Permaculture Principles

Applying the concept to modern day landscapes.

By Brandy Hall, Shades of Green Permaculture
From the April 2024 Issue


As the Founder and CEO of Shades of Green Permaculture, I’ve spent much of the last two decades exploring how permaculture fits into modern life, and it can be daunting. Permaculture is hard to define, and its practice can seem somewhat elusive. Many of our clients in urban and suburban areas have a preconceived notion that permaculture is an agriculture concept requiring them to grow almost all their own food. However, there are so many accessible and practical ways to practice the basic principles of permaculture — and small solutions add up to a big impact, certainly in our landscapes.

Permaculture is an ethical design science that integrates human activity with the natural world to create regenerative ecosystems. My favorite definition is “it’s all alive; it’s all intelligent; it’s all connected,” where fundamentally, permaculture seeks to integrate human needs and activities with the needs and yields of the ecosystems of which they are a part. Permaculture offers not only sustainable landscaping techniques that we can implement, but also a way to approach and interact with our landscapes, especially in a growing environmental crisis.


Two recent installations by Shades of Green Permaculture. (Photos: Erik Meadows Photography / Shades of Green Permaculture)

Rethinking Traditional Practices

Today we are contending with a loss of topsoil, extreme runoff from rampant development, aggressive species crowding out biodiversity, less-than-ideal growing conditions, growing populations, and more. Yet many gardens and landscapes are designed to be high input systems: water-intensive, chemically-dependent, and high maintenance. Conventional landscaping tends to be resource-heavy, releasing chemicals into the environment and too often working against, rather than with, Nature.

Permaculture offers not only sustainable landscaping techniques that we can implement, but also a way to approach and interact with our landscapes, especially in a growing environmental crisis.

Huge swathes of monoculture lawns are a perfect example of conventional landscaping that needs to be rethought in this age of pollinator decline and water crisis. Bermuda and zoysiagrass, for instance, require a ton of water and typically get mowed once every week or two. This short-cut grass prevents deep root systems from developing, which in turn, requires more water input and irrigation. Additionally, these types of grasses are usually non-native, therefore they haven’t naturally adapted to the environment around them and require heavy inputs to maintain.

Another aspect of conventional landscaping that deserves re-examination is the practice of bagging leaves. Fallen leaves are rich in stored nutrients, vital insects, and minerals. Yet rather than allowing them to decompose naturally —or even collecting them for redistribution in garden beds — we use carbon-intensive, small-engine blowers to gather them, before bagging them in plastic or plantation-pine-pulp bags. These bags are then transported by trucks to landfills, where they contribute to methane production and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet absurdly, come Springtime, we are busy applying compost and mulch, and essentially inputting the same nutrients we disposed of just six months prior. Moreover, leaves serve as crucial shelter for insects and small animals like salamanders and frogs during the Winter months.

The Three Pillars

On the other hand, permaculture can help us build health from the ground up, creating ecologically-sound interdependent and healthy spaces that take into consideration food production, habitat restoration, and other land-based outcomes that meet human needs beyond the aesthetic.

For urban and suburban dwellers, this looks like three primary focus areas, or what we at Shades of Green Permaculture call “The three pillars of a regenerative landscape.” They are:

On this steep slope, water is captured in a series of planting boxes filled with edible plants. (Photo: Erik Meadows Photography / Shades of Green Permaculture)
  • Restoring the water cycle;
  • Building soil fertility; and
  • Cultivating productive and native plant communities that grow food, medicine, and pollinator habitat.

These simple pillars offer solutions to the global climate crisis we face, where everyday urban and suburban dwellers can participate in the Earth’s return to health in their own backyards.

Restoring The Water Cycle

Managing water as a resource, keeping it onsite, helps to rehydrate soils, reduce irrigation, and restore the water cycle. Managing water is the foundation of an ecology where Nature thrives, and it all begins with the permaculture principle of observation. Finding the right solutions begins with asking the right questions based on what is observed, from determining the water sources and how water circulates on the site to see if there is too much water or too little. This assessment helps determine what water strategies need to be in place.

Starting at the highest point of the watershed, which is typically the roof in a residential landscape, has the biggest impact with the least amount of intervention. From there, techniques like contour swales, diversion swales, rain gardens, and cisterns help move the water more strategically throughout the site. For example, water runoff can be reduced by constructing permeable driveways and pathways that allow water to infiltrate. Building earthworks like rain gardens and swales can also capture and filter water. Harvesting rainwater from roofs can be stored for irrigation or—with proper filtration and treatment—for drinking.

Building Soil Fertility

Much of the success of a garden /landscape depends on soil quality, and in permaculture and regenerative landscaping there are quite a few methods for building healthy soil. In fact, some of the permaculture principles that guide choices when it comes to soil management ask us to catch and store energy but also produce no waste, which soil accomplishes naturally and beautifully.

