Innovation Biologist, Transition Expert & Founder of Studio Transitio
We need to rethink the way in which we produce food. Permaculture designs edible systems in harmony with #nature instead of at the expense of nature. And the beauty of this approach is: everyone can do it!
Permaculture dissertation 'A garden for the future'
5. Key principles of sustainable systems:
In nature waste is food. Thanks to the very diverse range of cooperation
between natural elements, most loops and cycles are closed so that
nearly everything is recycled.
Optimal use of energy, time and space
This principle refers to a smart design that uses the energy of the sun to its
optimal extent. It stacks services according to space, location and time.
For instance, layers are stacked vertically and succession according to
seasons and time optimizes the spatial dimension.
This means that the system fits/belongs in its environment.
Divers, adaptive and resilient
Every important function is carried by several different elements
simultaneously. Combined with a high diversity in elements – also referred
to as biodiversity – this results in a resilient system that can adapt to
change. In other words, change or disturbance does not lead to collapse
of the system.
This means that every element exerts multiple functions at the same time.
Redundancy implies that more equal elements are present than what is
needed. That way there are always back-up elements in case one
Network organisation and natural structure
This means that elements are placed in a way that stimulates natural
cooperation with other elements while each element still fullfills its specific
function. Natural structure refers to the successions and sequence found in
nature. For in stance, when planting a tree compost is not blended into
the cavety but placed on top of the soil. This way the natural soil layers
and soil management are not disturbed
Increasing richness and complexity
The last principle refers to the natural evolution process in nature: if
undisturbed, nature always evolves towards increasing abundance,
richness and complexity.
7. Observation en system analysis
The initial state in 2011 of the garden is depicted in the drawing below. Except for
the apple tree, no edible plants are present in the garden. The part close to the
house has been maintained as a lawn. The second part has not been
maintained and is quite arid and impoverished. The location of the forest at the
south-west side limits the amount of sun during the autumn and winter. The
garden is situated on an acid, permeable sand soil prone to leaching of nutrients
and water stress. Analysis of the soil revealed an acidic pH of 5.4, low nutrient
content, good structure and very low percentage of organic matter. In addition,
earthworms are quite rare and the composition of plants indicates a situation of
disturbance (prunus setorina and broom). Also, the soil is lightly polluted with
cadmium, which will be absorbed by leafy vegetables in acid soil conditions and
thus requires special attention.
9. Starting from a vision
Is it possible to design a garden that provides a wide variety of food and other
resources while it is simultaneously beneficial for natural ecosystems? From the
insights of permaculture and biomimicry we have developed a long term vision
for our garden which is the following: ‘Our garden reflects the perfect marriage
between a food garden and flourishing nature. It is a well functioning resilient
ecosystem where biodiversity prospers and where natural alliances between
natural elements result in a healthy balance. The garden produces an
abundance of diverse edible resources for humans and other organisms. The
system is based on closed cycles so that external interventions are largely
dispensable. The smart design, the collaborations between elements and the
many perennials keep the work intensity quite low. The garden is to be a small
patch of beauty that surrounds our house.’
10. What does our future garden have to offer?
– Food like fruit, seeds, nuts, insects...
– Sleep and nesting cavities
– Water retention and drinking spots
– Purification of air and water
– Fertile soil
– Carbon sequestration
– Meat replacers like seeds, nuts, eggs and legumes
– Vegetables for all seasons
– Herbs, blossoms and fruit for tea
– Effort & relaxation
– Pleasure & repose
A deer visits our garden (left) and a nice yield of edible mushrooms (right)
12. Locally adapted
Through the selection of plants like sweet chestnut, blueberry, lupine...
that favour well-drained sand soils.
Every element fulfils several functions. The wadi for instance is a water
infiltration system that attracts beneficial animals like frogs, toads and
predatory insects that eat snails. It also provides a drinking spot for wildlife.
The flower garden provides food for bees, butterflies and other insects and
brings colour to the garden. Green manure plants like lupines cover the soil
and recover washed out nutrients from the deep soil back to the top soil.
The large-leaved linden (lime) is beneficial for insect life and young leaves
can be eaten as salad. The elderberry provides berries for birds, has a
medicinally use for treating flu and respiratory problems and provides
ingredients for soft drinks.
