A Computer Geek Starts a Garden, Part I – Background, Design and Initial Implementation

The yard in winter, before work begins…

A great many people today are living in fear. The future looks uncertain, but bleak. Many cannot see a future at all. The post-WWII baby boomer generation, with their short-lived cheap energy era, have been largely calling the shots, shaping the world we have today. After the miseries of two world wars, they set a course for excess. They and their descendants have been spending profligately, borrowing resources and finances from their children and grandchildren — and the deficit has increased so rapidly that the present generation is already having to foot the bill. We’ve been living the dream, and living in a dream — seeking to live lifestyles without limits — and now it’s time to pay the piper, as it were. We’re discovering that we were the children and grandchildren that society was borrowing from.

If the baby boomers themselves could have seen this coming, perhaps they’d have thought twice. Where will many of them be in their old age, in this increasingly atomised society, as social services collapse and their children cannot afford to care for them? It reminds me of the old 1970s sci-fi, Logan’s Run.

The screenplay … depicts a dystopian future society in which population and the consumption of resources are managed and maintained in equilibrium by the simple expedient of killing everyone who reaches the age of thirty … — Wikipedia

"It’s the economy, stupid!"

The solutions are at our feet. Quite literally. The earth can regenerate, and we can live positively and productively on it, if we’re willing to live more simply, that is. The world that was, the world of impossible, future-stealing excess, will never be again. People are realising, albeit painfully slowly, that we need to transition to a world where we live within the constraints of real-time sunlight, not fossilised sunlight.

The great obstacle to a smooth transition to the world that must be, through necessity, is the economy, and the garden path it’s lead us down. The last several decades have brought massive centralisation of land and resources worldwide. The elites, the corporate captains, the land barons of today, hold the power — a power most didn’t earn and which most are unwilling to wield for the benefit of others. The entire format of contemporary, profit-centric society is out of sync with the laws of nature, and the needs of man.

The free market economy favours the production of the cheapest goods produced by the lowest paid workforce. This means that the most affordable products and services are normally the most destructive, either in their production, or their use, or both. Highly processed white bread is cheaper than its healthier, less energy-intensive brown counterpart. Coca Cola is cheaper than water. For example, in the part of the world I live, large apartment buildings all across the country are insulated with a thick layer of polystyrene, applied to their outer walls, before being painted over. There are much more environmentally friendly ways of insulating than using a material that might not biodegrade in 25 lifetimes, but they’re cost prohibitive, and so are ignored. If the true environmental and social costs of products and services were truly recognised, the most sustainable systems would be the least expensive. But instead, in almost any area where you might try to ‘green’ your life, you’ll find that your efforts to do so are hampered by high cost or lack of knowledge. This is why ‘environmentalism’ has often been described as a hobby for the rich — the rest just do what they have to to get by.

I was recently sent a link to this article, for example, which tells the sorry tale of Chinese officials who eat most of the healthy produce in the country, while the average guy on the street gets to eat plastic, literally.

What makes economic cents often makes no real sense at all. It’s a symptom of skewed, short-sighted economic priorities — a symptom of an invisible hand devoid of biological or ethical understanding.

In the present economy, if one wishes to truly live harmoniously with the earth and those around him, he is immediately met with oft-insurmountable challenges. He quickly realises that it takes community interdependencies to create a life that is whole and sustainable, and he finds that the needed community is very difficult to form, since the individuals within it are distracted from the task at hand due to their attempts to persevere with the status quo, to flog the dying horse. Their full-time participation in supporting the system ties up their waking hours and keeps them from transition.

We end up in the situation where the world is divided into two camps — the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, the fat and the furious. We’re at an absurd point in history where the people who are in a position to effect change, don’t want to, or dare not, and those who want to effect change, cannot.

The haves don’t fully appreciate, or seek, or often even understand the need for change. So long as they’re above the bread line — so long as the system is at least somewhat working for them — they continue their involvement. Indeed, in many cases they feel they’re forced to do so, and the closer they get to the bread line the more they feel forced to persevere, harder, with the system, so as to stay afloat within it. Essentially, they feel they can’t afford to rock the boat, in case they fall out.

The have nots understand the need for change — they yearn for it, some even fight for it — but too often find themselves unable to do anything about it. With no land or resources, they’re now outside of the leveraging zone — isolated, feeling powerless, but still having to deal with the results of a system they have no control over.

