Recent events have shown us how easily our food supply can be disrupted and just how helpful it can be to be able to provide at least some of our own food. Permaculture can help us do this by being more sustainable, saving money, and reducing waste.
Principles of urban permaculture apply these ideas and systems to urban and suburban areas, because you can adapt more sustainable practices no matter whether you live in the country or in the city.
Permaculture is rooted in two words: permanent agriculture. It is a system of sustainable agriculture and living that is based on following the principles that nature already uses.
Following nature’s lead, we can use those natural systems to grow food more easily and with less problems. But sustainable agriculture isn’t just limited to organic farms and ranches, you can take steps to be more sustainable and use urban permaculture in urban and suburban environments.
Table of Contents
What is Urban Permaculture?
Urban permaculture is applying permaculture ideas and principles to urban settings. It is using the idea that you take whatever space you have and transform it with permaculture design.
Rooftops, balconies, flower beds, apartment spaces, and even community gardens can be used to create a more sustainable, more permaculture-focused living space where you can grow your own food and provide for your own needs.
There are 3 ethics and 12 basic principles that make up the tenants of permaculture, as developed by David Holmgren, and Bill Mollison. They began with the premise that permaculture is a means of working with nature, rather than against it.
The three ethics form the basis for permaculture, and involve caring for the earth we live in, caring for the people that live in it, and making sure there is a fair share between them.
After the three ethics, there are twelve basic principles that make permaculture work:
- Observe and engage with nature to see what already works. For example, using the forest floor as the ideal for good soil.
- Use and save abundant resources, such as water, for later when they are scarce.
- Make sure the rewards of the work are worth the efforts that go into it. If not, you need to adjust your plan. For example, it would be extremely difficult, and a waste of resources to try growing bananas in a cold climate.
- Accept and apply feedback. Our systems will tell us what we are doing wrong if we pay attention, and we can adjust our systems accordingly. If our plants aren’t growing right, we may need to amend the soil, or adjust the position of the garden for better results.
- Make the best use of renewable resources. Nature provides many resources that will make our garden grow if we know how to use them (for example, compost).
- Avoid waste. Don’t waste important resources, and use everything that you can.
- Use the patterns available in nature to design your permaculture systems.
- Create and use relationships that naturally occur, such as companion planting.
- Start slow and small. Take your time to develop systems and use local resources as much as possible.
- Use diversity. Using diverse methods, systems, and plants is how nature works.
- Mainstream ideas aren’t always the best ones for your systems; you may need to think outside the box, and look for creative, natural solutions.
- Respond creatively and proactively to change.
Mind The Laws
You need to be well-versed in the laws of your local municipality and your HOA regarding gardens animals, water systems, and compost. Then you’ll be able to create the specific plan that works in your situation.
No great garden was ever built in a day, and your urban permaculture oasis won’t be, either. If you’re already growing a tomato plant on your patio or a few herbs in your kitchen window, you’re already off to a great start!
One of the biggest mistakes in getting started is taking on too much at once. Start with a small garden (possibly in containers), and slowly add on from there.
Make a Plan
What parts of urban permaculture are the most important to you? Is it growing your own food, conserving water, reducing waste, or being prepared for emergencies? These are all good things.
Pick the aspects that are most important to you and use them to create a plan. You can consult a design specialist to plan your garden or just do a little research and make your own plan.
You’re going to need some tools for permaculture, even in urban areas. Start gathering tools so you’ll have what you need when you need it.
You may need to find a place to store your tools, or perhaps you want to create a neighborhood tool library so everyone can access the tools they need without having to spend a lot of money buying their own.
Your most basic tools will include:
- Shovel. A shovel is indispensable for digging garden beds, planting larger plants, and turning over compost.
- Trowel. A trowel is the best small tool for planting seeds in the garden.
- Pruner. You’ll need to occasionally prune and trim plants, so consider a small hand pruner. It will also help you cut squash from the vine. For larger trees and shurbs, you may want a lopper or saw, as well.
- Tiller or broadfork. The easiest way to break up soil to create new beds is to use a gas-powered tiller. These can take up a lot of space though and are expensive, so for smaller gardens, you may do just as well with a broadfork to open up the soil or simply using a shovel to double dig your garden.
