Permaculture, sustainability and what you should understand as you plan your garden

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

-Anne Frank

I had a fellow gardener bring his sceptical father-in-law over to our farm one day in the hopes that I could convince him to allow some organic ag on some of his property.  Our friend was hoping that our shared background in conventional ag would cause the venerable older gent to consider a different perspective.  The first thing he asked me as we started our walk around the property was, “What is permaculture?”  I know he was thinking I was going to explain a specific method of growing food but that doesn’t work for permaculture.

Permaculture is a view, formally founded by Bill Mollison, that strives to work with nature instead of against it. It is a way of approaching design, not just in the garden, but everywhere.   Inherently sustainable, permaculture is the goal.  It is design intensive.  (You can go to classes and get certificate called a PDC or permaculture design certificate.)  When well implemented, permaculture mimics natural processes.  

You can spend all day reading about permaculture online.  You can spend a thousand dollars on books about it and you can go earn your PDC.  You don’t need me for any of that so here are examples of how it plays out on our humble farm:

Now that we have moved past NPK fertilizers from Lowe’s, what is best for this growing space?  Should we add worm castings or actually add worms?

What about horse manure?  Compost?

Do we mow these weeds and till them in or pull them out and try and suppress further growth?

Why aren’t we catching all this rain water that runs off so quickly we end up running irrigation a week later?  

Can we get enough hardwood mulch to regulate water in the beds so we don’t need to irrigate?

What grows naturally here that we can plant all over and ignore?

Should we nurse these fruit trees along or just let the strongest survive?

Where can we put swales to manage our excess water?

You do not have to be a prepper or attempting self-sufficiency to garden with this in mind.  When we grow food, we are striving for maximum output of the highest possible quality with minimal inputs (unless you are a martyr, in which case, knock yourself out.)  In learning how best to grow food in our current location, we failed on many levels.  We had no idea you could work with nature or mimic it to reduce your workload.  We had no clue what was possible or even advisable from a health perspective.  Learn from our mistakes.  Start wearing the correct glasses.  If you are fighting against a natural process, you should reconsider what you are doing.  Nature will win the moment you turn your back, and sometimes before that.  If you have to constantly bring in outside inputs, it is not sustainable.  If you could no longer leave your property to purchase things, could you still grow food?  If the answer is no, keep working on it.  

We still aren’t there.  I’m not even sure I know what there will look like but we keep getting closer.  We keep getting more right.  There are moments that remind us we are on the right track.  It sounds a little existential, and it can feel that way, but it is also tangible, concrete and visible.  

I don’t foresee the day that I will not start my seeds in the house in January to lengthen the season but I have learned that sometimes you use worm castings and sometimes you just dump worms in the plant bed.  I’ve learned to rotate certain crops so the bugs don’t find them as easily.  I’ve learned that certain insects flourish certain times of year and sometimes you can plant to avoid them.  The list goes on and we will go through all of it.

Chew on this

This report is long but I encourage you to at least read the introduction: http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf

If you really want to geek out about permaculture and sustainability, I recommend the book Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard.  It is in depth and eye opening.  If you want anything more than a small hobby garden, this perspective is invaluable.  

Suggested listening

If you would like to listen to interviews with people in the permaculture community, this is a good place to start:

http://www.thepermaculturepodcast.com/

or

http://www.permaculturevoices.com/

The second is aimed at people trying to make a living but the interviews can be really valuable for the home grower.  I recommend sorting through them for subjects that appeal to you.  

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Love from the farm

Happy eating, Katy

8 thoughts on “Permaculture, sustainability and what you should understand as you plan your garden

  1. Growing things in this manner is hard, even on a small scale. It is so much easier to throw a ton of Miracle Grow and Roundup at the problems. So, I think most people will not be interested at all because all solutions are long term solutions that take thinking ahead.

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    • We have found it is easier here once you have a plan. We couldn’t fight nature anymore. It is a loosing battle, like drug addiction. With permaculture the soil keeps getting better instead of worse and the bugs stay in balance instead of having infestations. And we have a great community of like minded growers who use the same methods. I really think that helps no matter your methods. Hang in there!

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  2. We moved to our current location 8 years ago. I love fresh vegetables and am planning what to plant in our raised beds next spring. I planted potatoes in a couple of old horse troughs that wouldn’t hold water late last summer but while I harvested many potatoes, most were no bigger than my thumb. The plants looked healthy so perhaps I planted them too late to reach maturity. Like you suggested, I wish I had kept a journal, then I would know exactly when I planted them and could do better in the future. In the meantime I have raised beds in which I put mulch a year and a half ago to break down. I am looking forward to planting them this coming year. Unfortunately one of them has been taken over by what the locals call “spider grass.” It is finer and more invasive than crabgrass. I have carefully weeded the bed but the grass comes back with a vengence. How can I kill it without permanently ruining the raised bed? Any help would be appreciated! Thanks for your great blog. It is very informative and you have a writing style that is very friendly!

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    • Aw! Thank you! The potatoes may have needed more time. I wait until my plants are pretty much dying but I have a long season here. I’ve found they prefer a little neglect. They need some stress to start storing. I’ll check in some of my favorite books to see if there is other advice that I’m am neglecting at this late hour. The grass is another issue. The most common advice is to hand pull it and then put a heavy coat of vinegar around the perimeter so it won’t cross it again anytime soon. Then smother and solar the area in the bed to kill what you couldn’t get with your hands. We fight this, too. Jeff hand weeds it and I make it hate being in my beds. I would add, note where it does not grow on your property and figure out why. Is it too shaded, covered in leaves or choked out by something else? Plants are opportunistic and only turn up where they are comfortable. Unfortunately, the ones that make us swear are like that one person who stays awkwardly late, easily comfortable. I’ll be posting about this in the future. Thanks for the kind words:)

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  3. I listened to Permaculture Voices while making dinner tonight, it was one with the Urban Farmer – great podcast! I think permaculture is so awesome, but I barely know anything about it and often feel intimidated? It was refreshing to listen to Curtis Stone’s story though, because he never farmed or even gardened until his 30s and look how much awesome he’s doing now!

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    • Yes, I have tried to make a point of keeping it as simple as possible. I keep coming back to asking myself if my frustration is because I am fighting nature. At the most base, that is the concern. And when we try something we ask how it works best on its own. It isn’t always easy or clear but considering these things has helped us immensely. And I still have so much to learn. It is so cliche but it is a journey.

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