If the people in my street represented a diverse mix of practical skills, from shoe-making to natural, passive-solar home-building, to clothes-making to biological gardening, etc., we could, as a community, determine to work together and build interdependent resilience, somewhat weaning ourselves off the collapsing system as we go. But, our centralised economy has long since out-sourced those skills to pollution-spewing factories in China and across the world. My neighbours live specialised lives in niche fields in exchange for money that is worth less and less as the months go by.

The post-WWII economy has incubated acute vulnerability.

Humus-building — investing in a legitimate ‘stock market’

A couple of years ago I touched on this topic in a conversation with Bill Mollison. I put the question to Bill: "How do you see our changing the system into one that works?" He responded, "I recommend you plant a garden." I was living high in an apartment building at the time, and so, to be honest, felt highly frustrated with this response. Even my small balcony was not facing the best direction. Telling people with no possibility to garden to "plant a garden" is to court aggression. But, I also knew that there is no escaping the fact that, short of bloody revolution, if we’re to try to peacefully transition to a more diverse skill base, and build resiliency, then getting everyone in a position to do so started on building their own resiliency can start a chain reaction that can be built upon, and offer at least some degree of buffer against collapse.

In short, if we have opportunity to grow our own food and/or build other resiliencies into our lives, we should do so. While we worry for others, we can still be helping to show the way. Land redistribution may well come in time, one way or another, but in the meantime, we must encourage the application of common sense wherever there’s the possibility to apply it.

Some time after my talk with Bill I was offered an old house and garden at a price I couldn’t refuse, and so, with some savings from my former life, I nervously took the plunge.

Designing for Resilience

Set in the cold temperate climate of mountainous Slovakia, in central Europe (part of what was formerly called the ‘East Bloc’), this garden had languished with little care for over seven years, as the house sat empty.

‘Normal’ temperature highs and lows here go from 38°C (100°F) in summertime to -15°C (5°F) in wintertime, although I’ve also seen temperature extremes from 43°C (110°F) to -26°C (-15°F). I think by most measures, that’s quite a wide range.

With climate change, we notice that in some years people are waiting for their traditional ‘proper’ winter to arrive, and then spring shows up before it does. Instead of long months of snow cover, it’s increasingly becoming just a period of intermittent mushy snow, and the summers are getting hotter and drier. The snow-boarders are ultra annoyed…. Some of the older people I’ve spoken to are quite shocked by what they’re seeing today, and farmers are increasingly struggling with the unpredictable nature of the seasons — with spring rains not showing up, before a blazing sun scorches their crops, with sudden downpours that damage what remains. This year, for example, the region produced 40% of its normal amount of straw. I know this, as I was searching for some for my garden!

A semi-blank canvas…

I have studied organic biological horticulture and all that it entails: soil science, natural pest management, etc., and over the last few years my head has been immersed in permaculture, but, familiarity with the characteristics of specific plants is my weakness. I’m no plant expert, by any means. As such, I figured I needed help with the design, and the freshly created Worldwide Permaculture Network came in handy, as I found a consultant in the area, in neighbouring Czech Republic, who was only too happy to assist.

Denisa Müllerova has been a gardener for many years, and took to permaculture with energy over the last several years since being introduced to it. I’m grateful that I can benefit from her years of experience with plants specific to this region. Denisa visited our section a few times, when we were working on another little project in the area (see here, here and here), and ultimately produced the following design for me.

Click for larger view

Click for larger view

Note: The numbers in the above plan correlate with the plant list in this PDF.

I’m using this design as a base template, which I will alter somewhat along the way, no doubt. For example, I’m not sure how I can make the small pond biologically functional in this climate zone, where it would totally freeze over during most winters.

Existing Inventory

The garden already has some biological ‘infrastructure’, including several fruit trees: apple, cherry and plum; and a few berry bushes — red currents, black currents, and red and white raspberry. (I’d never seen white raspberry before!)

On top of the plant inventory, I should also list some of the ‘critters’ I’ve noted here. These include several types of birds, from the common sparrow, to magpies, finches and woodpeckers, etc. The four-legged friends include cats (neighbours’), squirrels and even pine martens. While I was happy to note bats are regularly flitting about at night, I was a little less enthused by the number of large slugs that I’ve spotted. Perhaps I can see a duck or three in my future… which I’m sure the pine marten will be rather excited about….

One night we were even treated to a little light show courtesy of some fireflies, which are not so common in urban areas here.

Making a Start

Moving into the property in November, I was only able to start in the garden this year, after the northern hemisphere winter, and even that was delayed with springtime travelling due to my work in New Zealand (see here and here and also the APC11 presentations) and Australia (making the Zaytuna Farm video tour). I unfortunately missed the best time to work in the garden, when it’s warm, but not too warm!

