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Today’s podcast is all about permaculture gardening and how to implement those techniques into your existing or new garden.
You can listen to the podcast below or read the entire article.
I’m really excited to have Michael on the podcast and to pick his brain. So welcome to the show.
Take us with you on the go, while you’re commuting, washing dishes, hanging clothes on the line, or whipping up a favorite from scratch recipe.
Michael: Thanks, it’s good to be here.
Melissa: Can you give us just a brief, or nutshell definition or what exactly permaculture gardening or Hügelkultur, actually means?
The most basic way to think of it is the actual term permaculture is derived from two other phrases, permanent and agriculture. The idea being a system set up that maintains itself and does not require annual inputs to the degree we would think of in a normal agricultural system.
But a little more fully, permaculture is a design science. And it provides a framework to meet our needs by following natural patterns in decision making and planning.
If you think of a forest, here I am in the Shannandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. If you go for a walk here, in the fall, it’s mainly oak forest. If you go for a walk in the woods, it’s a huge acorn mass. Acorns everywhere on the ground.
You can barely walk without walking on just tons of them. And nobody maintains that. Nobody planted those acorns. It’s a natural system. And it works very, very well. It works perfectly.
We can mimic those patterns that we see in nature to meet our needs.
By using natural patterns, we are consciously designing and maintaining productive systems that have the versatility and the stability and the resilience of natural ecosystems. The oak forest is going to continue to grow and continue to produce tons of acorns every year without inputs.
If we use that type of patterns for growing things ourselves, then we can have that same resilience. We can mimic that. Then, if you think in a system, a piece of property, a homestead, or someone has some sort of vacation property. Or perhaps they are looking at it as a retreat property. And so, typically, people don’t eat acorns. So that example may not fit. But they might eat pecans. Or they might eat chestnuts.
If you look at how an acorn, an oak forest grows up, when an acorn shoots down a shoot into the ground, when it sprouts, the young acorn sprout is surrounded by other vegetation. Ground vegetation like poison ivy and different weeds. And as it gets taller it get protected from the wind.
Things like mountain Loral and wild azalea, and gradually gets stronger and stronger and higher and higher to where it’s still being protected by things like red bud or dog wood or smaller maples. But eventually it gets big enough where it’s able to get to light in the upper canopy and it becomes a huge tree that’s producing its own acorns.
We can mimic that by planting your apple tree or pecan tree, or whatever tree you are interested in as far as food production, and you plant things around it that will mimic what we see in nature. You might plant around it something like black locust or automolive, which are both nitrogen fixers. They pull nitrogen from the air and accumulate it in their leaves. And when they shed their leaves, the ground around your tree becomes very fertile.
And each year, you might go out and chop back those nurse plants and the tree that you are trying to grow, let’s say it’s an apple, it becomes very strong. It’s loving the nutrient rich soil that you are producing for it with these other trees around it. And eventually gets big enough that, and if you continue to chop back the other trees, they die off. And the tree that you have planted is very successful because of that. It’s a natural pattern.
You might plant things around the base of it like comfrey, or strawberries or things that will continue to put nutrients into the soil and keep the grass from robbing the nutrients from the soil or moisture from rain.
Permaculture Garden Design
Basically we are following natural patterns in a manner, when we do a design, we are doing natural patterns.
More of a permanent and perpetual type of design, rather than an annual, I’m going to plant corn, and it’s going to turn the energy from the sun into food over a 4 month period. And then, it’s going to die. And then the next year I am going to have to plant it again and nurture it or whatever.
Whereas if you plant something like a chestnut, which can produce the same type of carbohydrate and chestnut flour can make flatbreads and things like that, once it’s up and growing, you don’t have to do anything.
There’s a chestnut growing on Mount Etna in Italy. It’s actually growing on a volcano. Its 4000 years old. It’s been producing bushels of chestnuts for 4000 years. And you compare that with a broccoli or something that you plant and grows, and of course, when it dies off, you have to go to Lowes the next year and buy a plant and plant them all out again.
