I hear that permaculture gardening is a hot topic in Europe, but every time I decide to study permaculture, my eyes glaze over and I get sleepy before I find new nuggets of wisdom I can put into action in my garden. I think it's the somewhat abstract design principles that throw me off. After 30 years of organic gardening in several different places, I favour a "first things first and get it done" approach to creating a sustainable landscape that provides an abundance of good food. The five guidelines below summarise my personal approach to putting permaculture principles to work in a productive vegetable garden.
1. Use your best spot to grow vegetables in permanent beds
Growing vegetables involves a big investment of time, and many gardeners struggle with small spaces and too much shade. The sunniest spot is always the best place for veggies, which cannot reach their peak of flavour and nutrition without at least 6 hours of direct sun each day. Once you have selected the best spot, you may need to thin low branches from nearby trees as you gradually create deeply dug, permanent beds that provide fertile, well-drained growing space for your home grown veggies. Do everything you can to make sure your vegetable garden site is as good as it can be.
2. Grow perennial vegetables and herbs that are adapted to your site, soil and climate
Food crops that come back year after year like asparagus and rhubarb are huge time-savers in the garden, and the same goes for long-lived kitchen herbs. Upkeep is usually limited to pruning, weeding and fertilising once or twice a year, and I think perennial plants help give a garden personality. Because they like it there, a distant area of my garden is becoming a preserve for medicinal herbs like echinacea, elecampane, lemon balm and valerian. A low spot that stays moist for a long time after it rains has proven ideal for rhubarb. Finding the perfect site for a productive perennial you love earns you a permaculture star.
3. Enrich boundaries with berries
Blueberries, currants, grapes, raspberries, blackberries and other small fruits can be used to structure the landscape's boundaries. Most benefit from a trellis or other support, so training them over or along a fence is often quite practical. Grapes are especially useful in small yards, because they can be trained.
4. Use mulching, drip irrigation and composting to minimise water inputs and eliminate waste
These are permaculture principles that smart organic gardeners follow anyway, mostly because they are good for our gardens and our plants. I always need more mulch and compost, so I cultivate several grassy areas for clipping production, and pull up and compost what seems like tons of cover crop plants. I am not trying to reform the world. Rather, attentive organic gardening practices such as these naturally transform any spot into a more beautiful and productive space.
5. Watch and learn
This echoes the permaculture principle to observe and interact, but my garden humbles my fragile human intellect season after season. Too often our tendencies are to take thriving crops for granted, and react with alarm when problems develop.
Taking the time to stop, watch and learn is critical to your development as a vegetable gardener - a complicated process that requires learning a little about ten thousand things, from soil science to plant pathology. The best way I have found to make sure I take learning breaks is to make myself walk among my beds for ten minutes without doing anything - just looking to see how the plants, soil, insects, and sun are getting along together. It's rare for me not to discover something new.
Just for fun, I like to imagine what my landscape would do if left to return to its natural state. What plants would keep coming back, and which would perish by the end of the first season? My human-enforced permaculture principles would crumble as trees took over, but until then many birds and beasts would eat their fill of berries and apples, and the asparagus and rhubarb would fight to the end to hold their space. I can aspire to permaculture perfection all of my days, but nature will win in the end.
By Barbara Pleasant