Permaculture Gardens and Sustainability

"Gardening In Nature's Image" - My Personal Do's and Honestly Won'ts

In the '70's, “permaculture” was defined as “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems, which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” That includes leaving as much of nature's intention and landscaping as intact as possible.

I've been mystified by the concept, and just recently began to research it. I've been scared off by massive tomes about permaculture and all the hard work it seemed to involve. It was as hard for me to understand as the Mandarin language.. I am eyes wide open now, and more savvy about how to work efficiently and practically..I view it as a partnership between myself and Nature, and sustaining the ecosystems we both create or live in.

Growing a garden according to permaculture principles helps to minimize the work and maximize your  harvests. I am not a purist, so i'll do my part, but it won't be anywhere near the ideals promoted in this very worthwhile, but not always personally suited, to my methods of gardening.

Permaculture design considers sources of water sources and usage, existing elevation, sun and shade, perennial and native plants, play and entertainment  spaces; and growth of the garden or landscape over time. I would have a casual plan in my head, then adjust it to my real life, and my very respectful relationship with my natural and human surroundings.

I will call my beginning foray into permaculture, "permaculture lite".

There are certain permaculture principle that I admittedly won't use, due to either my in-grained gardening mantras or landscaping goals, or because of the extra work that may be involved. I will find a happy medium. For instance... Permaculture principles call for building new beds using the least destructive methods with minimal effort. This means spot planting by just digging a hole in the grass, and sheet mulching. I've gardened for 45 years, i'm getting older, and some things are just too much work, or don't make sense in my life. I am totally anti-lawn and grass by gardening nature. I dug it all out by hand, and replaced it with xeriscaped gardens or a clover lawn. I dug it out with great enthusiasm. I use every inch of my space with plantings. So saving the outlying grass by just digging a hole and letting the graass grow around it, along with weeds, just isn't going to happen. I admit it. Grass will not be permitted to grow here.  I have a small urban property. I give up big visions for small practicalities. I dug a hole and planted things in grass when i was 5. I'm not going that route and be cutting grass at 65. I won't be growing a meadow or prairie unless i acquire acreage. 

I believe in tempering certain ecologically sound methods of gardening with my experience and time/labor constraints. As well as my desired end results. I also consider that my garden is seen daily by neighbors and residents of my neighborhood, and what i do in it affects my nearby neighbors as well. Some things just will not, and should not be done in my garden because of aesthetics, attracting rodents, and other neighborly considerations, like having unsightly lasagna mulching done in the frontyard garden. It will be done in private areas of my property. 

Another big consideration would be my habitat gardens. Where and how i place elements depend totally upon the birds and pollinators and their needs. Not every wild thing needs or wants to be in the human-damaged and ignored wild, where they have to sometimes work so hard and do not succeed at survival. So my point would be that I believe in the basics of permaculturing, but i have to add in practicality and needs of lots of living things. Grass has to be eliminated for my xeriscapist tendencies, for instance. Plantings arrangement, and use of water need to be addressed in my Zen Gardens.

Lasagna Mulching/Gardening - Love It. I have done this several times over winter to kill weeds and grass so that i can get right to planting in the spring. I have used it at other times for new beds in spring and summer. If i was planning a fall garden, this mulching in summer, will get it ready for you. I had also used it to remove horrificly invasive runner grasses when I was creating my rain garden. Digging would have been too time-intensive and physically challenging in the always hot and muggy weather, so lasagna mulching was a great time-saver in the southern garden. 

The lasagna method is about layering materials like flattened cardboard, shredded paper, brown packing matereial, leaves, or straw, that compost in placeand will kill weeds and grassfor new garden beds. Building soil in this way ,minimizes effort and does not disturb existing soil. It is ideal to sheet mulch an area in the fall for planting the next spring. I do an easier and quicker temporary lasagna with bags of soil. I lay the full bags where i want weeds and grass to be gone, slit the tops of the bags open, and pop a few plants into that slit. Instant weed barrier and productive while I wait. at the end of the season, i will move or remove the plants, pull the bags away, and there i have a planting area weed- and grass-free and ready to plant permanently. I dump the bags of soil on top of it, and there's my new garden bed. Fast and foolproof. Plastic may be a no-no to purist permaculturists, but i already have the bags of soil, they're sitting around waiting for a bed to be ready, so i'm giving them work to do for me while they wait. I have also found that compost has been created under the bags by the time I uncover it.