We try to focus on more perennial production and more sustainable production that require less work and less inputs.
Melissa: Using the forest as an example is great. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington State in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, we’ve got lots of evergreen forests. Not so much oaks, but we do have chestnuts that grow here, filbert and hazelnut. I get the concept.
On our property, we have a mixture of pasture for our cattle that we raise. We have forested parts that we leave, too. Walking out there, one of our favorite things, in fact at the time of this recording within a month or so, depending on the weather, could be about 6 weeks out, we’ll go foraging for Morale mushrooms. Which is one of our favorite foods of all time.
Michael: We do that as well. It’s great!
Melissa: Right! And like you said, nobody plants the Morales, the spores come back every year within the forest and in the conditions and stuff, that’s a form of permaculture and one of my favorite things about foraging is I don’t have to do any work and I get to just go and reap the harvest every year to be honest!
When we’re talking about the trees, we’ve got so many orchards that we’ve put in. we’ve got blueberries and raspberries and all of that. And I do love the perennial aspect because they do come back every year with minimal work, we prune so that we get a larger crop from most of our fruit bearing bushes and trees.
But I’m curious, because for us, we do depend on our annual vegetable garden. Now, I do heirloom seeds so I can seed save. I don’t have to go to Lowes and buy my plants, but I can grow and put them back in.
Are there any type of permaculture aspects that can be used in a regular annual vegetable garden? Or is it really just more toward your perennial producing crops?
Michael: No. and I shouldn’t have overemphasized the perennial. I did a design for a person who lives at pretty good elevation here in Virginia, comparatively to most of the rest of the region, and it includes, when we look at a design, we design by zones.
We start with zone zero, which is the inside of your house, where you spend more time. And then zone one, it just radiates out from that. In zone one, we often design most every time, design what we call a kitchen garden.
Which is what you think of typically as an annual vegetable garden. And some of the permaculture things that would apply to that is the idea of following the way that things grow naturally as opposed to doing things with a lot of input.
I had someone call me, and they had, I get this question a lot when I speak. I have got this terrible piece of ground. And it’s got this horrid noxious weed that I can’t get rid of. And last year I planted things and everything died. Nothing grew past a little bit. What do I do?
One of the first principles in permaculture is to observe and interact
So if you look at nature, again, and that’s what we always do. . So when I go to a property, I’ll just walk around the property for hours. Just getting to see what is there naturally. And if you look at natural plants, the mulch and everything is very important.
If you are doing annual planning, its very popular with permaculture practitioners is sheet mulching. I’m sure you’ve heard of that and you’ve probably even talked about it before.
We will sheet mulch an area that perhaps needs to be rejuvenated with various kinds of mulch. It might be wood mulch and leaves and layers of cardboard and straw and things like that, to create a new soil. And then plant down through that and allow the plant to come up through the mulch.
We’re still following natural patterns. If you look at the plants that grow in a successful natural system. Whether it’s an oak forest or out there you have a lot of things like Douglas Firs. When I speak, I use a….are you familiar, I don’t know if you are far enough south. Are you familiar with a sugar pine?
Melissa: No, I’m pretty northern. I’m about an hour from the Canadian border. So I’m not familiar with Sugar Pine.
Michael: it’s primarily down on the western half of Oregon. It creates a, it’s the biggest pinecone of any of the pines. And one pine cone will produce six bowls of cereal worth of calories. It’s huge! It’s the biggest cone you can find. And it looks like most of the other pines that grow out there that are large.
But the point being that trees mulch the ground themselves. And most people, when I talk, I talk about lawns. And we have a lawn. And lawns are fine. Generally I think of big areas of grass as pasture, not as lawn.
But, this country has this fixation on lawns. And there are millions and millions of tons of fertilizer that are spread on lawns and the leaves fall. Which would be a natural fertilizer. But people rake them off, hay people haul them off. It doesn’t make any sense in one point.
