By improving the soil physical properties, available nutrients, and biological activity, along with deep soil quality, the garden has the foundation for healthy plant growth. The effort put into digging these beds ensures that every plant put into the garden has enough space to allow full root and leaf growth without creating competition with neighboring plants, one of the keys of bio-intensive planting. The process also allows crops to be planted closer together than normal practice, helping maximize crop yields while reducing moisture loss. In addition, gardeners can get creative and use fences, trellises, or sticks to grow plants vertically.

There are many things for gardeners to consider when deciding what to plant, when to plant, and how to plant. The goal of the permagarden is to maximize production of nutritious crops throughout the year. Therefore, the planting decisions in the permagarden should reflect how the gardener plans to achieve this goal. This section of the manual details the bio-intensive approach and provides guidance on how best to plan for and plant permagarden beds while taking into account the following:

Seed availability.

Triangular plant spacing.

Transplanting and seed spacing.


Crop rotation and multicropping.

Succession planting.

Nutritional decisions in planting.

Other plants in the garden.

Seed availability

One benefit of the permagarden method is that it uses locally available plants and varieties, and the garden is designed to utilize the types of plants that are accessible. Gardeners should be encouraged to use indigenous varieties that people already eat locally and that are readily available in the informal market. The seeds gathered for the garden should reflect a household’s diverse diet.

Planting a diverse set of plants is good for the household diet and helps limit pests in the garden. In most areas, there are many different local varieties of greens, squashes, beans and other vegetables and plants. Households might have different preferences based on taste, cooking time, availability, days to harvest, or storage, all of which should be considered when deciding which crops to grow.

Since most permagardens are small, few seeds are required to fill the garden beds and berms. Neighbors, friends, and family may have seeds or plants that they are willing to share. Many perennial herbs, such as lemongrass and aloe, can be divided and replanted. Fodder plants and grasses can similarly be divided and planted strategically to provide food for animals. Where possible, gardeners should also be encouraged to save seeds of certain plants. The permagarden method can also help strengthen and promote varieties that are well adapted to local environmental and cultural conditions, as well as pests and diseases.

In addition to planning for the current season’s garden, a gardener should also plan for future planting cycles. Gardeners should plan ahead to save and store seeds when appropriate or to save money to purchase seeds for the next season. This is an opportunity for program staff to teach skills around financial literacy and basic budgeting, planning, and saving practices.13

Triangular plant spacing

Bio-intensive planting uses a triangular approach when planting most crops in the garden, rather than the usual square or rectangular pattern. This allows a greater density of plants per square meter, which increases yields and creates a beneficial microclimate in the bed. Using a triangular spacing method, where the sides of the triangle are all the same length, means planting seeds or seedlings at their correct spacing at an angle from one another instead of in a straight row, a process that is described below.

Deep soil quality allows crops to be planted closer together. By using close, precise triangular spacing (see photo), plant density, plant health, and overall yield per square meter are maximized. The close leaf canopy maximizes sun to the leaves and shade over the soil, increasing photosynthesis and decreasing moisture loss from evaporation. As a result, up to 30% more plants can fit within a given space and each plant has the potential to be 2–3 times as productive.

Overall yield increases while labor spent watering decreases.

Benefits of triangular spacing

Increases plant density Deeper roots allow closer spacing, resulting in growing more plants in a given area.

Increases plant/root health Allows better capture of moisture and carbon dioxide.

Increases root quantity Results in more organic material and biological activity.

More information around financial planning can be found in The Tops Program’s Farming for a Profit: Technical Guidance for Smallholder Financial Planning guide, profit-technical-guidance-smallholder-financial-planning

Decreases weed pressure From canopy shading of bare soil.

Decreases water requirements From canopy shading of bare soil and less moisture loss.

Decreases erosion From decreasing speed and impact of rain on the soil.

Regulates soil temperature From increased canopy shading on the soil.

How to plant using triangular spacing (Appendix 5)

  1. Choose the garden bed to be planted.
  2. Select seedlings for planting (seeds can also be directly sown this way, though it is most commonly used for transplanted seedlings).
  3. Locate a straight stick that is the length of the correct between-plant spacing for the crop (see charts below).
  4. Use the stick to mark planting locations along the end of the bed. Dig those holes by hand.
  5. Use the stick to form a triangle between two of the holes and a point further into the bed. Dig a new hole at that point. All three sides of the triangle formed by the three points should be the same length.
  6. Continue until all holes have been dug. After the whole bed is marked and dug, the pattern should appear as many small triangles.
  7. Water the holes and then plant the seedlings, ensuring that all the roots are covered with soil.
  8. After covering the plants’ roots with soil, water again and apply mulch.