Another delay was caused by the difficult decision to remove a few trees. Two of these were at the end of their life, pretty much dead already, and they were two out of five apple trees, so that wasn’t such a loss (there’s only so many apples you can eat and share). But, I also took the painful decision to remove the largest tree on the property — one of two cherry trees — as its enormous canopy blocked sunlight in the area that would otherwise be the best, most sun-drenched part of the garden. Another determining factor that influenced this latter execution was that the two cherry trees were of different types — the one I removed was a sour cherry, and the one that remains is sweet….

On this note, I would encourage people to think very carefully before removing trees. Trees could be regarded as the pinnacle of nature’s creation — beautiful, functional and almost sacred entities in their own right. While they may take just a few minutes to cut down, they’re years, even decades, in the making. A hasty decision in this regard is irreversible. Trees’ ability to draw minerals from deep down and to deliver them as usable biomass (fruit, leaves, shells) for your garden is highly valuable for developing the health and depth of your top-soil, as is their ability to provide habitat for birds and other wildlife that all add diversity, and thus stability, to your garden. Indeed, trees bring a host of benefits, and so the decision to cut one down should never be taken lightly! This brings me neatly to my next point, that if we design our gardens well, planting the right type and size of tree in the right locations, then future generations won’t feel the need to remove them!

After taking the trees down, I had to decide what to do with the stumps. In the first moments of the aforementioned Zaytuna Farm video, Geoff is leaning against a stump that had hardly changed in ten years, even in the warm, wet sub-tropics where decomposition works faster. Processing the before/after pictures of that stump made me realise that my stumps could remain, in this climate, for many, many decades. I didn’t personally mind their presence so much, but if this is to be a demonstration site, I figured I needed to make it look as aesthetic as I could. In other words, I felt I had to work to a higher aesthetic standard than I would expect from others in the area, if only to ensure ‘permaculture’ becomes a more appreciated concept here.

But, removing them was not going to be an easy task. Both cherry and apple are very hard wood, which I experienced first hand in taking them down, and when I asked people who seemed to know what they were talking about how long it would take to remove them by hand, they said it’d take two men about five days, per stump.

This is where my introductory thoughts above, about the economy, come into practical focus. I can’t afford to pay two men to work for two or three weeks for such a task. If I had a community of eager permaculturists at hand, who are regularly helping each other to perform specific tasks, then it would be a no-brainer, but our economy is, at present, callibrated around cheap energy. Tasks people would undertake manually two centuries ago are now prohibitively expensive, unless you use machinery.

I ended up choosing to pay the driver of a small digger for four hours of work, rather than pay two men for two or three weeks of work. I recognise this is not an ideal situation, but it’s a good example of the absurdities of our present economy. In the end I must console myself with the thought that if everyone currently using fossil fuels for unnecessary activities — like a holiday in the Bahamas, or for truck racing — were instead using it for stabilising watersheds and preparing food forests, the world would rapidly regenerate and transition. And, for those who don’t yet appreciate the significance of dwindling energy supplies, this little example might help them understand how much energy is embodied in fossil fuels, and so might better appreciate how much our economy will change as this energy becomes increasingly inaccessible/unaffordable.

The digger removes an apple tree stump

The good news is that all parts of the trees found a post-mortem use. The stumps were taken to some enterprising craftsmen who are able to fashion parts for furniture, decorative art-work, tobacco pipes and other items out of them (cherry is a particularly hard and beautiful wood), and I utilised the rest myself. The trunks became chopping blocks and firewood for our fire (the fire heats the water in the house, with the hot water available for taps and for heating the house itself), and the branches and twigs I chopped into straight sections for use in the garden, as I will explain further below.

Given the amount of time lost on other activities, the optimum planting period had already passed me by. The rest of the year thus became preparation time for next year’s spring planting season. The first order of the day, in my mind, was to establish the raised beds.

Double-dug Raised Beds

One issue that occurs on sections of land that have been gardened over many years is that people tend to cultivate the top 10cms or so of soil, only. As gardeners tread and stomp around the garden, the layers of soil beneath this uppermost layer become compacted over time — often to the point where only the strongest of weedy, pioneering tap roots are able to break through it. This results in anaerobic conditions, as rainfall cannot penetrate the compacted layer, and pools around plant roots, and plants are less vigorous as they are unable to develop a deep root mass to collect nutrients and minerals from further below.

