If you’ve read some of my earlier posts or checked out pictures of my garden, you’ll notice that it’s a far cry from the orderly row upon row that most people associate with vegetable gardens. You also might have heard me use the word permaculture. And if you’re like me, probably asked yourself – What the heck is that? Funny enough, even before our crash course in permaculture, Jeff and I were already practicing it in our garden.
Like many new and revolutionary ideas, permaculture is an old idea in a shiny new suit. When Jeff and I first decided to rip out our lawn, we thought it would be neat to use edible plants like blueberries instead of standard shrubs for our landscaping to make use of the sun. Yes, that simple, seemingly innocent decision is what’s lead us down this crazy garden path! From blueberry bushes, it wasn’t a far stretch to full-blow edible landscaping. All of a sudden, we were practicing permaculture and we hadn’t even heard of it yet!
Permaculture is basically a common-sense, holistic approach to gardening. From what I read, it can get pretty technical, but I think anyone can garden in the permaculture spirit without spending thousands of dollars on workshops. (Apparently people actually do that – anyone who wants a worthwhile workshop is welcome to come pull weeds with me anytime. No charge.) Basically what you’re going for is to get as close as you can to a fully functioning ecosystem in your garden, including wildlife (like you!) in a comprehensive, practical way.
Most of us learn as kids about the good old food chain, but in the garden and in permaculture you always want to be thinking in terms of webs; connect yourself and the plants in your garden in as many different ways you can. Redundancy is the insurance policy of life and is your assurance that you will have a vibrant, ridiculously productive garden.
Permaculture can be a pretty detailed approach to gardening, and I found the book above an awesome, if dense, introduction. So here are a few points to get you started:
Focus on the Forest
The forest is the most diverse / mature ecosystem and permaculture design strives to move the garden towards that. You will hear the expression “food forest” which is the ideal permaculture garden; a garden anchored by mature trees (preferably food-bearing ones) that are supported by other plants in communities called “guilds”. We’ll talk more about this later – I’m working on guilding my plum tree in the back yard and will go through it in detail as I install the bed.
I talked about this a bit when I discussed planning the garden. Each element of the permaculture garden is chosen to serve multiple functions; this is how we achieve that redundancy that is so essential. Plants can provide not only food, but can pull nutrients from the soil and bring them to the surface, fix nitrogen in the soil, provide surface area to collect water by condensation, create micro-climates, mulch the soil, build the soil with organic matter, attract insects, attract birds, buffer wind . . . You get the picture. The more the merrier.
Living, Thriving Soil is the Foundation of the Garden
Focus on the soil and the garden will look after itself. And by focusing on the soil I don’t mean fiddling around with fertilizers out of the box or anything expensive, harmful or requiring a degree in bio-chem. At the end of the day it comes down to this: mulch, mulch, mulch. The life in my soil has increased immeasurably by the simple act of piling a thick mulch of fallen leaves on everything this past fall. It has only been a few months and the soil, and the soil life, has been completely transformed.
Here’s where the forest comes in. Not only do you want that upper canopy of trees, you want to make sure you have lots going on in between. This allows water and nutrients to cycle through the system multiple times and provides a lot more habitat for all the hard working critters in the garden. Both equal less work for you. Bonus.
Of course this is about as Coles Notes as you can get. I find the hard-core permaculture a bit too, well, hard-core, but there are some great guiding principles and I’ll talk about each of them in more detail as we get going in the garden over the season. Stay tuned.