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Gallant gardening

Permaculture spreads the love

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Talk with a tree. Have tea with a shrub. Listen to a flower. Plants can help us maintain a spiritual relationship with the planet. Every plant concurrently plays a part in the web of the garden and in the grand scheme of nature.

Care for the earth, care for people and share the abundance are the basic tenets of permaculture, three simple tenants for living sustainably. Permaculture is a pathway to living in harmony with the land, a philosophy that connects back into nature and works to increase the output of the land, while improving its health and abundance. Seeking more from less space, the principles of permaculture manage living space, including indoor space, like French-intensive gardens that are planned, packed with food and function to make small produce big.

"Nature never does just one thing. Everything we do in the environment has repercussions and reports," says Peter Bane, an honored and respected permaculture instructor. Multifunctioning forest gardens, plant groupings, water systems and integrative bio-systems add to the stability of not only the ecosystem itself, but also to the well-being of the land dweller who reaps the harvest.

In a forest garden, the plants carry out as much work as possible, and once established, they will continue to produce, long after the gardener is gone. Rich in function and purpose, food forests bring more than food. They also provide shade, wind barriers, wildlife habitat and water storage. The addition of a food forest also gives spiritual grounding to our homes. Here's what you'll need:

Trees

"Trees are never just shade," Bane says. They also feed the soil, create microclimates, buffer wind, capture and release water, shelter birds and mammals and provide wood. Some trees have medicinal qualities and many offer fruit. And, of course, trees bring beauty to the land.

Well-tended forest systems are excellent wildlife and bird habitats. The canopy of the tallest tree in the garden is the sun mitigator, wind absorber and microclimate maker, creating protection for the understory trees, those mid-range and dwarf fruit trees, small groves, thickets and shorter privacy trees. Shrubs bloom and provide fruit. Nestled into the soil and sharing space with the understory plants, the shrubs form another layer in the forest.

The tree, a microclimate maker, is surrounded by plants that will fertilize the soil, hold moisture and attract insects to pollinate the flowers and provide pest control.

Plants

Perennials thrive in the sunnier areas of the garden, yet are in close association with the shrubs and understory, often growing under their leafy skirts. Food crops are laid out in specific design patterns like keyhole gardens and spirals, or in raised beds. Crops can join into the collective effort around the trees, generally living wherever they choose to grow. Inconvenient plants are harvested first.

Groundcovers protect the soil and provide "living mulch." Some, such as strawberries or Mahonia repens, have fruits. Root crops and tuberous plants like carrots and potatoes, help work the soil deeply.

Vines are an important part of this garden too. Climbing up the understory trees, a vine can find support and seek out sunshine. (Grapes are a favorite.) Hardy and multitasking vines increase the jungle effect of the food forest and create more abundance in small spaces.

Of course, a food garden will have edible plants. But other plants, not necessarily edibles, are vital to a forest garden. Insectary plants, such as catmint or fennel (herbs, in general) offer a nectar source for predatory insects, calling them in to patrol your tender edibles. Nitrogen-fixing plants are service plants that feed other plants living close by. Mulching plants, such as comfrey or horseradish, cover large patches of soil, smothering out weeds. They can also be cut back and laid directly on the soil to decompose.

My own edible gardens provide for my animals as well as for me. The bunnies cycle the sun's energy from the leaves of plants back into the soil. Phytoremediation plants promote and heal damaged land, cleaning out contaminants and pollutants. Plants living in association benefit each other -- theirs is a symbiotic relationship.

Soil

The permaculture goal is to inoculate soil with the needs of the soil fauna. Soil is a mixture of minerals (45 percent), air (25 percent), water (25 percent) and organic materials (5 percent). Colorado soils can have less than 1 percent organic material. Ideal soil has a good crumbly structure, adequate fertility and depth for roots to stretch and spread into.

Most urban soils have some issues. Common urban soil characteristics include: soil compaction, less organic matter, surface crusting, higher pH, frequent drainage problems, possible contamination from pollutants, less microbial activity, warmer soil temperatures and hidden waste materials, like asphalt, concrete, masonry and construction debris that has been buried on site.

Amend the soil when planting, using lots of organic compost or aged manure. Till or double-dig compacted soils when establishing new beds. Touch the soil when you can -- it helps to monitor its needs.

Soil is the base of the planet's plant population. The leaves of plants, for instance, feed back into the soil. They fall to the ground, becoming crisp and fragile. Under winter snows and spring rains, those leaves begin to break down, soften and become food for microorganisms and fungus. Worms tear pieces off and retreat into their tunneled homes. Other biota, including slugs, snails and beetles, come to dine, all the while entertaining the unseen micro-biota, busy on the microscopic scale.

All these chewing and rasping mouths deliver food to the body, which then must eliminate unused portions. Call it what you will, manure is soil food. A primary function of soil is providing a home for decomposers, who keep the planet clean by consuming waste products, whether from plants or animals.

Mulch

Worms build soil -- it's their job. Mulching calls in the worms to balance air, minerals and water. When faced with depleted soil, introduce organic material: rotted leaves, compost or aged manure. Mulch deeply and let the soil begin to regain health. Health, to soil, would be a legion of biota, the smaller beings that live, breathe and eat soil. A spoonful of healthy soil can harbor 6 billion soil organisms. Through composting and mulching soil, the worm population will take over the task of building soil.

Forest gardens are mulched, heavily, with sheet mulch. Mulches help control weeds and smother pests, like the apple's codling moth. Dense plantings of onions, chives, comfrey, clovers, yarrow or legumes serve as living mulch and do well with fruit trees. Plants that are perennial or self-sowing annuals are encouraged. They can serve up their crops as long as the gardener is there to harvest and sow seed.

Water

Ecosystem gardens are watered overhead, washing valuable nutrients off the leaves and down to the waiting soil, cleaning leaves in the process. Protected by shade and wind buffering, a food forest needs less water and less attention than standard vegetable gardens or bluegrass lawns. I water once a week or less depending on the weather.

Ponds also add the critical water element to an ecosystem garden, which, especially at ground level, requires it. The loose rocks of the pond provide a spot for nature to hide in, as well. Especially in dry Colorado, installing bog gardens, waterways, ponds, even multiple birdbaths will bring balance into the system. Permaculture directs runaway water to the pond, so plant bulrushes, cattails and watercress where possible. Plunk in some edible fish to weave yet another strand into the garden's web.

Design

Working with nature allows the gardener to relax and witness life in its purest forms. Begin to dream and create plans. "The best work is done in the hammock," is a common saying in permaculture circles, and it means that allowing time to simply observe land and listen to subtler voices will inspire the best designs. Observe and replicate natural patterns. The world is a pattern of events nested within each other. Taking time to "let the land speak for itself" will open up visions that will work and offer returns far beyond the standards of mainstream landscapes.

-- Becky Elder

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