The History of Permaculture
Permaculture is really not a new gardening trend; it’s been around for thousands of years in tropical locations, like South America and India. It’s only been in the last century that scientists studying people in those locations have come to realize that the places they live in are not naturally fruitful; it’s no accident that those people can walk out their door and pick fruit and edible plants. Someone planted those plants–be it themselves, their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents, etc.
This has been an eye-opening revelation for anthropologists, archaeologists, and biologists. It’s been thought that non-civilized cultures (literally cultures without cities) left no permanent mark on the landscape–nothing to show that their villages ever existed. But now that scientists know that people intentionally planted edible plants all around them and let it go wild, they’re looking into the possibility that most or all of the Amazonian rain forest was started by humans! (Think about that if you ever wonder what your permaculture garden might look like if left alone for 5,000 years or so.)
It used to be thought that permaculture only worked in tropical rainforests where there were 365 growing days, steady rain, and really fertile soil. And while that is the ideal condition for planting something and letting it go wild (meaning no further maintenance on your part), it’s not imperative. Back in the 60’s, people (including Sepp Holzer, below) started experimenting with temperate climate permaculture and found they could get most of the same results with only a little more effort. (For instance, if you don’t live in a rainforest, you have to do some terraforming of the landscape to make it better at storing rain during your dry periods or occasionally supplement with watering.)
Today, people are experimenting with permaculture in desert and salty environments, trying to see if there is a limit to where permaculture can be practiced and whether or not it can halt desertification or even reclaim land that has been over-worked and over-grazed to the point it’s become desert-like.
You may think that you can’t garden because your yard is too shaded, or gets the wrong kind of sun, or is too exposed to wind, or is too dry, or the soil is rocky or full of hard clay, or you’re surrounded by pine trees that make the soil too acidic, or the deer will eat everything, etc. But permaculture doesn’t shy away from less-than-ideal garden spots. It says, “I can fix this” or “I can work around this.”
Even so, there will always be things you can’t grow because you just can’t give the plant the conditions it needs to grow (or can’t do it without a lot of effort). But conversely, you can always find something that will grow in the conditions you do have. Once you accept the plants you can grow and let go of the ones you can’t, you’ll have a successful, low-maintenance permaculture garden.
The first thing you need to do is check out your land. Ideally, you will experience all of the seasons at least once before you start work on your garden. That will give you some clue as to how water runs across it, whether some places are boggy periodically or constantly, the direction of the prevailing winds, the track of the sun (i.e. where it rises and sets in the summer versus the winter), deer or rabbit trails, which places get only morning sun or all-day sun or mixed/dappled sunlight, or western sun and for how many hours, etc.
You also need to poke around in the dirt and see where the dirt looks pretty good, where it’s sandy, where it’s full of clay, where it’s rocky, etc. And it doesn’t hurt to pH test the dirt in different locations. Most plants like an average pH, but some need acidic soil and some will die if the soil is too acidic. (I’m not aware of any plants that require a really base soil, but most plants will tolerate that better than too acidic.)
Also check out the lay of your land. Even if you live in Kansas, your land will not be perfectly flat; there will be little divots and places that have been ever-so-slightly hollowed out by rain. Outside of the breadbasket of America, you likely have land that has a least some discernible slope to it. Figure out where the high and low parts of your yard are. Rain/groundwater always runs from the highest point to the lowest point and it will collect in any depressions, basins, ditches, gullies, valleys, etc.
Something I had never thought about until I started reading about permaculture is that water moves downhill through the soil. Unless water is running across the top of the ground, we really don’t think about what happens to it after that; I’m sure most people, like me, thought that it just sinks down into the soil and gets into the aquifer. And it does this somewhat, but most of it runs downhill in the soil. This is why the low spot in our yard (which is at the bottom of a big slope) gets wetter after it stops raining.
Once you understand—literally—the lay of your land, you can decide what you’re going to change and what you’re going to work with (or around).
The other thing you need to take into consideration when mentally surveying your land is where you’re going to plant things. Permaculture guides suggest that you think of your yard as having 5 zones:
Zone 0 is your house and outbuildings—i.e. the center of your permaculture garden.
