Gaia's Garden - a permaculture book review

by Liz Beavis

I first came across Gaia's Garden (Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition (affiliate link)) in 2013 and although I had tried to read other permaculture books before that, this was the one that really helped me to understand the concepts, both what to do and why.  Toby sadly died recently, so I thought it was a good time to review the book in detail.  Toby made an enormous contribution to permaculture and I'd like to remember him by reading his book again. 

Throughout this post I will relate the concepts back to how I've applied them in my vegetable garden at Eight Acres, on the farm and how I want to develop my new garden.



Introducing the ecological garden

In this chapter Toby explains his concept of the ecological garden as a combination of an edible garden, an ornamental garden and a wild space.  Not just combined, but connected and multi-functional.  I think I am only just starting to see this, as I want more flowers for my bees, my vegetable garden is evolving into a more wild space with ornamentals (mostly geraniums, marigolds and violets) as well as edibles and herbs.  

This chapter also contains several pages of permaculture basics to get you started and a very interesting discussion about the benefits of native vs exotic plants.  He also brings up an interesting point that the more you grow for yourself (even if you're not completely self-sufficient) the more you are helping to avoid habitat loss in other places and on other farms.  I hadn't thought about it like that before.

A Gardener's Ecology

This chapter expands on the concept of the ecological garden.  Three principles are introduced:

  • Finding a niche - certain plants and animals will only grow in certain ecological niches, you need to create many of these in your garden
  • Gardening in succession - recognising that your garden will continually evolve as new niches are created and new species can take over, eventually you will have a semi-stable mature garden, especially if you use plenty of perennials vs annuals. 
  • Backyard diversity - a diversity of niches will result in a diversity of plants and animals, which is a good thing as you start to attract natural predators to plant pests and natural companions to the plants that you want to grow

I am often asked how I control pests in my garden.  Honestly, I don't do much at all, I think we have enough local birds and predatory insects that I very rarely have one pest get out of control, and if I do it will only kill the weakest plants that were not producing well anyway.  I think that encouraging niches and biodiversity are the key to a productive and easy-care garden.

Designing the Ecological Garden

This chapter gets into the detail of designing the ecological garden.  It was a good time for me to read this chapter, given my recent musings about our new garden.  A few key points from this chapter:

  • Look for patterns in nature, rather that just using straight lines, to maximise gardening space. For example, keyhole gardens and herb spirals.  The added advantage is conserving moisture in the soil as there is less empty space for evaporation and more space filled with plants.
  • Use edges to create more space - edges being particularly productive areas. (use edges and value the marginal)
  • The design process should involve both observation and visioning.  Observation involves spending time at the property and looking up data on climate, looking at topographical maps (for larger properties) and generally getting a feel for the place without making any decisions.  Visioning is about thinking of all the functions that you want to achieve, such as growing your own food, providing habitat for native animals etc.  There is a great explanation of zones and sectors in this chapter (see more in my post here).

After reading this chapter several years ago, I started working on the permaculture design for our property (you can check out the full document here).

Bringing the Soil to Life

This chapter explains the microbiology of soil and how and why to nurture it.  When I first read this book, it was the first time I'd really thought about microbes in the soil, other than that they might cause disease.  What I now understand is that plants provide exudates from their roots to feed microbes, and the microbes support plants in many ways, so we should be doing everything we can to support this relationship (the interconnected soil web) and nothing that may destroy it (so no chemicals in the garden!).  

Toby suggests three methods of building soil life on three different scales - compost (small scale), sheet mulching (medium scale) and cover crops (large scale).  This is a good way of thinking about it, as one solution is not going to work in all situations, so you need to adjust to match the scale of the problem.  I really liked the way Toby explains soil microbes, very easy to read and not overly scientific or complex.  I have a few posts about soil microbes here.

Catching, Conserving and Using Water

Water is such an important topic for gardens in brittle environments, where rain is infrequent and unpredictable.  The chapter first explains how water can be stored in the soil by building organic matter, then the use of swales and ponds to hold water.  Re-using grey water is another topic - I feel like we waste so much grey water every time I let the bath out, so that's a project to think about long term.

Finally there is also a discussion about rainwater tanks, which I think are pretty common in Australia, even in cities.  Of course all our water here is rainwater and we have four large tanks connected to the house and the roof.  There is discussion in this chapter about how to hide rainwater tanks, but I don't find them ugly at all, they are a symbol of our water collect self-sufficiency, so I don't mind seeing them lined up outside the kitchen window!

