What’s Your Permaculture Quotient?

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Take steps now to garden more sustainably next year

STORY BY BILL THORNESS
IMAGE BY NOLAN CALISCH

It’s harvest time, and the abundance is being hauled by the bushel from the garden. Or is it? Look around your garden right now and ask yourself what didn’t work out and, more importantly, why. Did a particular plant stay small, refuse to flower or fruit, or go straight to seed? Or did an entire bed underperform and turn your green thumb brown?

It’s often instructive to survey our failures. You might think it’s too late to do anything about them except to resolve to do better next year. I disagree. Today, at the end of the warm growing season, is the perfect time to plan for a better tomorrow.

This planning might involve evaluating which variety of squash didn’t perform or which part of the yard didn’t get enough sun for tomatoes. But perhaps it’s time to think bigger, about evolving your gardening practices to being more sustainable and ecologically integrative. Those concepts could result in big yields, both in abundant produce and in a more rewarding gardening lifestyle. Consider adding some ideas from permaculture into your gardening practices.

Permaculture is a broad range of concepts that center on working with nature. In gardening, it encompasses ideas like sustainability and biodiversity. It’s almost second nature for gardeners to employ some permaculture concepts like building the soil. If we focus on a healthy, fertile soil, we support the diversity of creatures that live on or in the soil, and we increase the ability of our garden to grow plants with fewer external inputs, which is more sustainable. So in this context, a permaculture technique you could practice right now is to seed in some cover crops that would build the soil over the winter and protect it from too much rain, which can wash out nutrients.

Paying attention and being an active participant in our garden ecosystem are core to permaculture. Evaluating what grows well in different parts of the garden is a practice of understanding the cultural conditions there, such as the amount of sun, water, and wind that reach each area.

Observation is very important. You might intuitively know not to plant vegetables in an area, but have you figured out why they wouldn’t work well there? Perhaps it’s because the soil is not good, which is something you can remedy (see above), or maybe it’s because the neighbor’s trees have grown up significantly since you first started your garden. When nature changes the game, it’s up to us to adapt.

Here are some other steps you can take this fall to increase your garden’s permaculture quotient:

Plan for more diversity

If your vegetable bed is surrounded by lawn, how will you draw beneficial insects to the garden to pollinate crops and naturally control pests? Plan to add a border of perennial flowers that bloom at different times of the year.

“Sheet-mulch” a section of the lawn by covering it with layers of weeds, cardboard, and mulch. By the time you’ve researched which perennials you want to plant, the mulching will have killed the grass and you’ll have a fertile bed into which you can plant. Many perennials can be planted in late winter.

Keep more “energy” on site

If you are shipping away lot of yard waste and trucking in a lot of compost and fertilizer, your garden is not as sustainable as it could be.

Build a home compost system to keep more yard material at home, and supply some of your own compost. For extra credit, start a home worm bin and compost much of your kitchen waste too.

An open compost bin system uses grass clippings, disease-free spent garden plants, tree and shrub prunings, and fallen leaves. Rolling out that yard-waste bin will be much easier because it will be light, containing mostly weeds with seed heads, invasive weeds, and diseased plants.

A closed worm bin populated with “red wigglers” and bedding will gobble up vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, fruit peels and cores, and leftover material from food-processing operations, such as the dense, seedy mulch left behind from squeezing grapes for wine or raspberries for jelly. The only things going to your yard-waste bin from the kitchen will be meat, fish, dairy, and dinner leftovers that are covered in oils.

If you start now, you’ll have compost in spring from these two homegrown sources that will provide free fertilizer for next year’s garden, cutting your costs and closing the loop a bit more on your sustainable practices.

Diversify your edible landscape

Consider fruit trees, berry bushes, and perennial vegetables such as artichokes or rhubarb to get more productivity out of your yard.

Plants that are beautiful and provide wildlife habitat are important components to a healthy permaculture garden. But if you have an overabundance of one type of shrub, for instance, you’re missing out on a sustainability opportunity. Imagine reducing your grocery bill by having your kitchen filled with fresh blueberries in season and frozen blueberries that can be thawed for your breakfast yogurt year-round. Multiply this effect by as many edible plants as you can fit comfortably into your yard.

Also think of the other creatures who might be living on your land, and provide some additional food for them as well. Try native plants such as evergreen huckleberry and flowering currant.

Evaluate your zones

Permaculture teaches gardeners to think of their yard in zones that are defined by how the area is used.

A cutting garden where you snip herbs right before dinner is best near the kitchen, in a zone that is often and easily visited. The vegetable garden might be a bit farther away, but not so far that it’s hard to keep it in view or to step out regularly to tend it. It’s been said that the gardener’s shadow is the best fertilizer, so a thriving garden needs you in it. A brushy border back by the garage would be in permaculture’s seldom-used category, but that might be the perfect place for bird habitat, as well as low-maintenance plants.

Mapping your garden’s zones can provide insight into whether the right plants are in the right places. You might realize that you’re spending too much effort watering and weeding a perennial border that would be more sustainable with drought-tolerant plants and tough native groundcovers. Winter is a great time to plan bed renovation.

Creating a permaculture garden is a long-range activity that encompasses many aspects, from your lifestyle to your yard’s natural characteristics. Blending all the elements together can create a more satisfying garden for everyone who is part of its ecosystem.


Bill Thorness is author of Cool Season Gardener and Edible Heirlooms.

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