If you use those natural systems and you have an annual garden, and you mulch it heavily every year, your soil will become more and more rich because of that mulch. And that’s a natural system.
That’s a key component of permaculture, is what does nature do? Well, it mulches itself. It doesn’t haul off the bad stuff.
We were very busy last spring, it seems like we’re always busy, but we were very busy last spring and we didn’t really have much time to tend our annual garden. And a lot of stuff came up alongside the tomatoes and such. And we had less pest problems than ever. Because the pests, they are like people.
If you only like Chinese food, and you come into China town in a big city, you are going to be really happy. And that’s how pests are. They want the same thing. They have favorite things and that’s what they look for. Well, if they come to, like some people will plant marigolds in with their plants. Because it confuses the pests. They are like what’s this? What’s this?
You can do this with trees as well. If you have all apples, you are more susceptible to pests that attack apples than if you have an apple, a pear and a peach, and so on.
Because nature doesn’t do it that way. Nature has variety. But, in an annual sense, when we do permaculture and we’re working in that zone, we also design things for the ease of the people doing the work. So in other words, you wouldn’t put your herb garden 300 yards away from the house. You want the herb garden close. Because you are going to use that for cooking. You’re going to want it close.
Same way if you have chickens in your system, they have to be visited typically once a day or so, so you don’t put them far away.
But your fruit trees, you don’t visit them every day. You might visit them more frequently at one time of the year. But the rest of the time of year, you don’t even care. You don’t go and see them or anything. You don’t look at them. So they can be farther out. We design things with the human interaction in mind.
Melissa: ok. I love this. I was more envisioning more of where you don’t till up your garden spot. You do like you said, the mulching. But all the other aspects, I’m really actually pleased. Because we’ve been practicing a lot of those and I just didn’t realize was actually permaculture gardening principles we were using.
For example, we already do companion planting. And of course not doing huge crops in one area, which is where I realize a lot of the big agriculture farmers, when you have a huge apple orchard, have those pest issues, because it’s all concentrated together.
Naturally on a home scale, when you are growing your food production and self-sufficiency, it’s a lot easier to put these things into practice. I’m really excited to hear you mention all of those.
I do have one question, though, mainly I want to hear your answer. I actually get this question a lot. Because we do practice doing mulching, like you’re talking about. Especially with my blueberries and our raspberry plants as well.
A lot of people are hesitant to use wood when they are doing their mulching because they heard it robs the nitrogen from the soil. And they don’t want to do that. So a lot of people are hesitant to use wood when they are doing their mulching method. Can you address that a little bit?
Michael: Well, it is true that wood will absorb some nitrogen. So it’s a give and take. I use, when we mulch for the winter, and we’ve been disadvantaged this year, normally I wait for a forecast for a pretty big snow. I go out and I mulch with cardboard and wood chips and straw. But, we haven’t really had any big snows this year and the way that it’s headed, it doesn’t look like we’re going to.
But to answer your question about the wood, if it’s not a big thick sheet of 4” depth of wood mulch, the amount of nitrogen loss is not enough to offset the benefits you’re going to get from having the wood in the soil.
Wood will absorb nitrogen out of the system.
But the benefits, if you are not like putting 4 inch thick layer, completely across your beds of wood chips, I would not be concerned about the nitrogen loss. It is true that it does absorb some of the nitrogen. But as it rots and breaks down, it’s going to release it again anyway. So are you familiar with or have ever heard the term Hügelkultur?
Melissa: I have heard the term. Yeah.
Michael: Hügelkultur is popular. It’s actually the idea of burying wood in soil and then planting into that soil. Because the way nutrients move through soil, is through the fungal net, that sometimes if you are in a wood and you pull back a big piece aside, you see its waxy, white, substance. And that’s where mushrooms and Morales come from.
That substance that is the pathways. That’s the roadways that nutrients move. And wood is a very good producer of those nets. Fungal nets.
