Sunday, August 24, 2014

Permaculture Baby Steps: Learning Permaculture Principles

Since my last post, the idea of permaculture has really wormed its way into my consciousness. I must admit, I'm a little obsessed. I've been doing a lot of reading about it, trying to get a handle on the idea. I love this idea that you can solve problems in the garden using natural solutions. Even better, I love the idea of creating a little ecosystem that not only produces great stuff for you, but also creates a nice little wildlife habitat as well.

Let me clarify, a wildlife habitat for animals, not children

But during my research, I must admit, I also got really overwhelmed. When looking at books and websites about permaculture, most of them talk about massive installations (food forests) that use plants that won't necessarily work here in Arizona. Trying to think about creating all those symbiotic relationships is hard enough, but trying to translate all those examples to use plants that will work in a desert environment and my garden in particular was really, really daunting.

So I decided to go back to square one and stop looking at all those examples, and focus on the basic permaculture principles instead. When I did, I realized that (unlike what many of these books and websites had lead me to believe), you don't need massive acreage to make this work. You're not required to create big food forests. Permaculture centers around a set of principles, not a set of techniques. Those principles hold true if you have acres and acres of land to work with, but they also work if you only have a patio with some potted plants. 

So let's talk principles. As best as I can tell, they aren't completely etched in stone. Some books and websites have them boiled down to 10 principles. Others list as many as 14. But they seem to (mostly) cover the same ideas and themes, just in their own ways. In that somewhat loosey-goosey spirit, I've given my take on them below. (For a professional's take on them, see chapter one of Gaia's Garden or the Permaculture Association's website.)

The idea here is simple: You should base your actions on what you see going on in your surroundings, not based on a bunch of preconceived notions. Sadly folks, this means that you shouldn't necessarily start your garden planning with "I really want tomatoes this summer." If you observe that your tomatoes die every summer in a blaze of desert glory, you may have to stop being so darn stubborn and come to terms with the fact that summer isn't the right time to plant tomatoes in Arizona. Perhaps you should look around you and see what is doing well in Arizona in the summer and plant that instead. (Yes, there are things that grow well here in the summer. You just have look around to find them.)

I think this principle goes hand-in-hand with the previous principle. If you observe that something isn't working in your environment, and choose to act to fix it, you need to keep the scale of your action small so you can really determine if your chosen solution worked. If you throw too many variables in the works, you really will have no idea what solved the problem or caused the failure. What I like about this principle is that it always leaves the door open for more tinkering. Because you need to work on a small and slow scale, it means there will probably always be more to do.

There are all sorts of energy you can catch and store. One of the biggies that I think about in a gardening context is water. Luckily, there are all sorts of great methods for catching and storing water--berms and swales in your landscape, rain barrels or rain tanks under your gutters... I have even heard of one ingenious soul taking an old water cooler and putting it under his gutter. Whatever works! In the winter, heat is a great type of energy to think about catching and storing. (Yes, we have to worry about it getting cold in Arizona too, just not the bury-your-house-in-snow type of cold.) For instance, you can plant your vegis close together to create little microclimates. The plants can huddle together, creating a little extra warmth for each other. Maybe they'll even tell each other a few stories and roast marshmallows while they're at it too!

This one should be second nature to most of the people reading this post. Gardens aren't just for looking pretty. They should also be for producing something useful (food, medicine, firewood, a cure for cancer... something like that). Considering that most of us are usually trying to find a way to squeeze one more raised bed into the yard, or sneak edibles into the front yard without the HOA noticing, I don't think we need to be lectured on this one, right?

There are all sorts of ways to use renewable and biological resources in the garden. One of the most obvious ways is to improve your soil using things like compost, compost tea, composted manure, worm castings, chicken droppings... the list goes on and on. If you want to get creative, you can also expand this principle just a bit (remember, we're getting a little loosey-goosey here) to include using recycled resources too. When you do that, you can start thinking about doing things like using items off craigslist to create aquaponics systems, using reclaimed wood to create raised beds, or reusing almost any old container to create planters for your patio.

Variety is the spice of life, my friends. It's also a good insurance policy in your garden. If you plant nothing but corn in your garden, and it's a bad year for corn for some reason (too hot for it maybe? swarm of locusts?), guess what? You're not getting anything out of your garden. If you plant a variety of plants, chances are at least some of them will survive. The same holds true for variety of types. For instance, if you love, love, love tomatoes (and really, who doesn't?), it's probably a good idea to plant a few different types of tomatoes to see which ones will work best. For instance, I planted full size tomatoes and cherry tomatoes this spring. The full sized ones were pretty much a bust, but the cherry tomatoes were producing well into July. If I had only picked one type to plant from the outset, I probably would have picked the full size tomatoes. And then where would I be? Tomato-less and destitute. It's just too sad to contemplate.

Up until now, I've been throwing you soft balls, but this is where the permaculture principles get trickier. This principle advocates that creating segregated little zones--one for your flower garden, one for your vegetable garden, one for your fruit trees, etc.--weakens the system. To reduce your work load, make plants healthier, and produce more from less space, you have to integrate these things together.

For instance, by planting flowers next to your fruit trees and fruiting vegetables, you help attract bees to help with pollination. (Otherwise, you might be out there hand-pollinating, which can be a real pain.) Or by planting nitrogen-fixing plants like peas and beans around trees and plants, you can avoid fertilizing them.

This process of making plants perform more than one function is frequently called "stacking functions." And this is where permaculture gets a little hard, because trying to devise a system where every plant is multitasking and connected to one another is complicated. (One of my favorite bloggers, Erica Strauss at Northwest Edible Life, recently talked to Michael Judd, author of Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist, about easing your way into this. It's a great podcast if you want to listen to it.) By all accounts, it sounds like it's really hard to get the hang of, but once you do, it makes life a whole lot easier.

The idea here is that edge where two different environments meet is the most diverse, and possibly the most productive place in the ecosystem. The examples I've read talk about woodland meeting meadow, but since that really doesn't happen in most of our backyards, I'm more inclined to think of edges being where a fruit tree (or trees) meet the vegetable garden. That's going to be really productive because the fruit tree will shade the vegetables, and the vegetables will shade the roots of the tree. I'm sure there are other edges to consider too. For instance, I certainly know that weeds are very productive at the edges of my lawn because of sprinkler run-off. Perhaps there's a way to take advantage of that? (Anything to avoid all that weeding!)

Last, but not least, permaculture advocates that you need to turn problems into solutions. Also, you need to turn hay into gold and get your daughter a real live flying pony for Christmas. (OK, you don't have to do those last two, but my point is this sounds impossible, right?) I think that once you get the hang of it, this last principle probably isn't as hard as it sounds (at least, I hope not). I think achieving this one is a matter of mindset. For instance, my rain gutters empty into a "dead end" that pools up at the edge of my house. It doesn't drain away, which means that water is just gathering at the edge of my foundation, which is a problem. To turn it into a solution, I just needed to think about it a different way: "What can I do with all this water gathering by the edge of my house during rain storms?" When I think of it that way, the answer of course is "Gather it and save it." So a new rain tank is definitely in my future. If you think about other problems this way, maybe solutions will present themselves.

So there it is--my take on the permaculture principles. I'm going to try to apply them going forward to my little piece of Arizona suburbia. Let's see how it goes!

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