How to Build a Permaculture Vegetable Garden
– Tiny Eglington’s method, educator Geoff Lawton
This is a photo report of a vegetable garden built for Ann Foster in Condobolin, NSW Australia, which shows basic steps that allow you to build your own permaculture veggie patch.
You don’t need much, but you do need:
- any ruminant manure
- cardboard (or hessian bags)
- Lucerne hay (or any acacia leaves)
- straw (seedless)
- plants and seed
The basic tools:
- sharp knife/screwdriver (for punching hole in cardboard)
- hose/watering can
How to built a permaculture vegetable garden – the steps
Check out the site, discuss possibilities where to set up the garden.
Explore the present vegetation, and determine its qualities and uses.
Clearing the site of weeds and grass, evaluate locations and levels for the trenches.
Dig trenches (levelled), the soil from the trench is put on the garden beds.
Dig out the trenches a bit more, level the beds. Try and keep the bottom of the
trenches level, so they fill evenly with water.
Add manure (sheep manure in this case), put it on as thick as you can, don’t
worry if some falls down in the trenches. Then sprinkle a bit of lime.
Wet the cardboard and place it over the bed, in the trenches as well,
approximately 3 layers thick.
Also hessian (jute) bags work, similar procedure, 1 layer thick.
Cover with Lucerne hay or any acacia leaves, then a layer of straw (seedless).
Cover the trenches with straw as well to minimize evaporation.
Fill the trenches with water (you can check here how you’ve done with
levelling, by letting the water in from one point (set up dams) till completely
full and decided where your 1 watering point will be. You can put a short
pipe in the top of the dam to overflow into the next trench. Notice
capillary rise is working, the water making its way up into the bed.
Get your plants and seed! Check a companion planting guide for good
combinations of plants. I like to check the moon planting guide and practice
it when possible. Using hybrids or non hybrids is up to you but non hybrids are
sustainable by collecting your own seed.
Separate plants where possible and cut holes in the card board
(only big enough for the tap root to go through), make a cup in the
straw and fill with compost and plant the plants or seed.
Concerning planting space, consider the size of the plants when they are
fully grown; the whole bed is covered with vegetables, including down
the sides to the water mark. The new plants and seeds have to be watered
from the top (daily in the summer) until the tap root goes through the
hole, then it will receive its water from the trenches.
A permaculture vegetable garden can be built at any size. From a few pots to a 1000 acre property.
All about building a permaculture vegetable garden and more you learn in a permaculture design course (PDC). And there are loads of information to be found on the web as well!
How to Maintain – tips and tricks
Again: The new plants and seeds have to be watered from the top until the tap root goes through the hole, then it will receive its water from the trenches. Every area is different (depending on rainfall and soil types). Eg. in Cunnamulla, western Queensland, temperatures were in the high thirties, with no rain, so had to fill the trenches every 7 days.
If you cut a cabbage, trim the excess leaves off and chop them up and leave them on the bed (in permaculture terms; chop and drop). Leave the tap root where it is and plant a new plant or seed beside it, the new plant will feed off the old root as it composts.
Now the important thing: put compost around the new planting as to replace what the cabbage took away. Composting is the key to a sustainable garden.
What you have done
1. You have created an organic garden that’s water friendly
2. You have created a weed free garden, which will remain weed free as long as you keep composting (with seed free compost)
3. And most of all: you have created a sustainable food supply in your backyard
I was a monoculturalist for many years, this way is much too easy, it’s the GO!
I love the posts full of pictures.
Two caveats I’ve learned the hard way:
1. Raised beds irrigated by flooding the furrows will exacerbate any salinity problems you might have with your water. The salt accumulates at the ridge of the bed. I went with drip irrigation to fix this (and to make starting seeds way easier, and to save water and labor.)
2. Pill bugs, aka sow bugs, aka rolly pollies populations will explode in mulch. These bugs love to eat seedlings and even small transplants. I think all areas of the world have these bugs. I only use mulch around perennial or at least mature plants for this reason alone.
And I think it’s “hessian,” not “heshen.”
My area is dry and hot and we have raised beds with 4 to 6 inches of grass and seaweed mulch on top of 1 layer of cardboard and under the cardboard 2 inches of compost. We start our seeds in plastic flats and then once they are up about an inch or so tall we transplant them into holes in the cardboard. The pill bugs cannot eat them because we place a 1 inch pvc connector over the transplant. Once the plants are about 4 inches tall we remove the pvc and they grow wonderfully with no problems from the bugs.