If you put that wood in the soil, you are going to gain from that. It also holds moisture in the soil better. And it does take some of the nitrogen, but it’s not going to rob the nitrogen from the point where you are not going to get it from other sources.
You mentioned no till a couple of times. Nature does not have that as a natural part of its system. And part of the problem with tilling that people don’t, I think, understand. They want to get the weeds. They want to cultivate, so they till. But the times as they reach the bottom, they compact the soil below the depth of the sun. They pound the soil down. So in the end, you are getting less loose soil with a tiller than if you use something like a broad fork.
Melissa: What I love about this is we’re basically just taking all of the things from nature that God already put into place when the whole eco system was designed. And just using that to your best advantage. But we’re doing it for the mind for food production as well.
Michael: just mimicking what God has already laid out for us, mimicking that for our own benefit. Like I said, not many people eat acorns. But you can see how an acorn forest works. And you can mimic that with other things, like hazelnuts that you might like.
Melissa: For someone who is wanting to do more of this type of agriculture on their home, you know, landscape that kind of thing. If you are going outside, what would be some of your tips so you could self-evaluate your property and your land to start setting up some permaculture? So kind of, what would be walking through someone going out and someone who’s wanting to implement these steps? Kind of a beginners, kind of do these things first.
Michael: Sure. One of the first things we do when I’m doing actually a consultation, one of the first things I do is find the highest point on the property. And see how water moves across the property.
What we do is try to get water to stay on the property as long as possible. Because anything that you plant that you are going to produce for your needs is going to require water. And water hits the ground and it moves at right angles to slope. Which is just a fancy way of saying if you have a drop of water and it lands on a plate, and you tilt the plate, it’s going to move directly away from the slope. It’s going to move down. And water moves across your property that way.
What you want to do is take advantage of the way that water moves across the property. But the simple thing to do is for people to actually go out and spend some time walking around their property. And looking at how things grow. And looking how, in the natural setting, what does well there?
A lot of people say, well weeds do well there. Well, what weeds are growing there, and look up what those weeds are. And what characteristics there are. There are certain weeds, like people are aware of dandelion, that are very good plants to have around. You can do all kinds of good things with dandelions. But if you see a dandelion, it means that the soil is somewhat compacted. Because dandelion has a pretty good tact root. And what has happened is that God has designed certain plants to show up to remedy problems with the soil. So if you are familiar with mullen?
Michael: So if you see an excavation site, or maybe they put in a new road, and they haven’t seeded the bank or whatever. It’s just a raw dirt that maybe was deeper dirt and not much topsoil, one of the first things you see is mullen. It just magically seems to appear there. And another thing you’ll see is dandelion. And it’s because the soil is compacted and those plants naturally want to loosen the soil to prepare the way for other plants that can’t grow in compacted soil.
Another thing for you to do is to look at edges. In permaculture, we pay a lot of attention to, and we value the edge. So if you have an edge, we have a fence row. Look at what’s growing in that fence row. The edge of a forest, or where it’s trying to reclaim a certain area, and any vacant lot.
You said you have pastureland. If you didn’t have cattle on it or whatever livestock you are grazing, it would eventually go back to forest. It would do it in a very, I won’t say precise, but a very predictable manner. It would go back to the local forest in a very normal and very predictable manner.
So what you can do is look at what is growing naturally. Whoever might be wanting to have their property be more productive. Or their developing a homestead and they are like, what should we grow? What will work here?
To give you an example, if we were to go back somehow in a time machine and go back let’s say 10,000 years ago. Most of North America was covered with a savannah like terrain. It was like trees interspersed with grasses. And it wasn’t like all covered with forests. And there were animals grazing through whatever types of animals it might have been. It might have been bigger animals than we have now.
But, there’s evidence of big mastodons and things like that. And they moved through the system along with things like turkey and what have you. And they moved through the system, and they influenced it. But it was a complete system. And then eventually people came in and cut everything down.
