How To Start A Permaculture Nursery

There’s a growing interest in permaculture, prompted by influential books, charismatic case studies, and the wonders of growing abundance from the bare earth. But nurseries are special cases requiring the careful nurture of fragile saplings and various plants. How does permaculture address that problem?

Permaculture Nursery

Broader permaculture principles are used to grow seedlings in nurseries. Understanding what thrives in the natural environment and applying techniques like layering and zoning allow nurseries to be started with small plots. The businesses should be designed around local grower needs.

Understanding the path starts with considering permaculture principles and methods. Nurseries are businesses, and we’ll also consider the principles and techniques for growing seed capital.

What Is A Permaculture Nursery

Permaculture nurseries generate saplings and other plantable stock for resale, using permaculture principles. Applying this principle requires a variety of species and breeds.

A quick path is to graft trees by hand and root shrub cuttings and well as grow plants from seed. This route is cheaper than purchasing stock from commercial sources.

The permaculture model relies on plants that are nitrogen-fixing in many cases and generally adaptable in their local environments. This adaptation includes wind resistance, provision of bee forage, and proneness to thrive under conditions of local adversity.

Potted Goji Berry Plants

Permaculture nursing is an iterative process that should be primed for trial and error. This iteration allows adjustment to a range of local cultural facets.

Starting with between fifty and one hundred seedlings and saplings, planting them under different conditions will reveal the optimal growing configurations.

Permaculture Design Principles For Nurseries

Permaculture is shaped by a set of twelve principles articulated by David Holmgren. We might define a permaculture nursery as a nursery developed in conformance with these principles.

These principles should be adopted from the outset, as they also shape the planning. Below we show how they can be adapted for the permaculture nursery. The principles are:

  1. Observe and Interact: Study the land you intend to use and understand what thrives there. Make detailed observations of the varieties that thrive under local conditions. Speak to locals with expert knowledge.

The imperative to observe also applies to the market. Understand the local demand for plants, and plan your produce at the intersection of demand and what the land yields best.

  • Catch and Store Energy: Water is the first source of energy to be trapped. Any adjacent water sources and rainwater should be caught and harvested. When using a greenhouse, minimize leakage.
  • Obtain a Yield: Plan tree and plant stock that will give an investable yield. Use collateral land to grow food. Education is a yield, and running volunteer programs and open days should also be considered.
  • Self-Regulate and Gather Feedback: Document the process carefully and review the reports regularly. Involve volunteers and other growers to pore over the feedback. Refine the nursery’s systems and practices accordingly.
  • Harness Renewable Resources: Solar and geothermal are the go-to sources for renewable energy in a permaculture nursery. Low-grade geothermal can be accessed by tapping heat stores below the frost line. Ground heat and solar panels can maximize renewable energy storage.

If you have access to an adjoining stream, consider micro-hydro sources to access energy from the water.

  • Produce no Waste: Compost aggressively. All organic waste should be binned for mulch. Runoff water should be harvested and reused.
  • Design From Patterns: Start with studying water movement patterns on the land. Obtain a general design for a nursery and adapt it to the water flow identified. The main design elements would be tree beds, seedling beds, walkways, the forest garden, and supporting structures.
  • Integrate Don’t Segregate: Research and implement co-growing between local varieties. This will be gained from interacting with local experts and growers in similar climes. Minimize the use of walls in your design.
  • Use Small Slow Solutions:  Limit, and where possible, eliminate automation. Permaculture nurseries should be nurtured by hand. Scale up by starting with a small patch of the land and extending over time.
  • Use and Value Diversity: Plan a crop that spans several species and varieties. Understand which strains grow together in the local environment and plant accordingly.

Maintain different habitats: Mix orchard, wild forest, vegetable garden, and greenhouse. Use a blend of growing techniques, including traditional organic methods, permaculture, and forest gardening.

  • Use Edges and Value the Marginal: Study the growth at the edges of different habitats, and experiment by switching species adjacency over time. Usually, these margins are the site of the most diverse flourishing.
  • Creatively Use and Respond to Change: Tabulate the elements that change over time and list ways of positively responding to the change. These elements will include changes in consumer preferences and patterns, seasonal changes, and changes in staffing.

Anticipate adverse changes and seek to frame them as opportunities.

The Permaculture Nursery

Here we will list the elements required for a successful permaculture nursery.

What Is The Role Of Water In A Permaculture Nursery?

Water stewardship is a critical feature of permaculture gardens. Water is typically stored in the soil, with rainwater harvesting and welling also used. In the first phase – “observe and interact” – a study over time of water flow should be understood and worked with in a way that makes the most sense.

Usually, only a fraction of the rainfall on a piece of land reaches the roots of its flora. Permaculture design slows the water flow over the area, allowing maximum time for ground penetration.

Start by finding the highest point on the land and then studying water flow patterns from that point. Shape the land from the apex to allow meandering flow over the total area.

Do You Need Land For A Permaculture Nursery?

The availability of land is primary and generally what provided the impetus to start a nursery. It is more profitable to use backyard space at startup than hire land.

The basic qualities sought are soil fertility, moisture content, nutritional presence, and non-toxicity. Permaculture thrives off a variety of habitats, and your nursery will want to mimic this. The tractability of the land to rearing different strains in an ecosystem is key.