Water, gardeners, and permaculture gardens have a deep and co-dependent relationship. I do see water as a resource to be carefully used, or drained away in sustainable ways. My gardens have not used water from a hose at all in 8 years, so far. When I plan my gardens, I figure out where water collects or washes away, and I know the areas that need more water than the others. I use hardscaping to reroute flows of water to where it's needed. 

Rain barrels or portable camping water bags are a great way to collect water that's being wasted and washed away... from gutters and sloped surfaces. I know how to slope or bank areas to divert water to where I want it to be.  I've created a rain garden, so i know how to use pooled water to my advantage. Very simple things like leaving colorful 2 and 5 gallon pails or buckets in my garden areas, looks cute, and it helps me to conserve  water and eliminate physical harm when carrying water in a dry spell. I use the pure water draining from my cooling system to give the gardens a drink. The hose that routes that water into the sink near my back door, is rerouting into a five gallon bucket. I use the water I've collected each day. I leave a bucket under a problem gutter that pours a lot of water onto an area not anywhere near the garden and serves no purpose but to waste water. 

These collectors are in all 4 corners and center of the garden, so rain and pure water is available all the time. I have a few large camping water storage carriers that i leave in corners of the garden to collect more rain. They're soft, they have handles, and i just have to lift and tip over the water into the garden. They also have a top I can zip up to keep the collected rain in the filled containers free of insects and safe from evaporation. I put my planters that don't have drainage holes in the gardens with the plants. They collect the water, and I just tip and spill it onto the plants in the garden when they need it, on the hottest days. I also have rain chains hanging from tree limbs that not only add a lot of zen, but they're slowly watering certain plants directly with rain falling from the trees into their cascading "cups".

Plant more stuff closer together than you think you need to, so that you can later thin to the healthiest plants and remove others for compost or to gift to a neighbor.  Dense planting also helps prevent weeds from overcoming everything. I like having too many berries, so that the birds can enjoy the garden food, as well. Companion plants that smell noxious to bugs, like chives, onions and herbs, help prevent disease and pests. Some herbs repel cats, rabbits and other rodents. 

Planting trees and shrubs in pots close together - No digging, no disturbing of soil, no backaches from weeding. Portable trees, fruits and veggies can be grown closer together, moved here or there to cover bare spots between trees and shrubs, etc. until the garden fills in. I would not be able to grow dwarf ornamental fruit and flowering trees on this small property without clustering them in pots. Ornamental containers look totally awesome in sad and empty garden spaces. I sometimes save and upcycle those soil bags to line small water features and bog gardens and wrap my plants for winter. I have lots of soil bags.

If your garden needs pollinators, be sure to plant flowers that attract them. Most flowers do. i planted a lot of pollinator plants in a habitat garden, so i'm all set with the pollination of flowers, fruit and veggies. I moved into this home with no landscaping, zero butterflies, and no honeybees. Planting the bird, bee and butterfly gardens has increased the pollinators to countless numbers and types of bees, hummingbirds, and gorgeous butterflies of all types. All Day Long. A photographer's dream. My gardens display the results of the reliable and heavy pollination all season. I let some dropped birdseed from the feeders in the bird habitat grow into full-sized sunflowers. They're shorter than standard sunflowers and don't need staking, which i like, bees love love them, and i dry the seed heads for bird food, if there's any left over. I spread out the pollinator plants like bee balm all over, so pollination is done in every part of the garden.

By the way, if you live in or near Pittsburgh, we have the ability to have a beehive installed on our properties and learn beekeeping. Check it out, it's called Burgh Bees. Its stated mission is  “TO EDUCATE BEEKEEPERS AND PROMOTE BEEKEEPING AS A VITAL PART OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE IN PITTSBURGH AND ITS SUBURBS.”