Saturday, August 02, 2014

Permaculture Baby Steps

This summer's garden started off with such promise with beautiful edibles growing everywhere, but as the summer wears on, I've been having to tear out more and more plants. About a month ago, I realized that I had planted my green beans and my second batch of corn at the wrong time, and they both succumbed to the heat. So I had to pull them out. Cucumbers and tomatoes? Gone in a blaze of glory. My zucchini and pumpkin were either taken out by squash vine borers, the heat, or a combination of both. Bye bye zucchini and pumpkin. I think there were others in there that I'm forgetting that are long gone now as well.

So what's left? My old friend, the mighty okra continues to thrive in the inferno that is an Arizona summer.

Pretty little masochists

Black eyed peas are nestled behind the okra as part of my olla experiment. (I suspect the shade from the okra is helping to keep them going.) Other than that, I've got two little basil plants, one cantaloupe vine, a few sweet potato slips, some sunflowers, and a whole lotta bare space. Sigh.  Compared to last summer, when I could barely contain my garden, it's pretty disappointing. But not to fret, this is a learning experience, right?

If a few more plants die, I could turn it into a bowling alley

I've been thinking hard about what went wrong this summer, and at least one thing that's really clear is that I didn't plan properly for shade. Too many plants were left to fend for themselves in the brutal Arizona sun. And as I started pulling out dead plants, it created a domino effect where the plants near them were exposed to more sun, which burned them to a crisp, and then they had to be pulled out too. That exposed more plants, and well, you get the picture. 

Wait, wait. What's happening now?

Now there's all sorts of ways to create shade in the summer garden. You can build shade structures, like arbors. You can plant tall, hearty plants such as sunflowers and okra where they can shade shorter, more fragile plants. You can plant a tree (or trees). Or you can do some combination of all of the above.

As I've been thinking about what to do better next year, I've find myself leaning towards a trees + plants combo.Trees sound better than building a structure because they are prettier, easier, cheaper, and they can give me food. Tall plants seem like a good idea too because they will provide additional shade (beyond that provided by a tree), plus they can create little micro-climates of humidity to help the lower-lying plants. But this tree + plant combo relies on planting a tree smack dab in the middle of my garden, like this:

Can you tell that I have an extensive art background? I'm sticking that picture on my fridge!

 As I've started researching if planting a tree in the middle of my garden is a good idea, I've realized that it's probably right inline with good permaculture practice. I'm new to this permaculture idea, and if you are too, it can be a hard idea to wrap your head around. It involves creating a whole ecosystem where all the plants support each other and the wildlife around your area. The plants naturally build the soil and help retain water. Different types of plants (grass, trees, shrubs, edibles) are not cordoned off to different areas of the yard, but rather mixed together. The landscape is built up in several layers to support a multi-faceted ecosystem that is far more self-supporting (and far more productive) than your average yard. It's completely different than the way most of us were taught to design a year and quite frankly, I find it completely daunting.

Putting a tree in the middle of my vegetable garden would be inline with permaculture thinking, but it would be just one baby step towards a much bigger more complex system. I'd have to figure out how to create a "guild" of plants that work well around it, figure out which ones would attract wildlife, which would fix nitrogen, which should be permanent, and which can change from season to season. When I read about the process, my head swims.

But really, I think I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll take some baby steps for now. This fall (or maybe next spring), I'll plant a tree for shade in my garden. And next summer, I'll use okra and sunflowers to protect more delicate edibles. And I'll keep reading my books and watching the garden to learn more and get more ideas. I like this permaculture idea, and if I keep reading about it, maybe by next summer, I won't find it so daunting.
Want to learn more about permaculture? Here's what I've been using to research:
  • Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway: My head swims when I read this, but it is full of good information. I get the feeling if I read it about 3 or 4 times, I might absorb enough to apply the practices the author is trying to teach.
  • Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist, by Michael Judd: This book is much, much easier to read than Gaia's Garden. It's not nearly as daunting. It's not quite as informative, but you're not nearly as likely to cry "Uncle!" either. Also, the author has a great sense of humor.
  • Valley Permaculture Alliance: Phoenix based forum for permies. A good place to go to exchange ideas and ask questions. It's nice to have a place to go to take the generic permaculture ideas and think about how to apply them in our very unique climate.

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