- Hose or watering can. You’ll need some means to water your plants, whether they are inside or outside. A watering can is fine for small spaces, but if your garden is larger than the space on your balcony, you may want a hose.
- Hammer and Saw. Basic carpentry tools will be invaluable when building trellises, repairing raised beds, or other small jobs.
- Wire cutters. If you are using wire trellises or paneling to create trellises, wire cutters will make the job much easier.
You may also want to include a few optional items, such as:
- Wheelbarrows. These will help you haul compost, dirt, yard waste, or even your produce.
- Produce basket. While not necessary, it is a lot easier to haul your produce in a basket than by hand.
Factors to Consider
It’s important to know what your climate is like. Certain crops will only grow where there are long, hot growing seasons, while other crops, like spinach, prefer cooler weather.
Your USDA Growing Zone
The US Department of Agriculture divides North America into 12 growing zones by ten degree temperature increments. These zones can be further divided into subgroups for a smaller temperature range. This will help you know what crops will grow in your area.
Higher numbered zones have warmer winter temperatures, while lower numbered zones have colder winter temperatures. Areas with higher numbers tend to have a longer, hotter growing season, while areas with lower numbers have a shorter, and not quite as hot, growing season.
You’ll need to choose plants based on your growing zone and the length of growing season. Certain varieties of plants are more suitable for the warmer, more southern climates, and others will grow better in the cooler, more northern climates. Seed packets will usually explain what hardiness zone the seeds are suited for.
When you make your permaculture plan, you’ll want to consider using the permaculture grow zones approach.
This is a means of making the layout of your gardens and permaculture systems more efficient by placing the most used sections nearest your home, or along well-used paths and placing the least used sections further away.
- Zone 1. This is your most used zone. In this zone, include the systems you visit the most. For example, seedlings that need watered daily, produce that would need to be harvested daily from your kitchen garden, and perhaps your chickens that need frequent egg collection and feeding and watering. This could be a strip of space that goes straight out your back door, or perhaps a square of space closest to your home. It might be off the front of your house or off the back, depending on your individual needs.
- Zone 2. These are items that need frequent, but not daily attention, such as herbs, shrubs, or fruit trees. These items may be mulched to conserve water or they may have their own irrigation system. These are just past Zone 1 and still easy to access.
- Zone 3. This section contains types of crops that don’t need daily maintenance and probably won’t be mulched, such as larger fruit trees or larger sections of crops that are fairly self-sufficient and won’t need frequent maintenance.
- Zone 4. This section is an area that you don’t need to spend any time managing. It might be used for collecting firewood or gathering wild edibles. This may not be applicable in an urban setting.
- Zone 5. This is your unmanaged brush section. If your land is very very small, you probably won’t have this type of space on your land. But even on a small amount of land, you can make a space that is welcoming to wildlife, which will encourage pollination.
Some HOAs don’t permit gardens in the front yard, but perhaps you can grow one in your backyard. You can also consider edible landscaping, indoor growing, and food forests.
You’ll need to consider a few different things when decided what to grow and how to grow it.
First and Last Frost Dates
You can’t really change your first and last frost dates, but they will tell you how long your growing season is. You can start some plants indoors from seed about eight weeks before your last frost date, which will extend your growing season.
In most urban settings, space is the number one limiting factor. Since you don’t have lots of acreage to plant, you’ll have to choose space-saving crops and principals, such as vertical gardening. You can also make use of small, upright greenhouses that are easy to put together and inexpensive to purchase.
What are the watering rules in your town or city? Do you receive plenty of rainfall, or do you live in drought-prone areas? This will affect what types of plants you can select for your garden.
It doesn’t make sense to plant foods that you don’t like to eat. So make a list of your favorite fruits and vegetables and see how they can be incorporated into your plan. You’ll be more excited to grow the things that you enjoy.
Some types of crops – such as fruit trees- are a little harder to grow than others, such as raspberries or radishes. If you are a beginner gardener, you may want to take this into consideration as well so you have more success getting started. You can always add more difficult crops when you are more established.
Positioning Your Garden
In addition to planning the grow zones around your property, you will also need to consider the best place to position your garden. Most vegetables require full sun, which is defined as 6 hours per day, although some veggies need more like 8 to 10 hours per day of direct sun.