Triangular plant spacing.

Correct plant spacing maximizes yields

Photograph: Thomas Cole

Transplanting and seed spacing

There must be enough space in the garden for each plant to grow, but not so much space that production drops because plant spacing is not maximized. The permagarden method uses closer plant spacing than many gardeners may be used to. Less space is needed between the plants because the deep-dug beds allow the roots to go down deeper into the soil rather than being forced sideways in search of nutrients, which means there is less competition between the plants for soil air, water, and nutrients. Below are two tables that describe the space needed between seeds and seedlings in a permagarden bed.

Seed spacing for direct-seeded crops
CropSpacing in garden bed (cm)
Amaranth (seed/greens)Broadcast lightly, thin to (30 cm/15 cm)
Beans (dry/green) and cowpea15 cm
CarrotsBroadcast lightly, thin to 5 cm
Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)10–15 cm
Garlic (cloves)10 cm
Groundnuts22 cm
Irish potatoes (sprouted tubers)25 cm
Maize30 cm
Millet15 cm
Onions (use root portion from past crop)15 cm
Pumpkins100 cm (allow to spread within bed)
Radishes5 cm
Sweet potatoes (stem cuttings)25 cm
Wheat12 cm
Zucchini45 cm (can plant hill with 2 per hill)

Seed spacing (in trays) for transplanted seedlings

CropSpacing in seed nursery tray/bed (cm)Spacing in garden bed (cm)
Broccoli5 cm45 cm
Cabbage5 cm45 cm
Cucumber5 cm30 cm (train to grow up trellis)
Eggplant5 cm45 cm
Kale5 cm20 cm
Head LettuceBroadcast then thin to 6 cm25 cm
Onion5 cm (or less)15 cm
Pepper (sweet or hot)5 cm45 cm
SpinachBroadcast then thin to 6 cm12 cm
Swiss Chard5 cm20 cm
Tomato5 cm45 cm (stake up with poles)


To ensure quality growth while limiting water use, most vegetable plants, with the exception of legumes and root crops, should be planted in garden beds as seedlings so that they have the best chance for survival and a productive life. Less water is required to grow these plants in a nursery bed than in a garden because the soil is shallower, allowing less water to flow away from the small roots of the seedlings. Additionally, when the time comes to transplant them to the garden,

a gardener can easily choose only the healthiest plants. There are many benefits to planting the permagarden using seedlings transplanted from a well-protected and fertile nursery bed.

Uses less seed compared with seeding a whole permagarden. Uses less water than in the main permagarden.

Provides more protection from pests and weather for vulnerable, germinating seeds and young seedlings, promoting better germination rates and healthier plants.

Reduces the time to harvest in the permagarden itself, allowing for more crop cycles during the year.

Enables more uniform spacing and more efficient resource use (e.g., of sun, nutrients, and land).

Accelerates time to canopy cover in the permagarden and to realize the advantages of close plant spacing (described on page 41).

How to prepare a seedling nursery for a permagarden
  1. Prepare soft, well-aerated soil (compost mixed with topsoil and sand is a good mix) in a small section of a garden bed, directly into small boxes, or wrapped in a banana leaf. Moisten the surface, allowing water to soak down at least 5 cm.
  2. Sow seeds 1–2 cm deep and close together using triangular spacing according to the Seed Spacing Chart (see page 43). Cover the seed with soil and firm the soil lightly. Gently water the entire surface. Water should be reapplied before the soil dries out; this is where compost is particularly useful as it helps retain moisture around the developing seedlings.
  3. Cover this small prepared area with a simple thatch structure to keep intense sun and heavy rain off the fragile seedlings once they emerge from the soil. As the seedlings emerge (within 1–2 weeks), gradually increase the amount of sunlight that they receive so that by the time they are 4 weeks old they are strong enough for transplanting into individual boxes and then, at 7–8 weeks, are ready to be planted into the garden bed itself. As seedlings

grow, it is important to thin out weak or overcrowded plants, ensuring that each strong seedling is given the proper spacing in the nursery bed to grow healthy and vigorous.

  • After 7–8 weeks when seedlings have strong stems and at least three sets of leaves, they are ready to be planted at their proper spacing in the permagarden.
  • Make a small hole in the garden where each seedling will be planted based on the guidelines in the Seed Spacing Chart (see page 43). The hole should be the same depth as the soil in the seedling container.
  • Carefully remove the seedling and soil from the container, keeping the soil intact. Make sure the larger roots are intact and are extended.
  • Place one seedling in each hole. Brush soil around the seedling so that the roots are covered but all of the leaves are above ground level. Lightly firm the soil around the seedling.
  • Water the seedling. Keep the soil moist over the next several days.

