Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Permaculture: Not Your Grandparent's Garden!

Permaculture Is Not Your Grandparent's Gardening System

I grew up gardening with my mom and grandparent's. I remember the tiller coming out in the spring and long rows being meticulously created. Each plant would have it's own unique space as the seeds were sewed as directed by the seed package. Then it was time to water. The water would be applied with an overhead sprinkler system placed withing the garden. The plants would prosper in their carefully maintained rows and there was much to be harvested in the fall. The nutrients in the soil were stolen from the ground each year and would have to be aggressively replenished. This rejuvenation would come in the form of animal manure, adding additional amended soil or applying chemical fertilizers. 

My husband and I have been gardening since we bought our first home back in 2000. We have continued the practice of amending, tilling, planting and harvesting in the same fashion that our families always have. We have had some spectacular years, supplying three households with yearly vegetables and we have had years where the gophers cleaned us out, an invasive ground cover choked us out or our lack of weeding has sealed a small harvest fate. 

Last year was one of those years. An invasive week cover claimed half of our garden and a killer drought made our garden a bug oasis in a desert landscape. I started thinking there must be some kind of solution. Some new way of planting that would shake up our normal gardening pattern and give us better yields. 

I have been listening to a lot of survival podcasts before and since I created my own, The Changing Earth Podcast. One of those podcasts is called The Survival Podcast, hosted by Jack Spirko. Jack's show airs daily so I don't get a chance to listen to everyone but when I do he is often discussing the idea of permaculture. 

Permaculture is the idea that nature does a pretty good job of taking care of itself. Why not learn the principles of your natural environment and enrich them so it is mutually beneficial to the soil, plants, animals and thus humans? It has expanded into a method of thinking that puts humans in harmony with nature. Now this all might sound a little hippy but there are very solid ideas for gardening and even social change once you understand this concept. 

So the journey begins. My family's permaculture journey is just beginning and I want to take you along on the ride so you can learn the principles and techniques as we explore them. Given that the gardening season is almost upon us, I wanted to start with a nuts and bolts application of what I can do to turn my garden into a more hospitable environment this year.

I found this awesome article by Janet over at In it Janet discusses the nine principles of permaculture and how we can begin to apply those tenants.

Species Diversity 

Janet points out the fact that when you are walking in nature, rarely do you come across an area where only one type of plant exists. Nature mixes up the plants and thus there are different bugs and animals attracted to the area. It also ensures that one bug can't continually feed through the same type of plants.

Janet explains that this does not mean you have to give up your rectangular beds but that you should try planting rows of different types of plants side by side with flowers in between. I have also heard that many herbs can be beneficial in your vegetable garden so this may be a great thing to shake up the bed. I immediately thought of my tomatoes for this topic. We often get tomato worms so bad that they can destroy all the plants in a couple days if not eradicated. Spreading your tomato plants out though out the garden may be a way to ensure that the worms can't bring down the destruction as fast.

Janet explains that symbiosis means a special relationship that exists between certain plants and animals that is mutually beneficial or maybe even essential to the plants and animals involved.

To apply this concept Janet encourages readers to learn about companion planting, which I am very interested in. Last year I planted my upper garden with peas and carrots but because I had planted that garden space with cucumbers and tomatoes in previous years, I began to grow renegades that I had not planted there on purpose. I decided to leave them alone and see what would happen because my lower garden wasn't doing so well. Turns out everything exploded in size. I made sure the lower branches of the tomotoe weren't blocking out the carrots and I encouraged the cucumber plant to climb instead of lay on the carrots. I harvested my best tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and peas of the year from that tiny bed instead of the large garden. Seeing how well this mix-up can work I was immediately intrigued. I will keep you posted as I learn about the great parings of plants that can be planted together and the amazing effects you can see because of that relationship.

Janet explains that nature will maintain a proper balance between plants and animals in a complex food web.

This concept applies more to your yard planting. I don't really want the deer massacring my vegetables but I am going to introduce a small flock of chickens to the garden area. They will have limited access to the garden when the plants are established and in off growing seasons. They will help with bug control and their dropping will add needed nutrients to the soil.

In nature the roles of the plants and animals often overlap so if one of the players goes missing the show still goes on.

Janet's example is you can plant a bunch of greens with your spinach that way if one doesn't do well you have plenty of others to supplement the supply of greens.

Vertical Structure
If you walk in the forest you will notice there are multiple layers of vegetation from the ground level on up. This vertical structure is known as "stacking"

Janet's example focuses more on your yard vegetation. Planting trees and shrubs as well as ground covers and vegetables. For the garden she gives the example of using vertical climbing structures. Much like I encouraged my tomatoes and cucumbers to grow on an upper level and left the lower level available for my carrots.

Plants Grow Where Their Soil Requirements are met Naturally
Janet explains this in a natural setting. Some soils are more hospitable to different plants and thus animals.

To apply this you can sew plants that are naturally suited to your soil or you can change the conditions of the soil to grow what you want. The change is done in a more natural manner than simply amending the soil. Janet describes this as sewing plants that replenish nitrogen or trees to provide shade.

Janet describes this as a change in species composition over time as plants and animals grow and die. This may seem in opposition to our traditional annual gardens that are planted yearly.

Janet says you can apply this to your garden or yard by planting trees, shrubs, vines, perrenial vegetable plants along with your annual vegetables to provide diversity. You will need to expect a wide array of changes, accept it and learn to work with it. This is an interesting concept and I can see applying it more to the area surrounding the garden plot.

Recycling: Soil Building from Within
Soil is naturally maintained with plant matter and animal refuse. That means removing old plant matter and not including your animals refuse in your compost for the garden would be a big mistake.

Janet agrees and says to use all organic matter produced on your property to build your compost and assist your soil nutrients. We do this with our chicken poo as well as adding a healthy amount of horse poo as well.

Minimal Tilling
Janet says that tilling results in oxygen exposure which releases nutrients from the soil faster than the plants can use them. In addition it destroys soil structure.

Janet suggest using a lasagna garden or hugelkultur method. I need to do my homework on these topics and I will let you know what I find out but both of these methods involve layering organic matter which keeps weeks down and makes tilling unnecessary.

If you are interested in finding out more read Janet's article at: She also has links to some great resources to find out more.

We'll see how the garden grows this year! Three cheers for permaculture!
Sara F. Hathaway
Sara F. Hathaway is the author of the The Changing Earth Series: Day After Disaster and Without Land. She also hosts The Changing Earth Podcast which blends her fictional stories with educational survival tips. Sara grew up in the country where she developed a profound interest in the natural world around her. After graduating with honors from The California State University of Sacramento with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, she launched into a career in business management. In her fictional novels her research and experience with survival techniques and forgotten life-sustaining methods of the generations past come to the forefront in a action packed adventures. She has used her background in business management to pave new roads for fictional authors to follow and she delights in helping other achieve the same success. She currently lives with her husband and two sons in California where she is at work on the sequel to her first two novels. For more information and a free copy of “The Go-Bag Essentials” featuring everything you need to have to leave your home in a disaster visit:
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