I meet a lot of people who are new to the idea of permaculture, or more so, they’ve heard of the term but aren’t quite certain what it entails. It’s using raise beds, right? Generally, I try to be broad in my description, including elements of sustainable housing, renewable energy, cyclical systems, small bonded communities, and the whole shebang…But, largely, people have heard about permaculture through the food movement and want to know about the gardening.
Perhaps, they are right. Sustainable housing isn’t an immediate possibility for most people, who either already have homes or lack the land upon which to build one. Renewable energy is on the upswing, but by and large, it’s not usually a quick, easy or cheap endeavor for those who already have a car, the typical electric set-up and water spewing from the city main. So, what they see is that the garden might be a realistic first step.
So, they ask me what I would do to make their garden better, or if they don’t have a garden, they ask me how I’d go about putting one in. I think most people who venture this route are expecting some magical formula for how permaculture works, and it’s difficult to merely tell them that each piece of land should be approached differently. Instead, I’ve come up with some factory ideas for just how to begin transitioning into a permaculture garden, along with logical reasons this the case.
1. The Notion That Soil Is Something to Be Grown, Not Just Grown In
Caring for and adding to the soil is perhaps the simplest and most profound piece of gardening advice I can give, and for me, as with many other practitioners, this is rooted in the implication of no-till and/or one-dig garden beds. Sheet mulching is perhaps the easiest and fastest route to get there, especially for people who already have an abundance of garden supplies. For newbies, I take a rather rudimentary route—the same I use most of the time—of choosing a space and beginning to layer it with the things that I can gather. Come into cardboard boxes or newspapers, that’s great. Have a bunch of leaves from the sidewalks or front yard, fantastic. Fresh grass clippings from weed-eating or, god forbid, mowing, that’s nitrogen. Whatever it is that’s biodegradable, pile it up into the shape of a garden bed. When it’s time to plant, clear out a little whole in the debris, fill that hole with good soil, and add the seed or seedling.
Constantly turning soil takes away the life that makes the earth work fluidly. Tilling works for a short time as plants feed off of the decaying soil life, but it eventually goes away. Soil building is also based on decay, but in this case, the soil is being added to…naturally.
2. The Shift from Annual-Only Gardens to Mixed Perennials
To me (and I think most), perennial plants are at the crux of most permaculture gardens, and rather than planting them in tidy rows of singular species, we find the right mixes to make balanced eco-systems. The reasons for doing this are many, but let’s keep it brief. Perennial plants are less energy-intensive, both for the earth and for the cultivator: They don’t gobble up soil nutrients and fizzle fast like annual plants do, which means gardeners won’t continually have to start them from seed every time they’d like some vegetables. This, of course, isn’t to say that annual vegetables are no good. I like a tomato as much as the next gardener, but moving our diet, thus garden, from being annuals-based to utilizing more productive and less needy plants is a shrewd move for the garden environment and for the cultivator tending it.
Look to include perennial vegetables, nuts and fruits like rhubarb, asparagus, berries, kale, garlic, scarlet runner beans, and so on, and even if the whole garden isn’t perennial, be sure to develop that side of things. Perennial provides for again and again and againzx.
3. The Multiple Ways Mulching Is Of Utmost Importance
Mulching and soil building might go under the same listing, but I find mulching to be such a game-changer in the garden that I can’t let soil steal all the thunder. Whether it’s living or decaying, it improves so much of what is happening. It adds nutrients. It protects the soil from drying out. It prevents the rain from eroding the soil are pounding it into concrete. It provides habitat for microorganisms, insects and all sorts of other things that are living in and constantly improving the soil. It pacifies weeds and even makes those that do grow easier to pull. It preserves the moisture in soil, keeping it from evaporating and keeping it for the plants. And, ultimately, it builds layer upon layer of new, loose and lively soil.
Lots can be said about mulching, the right way to do it as far as living versus decaying, and what material makes the best choice, but in this instance, the simple need to get something atop the soil overrules the pedantic lessons of whose way is best. Mulching is better than bare soil.
4. The Efficient Use of Space Does Not Come in the Form of Rows
This is something I find people latch onto pretty quickly and dsicover to be a more pleasing way to view the garden, both visually and intellectually. Visually, a garden of keyhole beds and contour edges is much more stimulating and interesting, not to mention full of plant life, than one of plowed rows. The mixing of a tall and short plants, vines twisting up stalking corn or papaya trunks, and colorful leaves and flowers and vegetables and fruits is all there to decipher in one space, to find and appreciate. If it’s only paths that aren’t growing plants, then obviously there is the opportunity to grow a lot more as well. For every row, there is an empty row next to it, so intellectually speaking, it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand what’s a more efficient us of space.
The unnatural world has taught us to overvalue the straight line. It works well for building houses quickly or getting from point A to B fastest, but curves—both along the sides and vertical throughout the bed—make more surface area and microclimates for plants.
5. The Production of Food Should Happen in a Waste-Free Cycle.
An indelible feature of permaculture gardens (and other systems) is that they don’t create waste. Everything that dies, falls, or goes uneaten is simply turned back into the system to foster the next generation of something. Money, time and resources aren’t often spent on additives because the systems replicate nature, creating the same sort of fertile balance that we find in prairies and forests, where all “waste” goes to feeding the soil, soil life, wildlife, and the next in the endless cycle of plants. In permaculture gardens, weeds and trimmings are used as mulch to build the system for the cultivated plants. Dropped leaves or failed plants just add to the pile of organic matter producing loamy loveliness. The scraps the harvests produce in the kitchen come back in the form of in situ compost (such as in worm buckets or banana circles) or animal feed that get there in the form of manure.
Start thinking cycling in the garden. Grow plants to harvest the seeds. Grow legumes to cut them down for nitrogen boosting and mulching purposes. Use all the weeds and expired annuals for soil rebuilding. Never cart them away. Ultimately, the garden should sustain itself.
Without a doubt, there are other important aspects to building a permaculture garden. Water catchments come to mind, swales and ponds and greywater, as do incorporating interactivity within other systems, like compost toilets or chicken tractors. Observing, utilizing and enhancing the existing landscape is as basic as it comes. However, what these sorts of techniques require is some know-how—how to find contour, what to look for in a landscape—as well as a general leap into the thick of it. Not everyone is so keen as to rearrange their bathroom situation for the sake of a permaculture experiment.
So, as for me and what to tell those with a passing interest, I like to keep the advice to something that could be done in a garden that is already there. I think these techniques often show some immediate, pleasing results, such as less need for watering and eliminating the need for maintaining a compost bin. As well, people tend to enjoy gardens with beds, but there is only work to be done in a garden patch with nothing but rows. There are also some long-term benefits to be enjoyed, like next year’s light and rich soil (for free), as well as the fact that all those perennials will be coming back on their own. In other words, for those who take these tips to heart and give them a shot, they’ll likely be coming back for more.
Feature Photo: Small Space Intensive Food Garden