Last week I blogged about how my perception of permaculture was challenged when I took another look at it. Rather than being a complex system for self-sufficient rural types, I was surprised to find how applicable it was to the average home garden. So this week I thought I would turn my attention to some of the practical implications of taking a permaculture approach to your own vegetable patch.
One of the things about permaculture is that there are no fixed solutions – it is primarily a design method, a way of approaching problems and this inherent creativity is one of its most appealing features. But for beginners like me it is also useful to look at some practical examples of how a garden might change when considering it from a permaculture perspective.
First to go are all those unproductive, high maintenance spaces. We’re not talking about replacing them with lots of paving and garden landscaping – that kind of solution might be low-maintenance but it certainly doesn’t fit with the idea of gardens being productive. Instead we might look at turning a high-maintenance lawn into an orchard, perhaps with an area left to ‘go wild’ or sown with meadow-flowers to attract beneficial wildlife and insects. This could be maintained and roughly cut a few times a year to provide a source of mulch to keep in moisture round thirsty plants.
Next are all those traditional vegetable beds, double-dug each year to incorporate lots of manure. Permaculture takes a different approach – quite similar to the ‘no-dig’ system and often less regimented than rows of the same crop. The ‘maximum output, minimum input’ mantra means that we should try and emulate nature a bit more – you don’t see large patches of bare soil naturally and digging over soil is well known to bring up weed seeds. Instead, green manures are going to be planted alongside vegetables so that when the plant has cropped the green manure will be ready to give some coverage over winter, eventually to be incorporated into the soil by hoeing. Where this isn’t practical, or the vegetables need no competition then mulches are used. These can range from grass clippings to compost and well rotted leaf mold, so systems for producing good quality mulch are also part of the garden design. If, like me, you struggle to produce enough organic matter from your own garden, then sheet cardboard is preferable to leaving the topsoil bare and is a great weed suppressant.
Also on the list of improvements is the general placement of plants – to make the garden more efficient. Herbs and salad should be near the kitchen. Less accessible areas (and I would include community gardens in this category) are reserved for lower maintenance plants. At the furthest extremes we site areas that are homes for wildlife and beneficial creatures where they can be undisturbed. A pond for frogs, bird- and bat-boxes, places for ladybirds to over-winter etc are all going to work to keep the numbers of unwelcome pests down come summer-time.
Finally, I really like the permaculture principle that ‘the problem is often the solution.’ It’s one that forces us to question why we are fighting against nature instead of working with it. For example, dandelions are considered prime enemies for a traditional lawn but have many edible uses. A problem with lack of space may lead us to a solution of beautiful vertically-trained beans and squashes, giving a small garden the illusion of being bigger.
Clearly, none of these examples are quick fixes. Permaculture is a different to the traditional approach to planning a vegetable patch and, as such, it is going to take time to implement. But the long-term payoff should be a lower-maintenance, more productive use of space achieved by working with nature rather than against it and that can only be good.