I apologize for my recent absence; sickness and busyness got the best of me, but I’m glad to be back. Anyway, a few weeks ago I mentioned the term “permaculture” in a column about front yard food. It essentially means, “a set of techniques and principles for designing sustainable human settlements.” A nice enough definition, but vague. So I picked up a copy of a book called “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture” by Toby Hemenway.
I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but it challenged everything I thought I knew about gardening. I have spent years compartmentalizing the yard, spending a small fortune on organic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, and essentially battling Mother Nature, only to inevitably lose time and time again. Permaculture does the opposite. You work with nature and slowly build an ecosystem in your yard that in many ways takes care of itself. Less weeding, watering, worrying, and less of a need for chemicals. Nice huh?!
So what’s the recipe for permaculture? Start with organic gardening, throw in using renewable resources, a pinch of native plants, a lot of biodiversity, a dash of layering, a cup of companion planting, a compost pile here, an apple tree there, mix thoroughly and you have permaculture. Or at least a wonderful start to a permaculture landscape.
Hemenway suggests layering using multiple stories (as in “that building is three stories tall”). Each addition to the garden should perform several functions. The apple tree provides shade for the house, as well as a noise/wind break from the street. It also slightly shades the plants below from the hot sun. Garlic planted around the tree wards off opportunists and herbs provide a barrier to weeds. Separately they accomplish multiple things, yet they work together to aid each other. Do you follow me?
Start at your doorstep and work outward. The high maintenance plants go right next to the house and the least (most likely natives) go at the farthest end of the property (see zones image below). Build up the soil and add layers of various vegetation. Look for plants that draw beneficial creatures to the garden. A garden with birds, praying mantises, toads, and ladybugs is a healthy one. It goes back to what we learned in Biology. Healthy soil is full of life and in return leads to healthy plants. Healthy plants attract other healthy organisms. And soon you have an environment that doesn’t need us to control every aspect, it flourishes naturally.
The most striking example of permaculture Hemenway uses takes place in the desert in New Mexico. A family’s yard was essentially baking throughout the year. They tried multiple things, but everything died. So they started planning the yard in such a way that it would store moisture. They built up the soil and planted some large trees. Then they started layering the garden with food bearing and native plants. Years later, they rarely have to water and they have more food and plants than they know what to do with it. The desert remains a dry and foreboding landscape around them, but inside their yard birds and other creatures abound. It is an oasis in the desert.
That’s permaculture. For a better explanation, pick up “Gaia’s Garden” or visit my Permaculture board on Pinterest.