Convenience Food for Beginners: Urban and Suburban Zoning the Permaculture Way

We never see it coming. In the beginning, there is all the excitement, seedlings going into the carefully groomed garden bed. We’ve enriched the soil the best we can, an assortment of legumes and compost. We’ve played the game right with a thick, organic coating of mulch so that the soil stays lively, airy, and moist. We’ve intercropped, designed with symbiotic relationships in mind, knowing that as our plants grow up their neighbors will be good ones, figurative friends. We plan that garden bed out meticulously, and there is little doubt that it’ll work.

It does. And, for the first couple of weeks or a month, we venture out to see that garden tucked in the back corner of the lawn. We pluck the weeds with resolve and tend to any needs our little plants might have: stakes, wind protection, a bit of compost, some more mulch, perhaps a sprinkling of water after a few days of drought. And, the slowly, our interest wanes. One afternoon we can’t be bothered to walk all the way out there. The next week, we barely make it for a visit. Soon, the weeds have taken over, the garden’s production is hardly being capitalized on, and all that energy – from us, and nature – is not what was once intended.

Hey, it’s happened to so many of us—to friends and neighbors and moms and spouses and writers—that the story is old news. Growing some food out in the backyard seems a dandy idea, but it just takes so much work, such a conscious effort. However, with permaculture designs, the realistic logic and practical whimsy of it, gardening and growing some food at home can be a quite different experience. It can be something that we come to relish, both as a hobby and in the kitchen. That’s because the zoning plan makes the food we are growing convenient for us to eat and look after.

The Big Idea in Short

Lawton’s Guide to Permaculture Planning – Zones and Natural Systems

When using permaculture theories to design a living space, or just a garden, there is a lot of forethought to where we put things. The things we need and use regularly, or that need us regularly, are the things we put nearest, and the things that require the least attention can be placed further away. And the zones are labeled thusly, with the house being Zone 0, the numbers getting higher the further away the zone is. Typically, a farm would have up to five zones, with each component of each zone having a specific reason and particular purpose for being there.

I like to think of it kind of like a kitchen. Ideally, we’d keep the appliances that we use most often on the counter, the everyday dishes at the front of the cupboard, and the beer right on the top shelf of fridge for easy access. It wouldn’t make sense to take up counter space with a bread-maker we figured out was an impulse buy we’ll rarely if ever use. It wouldn’t make sense to put the fancy china in the front of the cabinet where it’d have to be moved and repositioned every time we wanted something to eat and need a normal plate. And, well, beer—by the time the day has reached that point, who wants to be bending over looking on the bottom shelf?

We’ve taken the long way around to a simple idea, but it’s in the absence of the zoning logic that so many backyard gardens meet their demise. For some reason, they always get allocated to the back corner, far away from the house, such that on a rainy day or after a particularly rough one at the office, heading out to the garden just seems too much. It’s completely out of our comfort zone, inconvenient, and readily dismissed until tomorrow, when another set of circumstances persuades us not to go. Finally, it’s that familiar scene of weedy beds and overripe vegetables.

Our Type of Convenience Food

The Classic Zone 1 Herb Spiral
The Classic Zone 1 Herb Spiral

Now, one of the things that makes the zoning system so successful is that, unlike the garden bed in the back corner, it takes into account our daily lives and the needs of different plants. Put that veggie patch in the back of the yard and it may as well be a bread machine in the far reaches of the bottom cabinet: Out of sight and out of mind. By carefully considering what goes where and how often we need to use or care for what, we design our garden as we have our kitchen counters and cabinets. We locate our garden where caring for it easier.

In his article “A Zone of One’s Own”, Toby Hemenway, author of the famous Gaia’s Garden, credited an ecological designer as telling clients to “put your garden somewhere between your front door and your car door.” The idea, of course, is that the garden is more likely to get due attention because we are passing it every day, at least twice, on the way out and upon returning. This will result in spotting those ripe tomatoes before they shrivel or grabbing a mesclun to be included with dinner.

Larry Santoyo, whom Hemenway credits the quote, is definitely onto something and thinking like a permaculturalist. The entire idea of zoning is to maximize efficiency, which in turn makes gardening and, even more importantly, harvesting more convenient. If we aren’t forced to walk to the edge of the property, if it’s right on the way to where we are going anyway, we are more inclined to make the most of it.

Zoning in Suburbia

Erik Ohlsen’s Suburban Permaculture Garden Tour

Ironically, the idea of designing a garden this way probably most improves these small plots in suburbia. A full-time farmer will be much more aware of the garden, as he or she has made it their business to tend to such things on a daily basis; however, for a suburban mom or dad, there are so many other day-to-day distractions that weeding a lettuce patch or picking some fresh herbs for tonight’s spaghetti doesn’t always register.

So, when there is a row of lettuce running along the sidewalk from the garage to the house, it’s much easier to gather a handful on the way in. And, when a herb spiral is a step or two outside the kitchen door, we are much more willing to quickly snip a few sprigs of basil and oregano to season things. Maybe, there are tomato, eggplant, green bean, pea and pepper vines spiraling up the patio railing, just beyond the window and easy to take a quick glance at for some more fresh fodder.

Food Climbing up the Wall
Food Climbing up the Wall

When our gardens are close to the house, part of everyday life rather than forgotten projects, we will use them. We want to use them. We always did. It’s just that life gets in the way. Maybe a week of rainstorms deters us from venturing twenty meters to the back of the property line. Maybe a day full of meetings has just taken the wind from our sails. It can happen to anyone. It usually does.

Some Practical Ideas

Make use of the static things around. If there are posts or rails, if there are hanging baskets or a wall that gets plenty of sunlight, an area that tends to hold a lot of water—these are all things to take advantage of. Let some kiwi or grape vines climb up that wall, set some tomatoes or other vining plants to dangle from the hanging baskets, send beans and peas up the posts, and plant those thirsty lettuce plants right where the water soaks in.

Applying Permaculture Principles to Your Garden

Also, think of the types of plants that’ll be put to use the most, considering both what we eat and how it grows. Most greens, herbs included, can be harvested on a daily basis, simply pulling a few leaves off the outside of the plant, and it needs to be watered regularly (remember: thirsty) and perhaps pull a weed or two in the process. But, asparagus only requires attention early on, is perennial and has a particular harvest season. In other words, as it doesn’t need much attention, it’s perfect for that corner in the backyard.

Lastly, planters can help. If going out to the yard every day isn’t in the cards, simply accept it. Use that space to grow some fruit trees, berry bushes and other perennial producers, things that require less attention and often only yield once or twice a year. Use the patios, kitchen windowsills and other spots to grow annual (high maintenance) veggies in pots and planters. Put them in the spaces that are empty and within an eyeshot, hopefully hand-reach, of the spots we inevitably occupy daily.

Pepper-by-Pot
Pepper-by-Pot

Then, we won’t forget to weed (and mulch) occasionally or allow the watermelons to dry up or be deterred by rain, letting the zucchinis over-plump. Rather, we’ll relish what’s abundant when it’s abundant, as we originally attended way back when we first made that plot in the distant corner, somewhere in the far reaches of zones rarely visited in suburbs.

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