As you plan your growing zones and your garden space, observe the position of the sun. Does the area you want to place your garden in receive enough sunlight, or is it blocked by trees or buildings?
You’ll also want to consider a water source. Does the space have easy access to water? Does it have good, well-draining soil or is the soil too soggy for the vegetables you want to grow?
You may need to adjust your grow zones around the space your garden needs to be in order for it to receive enough sunlight and water.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
We’ve heard those words so often they’ve become somewhat of a cliché. But the principles hold true for urban permaculture.
You can be more sustainable by reducing waste. For example, rts.com states that around 30 to 40% of the United States food supply ends up in the trash. Other sites think this number could be as high as 50%.
You can reduce your food waste that hits the landfill by composting your leftover veggie scraps, yard clippings, and cardboard along with any animal manure you might have.
Reuse items you already have, such as old pots or cups, for starting seeds, and recycle old cardboard boxes to create a weed barrier in your garden. This will save you money and help reduce waste.
It can be tempting and easy to spend thousands of dollars setting up your urban permaculture, but it isn’t necessary… and it certainly isn’t necessary to spend money you don’t have to start your garden, either.
Start with what you have, and build from there. Purchasing plants, pots, and soil can be quite expensive and daunting, but with a little effort you can save money, and still have the garden you desire.
Local farms and greenhouses are excellent resources for inexpensive seedlings and advice. Family-owned farms may sell seedlings at a discount, especially once summer is in full swing and they are ready to close down their sales.
Sometimes, local farmers will help you get started, share tips, and may even give you extra pots or plants just to be nice. You’ll help local farms and they’ll help you. Even better, their locally grown seedlings are already acclimated to the climate and soil in your area.
Another way to save money on urban permaculture is to reuse old pots or whatever containers you have lying around the house to start seeds.
Starting your garden from seeds is significantly less expensive then starting with plants that someone else grew. And sometimes you can grow veggies from grocery store leftovers.
A new celery plant can be grown from the heart of a grocery store celery stalk. Beans can be grown from bags of dried beans. These simple ideas will not only save money, they also save waste.
If you are looking to grow a survival garden, you’ll want to focus on growing vegetables that give you the biggest calorie bang for your buck.
You’ll also want to consider the health of your soil, as in the aftermath of a long-term disaster, going to a supply store to get what’s needed to fix soil deficiencies may not be an option.
One important aspect of permaculture is building the soil. You can build soil in a number of ways, but the easiest and most natural means of improving the health of your soil is seen in the Back to Eden gardening method.
Back to Eden gardening mimics the forest floor, which has some of the richest, healthiest soil that occurs naturally.
To do this, apply several inches of untreated wood chips to your garden every year. The wood chips help retain moisture, and over time, will break down into rich, healthy soil.
The better the soil, the better your plants will grow. If you are strictly container gardening, you can easily bring in bags of potting soil formulated for your specific needs.
Compost is an excellent way to add fertility to your soil. You can accomplish this in a number of ways. You could build your own compost bin in a spot in your backyard, but if space is an issue, you might consider a compost tumbler.
If you live in an apartment, there are indoor composting systems. Some of these systems are worm farms. Worms will keep down any odor, and transform your scraps into worm castings, which are an excellent source of natural fertilizer for your garden.
If you don’t have room to compost at all, you can bury your compost in the garden in the fall and allow it to decompose over the winter, which will help your beds be just right for spring.
Consider building a small hoop house overtop of your compost pile. You can plant in cardboard boxes placed on top of your bins.
If you mix your compost just right, the heat created from the decomposing compost will keep your small greenhouse above freezing so you can continue to grow cold weather crops such as kale.
Animal manure is a great additive to your compost. If you do have your own livestock, you can mix in whatever manure they create to add fertility to your soil.
If you don’t have livestock, you can visit a local farm, and ask if they will give or sell you some. Often, you can find alpaca manure for sale on Craigslist, and many small zoos will package up and sell zoo manure to raise money for the zoo.
Food forests are a very interesting system because they take little to no work once they are established. One example of a food forest is layers of perennials.
For example, fruit and nut trees make up the canopy layer. Below them are planted berry bushes. Around the berry bushes are perennial herbs that will come back year after year.