And did a lot of, what they would call prescribed burning, to keep things a certain way to meet their needs. But, if someone has a property and they come in and they look around and they say, okay, what grows well here already?
We’re growing paw paws, I don’t know if you are familiar with that out there or not? Pawpaw is a native fruit, it’s an odd fruit. You don’t hear too much about it.
Because it doesn’t keep or travel very well. So you don’t see it in the stores. But, it’s kind of a cross between a pear and a banana. It’s an odd thing.
Melissa: I’ve seen pictures and heard it. I haven’t, I have not ever had it. In fact, it’s so funny that you bring this up. Because I was looking at it earlier this year. It’s one I would like to grow here. But I’m not sure. I’m zone 7. I don’t know if it would grow here or not. I just started looking into that actually.
Michael: We’re in zone 6A and it grows naturally here. You can come across it in the woods like native, like natural, for thousands of years it’s been growing. So you should be able to grow it.
So you look at what is growing naturally and then you just mimic that. You mentioned berries and fruiting shrubs, permaculture people love that kind of stuff. Because it comes back. Every year you know it’s going to come back. One of my favorite garden vegetables is rhubarb.
And I wrote a blog post, if anybody goes to my blog, its narrowpassagepermaculture.com. on rhubarb. It’s an amazing plant. And it’s the first thing that comes up in our garden every year. Every year it grows a little bit more and spreads a little bit more, and creates this enormous plant. All you have to do is cut it and harvest it.
What I would recommend for people to do is spend some time looking at their property and looking at what is already growing naturally and thinking how can we plant something that will be like that will benefit us?
Melissa: For example, and where we are at, actually on our homestead we did clear some forest where our house is. The pasture was already there and then we’ve kept most of the forest that was already here. So we have a great mixture of each.
Unfortunately here we have Himalayan blackberry, which is highly invasive.
It does produce a fruit, but it grows and is very, very invasive. In fact, here where we are, it’s listed as a noxious weed because it’s not native here. But it just spreads like wildfire, to use that cliché. We do battle that. We just cut it back, we don’t use pesticide or weed killer, because it doesn’t really work on it anyhow. But because we don’t practice that kind of farming. We do it naturally without harmful pesticides and chemicals.
But, in our pasture, and then in our yard that’s around the house, we do have a lot of dandelions and plantain as well. So if you do have dandelions in your yard, which is an indication of the hard compacted soil. And they do, they have a massive tap root on them. We also have a lot of fox glove. What would be something then you would say, okay, I’ve got dandelions, so I must have some compacted soil. What would be some good things you would pick to put in with that that would give you some food production? What method would you use on that type of ground?
Michael: Well, it just depends. If I am going to put in trees, I wouldn’t necessarily worry too much about it. I might look and see what trees have a deep tap root and will be able to go down in mine the nutrients out of the soil. But what I would probably do, is if I saw I had a lot of dandelions and I thought the soil might be compacted, I might go ahead and plant, but I might plant around it a plant like Comfrey. I’m assuming you are familiar with comfrey?
Michael: Comfrey is an amazing plant. And it’s one of permaculture’s favorites, actually. For several reasons, a principle that we try to follow is function stacking. And the idea of function stacking is we try not to bring anything into the system that doesn’t do multiple things. So you think of a chicken. You get lots of things from chicken. You get eggs, you get meat, you get feathers, you get manure. One of the main reasons we have chickens is to prepare the soil for planting. They get bugs out of the system. They will spread mulch for you. They are just great.
Well, comfrey is what we call a dynamic accumulator. It is able to pull nutrients out of the soil that most plants can’t get. Various minerals and trace elements that most plants aren’t able with their root system, they are not able to get it. And so, comfrey can. And comfrey has an enormous tap root. Its crazy long. And it pulls the nutrients out and accumulates it in its leaves. So, what we do, we use comfrey and make salves and stuff because it’s got crazy healing properties. But a lot of times, what I’ll do, we have enough of it planted around different trees, like I was talking about paw paws.