This compaction becomes a limiting factor to the development of healthy microbial communities and worm populations, which in turn makes the weakened plants attractive to attack by pests and disease. Indeed, despite this garden having largely rested for seven years, as I dug about the section I found very few worms, and quite significant compaction below the top layer. Nature would ultimately reverse this compaction through the action of weedy species, but it would take considerable time. Knowing what nature was trying to do, I did what I could to give her a helping hand, and speed up the process.

One of the beauties of raised beds is that once built, people then know where they should walk, and where they shouldn’t. Paths are clearly laid between the beds, and the beds themselves become no-go zones for feet. So, once the compaction has been broken up, it should stay that way. The ultimate goal is to develop a crumbly chocolate cake-like structure, or what Sir Albert Howard would call "a soil in good heart". Once this situation has been realised, water then flows freely into the soil, and even siphons upwards in dry times through capillary action. With a high organic matter content, moisture is retained more uniformly throughout the soil, but without over-saturation, and microbial and worm populations flourish to ensure healthy, pest-resistant plants.

I did not import any soil to make these raised beds. Instead, I marked out where the beds should go, and then lifted the soil from where the paths would be, and placed it onto where I wanted the beds to be. But, before doing this, I took the further step of digging below where I wanted the beds — moving the soil aside entirely — and then used a pick axe to break up the compacted soil beneath, down a further 20 or so centimetres. This meant that once complete, the beds have a friable depth of more than 70 centimetres.

And, after breaking up the very base of these beds, I put my above-mentioned pile of branches and twigs lengthways into the bed area, prior to piling the soil back on top. These branches thus ended up below the level of where the paths would be, so rainwater draining off the compacted paths would flow down into the zone of the branches, where the decomposing wood can soak it up, and hold it. (Call it a mini Hugelkultur zone, if you like.)

Putting carbon back into the soil, where it can do some good.

This branch zone can also become an area that moisture-loving worms can retreat to during particularly dry times.

While this work was in progress, I seeded the front half of the property with a cover crop — a mix of seeds I got from a local garden centre. The mix included two good nitrogen fixers (cow pea and vetch), and two good carbon crops (wheat and oats). These will help improve soil conditions in the sections of the property I do not have time to develop further yet.

About ten days or so after seeding the cover crop

I had to reseed some of this area, as the sparrows and magpies somewhat feasted on what I had laid before them. I didn’t mind, however. I call it ‘sharecropping’. Later, when I had straw laid on the raised beds, I found the birds slowly discovered that the wheat seeds left in the straw were more interesting than the cover crop, so they moved their interest there, where they conveniently dropped their little nitrogen bombs on the beds instead.

Half of the ‘rib cage’ raised beds (see diagram at top) ready for covering

I managed to source some mostly-composted cow manure locally, which had been mixed with straw and left to mature a while. The manure contained quite a few worms, so when I added a small amount of this manure to the top of the raised beds (see below), I was introducing both microorganisms and worms. May they live long and prosper!

The beds were covered with a small amount of manure.
You can see the cover crop developing in the background (front of the section).

A layer of cardboard went on top, and then a layer of straw mulch.

The space between the beds ended up a little narrower than I had anticipated, but when I do the spring tidy up I’ll compensate by pouring some wood-chip mulch onto the paths, which will lift and widen them a little. Because of that experience, I recalculated how to build the beds for the second half of the ‘rib cage’.

The second half of the ‘rib cage’ underway, with slightly wider paths…

With the planting season already gone, I’ve left the completed raised beds to ‘cure’ over the autumn and winter.

The cover crop is now more mature, lush under the fruiting apple trees.

There’s a lot of work yet to be done, but the major earthworks ‘surgery’ is behind
me, thanks in large part to a good friend who helped me with this. And, in the meantime, the cover crop is adding nitrogen and carbon and stimulating microbial life in the front half of the section.

Working with nature is a very pleasant experience. It leaves one feeling pleasantly tired and satisfied. Along the way you can make some interesting ‘connections’ too — like the magpie (or ‘straka’ here) who continually supervised our work. The little guy was so friendly he even landed on my friend’s hat, while he was wearing it, and another day he walked up to my boots as I was working, and tapped at my left foot with his beak before looking up at me quizzically, as if to complain about how I was doing things.

I’d just like to encourage those of you who are in a position to do so, to get started in building your own resiliency, in whatever way you can. And, please share what you’re doing with us, so we can all learn from it! On this note — I welcome suggestions from permies with experience (particularly in cold temperate climates), about how I can better progress this site. The fastest way to learn is to learn from other people’s mistakes (something humans are not particularly good at, unfortunately), and, given where we stand in history, time is of the essence….

I must head off now — I’ve got a lot of apples to harvest.