Crop rotation and multicropping

With the proper climate, resources, and management, it is possible to grow continuous crops of vegetables throughout the year in the permagarden. This requires using crop rotation and intercropping principles, as well as staggering plantings, instead of planting everything all at once. These principles help provide continual harvests of healthy vegetables and disrupt pest and disease cycles in the garden.

Crop rotation is the practice of moving crops from one bed to another, or from one place in a bed to another place in the same bed, from season to season. Crop rotation in a permagarden provides both nutrients to the crops for the household and nutrients for the soil. This is contrary to the widespread practice of planting the same crop in the same place in the garden every year. Crop rotation is arguably one of the most important agricultural practices to both enhance soil fertility and limit garden pests and diseases.

Benefits of crop rotation Greater control of pests. Reduction in soil-borne diseases. Maintenance of soil structure.

Balance and management of soil nutrients and fertility.

As different crops have different nutrient needs, rotation allows successive crops in the garden to use the nutrients available to them most efficiently. A good rotation plan that optimizes nutrients in this way is leaf then fruit then root then legume.

Leaf crops (amaranth, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, kale, maize, sorghum, spinach) enjoy lots of nitrogen, so they should be planted ‘first’ in a newly prepared and fertilized garden bed.

The following season, plant a fruit crop (cucumber, eggplant, gourd, Irish potato, melon, pepper, pumpkin, squash, tomato) that likes some nitrogen, but that needs more phosphorus for proper flower development. Too much nitrogen will result in tomatoes that are ‘all plant, no fruit’ and could develop various imbalances that cause blossom end rot or make the plants susceptible to fungal diseases.

Next plant a root crop (beets, carrots, garlic, leeks, onions, radishes, shallots, sweet potatoes, turnips), as they require even less nitrogen, but need more potassium for proper root development.

Then plant a legume (beans, groundnuts, peas), which will use few nutrients while adding nitrogen back into the soil through the process of atmospheric nitrogen fixation.

Start the whole process over again with a leaf crop.

Permagarden beds make crop rotation simple. Don’t change the location of the beds; rather, change what is planted in each from season to season. Following a good crop rotation plan will also break the pest and disease cycles, which will yield healthier, stronger plants and will reduce or eliminate the need for potentially dangerous pesticides. Before planting any new crop, however,

additional compost is needed to maintain micronutrient-rich organic matter and beneficial microbe levels.

Although crop rotation is a good technique to use due to the benefits described above, the goal of a permagarden is to have a continual variety of food plants available for harvest. Therefore, as well as crop rotation, it is best to also practice multicropping in the same space.

Multicropping is the practice of growing two or more crops in the same space at the same time. Groups of multicropping plants that grow well together or share some cultural benefit are known as ‘companion’ plants. Multicropping takes advantage of qualities or traits of one crop that can affect the growth of other crops or can help lead to higher overall yields. Some of the important approaches to multicropping include:

Using space within the soil profile optimally by planting shallow- and deep- rooted plants together.

Mixing slow- and fast-growing crops in the same space so they don’t compete. Growing heavy feeders and light feeders that require nutrients in different amounts from the soil together.

Sowing aromatic plants that can help protect non-aromatic plants.

Planting flowering plants that provide pollen and nectar for beneficial insects (‘good’ bugs that eat ‘bad’ bugs).

Staggered succession planting with amaranth
  1. Gather local amaranth seed.
  2. Smooth and prepare first 1/3 of a garden bed.
  3. Scatter seeds, cover and water.
  4. Wait 2 weeks.
  5. Repeat seeding, covering and watering on next 1/3 of the garden bed.
  6. Wait 2 weeks.
  7. Repeat final 1/3 planting.
  8. Harvest and eat from first 1/3 of the bed.
Photo showing intercropped vegetables in a permagarden. Photograph by Thomas Cole.

Planting crops that attract and trap pests next to other high-value crops. Planting crops that grow in different ways above soil, e.g., climbers or vines planted with bush plants.

Succession planting

One of the keys to creating a garden that can be harvested throughout the year is succession planting. Succession planting involves planting new crops right after one is harvested, planting multiple crops with different maturity dates in the same space, and planting crops at staggered dates to harvest at different times. With proper management, it is possible to grow continuous crops of vegetables through one or all of these succession methods. This is also one of the key ways to extend the season of a certain vegetable. Additionally, this type of succession or multicrop planting can help to increase overall garden yield, pest control, nutrient management, space utilization and wise use of resources, such as water and improved soil quality and health.