I will go out and three times, at least three times a summer and just chop the comfrey all the way down, or almost all the way down to the ground and just kind of chop up the leaves and let it lay as a mulch around the tree. It’s like the best kind of mulch you could possibly go, because it has all those nutrients in it. We also make a comfrey tea, manure tea, out of the leaves. I’ll fill up a 5 gallon bucket and weight it and cover it in water. And about 3 weeks later, it is the most foul smelling substance you can imagine.
But it’s like adrenaline for plants. I’ve never seen anything so effective. If you plant something and you think you have compacted soil, you can plant things like comfrey, you can put daikon radishes, if you are familiar with daikon radishes.
Melissa: I am.
Michael: that is a great thing. You plant them and don’t harvest them. You can harvest them if you want, but you can just plant them, you have the plant if you want it for food. But it also creates its own loosening of the soil because it grows down really far.
And when it rots, it puts nutrients back into the soil while leaving the soil less compacted. So that’s what I might do. If I really thought it was really compacted and I was going to plant an apple tree. Or if I wanted to plant a lot of something in a field, I might seed it with daikon radish and just let it go. Or some people I’ve seen use turnips. They plant a field of turnips. And it just loosens the soil. And then, as it rots, it puts those nutrients into the soil.
Melissa: With the comfrey, I never thought of doing a comfrey tea. I will say, just for people who are listening, if you are not familiar with comfrey, comfrey is a great herb. It is an herb that is not usually recommended to be ingested. But, for topical uses and in the garden, it is amazing. But, I love where you say you go out three times a year and you basically give that baby a crew cut and it comes back and you use that for mulch.
If you plant comfrey, make sure it’s where you want it to be. Because comfrey is hard to eradicate. Because it is such a good long tap root. But it’s not something you can easily take out and move to another spot and get it out of that area. So just make sure that’s going to be its permanent home. But, yeah, it is hard to kill. So if you have issues for growing things, which some people do, that’s usually a great one to go with. Because it pretty much just takes care of itself from there on out.
I don’t have any beneath our fruit trees at the moment, but I love the idea of the tea. And I know a lot of people will do manure tea. Like you said, it’s where you’ll put manure in a 5 gallon bucket, usually one you can put a lid on. You’ll put it with water, you’ll let it sit. And you’ll drain it off. And what you are draining off, that tea, is what you will feed to your plants.
I’ve got some of my herbs actually in a planter. And because I’m going to be eating those herbs, like the rosemary and sage, almost, I’ve got them planted in a microclimate close to the house. I could almost harvest those year around. So I’m hesitant to pour the manure tea on them, just because when you are using fresh manure or manure, that kind of thing you generally don’t want to put on plants you are eating right away for bacteria and stuff.
Melissa: I’m excited to use the comfrey tea. Because that I would be able to put on there and not really have to worry about E.coli and all that kind of stuff, I think would be a lot safer bet for those edibles that I’m going to be consuming right away.
Michael: Like I said, I do not know why the plant doesn’t smell bad, but as it breaks down, it’s really crazy, you put these leaves in a bucket. And you treat it like you would if you were making sauerkraut. You just put a plate on top of it and weight it so it holds the leaves down below the water line. And about 21 days or so later, you have this, the leaves dissolve. They actually dissolve. And you might have stems left, but the leaves dissolve into this black liquid.
And it smells really bad. You do not want to have this inside your house. It is crazy foul smelling substance. But it really works good. One other thing about comfrey is, it is known, and we have seen it, very much a positive insectary. In other words, it brings in all kinds of bugs, spiders that eat harmful pests. So if you have it around your fruit trees and stuff. And the grubs are trying to get up, after the eggs hatch out and they are trying to get up, a lot of times the insects that like to live in comfrey will take them out.
Melissa: I love it. That’s like the best companion plant.
Michael: Yeah, comfrey, it does it all.
Melissa: Good. I’m going to be putting some in there. You sold me!
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Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.