Sow bugs, rolly pollies, etc. are a sure sign of a chicken deficiency.
Excellent – thanks for putting this up. I covered the previous post you had about Tiny’s idea on the Detroit PDC.
In the US you have to be very careful when using straw as mulch as much of it has been sprayed with herbicides. Even the MANURE from animals eating sprayed hay is not suitable for gardening and the herbicides can take three years (or longer?) to break down.
In my area most people feed alfalfa hay to their horses and that’s OK — they can’t spray alfalfa because it would kill the alfalfa too.
I just found this out and the guy at the feed store where I got our straw didn’t know whether it had been sprayed. I’m currently testing beans in a variety of potting mixes including some with lots of straw and so far, only the beans without straw in the mix sprouted.
I also mulched part of our garden with straw and another part with manure. Then we planted lots of beans, beets and radishes. Nothing’s coming up where the straw is and the beans that had been growing there before mulching with straw don’t look good. The beans mulched with manure are looking great and lots of beans and peas are sprouting.
The herbicides mostly affect broad leaved plants, beans, peas, alfalfa, tomatoes and peppers, …
I’ll update with the final results of my test in a few weeks at my site, but for now, our straw will only be used for adobe building and not for growing.
I read several studies about this from a few years ago and the American universities don’t seem to have a problem with this. They recommend spraying the fields and then disclosing to everybody that it can’t be used for gardening. Of course nobody discloses anything.
“Sow bugs, rolly pollies, etc. are a sure sign of a chicken deficiency.”
In that case, the presence of mulch and living vegetable seedlings are also a sure sign of a chicken deficiency.
I have created mulched gardens in 30 different countries and never had a problem with “pill bugs, aka sow bugs, aka rolly pollies populations that explode in mulch that love to eat seedlings and even small transplants”.
Having had such outstanding success with mulched gardens if I came across these kind of problems anywhere I would make careful observations of the potential imbalances that may be causing these problems.
Pill bugs, or wood lice, eat carbon material and are symbiotic with fungus. That means they like material that grows fungus and fungus grows on high carbon materials. Using dry hay as mulch wont cause this problem if the there is still some nitrogen in the hay. Think of the carbon to nitrogen ratio of a compost.
Or think of successions. Veggies come before grasses. that means they like less fungi than grasses. Grass organic matter will therefor grow fungus and attract these pill bugs. If you use grass mulches simply add something that will cause more bacteria to grow instead of fungi. Very watered down unsulfured molasses will do the trick.
When using mulch, think of the carbon to nitrogen ratio of the plants that you are growing to give you an idea of what types of C/N ratio that they will put on the ground which in turn will balance the the bacteria to fungal growth. balanced fungal to bacteria growth will balance PH. If you didn’t have such a high carbon as mulch then you wouldn’t have pill bugs, nor would you have fungus altering the PH in the soil. That means that the lime is unnecessary too.
Permacultures are building ecosystems, if its off, its off and it always comes down to the foundation of that ecosystem. You need bugs! Have a look at this video https://youtu.be/H82sz-LRdpg
How do you keep mice away in permaculture? I have terrible mice problem on my farm and cannot have a cat as I have cat killing dogs
HELP please the mice is destroying everything
I’d like to ask respectfully how many seasons’ experience the garden-makers have with putting three layers of cardboard over the planting beds. Yes, it prevents water evaporation, but I have to wonder how the oxygen transpiration of the soil bio-life fares with such an impermeable man-made vapor-barrier? I garden in the high-desert Rocky Mountains with continuous dry air movement – aka wind – & have found even a veil of grass clippings is surprisingly effective at preventing evaporation in a newly seeded bed of carrots. I wonder if covering the moist soil so tight results in any rancidity?
Initially my mulch gives no problems, but in a matter of months the populations grows to troublesome size. I’ve gone out at night with a flashlight and watched pill bugs swarm and eat many types of vegetables seedlings. Particularly beans and cole crops. This has happened over all 3 years I’ve been here and in any part of the one hectare I’ve tried to plant such crops.
I would love to be able to scrape away a line of mulch and plant seeds directly. I will keep my eyes open, but I don’t have much optimism.
Jessica, I don’t worry too much about cardboard reducing oxygen (rots fast, many small pieces have many gaps). One mistake I have made is using cardboard on mounds. It’s easy to inadvertently build a “roof” that will shed water. Make sure your pieces don’t overlap like shingles. I skip the cardboard on new tree plantings on mounds now.