To guarantee yield of a divers variety of food crops and other edibles, two
or more plants of the important species are planted. Also different plants
providing the same functions are planted so that if in one year yield is low
from one species, this can be overcome by the yield of the other species.
For instance four different types of nut trees/shrubs are planted: sweet
chestnut, almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts. Of each species, at least two
trees are planted.
Network organisation and natural structure
Smart placement of elements promotes natural cooperation so that the
self-solving capacity of the garden ecosystem is stimulated. The cypresses
that were already present in the garden will be largely removed since they
have a negative influence on fruit trees. At the edge of the garden next to
the forest, we will leave a couple of cypresses because their thick cover
provides shelter for birds in the winter. To stimulate cooperation, plants from
the following families will be present throughout the garden: rosaceae,
asteraceae, apiaceae, and polygonaceae. Fruit trees will be
accompanied with artemisia absinthium because of its medicinal effect
and clover will be sowed under the fruit trees for an optimal nitrogen
Increasing richness and complexity
Careful, considerate and sustainable management of the garden, where
negative interventions and products are avoided, allow the garden
ecosystem to evolve naturally. This will result in increasing efficiency in
cycles. In contrast to conventional vegetable gardens, here the soil will be
kept covered at all times and weed control will rarely be used (only in the
instances where the weed can dominate the small vegetable plants).
13. Promoting cooperation and network organisation
The plant composition in the garden needs to support several functions:
– Nutrient management (closing nutrient cycles and providing organic
– Pest control and attraction of beneficial animals
– Prevention of disease and promotion of self-healing capacity
– Low labour intensity
Beneficial plants for soil and nutrient management
Green manure plants: comfrey, clover, phacelia, lupine and thistles.
Nutrient cycles: In sand soils, nutrients from the topsoil are easily lost due to
rain. To prevent loss of nutrients, a selection of plants is used that root
deeply and mobilize nutrients to cycle them back to the top soil. For
instance, fennel cycles nitrogen, chicory cycles potassium, buckwheat
cycles calcium and vetches and lucerne cycle phosphorous. Plants that
accumulate minor and trace elements are chicory, comfrey, yarrow,
caraway, garlic, pattypan squash and parsley.
Beneficial plants for pest and disease control and for attraction of predators
Disease control: artemisia absinthium , onion, chives and wild garlic.
Pest control: scented plants like rosemary, lavender, thyme and mint.
Attractive plants for beneficial predators: thistle, willow, dandelion,
sunflower, linden, buckthorn, mayflower. Many of these plants will be
present in pure nature patches (zone 5).
Nut and fruit trees, berries, artichoke, earth apple, rhubarb, Egyptian
onion, horseradish, apios Americana, asparagus,...
14. Smart composition and location of elements
Not only the selection of plants is important. Also the way they are placed
plays an essential role when aiming to promote a self-regulating
ecosystem. Some examples include:
– To overcome periods of drought, a wadi – a natural infiltration system – is
included in the design. To allow gradual infiltration of the water, its walls will
be lined with a 5 cm thick layer of clay. The wadi will be placed close to
the vegetable beds so that the frogs and toads can eat the snails that
might damage the crops. Next to the wadi, a walnut tree will be placed
because it deters mosquitoes.
– The currant bushes will be centrally placed because they attract
heteroptera and prevent them from harming the fruit while the impact of
the heteroptera on the currant berries is minimal.
– Close to the terrace a black mulberry will provide shade. This tree grows
into a beautiful shape, will not become to large and will provide tasty
fruits. The fruits will ripen late in autumn and thus not attract many wasps.
– The vegetable beds that are located close to the forest at the south-west
side receive less sun than the beds at the north-east side. They will be
composed out of shade tolerant crops while the beds at the north-east
side will be composed of crops that require a lot of sun.
– The beds themselves will be configured with a smart combination of
annuals, perennials and beneficial herbs and spices.
SW beds: salad, rocket salad, chard, purslane, celery (annuals); mint,
chervil, wild garlic (herbs); chives, green asparagus (perennials)
NE beds: zucchini, pattypan squash, pumpkin, radish, florence fennel,
beans (annuals); parsley (biennial); basil, thyme, rosemary (herbs);
Egyptian onion, horseradish (perennial)
16. Activities in 2012
Making space for high trees. Some old bushes, non endemic bird cherry trees
and cypresses have been cut to make room for the high trees. Some other
cypresses will need to be removed by professionals, this will be done later on.
