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By Sandra Frangiadakis,
KFPC Gleaning Abundance Coordinator
There was a time when I aspired to the ideal of a beautifully landscaped suburban yard - a nice green lawn, neatly-trimmed edges, perfectly manicured shrubs, and a carefully cultivated vegetable patch with straight, weed-free rows. In the new-age world of gardening, this ideal has come into question and permaculture offers an exciting alternative.
The term permaculture is a combination of the words “permanent,” “agriculture,” and “culture.” In the words of its founder, Bill Mollison, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature.”
Permaculture has become a bit of a cliché these days, but there are some key permaculture principles that can make you look at your garden in a whole new way. It can also save you a lot of time and labour!
Permaculture looks at the natural world and tries to mimic the systems at work there. Soil building is a good example. In nature, the soil never gets tilled - organic matter is simply added on top year after year, building up the topsoil. As an aging baby-boomer, the idea that I could improve my garden soil by NOT digging over the garden every year was a welcome realization. Forget double-digging or rototilling!
Something that always seemed illogical to me was cleaning up our yard waste every spring and fall, hauling it to Cinnamon Ridge, and then hauling back finished compost which I had contributed to but still had to pay for. We’ve been doing less and less of that. We’ve been using a lot of the small material to make lasagna gardens (nothing to do with Italian food), practicing chop’n’drop mulching, and even made a hugelkultur with some of the larger woody material from pruning trees. We eventually decided to purchase a medium-duty shredder. We use the shredded material to line the pathways between garden beds or pile it in a corner, and after about six months when it’s half-decomposed, we use it for mulch.
I still have an issue with leaving dried leaves and other plant material on the beds in the spring. Those new shoots seem to be crying to have all that dead stuff cleared away. As a compromise, I’ve been trying to remove less material, crush some of it up and then lightly fork it in. It still looks neater, the plants seem happy, and there’s less removed material to deal with.
Starting to incorporate permaculture principles might require a bit of an ideological shift, but it can be a gradual and painless process. Here are a few suggestions to get started:
• Experiment in one area. Make a section of your veggie garden a no-till zone. In the spring, hoe any weeds to the side and lightly scratch the surface before you plant. Anytime you’re weeding, thinning, or dead-heading, chop up the plant material roughly and leave it to decompose right where it falls (keeping in mind if you do this with weeds after they have gone to seed, you will be creating a healthy new weed patch).
• Try out lasagna gardening. You can easily create a new garden bed right on top of bare soil or existing lawn by layering various materials (not if you’ve used weed-killer on the lawn, though). There are many online sites with simple instructions.
• Create small permaculture beds around existing trees. If you have trees in the middle of your lawn, remove a small area of grass around each tree to create a garden bed. Add some good compost, plant some garlic or chives, flowers like lupines (nitrogen-fixer), calendula (repels unwanted pests and attracts beneficial ones), or nasturtiums (edible and attracts pollinators), and perennial or annual herbs. You will immediately lessen the amount of grass to mow, create a park-like appearance, improve the soil for the tree, and at the same time provide food for beneficial insects.
A garden is always a work in progress and I’m still working on my permaculture conversion. Once you understand the basic principles, they’re there in the back of your mind to guide your decisions and your work. And there’s a lot of satisfaction in finding ways to work less and still see great results!
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