How To Do Small Acreage Permaculture Design

How To Do Small Acreage Permaculture Design

I received a request from a reader to talk about how to implement permaculture on small acreage, something less than 5 acres. So I’m going to go over some strategies and suggestions about permaculture design on a smallholding. And really, there are more people who have less than 5 acres, than people who have 50 acres or more.

If you’re just curious about permaculture, see the What is Permaculture article.

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Smaller can be better

Sustainable homesteading is possible even if you only have a little land. From a production standpoint, more land is only better if you can properly manage it. Otherwise, bigger is not better, and may hinder your sustainability goals. This is especially true when you try to do too much too fast. 

Ask me how I know…

And even if you do have a large property, you can still use these principles to increase your yields and decrease your workload. On the other hand, trying to homestead sustainably with NO land (i.e. apartment or some townhomes) can be very difficult.

With a smaller space, you can grow more intensively, and it takes less work to move around the property. You also will notice problems sooner because you see your plants more often.

For example, the Dervaes family in Pasadena, CA produces 6000 lbs of food on 1/10th acre. That’s 3 tons (2.72 metric tons) of organic produce on 4356 sq. ft (404.7 sq. meters)! It’s over a pound of food per square foot!

Girl in small backyard

That give you an idea of the potential, but you can even go beyond that.

This means you can take corrective action and prevent crop losses. Your costs are also lower because you have less land to maintain. And it will take fewer off-farm inputs to grow and sustain your homestead.

The follow

ing design techniques are just a few of many in permaculture design. If you want to go deeper, consider taking a PDC or hiring a permaculture designer.

So let’s get started already!

Permaculture zones



Permaculture uses the idea of zones to separate different areas of your land by how you interact with them.

Zone 0 is your house. Though in the Designer’s Manual as originally published, there was no such thing as zone 0. It was understood that the center zone was the dwelling.

Zone 1 is directly adjacent to your house, something you walk by every day and see. Your kitchen herbs and plants that need constant attention go here.

As you travel out in zones, you have less and less direct interaction with each zone.

Until you get to zone 5, where your only interaction is observation. Zone 5 is meant to be a wilderness zone. The size of your zone 5 will vary depending on the specifics of your property.

The zones are often drawn as a bullseye for teaching purposes. But they don’t have to be, and in practice almost never look that way. If there’s a side of the house you rarely go to, it might be zone 4 or 5.

This is true even though it’s right next to the house. There also aren’t hard limits between the zones.


Otter observing

So I would suggest you start making changes in zone 1, AFTER you sit down and make a plan of what you want to do. There are many considerations to think about. Sun angles, orientation, slope, prevailing wind direction, seasonal variations, and soil composition are just a few of the factor


Draw out your land, and put in the immovable structures, like the house, and outbuildings, and trees you are not planning on (re)moving. I’ve heard suggestions that no changes should be made until you have observed at least 1 full year on the land.

You can take it or leave it, but as Bill Mollison says, you can either have “long and protracted observation, or long and protracted labor“. It’s your land and your choice.

Get started

So I suggest you start in zone 1. Put in your herbs or anything you want to keep a close eye on where you spend a lot of time.

The Trick: Get each zone working for you, then move out from there.

Finish the work before starting on another zone. I have a really hard time with this, because I’m all over the place. Try to get the zone right before you move on.

Always be thinking about the interaction between different elements, and the energy flow between them. Think in terms of water, or nutrients, or materials, or whatever energy form you’re working with. There’s always an energy flow, otherwise something is probably wrong.

Efficient use of space

On a small piece of land, you need to be able to use your space as efficiently as possible. So one thing to concentrate on is making sure that whatever elements you add to your land have multiple uses.

This is one of the many guiding principles of permaculture. Let’s see what this looks like in practice. Here’s the classic permaculture example: chickens.


Chickens have multiple uses: you can eat them, they produce eggs, compostable feathers and manure, they can be used to till up ground for planting and clean up weeds and seeds, and control bug populations.

See how many uses they have?

Chickens don’t take up a lot of room, and they’re a multi-use element, so they’re especially good for the small farm.

Berries galore

How about another one?

Perennial fruit bushes/vines are another great space-conscious way to increase your food production. Currants, gooseberries, rasp- and blackberries, grapes, kiwi-fruit, serviceberry, and western chokecherry are some popular choices.

There’s a long list here if you want native-ish Colorado varieties, but you can use non-natives if you want. See your state’s extension office website for more specific regional info. I have no problem with non-natives, and I think the arguments about strictly using natives is a non-issue.

And you can plant edibles at cheaper than retail if money’s an issue (though when is it not an issue amirite?). I got a bunch of berry bushes (gooseberries, currants, rhubarb, and another blackberry and raspberry) at 40% off by buying them at the “end” of the growing season, in August, from a local nursery.

It looked like a jungle when I took them home, as they barely fit in the car. The kids were peeking out from between the leaves and branches, picking and eating the currants and gooseberries. I really wanted elderberries and seaberry or hawthorn, but the nursery said they never carry those plants.

So I’ll have to get them online, which is where you should try if you’re having problems with sourcing plants locally.

Native? Native to what? When?

Yellow star thistle

AAHHHHHH! Run for your lives!!!

If you don’t know, the term “native” is somewhat arbitrary. Plants do move locations by wind, animal, or water. Sometimes native means how long the plant has been in a particular area. If you say everything before 1492 is native, that leaves out lots of plants we eat or a regular basis.

Most plants were invasive at some point, because that’s how plants spread and grow.

Government-labeled “noxious” and “invasive” plants are a different issue I won’t cover right now. I would suggest planting “natives” from seed if at all possible.

Now, waiting for plants to grow from seed may take too long for the impatient. But the benefits are more drought and disease tolerance, along with a more natural plant and better taproot penetration.

Other than producing fruit for the table or canning (yum) or wine (double yum), fruit vines and bushes are habitat and perches for insect-hunting birds. They also can provide winter forage for fruit or seed-eating birds, and shelter for ground-nesting birds.

Increase the edge

If you interplant with bushes and trees of different heights, this increases the “edge effect“, and can increase the diversity of the species in your environment. This is another permaculture principle, #10 of Holmgren’s 12, Use and value diversity.

Because of this edge effect, production is always the highest at these locations. There are more nutrients and species interaction here than at any other position.


So there’s several solid examples of permaculture design on small land areas.

I will talk about other projects you can do on the small farm in a later post. For now, observe your land and plan out your design. Think about how the different elements are going to overlap and interact.

Stack functions. Look at energy flows. Consider interactions.

Try to avoid waste, which is just an under-utilized resource. When it’s time to work on the land, you’ll have a good design to implement.

Do this, and you can get your land to look like you want, and make it start producing food for you and your family.


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OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about small acreage and permaculture? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.

Thanks from TPL


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