If you don’t have a yard or balcony, don’t give up on sustainability. You can practice food storage, food preservation, and you can still grow indoors.
A southern-facing, sunny window might have enough sunlight to grow greens and radishes. If not, you can purchase inexpensive grow lights to turn an extra closet into a grow room.
Aquaponics are another means of growing indoors. Microgreens and sprouts take up very little space, need little to no soil, and will grow quickly and easily, giving you fresh greens all year long.
While growing fruits and vegetables will probably be the mainstay of your urban permaculture system, you might be able to have some livestock as part of your system.
Top Urban Permaculture Crops
- Beans and Legumes
- Lettuce and other greens
- Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
- Cucumbers, Squash and Zucchini
Beans and Peas
Peas and beans are an excellent food source in small backyard gardens. They are a great crop for beginners because they are easy to grow, and most varieties will germinate quickly and mature quickly.
They have shallow root systems and are considered to be nitrogen fixers, which means they adjust the nitrogen content of the soil as they grow. They can be eaten fresh, they can be dried, cooked into soups, and even frozen, making them easy to preserve and a great source of protein and calories.
You can save some dried beans to plant again next year. If you need to use vertical space and have a trellis, choose pole beans.
If you don’t have a trellis, you can choose bush varieties which will take a little more ground space but will be just as productive. If needed, you could grow beans and peas in 5 gallon buckets or other large containers.
Radishes are a great resource for backyard gardens. They germinate quickly, and many are ready to eat in as little as 45 days.
They take very little space to grow, and you could easily grow them in containers. For best results, succession plant your radishes every two weeks so you have a continuous supply all summer long.
Although carrots can be a little slow to germinate, they make a great urban crop because you can grow quite a lot in a small space.
They can be succession planted every three weeks for a full growing season’s worth of delicious veggies. There are all varieties and colors available – large, small, and in just about every color of the rainbow.
Lettuces and Greens
Lettuce, spinach, and other salad greens are a highly cost-effective vegetable to add to your garden. Although most greens prefer cooler temperatures, you can find varieties that are more tolerant of the heat.
Plant your greens where they will get a little afternoon sun from taller plants, such as tomatoes and peppers and plant a row every week to two weeks to keep the greens coming.
Cut and come again varieties will keep growing if you cut off some – but not all – of the leaf when you harvest it. Greens take up very little space and could easily grow on a sunny balcony in a container.
Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
If you want to grow a prepper garden in your urban setting, potatoes and sweet potatoes will give you the most calorie bang for your buck. They can easily be grown in grow bags, buckets, or even left-over feed sacks, if you desire.
Potatoes are very calorie dense, and can be preserved in your basement or pantry for the winter. Sweet potatoes grow pretty trailing vines that can add privacy to your balcony. You could grow a couple sweet potatoes in a large hanging basket in a sunny window, if necessary.
Many an urban dweller can easily grow a tomato plant in a container on their balcony or back deck. Tomatoes are easy to grow, take little care, and will provide you with lots of fresh fruit throughout the summer.
They may be one of the easiest vegetables (technically, a fruit) that a new gardener can grow, and often times your local big box stores will sell pots of nearly full-grown plants that you can set out on your porch or balcony.
Cucumbers, Squash, and Zucchini
If you want prolific vegetables, try cucumbers, squash and zucchini. Cucumbers can easily be trellised, as can zucchinis and a number of vining squash varieties.
You can use trellises to create privacy, or grow your veggies on an arch so their fruits hang down, which will save space and make for easier harvesting. You can grow greens in the light shade of the trellis to provide a cooler microclimate for them.
Summer squash will give you plenty of squash in a short period of time during the summer, but winter squash take longer to grow. They are worth the wait because varieties of squash such as butternut or acorn squash will store through most of the winter season.
Fruit trees are an excellent source of food, as well as acting as wind breaks to protect your other plants. Many varieties will grow too large for urban areas, but there are plenty of dwarf varieties that can grow in smaller spaces. You can heavily prune fruit trees to keep them under control.
Other trees can be grown in containers, such as dwarf citrus trees. They can be kept indoors in a sunny window during the winter, when they would go dormant anyway. Then, when the weather is balmy, move them outside to the sunshine where they can grow and be pollinated.
