What is Permaculture?
Authored by Leah Chester-Davis
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Authored by Leah Chester-Davis
Nature is a great teacher and serves as a guide when it comes to a gardening approach known as permaculture. While the term was first coined in the 1950s, it is growing in popularity for gardeners who wish to draw on ecosystem principles present in nature. When designed properly, all the elements of a garden or landscape are interconnected and support one another, for both humans and animals.
According to the book, “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway, who has written extensively on the subject, the name is a contraction of both “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture.” The key to permaculture gardening is to work with nature and allow nature to do its work.
Take a walk in nature and observe. Soil is built by leaves and small twigs falling to the ground and decomposing. The best way to build soil in your garden is to add chopped up leaves or other organic material. Building good, healthy soil takes time and is well worth the effort to ensure plants have the best growing environment possible. Healthy soil attracts earthworms, insects, fungi, and other organisms that contribute to the ecosystem.
Many plants serve more than one purpose. For example, pollinator plants not only add beauty, they also attract beneficial pollinators. When planted near a fruit tree or garden, they contribute to an important ecosystem by both attracting beneficial pollinators and providing important habitat. A term often used in permaculture is “plant guilds,” where several different species of plants support one another. Rather than a monoculture, think polyculture. A classic example is that of a fruit tree surrounded by plants that attract pollinators, others that are nitrogen fixers, meaning they add nitrogen to the soil, and plants that are groundcovers that suppress weeds and help keep moisture. The “Three Sisters” technique with beans, corn, and squash is a classic example of plant guilds.
Most gardens have a mix of both annuals and perennials. Designing your garden to include several perennials such as berry plants, fruit and nut trees, many herbs, and vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb reduce the need for annual tilling while providing long-term benefits.
Another permaculture design tool requires rethinking how you use space. Traditional gardens use paths between rows, which take up valuable space and compacts soil. Permaculture suggests using circles or curves, or what is referred to as a keyhole bed. Following the design of a keyhole, consider the space where the key goes as the path. The surrounding area is the planting space. The pattern uses less space. Herb spirals are another example of using a circular pattern, ideally positioned right outside the kitchen for easy access and maintenance. Another pattern is the branch pattern based on the veining of a leaf, with one central path and a few small paths extending from it.
A few plants are go-to plants for use as mulch. They are considered green mulch because the plants are typically chopped off and scattered onto the ground to return nutrients to the soil and help keep moisture. Comfrey, rhubarb, and nasturtium are a few that may be useful for smaller areas. In larger areas, cover crops, sometimes called “green manure,” help build soil and suppress weeds. Some typical cover crops are clovers, rye, and vetches.
One of the best ways to suppress weeds naturally is by placing a layer of newspaper or cardboard on the ground and topping with a thick layer of organic material such as compost, straw, wood shavings, or a mix of organic material. This smothers the weeds, and the material will decompose and add richness to the soil.
A starting point for any garden is to consider sun, shade, and wind patterns, and your view. That applies to zones as well. Zones may differ depending on the gardener, but the general idea is to position and plant according to use. For example, planting herbs and frequently harvested vegetables close to the house so they are easy to harvest and maintain may be more efficient than a garden plot away from the house. A little farther away may be a zone where you plant berries, fruit trees, and other shrubs. This might be an area where you keep a compost bin and chickens. Another zone may be a place to implement a technique called hügelkultur, a method used to decompose small branches and other natural debris. Additional zones depend on the size of your property and your needs and wishes.
This also might help you decide what to plant in various zones. How will you irrigate plants? A hose system with drip irrigation or another method? A rainwater collection system with rain barrels or small tanks placed at downspouts on your house is a wise water harvesting strategy, particularly for homeowners in areas with restricted water use during drought periods or concern about using too much well water.
As with any gardening endeavor, getting started is the key. Check out permaculture resources in your community, local library, permaculture magazines, or online.
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