Plants for Many Uses

Toby contrasts traditional garden design (choosing and placing plants for aesthetic reasons only) with a permaculture design, which considers all the functions of a plant and combinations of plants, to create a practical garden.  Thinking about using plants to create shade, fix nitrogen, for food and medicine.

I think the important thing here is that a functional garden doesn't have to be ugly.  I really want to create a bee-friendly garden using herbs, such as lavender, marigold, borage, comfrey, winter tarragon, dill, parsley and calendula (etc!) - these are all beautiful flowering plants, that also have medicinal, culinary and other uses.  Even plants like ginger and lemon grass can be visually pleasing as well as useful.  I find ornamental gardens odd, why go to the trouble of maintaining something that ONLY looks nice, when you could be producing so much more for your effort?

Bringing in the Bees, Birds and Other Helpful Animals

This chapter is about living creatures in the garden.  Toby already discussed microbes in the soil, so this is about things that live above the ground.  Everything from using chickens (in chicken tractors of course) to attracting beneficial insects.  

This is often a problem for organic gardeners who have transitioned from regular chemical gardening.  If you are used to paradigm of spraying all insects and then you want to stop using chemicals, you look for an alternative way to kill the insects.  Toby suggests instead, it would be better to look for a way to create an ecosystem to manage the insects.  

The thing to remember is that the vast majority of insects in your garden are either beneficial or benign, so you don't want to keep them all out, and the easiest way to get rid of the pest insects is to encourage their predators.  Many are nectar-feeding, so you can also attract pollinators by planting flowers.  I also encourage people to keep their gardens open to birds and lizards etc, that will also eat insects.  

If I have a serious insect problem, the only thing I use is neem oil, as it affects the chewing insects that eat leaves, without harming pollinators.  But in general, I sacrifice a few plants in order to build the overall ecosystem of the garden.  I am noticing the difference now that I'm gardening in pots and the aphids have found my kale, I definitely do not have an ecosystem there yet!


Creating Communities for the Garden

This is the first chapter of part three - assembling the ecological garden, so this is where all the concepts in the previous chapters start to come together.  The first chapter is about creating communities in the garden.  This is where Toby takes the typical monoculture garden designs and turns them into polycultures.  

I think this is where I got a lot of my garden ideas (I read so much, I forget where it all came from).  I don't plant anything in straight lines.  I actually don't plant much at all, I mainly scatter seeds and see what comes up.  I also get a lot of volunteers from the compost.  If things are too close, I thin them or move them around to suit.  Everything is mixed up, few things are planned, it seems to work, especially as you thin out some areas and then more seedlings come up.


Designing Garden Guilds

"A healthy plant community recycles its own waste back into nutrients, resists disease, controls pests, harvests and conserves water, attracts insects and other animals to do its bidding, and hums along happily as it performs these and a hundred other tasks."

The chapter introduces three methods for designing guilds:

  1. Observation of natural plant communities
  2. Plant identification books and research
  3. Design based on plant function

(Wait, what is a guild? In Permaculture, a guild is a grouping a plants, trees, animals, insects, and other components that work together to help ensure their health and productivity.  Read more here)

I find the first method impossible to implement here, and I've very jealous of those living in Europe and North America who can literally go into the forest and observe native berry and nut trees growing int he wild.  Most of our food trees are not native to Australia, although there are "bush tucker" trees here, the food forest that I want to plant consists of introduced plants and I don't have the opportunity to observe them in the wild, so I'm stuck with method 2 and 3.

Even method 2 is tricky, because it still assumes that you are researching the native plants of your local area and designing combinations.  In reality, I need to research a similar climate area to understand which fruit and nut trees thrive in conditions close to my own property.  In reality, method 3 is the most useful for my situation and even then, I want to grow a food forest, not a series of individual guilds, however if you're in a small backyard, a carefully planned guild (or a few guilds), can be enough to fill your yard with a productive collection of plants.

Growing a Food Forest

A common permaculture technique is to plant many perennial plants together in a "food forest" that mimics natural forest conditions.  This means fruit trees, bushes, herbs, ground cover and root crops all growing together, the layers are arranged so that each can take advantage of different root depths and mineral requirements.  When it is well-established poultry, and eventually larger animals, can forage in the food forest to clean up fallen fruit.  

Self-seeding annuals can also be incorporated in the food forest.  The type of forest will depend on the climate and micro-climate.  In tropical areas, the food forest can be densely planted with tropical fruit trees.  I think in our climate I will be growing more temperate fruit trees and they will need to be spaced so that they get enough sun.

