Compact gardening – Part 3

Design Principles

Water Permaculture

When you have limited space available for your garden it is important that you maximize the use of the space. A thorough plan will save you a lot of time and effort in the future. That said, you are free to change things on the way! Over time you will see what works and what can be improved. Some plants may not like their location and need to be moved while others grow too large and need more space. You might feel that you want more open space or that you want to dedicate more land for cultivation. Your requirements and wishes may change over time, but having a first initial plan will help you in creating a flourishing and abundant garden.

In this section I will talk a bit about different design principles that you can use when designing your compact garden. I will describe how you can plan in zones, how to make sure that every element in the garden has more than one function and how to integrate water into your design. Having your own water supply becomes more and more important each year that goes by and having one will secure your harvest, even if there would be a severe drought.



In Permaculture we roughly divide our designs into zones which are based on how much human intervention is needed for each element or section of the garden. When designing a small garden it is not sure that you will be able to apply all zones described, but they are good to know about. The zones are rarely distinctly divided but rather they tend to enclose or overlap each other.

Here follows a brief description of the different zones, loosely based on an article from the UK Permaculture Association. The idea is that the zones will help you save time and keep plants that need daily attention nearby, whereas plants which only needs a check every now and then can be placed further away.

Zone 0: The house or center of activities of your garden. Here you place plants and other elements that require a lot of care and maintenance (usually things that need daily attention).

Zone 1: Space for annual plants, herbs, plant propagation, storage of garden tools, compost and greenhouse. This zone is often irrigated.

Zone 2: Orchard, polytunnels, dense planting and space for keeping chickens, ducks or other small livestock.

Zone 3: Larger water storage, crops needing less attention, sheep, cows and other larger livestock.

Zone 4: Forest for fuel and/or construction, forage, pastures.

Zone 5: Wild zone, spaces we try to leave to their own and only harvest such plants which are abundant. A great zone for studying nature and its works.

In your compact garden you will most probably be designing mainly for zones 0 and 1, but try to bring in elements from the other zones – especially if you don’t have much forest land nearby your garden. Some examples could be integrating some fruit trees (zone 2), securing the water supply with a pond or larger rain barrel (zone 3), including some higher trees or bushes for shade and for supplying mulch (zone 4) and creating a space for pollinating insects through building an insect hotel (zone 5).

Trying to imitate nature through creating a compact “forest” is a fantastic way of designing a garden. It will be less prone to being invaded by pests and it won’t dry up as fast as if you would be growing vegetables in long rows on flat ground. The word forest might sound exaggerated when cultivating plants on a balcony, but the principles are the same to make sure you design a sustainable system where plants grow in different layers to utilize the space at maximum capacity.

If you look closely at nature most patterns are possible to scale. I often compare this to a concept in (philosophical) alchemy, where the ideas of microcosm and macrocosm are very important. (In physics and math this is called scale invariance.) The idea is that whatever you find on a small scale you will also find reflected on a larger scale and you often see this in nature. The shape of a snail’s house follows the same spiral principle as a galaxy. A forest can fit in a pot or on mile wide lands – the functions of the plants will be the same. You can apply the same kind of thinking in your garden.

Permaculture Chickens


In Permaculture we focus on making sure that each element that we integrate in a design has as many different functions as possible. One example could be a leguminous plant (for instance a bean) which helps fixing nitrogen from the air into the soil and of course you can also eat them. After harvesting you can cut down the remaining parts of the plant to use them as mulch directly on top of the soil or add them to your compost to break down and provide nutrients. The chicken is another classic example. A chicken helps you remove weed and pests in the garden through eating and scratching, it helps loosen up the soil structure, it provides fertilization, you get eggs, you can eat the chicken once it’s old, it provides heat if you integrate the chicken coop into your greenhouse during winter and much more.

As mentioned before, some plants help deter pests and thus protect other plants. Others provide beneficial chemical substances to the soil, high ones can act as support for climbing plants or provide shade to lower ones. Try to include this way of thinking into your design. Think about the functions that each plant you have chosen can perform and try putting plants that are beneficial to each other together.


Water is one of the most important resources in your garden and if possible you should try to design a way to create a free water supply. Tap water is expensive, rain water is free. At longer periods of drought it is common that the authorities prohibit irrigation of gardens since the water is needed mainly for drinking.

The easiest way of creating a fairly reliable water supply (if not living in an extremely dry climate) is to get a rain barrel or container or build a pond which collects rain water. If possible, try to catch rain water from the roof of your house. It is an excellent way of collecting large amounts of water. If you cultivate on a roof terrace, be careful with the weight. A large rain barrel is very heavy. It is better to split it up into several smaller containers which you can distribute over the surface.

Small water elements such as a birdbath or a few buckets or watering pots standing around provide a better climate and natural moisture to your garden.

Make sure to protect your water elements from drying out. Put a lid on your rain barrel and make sure to plant water plants protecting the surface of your pond or have trees shading it.

Water Permaculture
If you only have a small balcony with no space for a rain barrel, try using waste water from inside. (Note: Make sure not to use dish water or similar containing chemicals since they will be too concentrated to pour directly onto your plants.) Wash your potatoes in a bucket and use the water in your garden afterwards. Minimize the need for irrigation through covering the ground with mulch. Self-watering pots are also smart and there are simple screw-on tips which you can attach to a standard PET bottle and push into the pot or container to provide even moisture to the soil if you need to go away for some days.

Swales are a term that I will talk more about in the next article. The basic principle of creating a swale is building up ridges or digging ditches along parts of land with high water run-off. The idea is to block the water from running off and force it to seep into the ground instead. Saving as much water as you can inside the soil is one of the absolute best way to prevent drought.
Save water using mulch to prevent evaporation and if you can install a drip irrigation system this is far better than watering from above. You use less water and the plants absorb it directly via the roots.

Watering with sprinklers or a hose should preferably be done in the evening or early in the morning – else a lot of the water will evaporate during the day and some plants risk getting burn damage on their leaves.

Your activities:

Question: What examples of the concepts of macrocosm and microcosm in nature can you think of besides spirals?
Task: Choose an element in your garden and describe the functions it performs. A suggestion would be analyzing a pond.

Here is a quick analysis of the different functions of a compost heap in a garden.

  • Breaks down plant remains which take up space
  • Provides nutrition to the soil
  • Improves the soil structure and ability to hold water
  • Provides habitat for worms and important micro organisms
  • Provides heat which can be used for growing frost sensitive plants nearby
  • Provides habitat for hedgehogs

Feel free to fill in more functions you come up with.

In the next section I will describe how these principles can be implemented through designing with the help of different shapes. You will also get tips on different plant containers and how to integrate layers in your design.
Remember to share your progress using #mycompactgarden!

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About Veronica (166 Articles)
Veronica is the founder of With one foot in the past and one in the future she takes inspiration from older aesthetics and ideas to apply them in updated form today. She is passionate about teaching timeless skills and believes that the world needs more polymaths.

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