Friday, February 27, 2015

Permaculture possibilities

Permaculture is something that has interested me for some time. To be honest, though, I found that a lot of the definitions that I was coming across in my reading were vague and left me feeling a little cloudy on the whole subject.  It seems that permaculture experts don't want to pin it down as any one thing, such as a gardening philosophy, and so there aren't many concise, clear explanations.

To sum up my understanding of it (at least as it makes sense and is useful to me!), the idea of permaculture revolves around designing agricultural systems that serve human needs while mimicking ecological systems found in nature.  In other words, while our garden and property will certainly be home to species not naturally found in PEI, they will work together as a community, forming a web of interactions that promotes harmony and allows each plant or animal to play multiple roles (e.g. a plum tree can provide shade, produce blossoms that feed pollinators and plums that feed us, slow the evaporation of moisture from the soil, serve as shelter to songbirds, etc.).  It is difficult to imagine a system that is really as self sufficient and sustainable as even the simplest natural community, but even using this premise as a guideline seems like a solid starting point.

This kind of harmonious gardening appeals to me greatly, so I have been reserving books at our local library that will teach me more about how to properly design this sort of system.  The first one that I borrowed was absolutely awful.  I became a bit skeptical about the whole thing and then I got this book out of the library: Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.

This book, by Toby Hemenway, is an excellent primer on permaculture and designing your garden to enhance your environment in order to provide food, habitat, beauty and enjoyment.
I loved reading this book.  The author lives in California, so some of the plant suggestions aren't applicable to our zone 5b climate, but all in all, I really enjoy the way he has laid out this book and there are some very usable suggestions in it.

One thing that bothers me when reading about permaculture is all of the forest gardening information.  It's not that I don't think forest gardening is great, but our property is almost entirely wooded!  The little area where I have sun will most certainly not be planted in huge perennial shrubs and fruit trees that will eventually shade out everything else, thank you very much!  Finding information about gardening in the forest, however, is much more difficult.  This book has a few suggestions that might work for growing edibles in the woods, however, and some of the information about planting forest guilds lends itself to translation into planting in the woods.  It also has good ideas to add to the companion planting and sheet mulching I already plan to do in our annual beds.

What I found most helpful though were the space-saving garden design tips, such as this one:

Using keyhole beds (without the central compost tunnel) allows small spaces to be used much more efficiently, eliminating much of the necessary walkway space and freeing it up for use for planting.

This image of a yard planted with interconnected keyhole beds captivated me.  Our front yard (the south side of our home) is currently an adorable little rounded green lawn, surrounded by a thick border of perennials.  My first objective is to turn the perennial border into an edible border, made up of annual veggie and flower beds, fruiting shrubs, and areas where perennial veggies such as asparagus can be planted.  However, if I can convince my lovely husband to eventually give up the front lawn, this design would be a way I could maximize the sunshine in a beautiful way.  Each of the keyholes seems like an exciting, secret little place to visit and the thought that they'd be filled with sugar pumpkins and flowers and berries and tomatoes makes them seem all the more magical.  I imagine putting bird baths and little sculptures and fairy houses throughout as well, with bean teepees and sunflower forts and things that my kids would find enticing.  I love this.

Additionally, in the section on water conservation, I loved one of the ideas that he highlighted regarding greywater use.  Our house is a little curious, because although we are on municipal sewer, we get our water from a well.  So we pull water up out of the ground, but none of the water we use gets treated and then returned to our soil--it gets pumped off to the municipal treatment plant.  This doesn't sit overly well with me, and so I had been wondering about a way to use greywater--the used water that comes from showers and sinks and tubs and washing machines, but not the nasty toilet water (or blackwater).  I knew that you couldn't use the water directly on vegetable beds, but irrigation seemed like the best use of it so how would that work?  I don't want a lawn to water.  I want tomatoes and strawberries.

When I saw this, I thought, "Yes."

My dream greywater system.
The used water comes out of the house, goes first to a submerged gravel cleansing marsh stocked full of native wetland plants that can use the slightly grotty water and that are home to the bacteria that will cleanse it, then it goes through a series of tiny little ponds where the water becomes even cleaner until it ends up in a slightly larger one that could be used for ducks.  I'm not keen on koi, but even providing habitat for local frogs would be lovely!  Then I could dip my bucket into the final pond and use it for watering as well as habitat.  The system would have to be very small, but the enhancement to the yard and the re-use and return to the soil of previously-used water is very attractive.

These are the two main new concepts that I got from this book, and there are a lot of other great tidbits in there, particularly for those who have a larger property that we do.  I'd really recommend it for any gardener to read, but especially for those who would like to garden in a more nature-inspired manner.

What ways do you derive inspiration from nature in your garden planning?


  1. I'm curious about the grey water... like does the soap that is in the water cause problems for a thriving bacteria population required to clean up the water? I guess it would also be another (of the MANY) reasons to make sure the soap in your home is just soap, and not the totally unncessary, and rather environmentally dangerous anti-bacterial soap.

  2. You do have to be really careful about what goes down the drain. Plants can actually get some nutrients from certain soap ingredients (one of the reasons detergents were causing algae blooms) but you would have to carefully choose the soaps that are being used in the house as well as cleaning products for laundry, dishes, etc. As well, there is a certain amount of solid material that would be suspended, such as skin cells, bits of food washed off plates, and grease from the kitchen sink. Some people opt to keep the kitchen sink out of it because of what gets washed down, but some people put a wood chip trap in right at the beginning of the system. The solids get stuck there, draw in all sorts of insects, and then when you empty it out you can chuck it to the chickens for a protein feast. I would feel ok about that as long as I knew there weren't harmful substances in our cleaning products.