A food forest will evolve over time, which also needs to be included in the planning.  For example using short-lived nurse trees (like wattles) to help to establish longer-lived and slower-growing fruit trees.  Also considering micro-climates and longer term needs of various trees and shrubs (shade, frost-tolerance, wind protection etc).

Permaculture Gardening in the City

Space-saving, high density approaches are necessary for smaller spaces available in city gardens, but these can also be useful even for those with access to larger gardens.  While city living can result in restricted space for growing, it brings greater opportunities for social connection and therefor swapping and sharing of produce between neighbours.  If you can coordinate what you plant so that everyone can share the surplus (and for example start a community share group such as the one that a friend and I started in Nanango), you will still have plenty even with a small space to harvest.  The sharing is not limited to food either, you can swap other resources such as mulch, firewood, labour and knowledge.

Other solutions include - vertical stacking, keyhole gardens, espalier techniques, creating microclimates to extend harvest cycles.

Some city-dwellers have no access to garden or outdoor space - look for community gardens, allotments, unused outdoor space that you could use for a garden.


Pop goes the Garden

The final chapter that brings all the theory together.

  1. Healthy soil is the key to a productive garden
  2. All growing things require sufficient water
  3. Plants can play many different roles within an ecological garden
  4. Animals can also be put to work in the ecological garden
  5. The gardener shapes the garden
  6. Structures in the garden also influence the flow of energy

 When all the pieces of the puzzle come together and the garden moves through the establishment phase, suddenly it "pops" into vital action.  I have seen this myself in my own garden.  At first I had to sow seeds, weed the garden and deal with pests.  Then suddenly the garden took over, the perennial plants and self-seeding plants produced without my intervention, birds and beneficial insects took care of the pests and weeds were naturally suppressed. 

All I had to do was harvest what I needed, occasionally transplant or split plants to give them space to thrive and remove dead plants and over-growth to create compost, top up mulch and manure regularly and watch the garden "pop" with self-sustaining life.  

Then we moved and now I'm ready to start again, I know it will take a few years to establish this ecological garden again, but I also know that the end result is amazing and well worth the effort.


Find out more about Permaculture using these books (affiliate links):


 And the other posts in this series:

Discovering permaculture
Catch and store energy
Creatively use and respond to change
Design from patterns to details
Integrate rather than segregate
Observe and Interact
Obtain a yield
Apply self regulation
Produce no waste
Use and value diversity
Use and value renewable resources
Use edges and value the marginal
Use small and slow solutions



  • Meg

    I have read this book but such a long time ago now that a re-read would be a good idea. (I am also wanting to read David Holmgren’s “Retrosuburbia”. I am on the library waiting list for this one!) My garden here is around 15years old now and I think it’s a diverse and reasonably productive suburban garden. I’ve learnt a lot along the way, especially about soil, but also edible plants. I continue to add edible perennials as I discover them. Just yesterday, I was up the back nibbling on cranberry hibiscus leaves and thinking they will be lovely in a salad today. I agree wholeheartedly with you on pest control. I don’t have a lot of problems and I think that’s for two reasons. The first is the hodge podge of plants that confuse insect pests and the second are all the native birds and lizards here that feast on problematic insects. I have a little hive of native bees and chemical sprays would harm them too so feeling that responsibility towards even the tiniest of creatures, being aware of impacts upon them, is important when considering how to approach pest control. Meg:)

  • selina

    got the link on my list, didn’t have any problems with it;
    interesting read, am still struggling to get things to grow here, have gone back to our market gardens to grow vegies as more water available there & no charge!
    thanx for sharing

  • Liz

    Laura – I love Linda Woodrow’s book too, these are my two favourites for practical permaculture ideas. I haven’t heard of Alys Fowler, so I will check out her books too, thanks for your comment!

    Nanna Chel – I hope you can find it, definitely a good read!

  • Laura

    Hi Liz,
    I also really enjoyed this book and got a lot out of it. It was such a practical application of the permaculture principles and deepened my understanding of them and how they relate. Some permaculture books I’ve found a little dry but this one and Linda Woodrow’s ‘Permaculture Home Garden’ are such good resources.

    I agree 100% about the aesthetic only gardening. What’s the point right? I’m particularly amused by ornamental pear/cherry etc – why not just plant the one you can eat!! Personally I find edible plants just as beautiful. Have you read any of Alys Fowler’s books on this – they are great.
    Thanks for the good rundown of the book. Great to see how you’ve applied some of the things in your own space.

  • Nanna Chel

    Liz, I haven’t heard of that book before. I will see if our library has it.

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