Soil improvement. First the soil cover has been cut. Since soil improvement is a
slow process, we accelerated this by addition of a truck load of compost. At the
same time a compost bin has been made to allow future use of compost. A
large amount of green manure plants have been sown. The natural structure of
the soil has been respected while planting the trees. This means that in contrast
to popular recommendations, compost was not added in the planting hole but
on the surface around the new tree.
Planting of perennials. The trees are the first plants that have been planted since
they take a long to mature. For the other perennial plants, a collection of
organic seeds has been started and cuttings of the selected species have been
made and planted.
Elevated beds for leafy vegetables. Since the soil is lightly contaminated with
cadmium, leafy vegetables will be grown on elevated beds of compost. For
leafy vegetables like salad accumulate cadmium in their leaves when the soil is
acidic. The elevated beds of compost lower the acidy of the soil and the root
depth and so limit the accumulation of cadmium in the crops.
The garden in the summer of 2012 (left) and a bed for leafy vegetables (right).
17. Increasing biodiversity. Specific attention has been paid to select a wide variety
of different plant species. Wild flowers have been sown and some vegetables
have been let to bloom to attract butterflies, bees and other insects. Dandelions
which are usually removed from lawns have been left to bloom in our garden
since they are very important for the insects that keep the fruit trees healthy.
Shelter. We have started to make a hedge of branches at the side of the maize
field. This hedge will be between 0.6 – 1 meter thick to provide shelter for many
beneficial animals such as birds, hedgehogs and weasels for instance. Also, nest
boxes for small passerines have been provided because these birds feed
caterpillars to their nestlings in spring. In the next years, more nest boxes will be
provided for owls, swallows and bats.
19. Permaculture in practice
What went well?
• We had a nice yield of: zucchini, pattypan squash, pumpkin, peppers,
cauliflower, rocket salad, cabbage and fennel.
• We had a small yield of tomatoes (outside) and pumpkins which were very
sweet of taste.
• A long period of blooming flowers.
• In autumn many mushrooms emerged which indicates that the soil is improving.
• Many more butterflies and birds in our garden compared to the 2 previous
years. In summer a barn owl visited the garden several times.
• Even though the cabbages were covered in caterpillars, these disappeared
before they could do harm which indicates that natural predators have
• We experimented with a mobile chicken coop which worked well. The amount
of ticks was significantly reduced since we adopted chickens.
What went wrong?
• Salad was hard to grow since the little plants got eaten by snails. One time we
used grains to kill the snails (those that are allowed in organic agriculture). In
hindsight this was not a good idea because these poisoned snails can poison
the natural predators which we would like to attract.
• Also the beans, strawberries and chard have been consumed several times by
• Some plants died. E.g. the vine, the kiwi berry and the peach tree.
• One chicken has been killed. We suspect the common buzzard since the other
chickens were left alone.
The first year was a year of experimentation, be it one bearing fruit. A lot more
needs to be learnt in the coming years. Soil improvement is one of the essential
things to do so composting and mulching will be repeated. To prevent deer
from eating our crops, we will have to find a way to keep them out of the
vegetable beds. The next years we will have to observe, experiment and learn
more to realise our future vision, which might also require adjustment for the
forest edge ecosystem to fully function.
20. Permaculture in society
The permaculture course was quite enriching and illuminating. Often we do
things out of routine, without questioning and reflecting. When it is the right thing
to do this spares us time. However, the grand challenges facing society today
point out that there are things we are no longer doing right. That is why it is
necessary to question the customary systems, to reflect on what is appropriate
and what is not. This implies that we will need to leave our comfort zones now
To experiment with permaculture in our own back yard was fun and satisfying at
the same time because it allowed me to do to something with my own hands:
realizing sustainability in practice. It allowed me to make sustainability concrete
and literally pick the fruits of our efforts a couple of months later. Of course, one
permaculture garden will probably not make a whole world of difference. But
what if more gardens would be redesigned in this way? Many little gardens
together form an ecosystem. What if many small gardens in the city produce
food and support nature so that biodiversity will flourish also in these gardens?
What if owners of small and large gardens together can promote biodiversity so
that butterflies in the future do not only exist digitally?
