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Permaculture versus sustainability

Alison Aplin

Alison Aplin

March 21, 2020

While most people think that permaculture and sustainable garden styles are the same. In fact permaculture can often be exactly the opposite.

At its core, sustainable gardening has:

  • 1) A reduction in energy use from the start of the development through all its ongoing maintenance.
  • 2) The need to preserve biodiversity and
  • 3) To minimise impact to a site.

Many botanic gardens in their original concept, were based on sustainable practice. They didn’t have the earthworks machinery to make significant change to the site; large areas of concrete paving weren’t considered, instead plants were used en masse  over vast areas. These are the garden styles that I consider to be traditionally sustainable.

But garden styles have changed a lot over the last 25 years. When I first started  my campaign to discourage the movement by landscapers towards less plants with more focus on outdoor entertaining, I was seen as a person who was holding back change, regarded then as inevitable.

The arguments for and against

From my own earlier experience with permaculture, and with ongoing observation, large areas of a site need to be cleared for vegetable and fruit tree growing.

This can often necessitate the removal of local, indigenous plants, especially gum trees growing too close to the designated vegetable garden area, because of perceived shade and tree roots.

And these tree roots, even from neighbouring properties, cause much angst with vegetable growers. The constant need to feed and water seasonal plants in dry periods are often caused by feeder roots from trees moving great distances.

Sustainable landscapes retain appropriate trees as much as possible and work the garden around them.

The habitats that are created among trees is enormous.  They need to be preserved in this wavering, unstable environment that landscape designers and gardeners are now experiencing. If the trees are untidy, they are easily improved with removal of dead and unsightly branches.

Permaculture vegetable beds are either planted directly into the ground or created using the raised bed system. The direct method into the existing soil is the most sustainable because soil doesn’t need to be brought in to fill the raised boxes.

Unless copious mulch and manure is added to this soil in these raised beds, they can often fail. Purchased soil is often fairly inert, although there does appear to be improvement happening in this area.


Trees provide shade in hot seasons in a sustainable garden


If the existing soil of the site (and the purchased soil), for the vegetable beds doesn’t have a clay component, these beds are once again doomed to failure.

Constant adding of mulch and manure doesn’t work long-term unless there is a degree of clay present. I have tried it in my sandy soil and too much water was still required. Although repeated mulching and manuring to clay-based soils, yields excellent loam ideal for vegetable growing.

Bentonite clay is excellent for improving the water holding capacity of impervious soils. It seems to be readily available in the west, but very difficult to source elsewhere.

The fruit tree dilemma

Fruit trees consistent with permaculture need to suit the soil and prevailing weather conditions to be sustainable, without making changes to the site to accommodate them.

The flowers are an excellent food source for bees and other insects. But many fruit trees flower too early, and in cold areas, may not get pollinated because the bees aren’t active. In my experience, apricots do not do well in really cold winter areas. Other stone fruits and apple and pears also need pollinators, unless neighbours are growing these.

If fruit trees are heavy croppers, they need water if seasons are dry, to stop the fruit dropping early. Citrus also need special conditions to improve their yield. In comparison, sustainable gardens, will manage with far less water.

All gardens, even natural gardens, benefit from the application of fertilisers. In fact, well-nourished gardens require less water.

Sustainable gardens work with existing conditions with limited disruption to the site. Plants are used that will provide habitat, nectar and seeds to a vast array of birds and marsupials.

Insects including bees benefit in sustainable gardens. They are also invaluable to permaculture systems. Without bees, cross pollination wouldn’t work. In fact, it’s pointless having fruit tree crosses if there are no bees present.

Both the permaculture and the sustainable garden don’t coexist very well unless it is a big garden area. Vegetables and fruit trees need sun to perform well. They don’t like root competition from surrounding trees like gums and eucalypts, which often deplete soils of the nutrients required for permaculture growing.

Permaculture requires a lot of hard work, to keep it producing long-term. Consideration needs to be given annually to crop rotation to prevent disease and soil pH changes becoming a problem. Fruit trees need pruning. There’s also the question of how to stop birds pinching fruit? This needs to be mastered whereas with a sustainable garden, birds are welcome! And then there’s the constant application of manure and mulch to improve the soil, that the annual vegetable crops denude.


Consider the benefits of birds and local fauna in a sustainable garden


The holistic approach

As an avowed environmentalist I will always recommend a holistic, sustainable approach to garden design versus permaculture. But because of climate change even our assumed knowledge, about plants appropriate to an area or soil, is changing.