At the outset, treat the land with a thick layer of mulch. With frequent watering, the mulch should be left to decompose. A rainwater collection system will further feed the nursery.

When planting over a grassland, it may be necessary to replace the grass. This can be done by suppressing with hay bales, which will trigger decomposition over time. Weighted mulch bags and layers of cardboard can be used to repurpose a lawn.

Learn To Grow From Cuttings, Crowns, and Roots In Permaculture Nurseries

At the outset, you need to acquire a few cuttings, crowns, and roots of the target varieties. Either purchase them or cut them directly from shrubs and plants. For growing from cuttings cut the stems to contain at least three nodes each.

Growing from cuttings, crowns, and roots can be simple for some plants (such as elderberry and comfrey) but difficult from others. By doing research and much trial and error you can do a lot to expand the stock of your nursery by learning these techniques.

Free Plants for Everyone: The Good Guide to Plant Propagation
  • David The Good (Author)
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  • 190 Pages - 05/29/2019 (Publication Date) - Castalia House (Publisher)

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What Are The Right Tools For A Permaculture Nursery?

Simple tools available from a standard hardware shop are all you need. These are involved in the cutting, grafting, trimming, cleaning, and mulching operations. Tools to include are:

  • Pruners
  • Garden hose
  • Buckets
  • Spades
  • Rakes
  • Garden forks

See a more comprehensive list of permaculture hand tools here.

How Do Permaculture Nurseries Feature Greenhouses?

Greenhouses traditionally run from east to west in order to have maximum exposure to the sun. Study the sun’s path over the winter months and optimize exposure accordingly.

Recycled windows are in keeping with permaculture principles, although glass is inefficient in retaining heat. Consider plastic sheets.

Locating the bottom of the greenhouse below the frost line ensures heat throughout the year. This heat can be tapped by installing an underground piping system for heat transfer – bringing the warmth below the frost line to seedbeds on the greenhouse floor.

Nursery Greehnouse

The greenhouse should be used to house starting seeds, plants with a high heat requirement, and crops with prolonged seasonal growth. Keep hardy seeds out of the greenhouse.

Greenhouses are ideal for protecting long-season saplings from extreme variations in temperatures.

Learning To Graft Is A Must For Starting A Permaculture Nursery

This is a method for attaching scion (fruiting wood) of the desired variety of fruit trees onto the existing rootstock of a similar or related species. It is a useful technique for producing true-to-type multiples of a given cultivar quickly.

A good selection of rootstock leaves room for error. Feel free to experiment widely, informed by which varieties work in the local conditions. This cross-matching of types reveals new breeds that have different forms of resilience in their local conditions.


The Permaculture Nursery Business

Financial sustainability is part of the equation. The nursery needs to be planned and operated as a proper business to ensure its viability.

The Permaculture Nursery Business Plan

The business plan must evolve with the business, anticipating its next growth phase and adapting to reality as it unfolds. Key elements of the business plan are:

  • Type of Business: There are three types of nursery business-
    • Landscape Nurseries: These often have an in-house landscape service that consumes the produce. The value proposition and market segmentation need to be planned separately. Their surplus is diverted into retail sales.
    • Retail Nurseries: These sell to homeowners and landscapers. They operate off small acreage and are a likely model for a small-capitalization startup.
    • Wholesale Nurseries: Contract growers generate large volumes for on-sale to retail distributors and landscapers. A wholesale permaculture nursery would likely evolve in time from a smaller operation.
  • Market Definition: The permaculture principle of “observe and interact” applies equally to discover the target market segment. This interactive process includes discussing requirements with a sample of prospective buyers. Sales projections should be based on this research.
  • Site Selection: For a startup, this usually is forced by circumstance. The business plan should cater to the expansion of the site and project volumes based accordingly.
  • Labor Requirements: Labor is a big part of the running cost of a nursery. This is the key expense to leverage as the operation scales up.
  • Nursery Design: The iterative nursery design described above should be linked to both sale and capital projections in the plan.
  • Capital Requirement: The scale of the operation should match the investment needed in capital equipment and working capital. Realistic assumptions should be entered about the scale of operations that can be sustained off profits – as well as the likelihood of turning an early profit at all.
The Easy Way to Start a Home-Based Plant Nursery and Make Thousands in Your Spare Time
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Do Permaculture Nurseries Have An Online Presence?

Customers will expect an online presence from a viable business. This is part of their shopping process and gives them insight into the varieties on offer. Benefits to the client include:

  • Understanding the value proposition of your nursery.
  • You are creating an opportunity to view a larger selection of your stock than is presently on sale. This is important in maintaining an ongoing interest in what you do.
  • Contact opportunities. An online presence allows clients to submit queries and interact with other clients, creating a community around your permaculture nursery.
  • News. Clients get gardening ideas to sustain their interest in gardening. This, in turn, retains active clientele for your business.
Gardener On Video

Be sure to keep a watch on new social platforms that offer trending content. Consider how to generate and present content linked to your nursery.


The seeds for a permaculture nursery are all around. A keen permaculturist can scale up a profitable operation off minimal investment by getting to know what thrives in your environment – from the soil to the store shelves.

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