Organic matter and carbon sequestration are important components of both healthy soil and soil management strategies that build structure, water-retention capacity, and fertility. Soil needs to be covered with plants at all times, such as a living mulch of ground cover or cover crop. Planting densely and growing many layers of plants, including ground covers, forbs, brambles, shrubs, and trees also promotes healthy soil, replenishes soil nutrients, and bolsters the health of the plant community.

Finally, when building soil, the less it’s disturbed, the better. Carbon is trapped in the soil via plant roots so disturbing the soil releases carbon into the atmosphere, whereas the goal is to capture carbon instead. Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter and helps give soil its water-retention capacity, its structure, and its fertility.


Shades of Green Permaculture

Shades of Green Permaculture

(Photos: Shades of Green Permaculture)

Cultivating Productive & Native Plant Communities

As with any new endeavor in the landscape, we start, as mentioned, with observation in permaculture. When it comes to plant communities, reading the vegetation on a site, looking to the forest to discover the structure of planting layers, and identifying ecotypes within the landscape all impact how to craft a plant palette. Our aim is to choose plants that are ideal for the conditions, while also growing food, medicine, and habitat.

Understanding the debate over native plants and how to manage aggressive species also factors into cultivating plant communities. At Shades of Green Permaculture, if there is a native plant that fills a niche within the landscape, we will always advocate for the native plant over introducing an aggressive species.

Finally, building an appropriate plant palette includes working with succession and disturbance, utilizing the layers of a forest to garden and think about functions when building diverse plant communities. Ecological gardening is an oscillation between succession and disturbance. Planning for a long-term, sustainable landscape means knowing where Nature is headed if left to her own devices, and this becomes a determinant in choosing plants that will require low maintenance.

Thinking about plant communities through a permaculture lens invites us to plant ecosystems, not just plants. We create polycultures or a plant guild, which is a diverse plant community of plants that serve multiple functions, from food, medicine, and nectary to soil builders, groundcovers, habitat, and fuel. This is where we really see the permaculture principle of obtaining a “yield” come to fruition.

Our Ecolawns Initiative

At Shades of Green Permaculture, we recently launched Ecolawns, an organic ecological lawn care service that builds and supports ecologically-sound, healthy landscapes using all solar-powered and electric equipment. We’ve always embraced diverse and organic, ecological lawns, using and valuing diversity, but we’re thrilled to finally be able to offer this new service.

Organically managed meadows and polyculture lawns store carbon, replenish water and moisture into the soil naturally, provide self-sustaining fertility, and produce flowers and nectar for pollinators like bees and butterflies. We manage diversified grass-like species and broadleaf flowering plants like clover. We use organic amendments and natural fertilizers, and approach pests and disease with natural and organic solutions. We also encourage native “weeds” like violets and dandelions to work their magic replenishing the soil with nitrogen or providing flowers for pollinators while working with clients to determine when it is appropriate to hand pull invasive species.

The Regenerative Backyard Blueprint

Shades of Green Permaculture offers an online course, “The Regenerative Backyard Blueprint.” It’s a step-by-step guide to sustainable gardening for any climate, any region, and any budget. It walks you through Shades of Green’s step-by-step process used with thousands of clients over the past decade. For $397 (or 3 monthly payments of $147), get lifetime access to the self-paced online course, which includes seven video-based modules, 50+ bite-sized recorded lessons, 20+ supplemental downloads, and five bonuses.

Year-round services include seeding, aerating, soil testing, organic amendments, and compost and debris management, leaving as much organic materials onsite and in garden beds as possible. This service has been met with overwhelmingly positive feedback from clients who want to keep some lawn, but have been searching for a more ecological option.

In essence, permaculture is not merely a practice, but a philosophy that encourages us to become stewards of the Earth, nurturing landscapes that support life in all its forms. As we continue to navigate the challenges of urbanization and environmental degradation, the principles of permaculture provide a beacon of hope, guiding us towards a more resilient, vibrant, and sustainable future for generations to come.

PermacultureHall is the CEO and founder of Atlanta-GA-based Shades of Green Permaculture, established in 2008. Since then, her company has grown to a staff of 20, and has worked with over a thousand clients applying permaculture across contexts. Hall is passionate about leading a purpose-driven business that actively creates a healthier world every single day. Hall’s roots are in building. She earned her General Contractor’s license directly after completing undergraduate work at the age of 20, and began training as a stonemason where she fell in love with the way intelligent design responds to the natural world. Hall has nearly two decades of experience in building off-grid water systems, landscape construction, and integrated farming systems. She also serves as Mayor of the City of Pine Lake and spends lots of time outdoors with her husband, Aaron, their daughter, and their rambunctious pup, Peanut Butter. 

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