Good garden design with permaculture principles

The fancy word for thinking about and organizing intelligent ecological design is permaculture, coined in the late 1970s.

by Doreen Pollack — 

It seems there are two big reasons why people are reluctant to do more with their yards: money and time. But you can save a lot of both if you begin to consider how your yard fits into the environment around it — by doing this you can let Mother Nature do some of the gardening for you.

The fancy word for thinking about and organizing intelligent ecological design is permaculture, coined in the late 1970s. First intended as an alternative to destructive industrial agriculture, its principles make absolute sense for the home gardener as well.

The first and most important (and also free) step is to observe the effects of the elements and how they interact with your property. So get out a pencil and paper, and draw a bird’s-eye view of your lot and buildings. (You can get a great overhead photo of your property from Google Earth or at the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office Web site.)

Trace the outline of your roof and all other surfaces and buildings where water runs onto your property, and use it as your master. You can then use tracing paper to draw the water flows to see where you have a natural water harvesting opportunity.

You can also observe and plot sun/shade patterns. Did you know that the sun doesn’t really rise in the east and set in the west? Technically it does, but it differs dramatically from summer to winter, moving far to the north in the summer, and south in the winter. How does that actually affect your yard?

Track the sun patterns at the fall and summer solstices on the diagram you made earlier. Knowing where the shade is cast is important for choosing the placement of garden plots, trees and plants. How do the buildings provide shade? What about trees? Maybe you don’t have much shade. That may dictate how you design your new space and, most importantly, what you plant.

In the desert, we have to make the most of our water. Soil that is built with plenty of compost and other organic materials actually retains water best. You can also design your garden in a way to maximize retention: every drop that flows down a storm drain is a drop that could have raised the water table on your property.

The best way to retain water is to build a system of berms and swales, either on contour or, as is the case of most urban lots, as a path system with sunken beds. You’ll eventually use less municipal water and create a cooling effect with more moisture around your home. Think about using barrels or cisterns to collect rainwater to help with day-to-day watering. Arizona rainwater harvesting expert, Brad Lancaster, has a great Web site filled with resources at

So now you’re ready to start digging, but what’s the best type of bed? Surprisingly, sunken beds have some advantages in the desert that are worth considering. They’re cooler, hold water better and give plants a little extra shade. Raised beds allow more control over the content of your soil, but they may also limit the depth of your garden — and they dry out faster.

Most roots grow down, so if your raised bed is not at least two to three feet high, plants will grow through the amended soil, only to hit our Arizona clay. With a raised bed, turn the soil under the bed before you build it. If you’re concerned about the soil content, you can get a soil test at one of the agencies listed at

Visit for more information about applying permaculture principles locally.


Doreen Pollack is the Garden Goddess and owner of Down 2 Earth Gardens, providing garden consultations, workshops and coaching. or 623-217-6038.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 27, Number 5, October/November 2008.

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