The Permaculture Garden

It’s been a busy week!  Along with the busy-ness at work, the canning and preserving, and the continuing fall garden clean-up, the Skipper and I have also been reflecting and observing our property, and contemplating the changes we want to make over the winter.

As I’ve been thinking about various options, the principles of Permaculture have been on my mind once again.  I read the brilliant Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway just after we moved onto our property, and I knew I had found a model for developing our home and gardens.

Permaculture covers a lot of ground.  It’s a design system for developing landscapes that will serve human needs in ecological ways, by using patterns and associations that are based on how plants and animals interact in natural ecosystems.  Permaculture has been around since the 1970s and has developed some commonly used techniques that embody this principle.  One almost iconic technique is the so-called herb spiral: by using stones in a spiral pattern, one creates a small planting bed that rises from ground level to a little peak.  The different areas of the spiral then have slightly different micro-climates (some get more sun, some more shade, the top of the spiral is drier, the bottom moister) that suit different herbs.  Another common technique is the key-hole garden: a garden bed that’s a circle with one path that runs into its centre provides more growing area and less pathway space than similarly-sized rectangular beds.

But permaculture is much more than a series of techniques.  Permaculture is a set of principles that enable us to approach any problem from an ethical, ecologically-based point of view.  Although there is no concensus on THE principles, one of permaculture’s founders, David Holmgren, developed 12 that are commonly used and continue to evolve.

The 12 principles revolve around 3 core values: Care of the Earth, Care of People, and “Fair Share” or equitable distribution of resources globally.

I am always moved and inspired by these core values.  They seem simple and straightforward enough, but I find that they remind me of a couple of things that I often forget in day to day life (and that I think are often missing even from discussions around environmental issues).

First, Care of the Earth is a version of “leave the place better than how you found it.”  What inspires me about this is that permaculture believes that our human interactions with the environment can improve the environment.  It assumes that it is possible for our human impact on the earth to be a positive thing!  Now that’s revolutionary.  So much of our discussions these days seem to be full of the doom and gloom of how everything humans touch, we ruin.  That the world would be better off without us.  I find myself often stuck in the mental loop of recognizing that we cause impact wherever we live, trying to minimize that impact, and failing, because to live, we need to impact the earth!  Permaculture reminds me that, yes, impacting the earth through our lives is inevitable, but that it can be a positive: that our impact can improve biodiversity, life, soil, etc.

The second value, Care of People, reminds me that it is also part of the natural world to care for people and to meet our needs as a species.  We are part of Nature; we’re not going anywhere, and so we need to take care of each other.  We need to design our landscapes to meet our needs, not try to create an untouched wilderness which then forces us to meet our needs through damaging industrial systems.  It is an ethical principle to try to meet our human needs through the properties that we live on.  In fact, the more we can do that, the less impact we may need to have on the much larger tracts of wilderness where we don’t live.

Of the design principles that come out of these core values, some have also been particularly compelling for me over these last couple of weeks.  The first principle is “Observe and Interact.”  Don’t jump in and try to change things right away; observe for a while.  And interact with the space and its current inhabitants, because in doing so, we learn more deeply about it.  We’ve been observing and interacting with our property now for just over a year, and we are clear on how we want to change some areas.  But there’s been one section that I have found challenging, and I have been focussing my attention there for the last couple of months.  I keep coming up with ideas, then heading out to look at and commune with the space.  Then I change my mind. 🙂  Then I come up with a new idea based on my observations.  Still not taking action.  More contemplating…

In my plans, I’m trying especially to realize principle #4, Obtain a Yield (definable in a number of different ways); #5, Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services (“Resources” refers to all resources, including my own time, energy, money, etc); #6, Produce no Waste (waste doesn’t exist in the natural world; the waste from one system is the resource for something else), and #9, Use Small and Slow Steps.

Permaculture is about, literally, thinking outside the box.  Stack uses, imagine how waste from one process could be re-used somewhere else.  Mimic natural systems by never leaving ground bare, by planning for multiple uses and biodiversity.  Try to make sure that doing so creates a renewable, sustainable, benefit for the people and creatures using the space and resources.

This week, I’ve been looking at every physical structure we’ve inherited here: the house and all of its exterior walls, the exterior walls of the greenhouse, the gazebo, the shed.  I’ve been thinking about how all of the many fences are used so well as growing spaces, and imagining where new fences might go and how they might be used.  We’ve been discussing rainwater collection options.  And mostly, I’ve been looking at my overgrown, weedy, perennial flower bed that’s framed by a few fruit trees, and thinking: “orchard for chickens and ducks!”

Next: more on the permaculture plan for new critters on the homestead!

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2 thoughts on “The Permaculture Garden

  1. Hi Toni, Must read up on permaculture (and Gaia’s Garden) when winter closes in. So far though, it sounds exactly like the principals taught me by my parents: Leave things at least as good as you found them, if not better. Take only what you need and leave the rest. How do things function best? Work it out and make it happen. What can be done to fix/repair what you already have or use it for something else altogether? What solution is there to this problem? (say powdery mildew, for instance) My maternal grandmother always said, “For every ill known to man, God placed a solution near at hand, we just need to find it.”

  2. P.S. About the powdery mildew thing… sorry, got totally wrapped up in the spirit of the thing! Anyway, powdery mildew (and loads of other fungal disease) is everywhere and there are as many different fixes for it as there are cultures that need one: baking soda in solution, milk in a solution, Neem oil solution, Bordo copper spray, and so on…

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