Native plants are brilliant at adaption, especially if hardy varieties that cover a broad range of soils and conditions are used. Vegetables and fruit trees, especially with difficult porous soils as the base, do not adapt and need constant attention in their growth and fruiting phase.


A relaxed sustainable garden; lawn is cooling and provides evapotranspiration


Councils once upon a time, would plant indigenous trees as verge plantings. In my council area, they remove them or plant the wrong plant, which then dies! So, it has become important for homeowners and landholders to plant indigenous trees to keep the diversity of birds and marsupials strong.

In conclusion

As a personal preference, I would always choose the serenity of a well-designed natural garden that is sustainable, over a permaculture garden.

Never forget the importance of a sustainable garden in the capacity to shield homes from extreme summer temperatures by using the right plants in the right places. Permaculture gardens don’t always manage this because most of the fruit trees are kept lower for ease of fruit picking. And often homes are double-storied. These homes require taller trees for environmental shading of the façade.

The advantage of growing site-specific gums to help soak up excess moisture in poorly drained soils, cannot be underestimated.

There are now many small mallee gums suitable for smaller gardens that are suitable for a range of drier climates including both alpine and coastal. These plants manage without supplementary irrigation, unlike heavily laden fruit trees.

There are advantages with both gardening styles. Much comes down to preference. But based on environmental impacts, I will always recommend a sustainable landscape to a client.

Reminding clients of the repeated work required to maintain a permaculture garden can often change their initial brief. I believe that ‘sustainable’ is the way of the future to help combat climate change.

As I wrote this article I listen to the vast array of different birds in my garden. It’s humid here today, so there are insects galore for insect-eating birds. Our birdbaths are full, and the natural bounty of nectar and seeds keeps our feathered friends happy. A bull koala recently roared in a gum. This is a vastly different gardening experience to the labours of growing fruit and vegetables.

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2 years ago

Your story is very interesting, l have both fruit trees and a vegetable garden l also have 12 crab apples on our property for birds and possums to eat the fruit. We have1 large gum tree to which we have had shaped and cut back as it was overhanging the house too much, l would never get rid of it the trunk is very large and and beautiful. As l say this the land which was behind us now has houses on it and before the developer’s came in and trashed the area by taking down all but a few gumtrees birds and animals alike loosing their habitats not to mention all life in the soil we have to find a better way. I look around at new developments and all you see are big houses no land no trees for shade and roof airconditioning these estates are UGLY.

Karen Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Rhonda

Thank you Rhonda for your comment. Like you, birds and possums eat our fruit also. To me it is a part of the joy of sharing our bounty with the local fauna. But the possums do ruin our lemons!
I entirely agree with you about the ugly houses that are so typically seen. If people would just consider plants as a means of beautification then they wouldn’t look so bad. But so often people do not consider the width of plants and so grossly overplant, resulting in a lot of maintenance. This is when most ‘gardeners’ give up. And poorly planned gardens not only depreciate properties, they’re also expensive to remove.
I am currently working on a design for a client with a property. And I’m making provision within the plan for raised garden beds set on gravel. This will then be filled with best quality soil that has a degree of clay in it to help retain moisture. Our client already has fruit trees growing.
The vegie patch will be behind a living screen at some distance. I’ll use geotextile membrane at the base of the vegie beds to stop roots invading.
The rest of the garden will be composed of a large diversity of indigenous and locally indigenous plants in wide curved beds around large expanses of lawn. Its 2.5 acres!
I just wish that more people could realise the benefits of cohabiting with an abundance of Australian local fauna. To me, it is a life experience not to be missed.

Olivia Macolino
Olivia Macolino
2 years ago

Do you know of Morag Gamble? Her approach to permaculture gardening incorporates sustainability and is fantastic. I can’t imagine her ever teaching anyone to clear land for growing veggies but would instead slot them into an existing habitat. If you haven’t heard of her here is her you tube channel, she’s gorgeous. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-bU0T-JKZ3kVpO77Nt1hMA

Happy gardening


1 year ago

Thank you Alison. Your article is interesting as you seem to be making the case for gardening with the needs of the situation in mind, and for habitat. I find it strange that you have set up a dichotomy between permaculture and sustainability. Permaculture by its very definition is sustainable (though the current movement is more towards regenerative practice, as the term ‘sustainable’ assumes that what currently exists is good enough to be sustained!). Your readers may want to understand what permaculture is before making a judgement. If they investigate https://permacultureprinciples.com/ I believe the concerns you raise may be more clearly addressed. Best regards.