When I lived near San Francisco, we had so many pill bugs and earwigs, I did NOT plant any veggies outside. We just landscaped for eye candy.
We did NOT mulch at all, but I’m sure there were leaves from the eucalyptus trees on the ground. Here in the desert we mulch and I’ve never seen an earwig or pill bug. It probably has to do with humidity and temperature.
Christine Baker – Just wondering if you are using your straw/hay bales fresh? “Spoilt” bales should be used on garden beds because during the first few weeks of rotting the hay or straw produces toxins that interfere with plant growth. Try ageing or weathering your straw first. To spoil the new bales, leave them outside in the weather for a couple of months, turning them every now and then. If it doesn’t rain, wet them down a bit. This will also germinate any seed in the bales so they don’t come up in the garden. Spoilt straw/hay can sometimes be bought and should be cheaper too. [This info is from my old book ‘Indolent Kitchen Gardening’ by Libby Smith].
BTW I’ve always thought pill bugs (we call them slaters) only occasionally eat seedlings and only if the garden is imbalanced. Try to plant a variety of things together, including flowers such as marigolds, calendula and nasturtiums, and let plants like parsley and carrots go to seed. Try to have plants of different ages, stages and sizes mixed. Also, I protect my new seedlings with half a toilet roll pushed into the ground a bit.
Deb, I’ve never heard that about straw. I’ll have to run that by the experts at the organics group, thanks for letting me know.
I’m into the 3rd week of a test planting of beans and peanuts in straw, horse manure, compost and a neighbor’s “regular” soil and so far NOTHING has grown in the 3 pots with mostly straw. It probably was fairly fresh straw, we had just bought a bale for more adobe.
For now straw is banned from our soil and mulch!
How do you prevent the standing water in the ditch between the beds from becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes? I live in the Southeastern USA and I am leery of contributing to the mosquito population.
Probably a silly question.. but as a first i’ll set up a vegie garden this summer here in the czech republic, and wonder if this is a universally applicable method or does climate come into play in regard to trench size, etc?
Re straw: You may want to google straw-bale gardening. The secret seems to be in “seasoning” the straw bale. There’s a finely worked-out recipe, but VERY ROUGHLY this translates to keeping a straw bale moist for one week (via watering), then feeding it with nitrogen-rich fertilizer for another week. Moisture and nitrogen start of composting in the interior of the bale (which also generates heat that “should” kill off weed seeds). When the bale starts to cool down (or even when fungus growth appears) one plants directly into the bale. So it would seem that “fresh” bales are not such a good idea, no nutrients that have broken down enough for plants to use.
Thank you for the tips. I have one major problem. I live on a rocky formation with a slope. Yes it is an adventure. 10 years ago it was virgin bush. I convert cow manure using earth worms (about 6 weeks) and this is then mixed with leaves and any soil I can find to make up volume. My terraces are all made with stones and follow the basic contour lines of the area that I am filling. Not all the areas are suitable for planting due to massive solid formations. I try to utilize the rock to catch run off water from rain and dew.
I have 6 head of cattle and they provide the base material for the worms. I add kitchen waste to this namely, pawpaw. I have a continuous supply of trees growing through out the garden due to this process. I would really like to know of other sights that I can study in the area of extreme gardening.
Where are you Martin?
This is an odd post but i would like to record that i have a problem with pill bugs as well in my 1 year old, heavily mulched, backyard food forest. I covered it with a 4″ of pine/eucalyptus mix and the soil condition was exceptionally dry (Bay area, California). Many of my annuals didn’t come up then i noticed the high pill bug/millipede population. It didn’t seem to hurt the trees or our local nutrient accumulating weed (oxalis pes-caprae). Everything is still on track, we just took heavy loses on our 1/10 acre annual vegetable crop. Figured i should add 1 more data point to help diagnose other pill bug infestations. Good luck
Hi Craig ” 4″ of pine/eucalyptus mix ” is not a good mulch mix, pine is and acid mulch and eucalyptus is an allopathic mulch.
