Saturday, November 15, 2008


At my friend Marna’s recommendation, I picked up a book called “Gaia’s Garden, a Guide to Home Scale Permaculture”, by . And wow! I’m already a garden junkie, but this book had me wanting to run straight outside to move plants around.

Permaculture is a philosophy of agricultural land-use that calls for combining plants, animals, and structures in such a way as to maximize the number of uses for the land while increasing its self-sufficiency and minimizing maintenance by focusing on the use of perennial plants. It is a new word for a rather old idea. Consider, for example, the old woodland management practices of northern Europe. An acre of managed woods would contain a mixture of whole trees, grown for timber, and deciduous trees lopped off near the ground to encourage growth of new shoots, which were then harvested yearly for kindling and basket-making. The understory contained small fruiting trees such as nut and berry bushes, and other plants which fed foraging animals, which were in turn hunted.

In other words, a permaculture garden is almost more of an engineered forage space than traditional garden.

Without knowing it, I was already experimenting with permaculture this year.

This is what the raspberry bed looked like in October. It ranges from two to four feet wide. There are thirty raspberry bushes and twenty-five strawberry plants (which were purchased as collections from Nourse Farms) crammed together into the narrow space. Marigolds and some volunteer butter-and-eggs were used as ground cover and decoration between the raspberry bushes while they were getting established.

Here is what the space looked like back in April, with the raspberries just planted. Before we had built it up into this raised bed, it was a shallow strip of dirt that would be baked dry each day and could hardly support a few marigolds, even if heavily watered.

Now it only occasionally needs water, because the soil is deep, and the leaves keep it shaded. It won't need applications of bark mulch dumped on it every year, because the plants themselves are the groundcover. And there is only minimal weeding to do, now that the plants are established enough to out-compete the weeds.

As long as the birds and the neighborhood kids don’t eat all of the berries, they are welcome to share, because this isn’t just for us – it’s for the wildlife and the community, too. And if this year’s unexpectedly early raspberries are any indication, we are going to have far more berries than we can eat.

But back to permaculture. Central to this approach to growing food is the idea of plant “guilds”, or groups of plants which can be grown together for their mutual benefit. My raspberry guild is rather simplistic compared to what is suggested in Hemenway’s book, but it’s a start, and so far it seems effective. Another example of a guild would be a fruit tree that provides shade to assorted berry bushes, between which were edible mulch-producing plants such as rhubarb, nitrogen-fixing ground cover such as clover, a deep-rooting flower such as lupine to help break up clay-heavy soil, and bulbs to look pretty in the Spring. (I would like to plant such a guild in the front yard eventually.)

Because the suburban landscape is so new, and the variety of available plants is so different, modern permaculture is in its infancy. There is a lot of experimentation to be done before it will be known which plant combinations work best in suburban lots in North America.

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