In an earlier post, I wrote about establishing a garden on a rented backyard. Today, I’d like to share more specifically some of the permaculture methods we’ve incorporated into our renter’s garden. (If you’re new to permaculture, I wrote more about some of its basic principles here.)
Observe and interact. When we first moved in, we spent a lot of time in the backyard just watching: seeing what was happening there, where the sunlight fell and shadows moved during various times of the day, what birds or animals came through. We slept in a tent in the backyard just to get familiar with that space at all hours. I did a soil test, got the necessary facts about climate, sunlight, existing vegetation, and other characteristics of the site, and hand-drew various maps, thinking about how we were going to be inhabiting and using the space. Only then did we start implementing and planting.
Catch and store energy: develop systems that collect energy or resources (water, sunshine, heat, building materials) when they are abundant, to be used when they are scarce. An example of this in our garden is that we collect, store, and use rain water in these 55 gallon rain barrels. The system is really easy to set up, and the barrels fill up pretty quickly during our rainy winters. We then use that water to irrigate the garden beds during the hot and dry summer months. It helps to minimize water usage, and also keeps the water bill low. Another way of catching and making the most of energy — in this case sunlight — is the cold frame I wrote about here.
Think about the placement of elements. To quote Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden, “place the elements of your design in ways that create useful relationships and time-saving connections among all parts.” For example, it makes sense to plant things that we use almost daily, such as herbs and salad greens, close to the kitchen door where they can easily be accessed (what is called Zone I in permaculture design). The compost area is right next to the chickens’ area, so that we can dump whatever vegetable scraps they haven’t eaten, as well as the litter from the coop, conveniently straight into the compost bins. In the summer, heat-loving vegetables such as tomato, eggplant, and pepper were planted in a “sun trap” in the northwest corner where they were protected from wind and got full sun all day. And so on.
Invest in the soil. In addition to composting, another way of improving the soil over the long term — perhaps the iconic permaculture method — is sheet mulching. It involves no digging, and instead mimics the processes of a natural ecosystem (think of layers of organic material are constantly slowly breaking down in the forest, building the humus layer). Sheet mulching improves soil structure, prevents erosion, helps to retain water and nutrients, and reduces the overall labor input since it blocks weeds for a long time. It’s a simple technique:
- knock down any tall grass and weeds
- optional: spread compost or manure to speed up the decomposing process
- cover with a “weed barrier,” i.e. a thin layer of slowly decomposing material, usually cardboard or sheets of newspaper
- cover with woodchips or compost. You can then let the whole thing decompose for 6 months to a year, or dig holes into the “lasagna” and plant directly into them, which is what I did.
Another way to both invest in the soil, and reduce the labor required by weeding, is mulching — keeping the soil in between plants and rows always covered by layers of organic materials, usually straw, grass clippings, or sometimes dry leaves. This helps to reduce water loss, sun effect, and erosion. The mulch blocks weeds, and worms love the cool, moist, shady soil underneath it.
Companion planting and guilds. The idea behind plant guilds is simply that plants, like humans, have different properties and strengths and things they do well. Some fix nitrogen in the soil, others dig up valuable minerals closer to the surface, some repel pests, others attract pollinators, and yet others break up compacted soil with their roots. In designing a guild, we deliberately bring together plants that fulfill these various roles so that they work together as a team. In the sheetmulched corner of our garden, for example, I planted a mulberry tree sapling, and around it various companion plants that all support each other with their various properties. This is what it looks like now, in the early spring, with the cast of characters and their roles:
Yarrow – attracts beneficial insects; groundcover
Dandelion – considered a “weed,” but actually an edible that accumulates nutrients
Comfrey – an all-around great plant to have in your garden – read more about it here
Mustard – a fast-growing annual, acts as a weed barrier
Marigold – insectary plant
Mint – aromatic plant, repels pests; groundcover
Fava bean – nitrogen fixer
Vetch – nitrogen fixer
Chives – accumulates nutrients
Burdock – accumulates nutrients
(The plant that grew fastest and tallest amidst all of this was the globe artichoke which I admittedly stuck in on a whim, without thinking much about it. It shot up like there’s no tomorrow and yielded many large artichokes for us to harvest in late summer, but also provided shade for the mulberry sapling as it’s still young. Accidental benefits!)
Another example of companion planting from the raised beds is this use of natural pest repellents (wormwood and sage) which keep unwanted garden pests away from the tender salad greens seedlings. Mint and garlic are among the other good ones due to their strong aroma. These plants would also be an example of the “one element performs multiple functions” principle of permaculture: pests may not like them, but we do — we use them in cooking all the time. Tastes much better than chemical pesticides, I assure you.