What if a part of the ‘impoverished’ maize fields in the country side are
transformed into permaculture orchards? What if these farmers would earn a
decent and fair salary for producing healthy food and ecosystem services that
support nature’s life support system at the same time? What if consumers would
become producers of food or co-owners of permaculture orchards? Localizing
healthy and sustainable food production is a good strategy in times of
increasing food and energy prices. Permaculture gardens are also less
vulnerable to climate extremes than monocultures. Healthy food will become
the medicine of the future. Healthy food is the most successful strategy of
preventive health care. Perhaps this is a topic in need of questioning as well.
Why do we maintain a curative health care system where medicines often
cause unintended side effects? Would it be easier, perhaps cheaper, and more
sustainable to invest in high-quality and healthy food without side effects to
prevent future health problems?
What if students would not only learn about nature but also from nature? And
what if students would learn how to translate and apply natural solutions to
societal problems and to work with nature instead of against? Nature is an
enormous library of sustainable solutions. However, at present that library is in
Although we mostly look to others to realize sustainability, we can undertake
many things ourselves. Permaculture is – at least for me – an ideal way of
making a real and beneficial contribution and create a positive impact. In the
end, every single one of us holds the key to a desirable and sustainable future
in his/her hands.
21. Can you redesign small city gardens with permaculture? Yes, permaculture
principles can also be applied in small gardens. A thoughtful design is essential
for the maximal use of small spaces.
Can you copy a permaculture design from literature into your own back yard?
No, every design needs to be adapted to the local circumstances. Of course
you can be inspired by a design in a similar climate or soil type, but you will
have to experiment what will work and what not. Observation of the local
conditions and of the designs in nearby nature are important first steps.
Does permaculture only work with native plant species? Not necessarily,
although native species will always make up the majority of the system. Nature
reflects a dynamic equilibrium and migration of species has always occurred. So
non-native species can be part of the system as long as they will not dominate
the native species and become invasive.
Is permaculture a synonym for organic agriculture? No. Permaculture imitates
natural systems and works with nature. Conventional and organic agriculture
are still based on an approach and mindset of exploitation. Permaculture is
based on a mindset and approach of cooperation. This implies a transition in
thinking and practicing.
Is permaculture a perfect sustainable solution? The first question is whether
perfect solutions exist. For me, the permaculture framework is the most
promising practical form of smart and sustainable land management of the
non-natural landscape that I have encountered so far. Still, a lot more needs to
be learned, so it is never to early to start experimenting with permaculture! One
of its indirect merits in addition, is that it brings us closer to nature. It is because
of our separated thinking that the destruction of our natural ecosystems has
prevailed so far. The current crises and the dynamics of change however
require us to rethink our separated world view and acknowledge that we are -
in fact - part of nature and that we can develop beneficial impacts.
So no ending here, but a beginning...
‘The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. Paths to
it are not to be found but made and the activity of making them changes both
the maker and the destination.’
22. Below a selection of recommended information for inspiration.
To learn more about Permaculture:
www.permacultuur.eu (in Dutch)
Whitefield P. 2011 The Earth care manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain
and Other Temperate Climates. Permanent Publications, UK. (one of the best
basic books for temperate climates)
To learn from nature (biomimicry, bionics etc):
To learn more about how to make the transition towards a desirable and
Nowak M. 2011. Supercooperators. Beyond survival of the fittest. Why
cooperation, not competition, is the key to life. Canongate books, Scotland.
(the science behind cooperation yet very readable!)
Rotmans J. 2012. In the eye of the hurricane. The Netherlands in transition.
Aeneas, the Netherlands. (in Dutch, applicable to many countries and highly
Hutchins G. 2012. The nature of business. Redesigning for resilience. Green
Books, UK. (learning from nature for future proof businesses)
23. About the author of this dissertation
Leen Gorissen holds a PhD in biology and currently works as a researcher at VITO
(Flemish Institute for Technological Research) in the unit ‘Transition Energy and
Environment’. Her activities are focussed on research that studies how to make
the transition to a sustainable society and includes an integrated (systemic)
sustainability approach interlinking land use, ecosystems, biodiversity, climate
change, clean tech and transition management, with a focus on what society
can learn from nature in respect to adaptability, redundancy and resilience
(biomimicry and permaculture).