Berries can be a great source of food on your urban garden, and offer plenty of fresh, sweet treats in season. They are easy to grow and will produce plenty of berries without too much effort.
However, birds and squirrels adore them just as much as people, so you might find you need to cover them. Some berries, such as black berries, spread quickly so you may need to do lots of pruning to keep them under control.
Berry bushes can be planted around the base of fruit trees, in an unused corner of yard, or even in flowerbeds in place of rosebushes. Some varieties can be pruned all the way to ground every fall for a neater appearance.
If your area has more traditional HOA requirements, you may not be able to create a garden in your front yard.
Make sure you read the rules and ask questions so you don’t get fined for breaking the rules. However, you might want to foray into edible landscaping, where you add edible plants into your landscaping design.
- Edible flowers. Many flowers are edible and add a delicious flavor to salads, pasta dishes, and soups. Make sure you know which plants are edible and which are not.
- Berry bushes. Berry bushes can be used for landscaping and look pretty as well as producing edible berries.
- Herbs. Perennial herbs can easily be incorporated into your landscaping. Many herbs, such as lavender, echinacea, or thyme can be grown as border plants or placed in between more traditional flowers and shrubs. They’ll add color contrast and interest to your garden and flavor to your cooking.
- Peas. Peas may need to be trellised, but they do have very pretty flowers that look nice in your front and back yard.
Once you know what you want to grow, you’ll need to choose your seeds. There are many options for purchasing seeds and you’ll want to choose the one that works best in your situation.
- Hybrid seeds. Hybrid seeds are seeds that come from a cross of two different varieties of a species. These tend to be bred for certain desirable characteristics, such as being resistant to particular diseases, resistant to bolting, or productivity. However, plants that are grown from hybrid seeds are not usually the best choice for those looking to save their own seeds, as they don’t always breed true for the next generation of plants.
- Heirloom seeds. Generally speaking, heirloom seeds are the little darlings of permaculture. These seeds are from plant varieties that have been around for generations and consistently produce the same results. These seeds are ideal for permaculture gardens because you can collect the seeds and be reasonably assured that the following generations of plants will be the same.
- Organic seeds. Organic seeds go one step further, making sure that the seeds have been produced by plants that are grown under organic conditions. These can be certified organic, or they may just claim to be sold as organic.
Seeds can be purchased from resources such as:
Seeds should be labeled hybrid, heirloom, or organic, depending on how they were grown. Once you have your gardens in place, you can save some of the seed from year to year. This is ideal because you can choose the seeds from the best plants.
Over time, the quality of plants will improve, and be better suited to the growing conditions in your own garden. When you save your own seeds, make sure you label the plant species, variety, and when they were collected. Once they are properly dried, store them in a cool, dry place for next growing season.
The truth is, livestock as part of urban permaculture can be problematic. First and foremost, you need to be concerned about the well-being of your people and your animals.
You’re not going to successfully raise a cow in your apartment, and your landlord certainly isn’t going to allow it anyway.
But depending on your city’s laws and rules, you might be able to have a milk goat or two, a handful of chickens, or simply, some meat rabbits or quail in your backyard.
Livestock can be a source of meat, eggs, and milk if you have the space and are permitted by your local laws. Another benefit of having small livestock is their manure. Manure is an excellent source of fertilizer for your gardens or food forest.
Goat and rabbit manure can be immediately applied to your garden, while chicken manure needs to be composted for a year first.
If your city or town will allow you to have goats, you probably want to stick with a smaller breed, such as Nigerian Dwarf Goats. They need very little housing space – a large doghouse might just do the trick – and about 20 square feet of romping space per goat. If you have enough space, you can get about 1 ½ quarts of milk per day, per goat. But you’ll also need to feed them.
They can eat weeds, and hay, but you’ll likely have to barter or purchase enough to feed them. You’ll also have to deal with their manure and spent bedding. It works great on your compost pile and as fertilizer for your gardens.
Chickens can be controversial. Some cities will allow a few, some will only allow hens, and some won’t allow you to have chickens at all.
Make sure you know the laws in your municipality so you don’t get fined. You’ll also need to feed them, although my chickens do pretty well on table scraps, bugs, and a little chicken feed to round it out.