Succession planting (above).

Intercropped vegetables in the permagarden (right).

Photographs: Thomas Cole

Planting a garden near the household (above).

Permagardens provide a regular supply of nutritious vegetables for the family (right).

Photographs: Thomas Cole

Nutritional decisions in planting

This section was adapted from the Sustainable Nutrition Manual by Stacia Nordin.14 For a more in-depth explanation, please refer to that manual.

A permagarden can provide households with access to a wide variety of foods and medicinal plants throughout the year. With careful planning, a permagarden can help achieve a complete human diet. A complete human diet is a diet that provides sufficient calories (the amount of energy provided in food) and all the required nutrients. A household garden is a key resource to help provide access to a complete diet. It can provide many of the fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains and roots needed for a balanced diet, as well as, animal protein if animals such as chickens are integrated into the garden design.15 In addition, the household is much more likely to consume the nutrients it needs when the fruits and vegetables are conveniently located next to the house or just outside the kitchen.

Classes of nutrients

There are six major classes of nutrients required for the human diet.

Proteins help make the body strong. Bones, hair, muscle and skin are built from proteins.

Carbohydrates provide energy that is not stored in the body for long periods of time.

  1. Fats provide energy that can be stored in the body for long periods of time, if needed. Any excess energy that a person consumes is stored as fat.

Vitamins protect the body from infection and disease.

Minerals allow the body to perform essential functions in bones, teeth, blood, skin and hair.

Water allows the body to maintain all its functions and continually removes waste products. The body cannot survive more than a few days without water.

Functions of nutrients

These six classes of nutrients work together to perform three essential functions: provide energy, protect the body from disease, and promote growth. As described in the Sustainable Nutrition Manual, these three functions can be explained with the Go, Glow, Grow explanation:

Energy foods (GO) Several nutrients provide energy: carbohydrates (from grains, roots, legumes, nuts, and fruits) and fats (from animals foods, oilseeds, nuts, some legumes such as soybean, and some fruits such as avocado or coconut) provide us with energy. Ideally, most energy should come from carbohydrates, and a little from fats. These nutrients provide the energy a gardener needs to do daily activities. While balancing our energy intake from these three nutrients, at the same time it is important to get as much glow and grow as we can from our energy sources.

Protection foods (GLOW) Vitamins, minerals and water are the most important nutrients for protection. All of the food groups can provide vitamins and minerals, but they are especially high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, oilseeds, animal foods and water. Grains and tubers can provide vitamins when they are eaten as ‘whole grains’ or with their edible skins (for example, cleaning an Irish potato well and cooking and eating it with its skin on).

Building foods (GROW) Protein is the main nutrient that helps the body grow. Key protein-rich foods include animal-source foods, legumes, and nuts. Most protein-rich foods also provide minerals. Protein deficiency is a common problem in many developing countries.

Eating a balanced diet

Food groups

A healthy diet is a balanced diet.

Fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts combined, should cover more than half a plate of food.

Staples (cereals, roots, and tubers) should cover just over a quarter of the plate.

Animal foods should be included, at least in small amounts.

Fats and oils should be included in the smallest amounts, usually mixed with other foods on the plate.

Figure showing two circles divided into different sized slices. The left circle has pictures of foods in each slice, the right one has labels. About a third of the circle is staples, about a fifth is fruits, another fifth is vegetables. The remaining thirs is divided into three more or less equal parts with Legumes and Nuts being the biggest, then animal foods and last fats and oils. Source: Nordin, Stacia A balanced diet.

The visual representation below of a balanced, varied diet shows that there are many options for each food group; it does NOT mean that you have to eat all those foods in one day.

You do not have to eat all the food groups at every meal, but by the end of the day all the food groups should have been included.

How much of each food group do I need?

Adult food needs by food groupsKCal (per day)KCal (%)Per day (g)Per year (kg)
StaplesGrains                              Tubers                838 240            38 11          250 250      91.3 91.3
Legumes and nutsPlant proteins5882615055
Foods from animalsAnimal proteins5837527

Planning for a balanced diet

To increase household nutrition, it is not enough to just produce the foods described; each individual in the household must consume them. Therefore, programs should pair home garden production with lessons about food planning and consumption and ideally include hands-on activities to prepare and eat balanced meals together.

The nutritional messages complementing permagardens should focus on the key nutritional imbalances for the local region. The main nutrition imbalances that impact human health and productivity in most developing countries include:

Excess carbohydrates (cereals, tubers and refined sugars). Inadequate protein and fat consumption.

