Getting Started With Permaculture

November 29, 2011 at 6:24 am (permaculture) (, )

So, I’m taking this advanced permaculture diploma course.  The first meeting was last March (2011); meetings are held each season as close to solstices and equinoxes as possible.  There are readings to keep up with, but mostly the work is self-directed.  At the end of two and a half years (ten meetings covering three full growing seasons), each student will submit a condensed version of their progress journal, including maps and pictures, to one of the international permaculture accrediting organizations.

As a record-keeping component of the course, I was thinking of starting a new blog–one devoted entirely to permaculture projects and the progress I make over the two and a half years of the course in converting my property into an urban mini-farm producing food year-round.  In the end, I’ve decided to stick with Rain Rain Go Away because there really is no better name for a Vancouver-based gardening blog.

Of course, there is more to permaculture than gardening, but gardening is a large part of what we do.  But, gardening to a practitioner of permaculture doesn’t just mean planting out the same old annuals season after season.  What we’re after is a perennial “forest garden” comprised of layers of edible and medicinal plants.  We go heavy on native species because their adaptation to a given climate makes them easy to maintain with what water, energy, and nutrients are already available in the landscape.  Permaculture is about making conscious design decisions–frequently in imitation of natural processes (bio-mimicry)–that economize our use of locally available energy and resources and minimize (or, ideally, eliminate) the need for external inputs of all kinds.

As designers, we are always asking ourselves, “How would Nature accomplish this?”  Say I want to create a new bed for edible plants where currently there is a lawn.  I could do the back-breaking work of digging out the grass, removing vital soil and nutrients in the process.  Or, I could “sheet mulch” the area where I want the new bed, saving myself a lot of time and wasted effort.  To do this, you simply lay sheets of cardboard directly onto the lawn to keep weeds and grass from coming up through your new bed, then cover with layers of compost, manure, soil, and leaves.  Over time, the layers settle and the natural process of decomposition by bugs and worms incorporates your former lawn into your new garden bed without you having to dig it out.  As in Nature, energy isn’t wasted on a task that will take care of itself given time.

Sheet mulching isn’t rocket science; you use what you have on hand.  When I sheet mulched half my lawn to double the size of my veggie garden, I used brown paper lawn bags, out-of-date road maps, and some nasty old carpet padding of mostly natural fibers.  I had just moved to a new property (new to me, that is) so I didn’t have compost hanging around from the previous season and leaves and manure are either scarce or problematic to acquire without a vehicle, so I ended up ordering a truckload of compost/garden soil blend delivered to my house.  I consider it a very worthwhile, albeit expensive, one-time external input to get me started on the road to creating my urban mini-farm.

One of the basic tenets of permaculture is “obtain a yield.”  There are definitely things I’d like to change about the layout of the garden addition, things I think I didn’t get quite right this first year and will try to address before a major plant-out next spring.  But, in the end, I can’t complain about the harvest: several rows of perfectly straight carrots; thick bunches of arugula and chard; pounds and pounds of zucchini; prolific cherry tomatoes; soy beans enough for two plates of edamame; three types of beans for snapping and drying, and the best-tasting cucumbers I’ve ever had.  There were even sunflowers and millet for the birds!

Sheet mulching the garden addition was just the beginning.  In subsequent posts, I’ll be expanding on other projects we tackled this year just to get up and growing, including the seed-starting set-up, the greenhouse rebuild, and messy experiments in canning to preserve the harvest!


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