You’ll need to compost or dispose of the manure, as it is too ‘hot’ to go right on your garden, where it will burn your plants if you use it before it is aged.
Quail might be the best option of livestock for small spaces. Quail have a great feed to egg ratio, meaning they produce the most eggs per feed when compared to other types of fowl.
Quail eggs are small, but they are great consistent layers, so you’ll lots of eggs. The males can be a little noisy, but they are easily butchered over your kitchen sink and can be used as a source of protein.
Quail do not need much space, and you could keep a couple in a cage in the corner of your apartment to give you some eggs. Your quail can eat gamebird food and table scraps like fresh vegetables and their manure can feed your garden.
They are often not regulated by municipalities, but it is safest to check before you bring some home. You can hatch your own quail with an incubator.
We all know rabbits make adorable pets, but there are large breeds that are specifically used for meat. You can grow a few outside in hutches or even in a spare room. They are quiet, and don’t take up a lot of space.
Rabbits can be easily butchered and their manure is terrific fertilizer for gardens. If butchering isn’t for you, that’s ok. It might be worth having a pet rabbit simply for the high-quality manure and they can eat some weeds and vegetable scraps, as well.
Extensive watering can be expensive in urban areas, and sometimes, they are even prohibited. In other areas, you may not be allowed to even collect rainwater.
In this case, you might need to choose crops that need less water. If watering is an issue, consider cool-season crops such as:
- Brussel sprouts
If you are permitted to harvest rainwater in your area, you might consider a rain barrel or other systems to collect rainwater to use on drier days. Some folks will employ a gray water system to water their gardens or lawns as well, but some townships and cities have rules about the use of gray water.
You can easily purchase a rain barrel online or in big box stores, or you can build your own inexpensively. Another clever way to harvest rainwater is to use a small plastic cup or a plastic bottle cut in half to harvest excess rainwater in the plants’ pots like so:
Food preservation is another aspect of urban permaculture to consider. Once you grow your produce, what will you do with it?
There are many methods of preserving, including canning, dehydrating, freezing, and freeze drying. Other produce, such as apples or potatoes, can be cured and stored.
If you are unable to grow all of the produce that you want to preserve, you can try swapping with neighbors, or visiting your local farmers’ market. If you shop at the end of the weekend, vendors may be willing to make a deal on the leftover produce so they don’t have to carry it all back home.
You can find reasonable prices on all kinds of fresh, local produce. You’ll be helping local farmers, cutting down on the costs of having food shipped in from other parts of the country, and saving money for your family.
Earning Money from Your Urban Garden
Urban permaculture isn’t just about subsistence, it can also include ways to earn money from your urban paradise. There are plenty of ways to make money from your garden, if your locale permits. Here are just a few easy ideas to get you started:
- Sell seedlings. Purchasing seedlings from the store can be expensive. You can start seeds for your own garden, and sell the extras to neighbors, friends, and passersby (so long as you are in accordance with your local laws).
- Sell extra produce. If you’re inundated with squash, cucumbers, or other produce, you may be able to set up a small produce stand. People love stopping at cute little sheds for produce that is grown locally and sustainably.
- Give tours. If you’ve set up your systems well, other people will want to see them. You can charge to give small tours or even permaculture lessons once you know what you are doing.
- Help others. Once other folks in your area see what you are doing in your backyard, they may want to set up a permaculture system of their own. You can use what you’ve learned to help them get started, too.
There are many different ways to employ the principles of urban permaculture. For more information, check out some of these resources by gardening and permaculture experts.
- Urban Permaculture by David Watkins
- The Suburban Micro-Farm by Amy Stross
- The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan
- The Urban Farmer by Curtis Stone
- The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier
- The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman
- Indoor Edible Garden by Zia Allaway
- 17 Gardening Tips that Are Perfect for Small Spaces
- Urban Gardening Techniques
- Urban Agriculture in Philly
- A Starter Guide to Urban Gardening
- What Is Urban Gardening
- Urban Permaculture Guild
- Permaculture Research Institute
Amanda is a homesteader and a Jesus-loving, mother of 6 toddlers. She’s raising lots of fancy chickens and goats on her small homestead (among other things).