(Editor's Note: I bet a lot of people are planning some garden clean-up this weekend. What better time to think about how you can set up your yard to make best use of both soil and water? There is an event TONIGHT!
One of the greatest challenges we face at OWC is communicating to folks that what happens on the land makes or breaks water quality for fish, flora, fauna and folks downstream. These days, we are hearing more and more about permaculture. Thanks to Cristiana for the guest blog posting! Enjoy your weekend read!)
Vibrant Life Eco-Solutions is a local small business that focuses on Permaculture Design, Education, and Soil Enhancement. It strives to both protect nature and enrich the areas of it that we live in to sustainably support humanity.
So many of us enjoy nature. We strive to protect it and in turn take time to bask in the beauty and vitality of Mother Nature. Nature is full of webs of interaction. The study of the interactions of living creatures, vegetation, and their surroundings is Ecology. Healthy Ecosystems are the key to sustaining human civilization as nature provides for all of our needs – food, water, shelter, and warmth.
It is widely observed that when a civilization has crumbled in the past, the condition of their land had been vastly degraded by the agricultural practices used to sustain the people. To take a simplified look - unhealthy nature leads to unrest among the people who faced famine, starvation, and natural disasters. War and disease tend to follow, completing the decimation of the once great civilization.
As the wise Masanobu Fukuoka once said:
"If we throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork."
Out of this understanding, 'Permaculture', the word and the science, was born. It is a fusing of the words "permanent" and "agriculture." Its purpose is to show how to create a Permanent Culture or civilization that lives in harmony with nature, instead of trying to subdue it.
The design science behind Permaculture is essentially Ecology. However, let us insert ourselves and our needs into the picture with Nature. We are no longer the ecologist who, by definition, observes the system from the outside. We are part of it! First, we observe how carelessly taking what we need can impact the system negatively. Then we consider how we can enhance the system and out of the bountiful production of nature, receive what we need to live.
Food production is a huge part of Permaculture, and it is an integral part of our existence. So, let's talk about how we can grow our food sustainably and enhance Nature while we're at it.
Observing Nature in the area you wish to cultivate is very important. We need to find out about the types of plants that grow well, the wildlife that we need to co-exist with, the types of weather and weather cycles that are common, where the water comes from and where it goes, and if there are any harsh factors such as intense sun or prevailing winds that need to be taken into consideration. A common saying is, "100 hours of observation; one hour of work." Every possible aspect has to be carefully considered before starting to alter the natural system.
But don't be discouraged! After the area is very familiar, the design process begins.
The first and most important step is mapping water. Water, where it is, and how we can passively move it through the landscape to nurture our crops and animals is what the whole system is built upon. Roofs are great surfaces to catch water and are largely under-utilized. Thousands of litres per year can be captured, and then the rainwater can be directed into storage or channelled directly to areas that need irrigation.
Areas of the land that are eroding, flooding, or are established waterways need to be identified. There are many methods that can be used to naturally solve erosion and flooding issues, and passively irrigate areas that need moisture throughout the growing season. Once the water management plan is in place, your garden, orchard, and meadow areas should be simple to take care of due to the water being distributed naturally throughout your property without sprinklers or pumps.
Rainwater Capture, Filtration, Storage, and Passive Irrigation System Designed and Built by APEX Permaculture Inc.
One of the biggest differences between Permaculture methods and Conventional methods is how the vegetation is arranged. In modern farming and gardening, straight rows and large areas of one type of plant are the normal planting format. However, this is contrary to Nature, which does not tend to plant in rows or have areas that contain just one species of plant. Diversity goes a long way to reducing pests and disease. Thus, the Permaculture way is to plant in Guilds.
A Guild is any group of plants that benefits one another. Companion planting figures into this concept but is not the summation of it. There are benefits to having different heights, different rooting styles, and plants with different purposes all growing together. A guild does not have to contain all of the aspects illustrated in the image below, but this is the ultimate Guild – The Forest Garden.
The Forest Garden is one of the finest expressions of enhancing nature so that humans can harvest food and wood for fuel and shelter. While this is the ideal way to plant, it may not always be practical. A kitchen garden with annual vegetables and herbs along with a separate area dedicated to fruit and trees with less diverse undergrowth can also be great ways to practice Permaculture style planting methods.
The most important keys in Permaculture planting are to encourage diversity, grow plants with multiple functions, make use of both vertical and horizontal space, and encourage pollinators and beneficial creatures to frequent the area.
Another big difference between Permaculture Methods and other gardening methods is to "chop and drop" instead of weeding. Contrary to popular belief, not all weeds are your enemy! They always perform some sort of function in the area they grow in. For example, dandelions grow in compacted soil that is low in Calcium. Their deep tap root both loosens the soil and brings minerals up to their leaves which crumble onto the ground at the end of the season, and become part of the topsoil.
"Chop and drop" is simply cutting the foliage at ground level, then dropping it around your plants. By chopping the weed foliage before it seeds out you prevent an infestation, but you also allow the weed to perform its function in the system. In this way you also increase the organic matter of the soil and add to the mulch layer that protects and nurtures the microorganisms that make the soil nutrients plant-soluble. So, not only is "chop and drop" less labour intensive, there are multiple "wins" when you handle your weeds in this manner.
You can also do this to plants that are growing too large or you can intentionally grow plants that will be "chopped and dropped" such as comfrey. Comfrey is a bio-accumulator, which means that it grows deep roots and brings all the amazing minerals that are deep in the soil up to its leaves. Then when you "chop and drop" the comfrey, you create a nutrient dense mulch for your other plants.
There are numerous methods used in Permaculture that are based in science and common sense. The way that these methods are tied together into a self-sustaining system is what sets them apart and earns them the title of Permaculture. Permaculture strives to create a web or closed system based on the example that Nature sets for us. There is no waste in a properly designed ecosystem - there are only inputs and outputs.
A very simple example system is growing a garden. You need to enrich your soil with compost or worm castings. You harvest food and along with it, some excess plant matter. The excess goes into your compost or worm bin.
Repeat. Let's say you have an infestation of slugs because your soil is moist and has a lot of organic matter in it from handling your water efficiently, chopping and dropping, and building up the protective organic mulch layer. Well, one option is to get a pet duck. The duck gives you eggs and eventually meat and it eats the pests in the garden and creates manure and nutrient rich water which can be used to fertilize the garden. The Permaculturist creates an interactive web, just like Nature, to solve issues and to create an efficient, vibrant, bountiful, and healthy system.
This is the beauty of permaculture. It is the beauty of nature and the pursuit of a vibrant life.