Good to notes going forward, The choice of mulch was a bit of fate (I asked for a truckload from a local tree service company). Fortunately for me i am starting with heavy alkaline clay so the acidity might not be a problem? Thanks for the reply :)
We have been gardening in the southwest (Phoenix) for the past 15 years. Our soil has a ph of 8.9, no organic matter and 82% rock. What soil there is made of heavy clay. Water is between 8 and 8.9 ph and very alkaline. Soil samples show 0% phosphate and almost no Nitrogen. We have tried many different types of gardening. With five gardens on an acre, we are having some success with straw bale gardening, Treat each bale with a 1/4 cup blood meal watered in. water the bales daily. Repeat blood meal in two weeks. plant when the heat of the bale drops to near ambient temps. Martin, this method would lend itself very well to steep gardening. With pvc hoops and plastic, it is easy to make early hot beds. We use lasagna gardening by digging a trench a foot deep, spreading 1 cup of gypsum per 30 square feet of trench, filling the trench with a foot of horse manure. We remove the rock from the dirt we dug out of the trench. Adding a cup of blood meal and a cup of bone meal and a half a cup of soil sulfur helps begin to feed the plants and start the slow process of lowering the soil ph., We then back fill it on top of the trench full of manure. We plant directly in the dirt. Pill bug infestation comes when there is not other organic matter for them to feed on. Pill bugs will take everything unless we dust the area with diatomaceous earth. (DE). The DE does not hurt the earth worm community and is not toxic. We water with pvc pipe with 1/16 inch holes drilled every foot. All water is controlled through timers. One missed watering will cost a harvest. In the southwest every thing is hungry. I am willing to share, but not all the crop. We have to fence and roof all the gardens, including rose bushes. Because of high ph, I use as much pine as I can, particularly on strawberries. The pine helps to reduce the ph of the soil.
Areas where farmers have trouble with broad leaf weeds growing in their grain fields usually spray with 2-4-D. This chemical is very toxic and I have known it to travel on Epson Salt. The Epson salt fields were sprayed prior to the mining of the salt, and It had divesting results on tomatoes in a hydroponic greenhouse. I would suggest tempering straw that you suspect has been sprayed with blood meal before using the straw for ground cover. A 1/4 cup of blood meal per bale watered in daily and repeated in two weeks will help break down the 2-4-D through the emzines that begin to grow with in the bale. Straw by itself has no available nutrient value. Even termites will not eat it. But tempering the stray with blood meal will free the nutrients in the straw and begin the desired breakdown (rot) of the straw.
Don, you’re the first person to match or exceed our 8.7pH!
Have to update my posts 5 years ago. We DO have pillbugs and earwigs now. Made the mistake of putting the compost in our hoophouse. Even got roaches — where do they come from in the middle of the desert?
We sure learned a lot over the last 5 years. Am getting ready for another soil test to see whether our pH came down yet.
Also, I recently was told NOT to use sulfur with our high pH and I got a $100 gallon of humic acid. We’ll see how that works.
Christine: Humic acid is a good fix to get organisms growing. Those organisms will help break the electron bond at the atomic level and free the trapped hydrogen. As a professional Fertilizer salesman in my past life I used it to “complex” or predigest fertilizer to make the chemical more readily available. I use soil sulfur to free what little iron I have in the soil, there- by preventing clorisis in the plants. It will help with soil ph at the same time. Changing ph is the soil is a matter of freeing trapped hydrogen and soil suffer will break the atomic bond and allow the hydrogen to dissipate into the air. Expect to see very little change in ph in the first year or so, and a ph change on 1 point is ten years is considered very good. Good water will help leach out the freed hydrogen, but usually high ph water goes with high ph soil, unless you have a snowpack fed water source
DE will kill any bug that crawls through it if the bug has a hard outside skeleton. with the consist of baby power, DE is a very fine and sharp and will get in the joints of the insect and cause the bug to bleed to death. It is available at most home supply stores and pool supply shops. There is some food grade DE available. All the bugs you mentioned digest organic matter and develop humus. But they seem to like live plant matter better than dead organic matter and it has been impossible for me to get a stand of seedlings unless I control them. What I want to know is where do the earth worms come from??
Our area is hot and the water is much salty will it fit for permaculture.
why did the weed and grass …. thats bad for your back …. just cover the lot with plastic sheet or an old carpet … and whiten a few weeks the area is grass and wed free ….. NO DIG GARDENS !!!!!
sorry did was supposed to be DIG >>>>>
This is a great garden bed, but I fail to see how it has anything to do with permaculture. I HATE pages that lie and toss around buzz words without meaning what they say, so I sure hope that isn’t the case here. Please help me understand how this has even the slightest to do with permaculture….