Inadequate vitamin and mineral consumption.

By balancing and diversifying agriculture and the diet using the food groups described above, the nutrient imbalances that are currently seen in developing countries can be reduced.

A good strategy to improve household nutrition is to design and plant a permagarden that contains a diversity from the food groups that are often lacking: fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts.

Brightly colored fruits and vegetables, especially orange, yellow, and dark green leaves have higher levels of vitamins and minerals than light colors. Some vegetables and fruits also have edible seeds that are high in fat, protein and minerals (for example, pumpkin seeds or melon seeds).

Legumes and nuts are high in proteins, vitamins, minerals and some are also high in fat.

The following table contains the key nutrients that are often lacking in a diet, the foods that contain those nutrients, and the function of those nutrients in

the body.

Key vitamins
NutrientFruitsVegetablesLegumes and nutsAnimal foodsFats and oilsStaplesFunctions
Vitamin ADark orange or red fruitsDark leafy greens Orange or red vegetables Milk Butter FishPalm oil Moringa oil Fish ButterOrange-fleshed tubersImproves eyesight and strengthens the immune system
Vitamin CBaobab Tamarind Citrus HibiscusDark leafy greens Peppers Broccoli Cabbage Tomatoes   Yams Raw cassavaHelps strengthen the immune system
  Key minerals       
NutrientFruitsVegetablesLegumes and nutsAnimal foodsFats and oilsStaplesFunctions
Calcium Dark leafy greens OkraLegumes and nutsDairy Fish bones. Some meats InsectsSesame seeds and several other seedsMilletHelps make bones and teeth strong
IronDried fruits such as raisinsDark leafy greensLegumes and nutsMeat PoultryOil seeds Needed to create blood cells and carry oxygen to your tissues
Zinc Dark leafy greensLegumes and nutsAnimal foodsOil seedsWhole grainsHelps all parts of the body grow and develop
  Other key nutrients often lacking
NutrientFruitsVegetablesLegumes and nutsAnimal foodsFats and oilsStaplesFunctions
Proteins Dark leafy greensLegumes and nutsAnimal foodsOil seedsWhole grainsHelps the body grow muscle and repair from injury
Fats  Soybeans NutsAnimal foodsFats and oils Energy source, absorption of fat soluble vitamins

A diverse planting of perennials and annual vegetables.

Photograph: Peter Jensen

Other plants in the garden


Perennials are important for a permagarden to sustain healthy soil and to provide harvests throughout the year. Perennials are beneficial to:

the garden because they reduce the amount of bare soil, limit soil erosion, and improve subsoil structure

the ecosystem by acting as windbreaks, suppressing weed growth, and drawing nutrients from deep subsoil layers to the surface

the harvest because they produce at different times of the year.

A permagarden with a diverse mix of fruiting trees, vines and vegetables (above).

Photograph: Thomas Cole

Since perennials grow for multiple growing seasons, they are able to develop extensive root systems that cover more area than the roots of annual crops. Perennials can be planted in the berms or around the outside of the garden.

AloeMedicine, income, immune system support, gift
BananaFood, income
LemongrassPalliative tea, income, gift
PapayaFood, shade, medicine, income, gift
Passion FruitGrowing on fencing, income
TephrosiaPest repellent, insecticide

Fodder, trees and shrubs

Trees and shrubs incorporated in the garden provide several extra benefits, including medicines, insecticides, shade, fuelwood, water conservation, reduced erosion, wind management, and compost materials.

A steady diet of fodder crops significantly increases both the weight of animals and the quantity and quality of milk from goats or cows kept at the homestead. Having a year-round local fodder source enables farmers to raise at least one cow on a minimal grazing system. Households benefit from increased milk production, greater control and use of manure, and the potential to harvest slurry and urine for pest remedies and fertilizers. These crops and grasses can be planted on berms and other areas linked to the protective swales.

Certain tree species can be planted as a living fence around the permagarden, providing multiple benefits and functions as they grow. Proper management and coppicing (regular cutting and regrowth of the trees) ensures greatest benefit to the entire system. Shrubs such as Tithonia can be grown around the compound for their biomass, used regularly in building compost piles and making liquid botanic fertilizers to feed crops in the permagarden.

GlyricidiaGreen manure, fencing, shade, firewood
LantanaNutrient accumulator, hedges, insecticide
LeucaenaGreen manure, fodder, fencing, medicine, firewood
MoringaGreen manure, food, medicine, firewood
NeemGreen manure, medicine, insecticide, soap, firewood, shade
TithoniaGreen manure, fodder, compost material, liquid fertilizer