "stacking" and "guild planting".
Stacking means to utilise vertical space. If you look at forests, in particular rainforests, you can see that there are many layers of plants stacked on top of each other. (Of course almost all have their roots in the ground.)
There are the low ground covers and creepers, then the herbs and grasses, then shrubs and smaller trees, and at the top the tall giants. Vines and climbers are rambling over everything as well. And they all occupy the same space on the ground.
When you read about permaculture you will sooner or later come across the term "food forest". Permaculture looks at how nature does it and tries to mimic that strategy. However, most gardens and farms devote any one area to only one crop. That's a waste of space and resources.
Take onions and carrots for examples. Most people would plant either one or the other in a bed/row. But they can occupy the same space.
Onions sit half above the ground, and their roots are very shallow, spreading out around the bulb. They mine only the surface for nutrients. And have a look at their leaves: they are poking straight up. Plenty of light left for others...
Carrot roots go straight down. Carrots don't care if the surface of the soil is already occupied by the onions. They find their food deeper down. And the big feathery carrot leaves make use of all the sunlight that otherwise would just heat up and dry out the soil.
Another classic example are sweet corn, beans and cucumbers/squash/zucchini. The tall corn acts as a trellis for the beans, and the cucumbers or squash cover the ground, keeping it moist and suppressing weeds. Three crops can grow in the space of one.
There is usually enough light left under and around fruit trees. Utilise that space and grow something, like perennial herbs or low shrubs. Make extensive use of trellises and other structures. Let things grow up rather than have them spread out.
You will be surprised how much food you can fit into the smallest garden.
Guild planting is a permaculture design term for stacking and planting different species together to make the maximum use of vertical space and of the resources available (nutrients, water, light). Permaculture guilds also use the concepts of companion planting and crop rotation.
There are so many benefits to guild planting, apart from the efficient use of space, that the topic of permaculture guilds deserves its own page. (Hopefully coming soon.)
There is one more aspect to permaculture design scale that I would like to talk about, and that is the scale of your design when you start out.
The biggest mistake that beginners make is to try to do too much at once. A huge vegetable plot is dug up and money is spent on seeds and seedlings, but the initial enthusiasm without exception exceeds the available time and energy by far!
There isn't enough time to mulch everything properly so the weeds move in and take over. There isn't enough compost available, or enough time to spread it, so the vegetables struggle. Sickly vegetables attract bugs and diseases. Of course the weeds don't care, they are still doing well...
The result is a neglected and overgrown garden, a frustrated gardener, and the common misconception that growing fruit and vegetables is just too much work and too hard.
Yes, design and plan your whole permaculture garden. Absolutely. Think it all through. But don't do it all at once. Start small. And most importantly, start right on your door step.
Remember the permaculture zoning principle? Start in zone 1 with one garden bed. Select a few species that are easy to grow, well suited to your conditions and that you love eating. If you use that space well you can grow a lot on a square metre or two.
Once you see it's all going well and you have time left over, start the next project. And then the next, and the next...
See, once an area of your permaculture garden is well established it doesn't take up much time. If you designed it right it will mostly look after itself. It's only the initial set up that takes some time and energy.
One well looked after small garden bed on your door step will supply you with a lot more produce than a huge and neglected vegetable plot at the back of your garden.
Start small, start on your door step, and you will enjoy a big harvest.
Index of all Permaculture Design Principles.