Zone 1 is everything immediately around your house and outbuildings—normally where you have sidewalks, patios, ornamental plants and flowerbeds, etc. In Permaculture World, this is where you would have your high-maintenance items like annual vegetables and maybe chickens or rabbits.
Zone 2 is where you put in your perennial plants, which don’t need daily attention like annuals do. If you are worried about smell from chickens or rabbits, or want to free-range them, then you would place them in Zone 2. This is also the place for bees and greenhouses.
Zone 3 is where you put things that need more room to grow, like orchards, nut trees, and grain crops.
Zone 4 is your pasture areas for larger livestock, like goats, cows, horses, etc. You may also have woods that you harvest periodically for profit or just for fireplace wood. Or you might leave the space open and plant with wildflowers. This is also the ideal place for fish or livestock ponds.
The final section, Zone 5, is left wild for the deer, birds, coyotes, etc.
All of this is great on paper (or in a picture), but I’m pretty sure most people can’t organize their yards like that. (How many people have enough land to even think about having a grain field and cow pasture?) In fact, some of the most beautiful and bountiful permaculture gardens I’ve seen have little in the way of zone planting:
Although this lady has 3 acres, she plants more like a person who only has half an acre. Her annual vegetables are near her house and she does seem to have a couple of spots where she puts a lot of fruit trees, but mostly there’s some of everything everywhere. This works if 1) you don’t mind walking around your property a lot to do the harvesting (and which such a beautiful setting, why wouldn’t you want to take a lot walks?); 2) you’re only concerned with growing enough for your family (you don’t want things too scattered if you’re trying to harvest to sell); 3) you aren’t bothered by the idea that you will invariably miss harvesting some things and they will either end up seeding more plants or the animals will eat it.
So, even if your land is too small to support the full zone system or you prefer the more wild, natural look of Bealtaine Cottage, there are a few things you should still take away from the zone concept:
If you live on 5 acres of land, you don’t want your annual vegetable garden or chicken coop on the opposite side of the property from your house. The likelihood that you will check on it, fertilize it, water it, etc. when it’s a hike to get to is pretty slim. The farther away your chickens are, the less likely you are to notice if they’re loose, or if they’re under attack by a snake or varmint.
It also helps if you plant your annuals where you will see them daily. Even if you have a half acre of land and consider your entire yard is Zone 1, so you can plant your annuals anywhere, if you plant them on a side of the house where there are no windows overlooking them (or the window is in an unused room), and you don’t approach the house from that side, then they can get forgotten. Of course, you first consideration should be the light, but if you have two equally good spots for a garden, but you can’t see one of them from the house or your driveway, then use the plot you can see for your annuals and the other plot for perennials.
Although you don’t want your annuals on the outer-edges of your property, nothing says that your outer zones have to stay far away. If your house backs up to the woods, and you like it that way, there’s no reason why you need to clear out the woods to make space for your annuals. This is especially true if you have a lot of land; if you have more land than you need for your annuals, then go ahead and fill in the rest of your Zone 1 with perennials.
Beyond that, put things where they go best. I plan on putting in my orchard (normally a Zone 3 item) on the open slope in front of my house (Zone 1) and planting my annuals (Zone 1) underneath them. My nut trees and bushes (Zone 3) are going to go on the north side of my house (Zone 2) because the slope and colder air will be most conducive to them.
I will be planting my apple trees way out in what would normally be thought of as Zone 4 because that’s where the driest low spot in my yard is located. Apple trees like cold winters; our winters tend to only have short periods of cold weather. Since low-lying spots collect cold air, the basin area near my driveway should be one of the coldest microclimates my yard has. (The north side of the property is also colder, but because of the steep slope on that side, it makes more sense to plant things that drop their “fruits”—like nut trees—rather than try to use a ladder to pick apples on very uneven ground. The basin is also lightly shaded by tall trees which will mean the apple trees will stay cooler in summer.)
My pond is going in Zone 4 (should be in Zone 4) because that’s where the water collects. But I have another area in the yard that collects water and it’s in Zone 2/3. If I don’t also turn it into a pond, then I’m going to turn it into a rain garden because it’s going to collect water there regardless and I don’t have it in me to dig a drainage ditch as long and as deep as necessary to get the water to drain into the lower pond.
Sometimes you build the pond. Sometimes it builds itself. And unless you want to do a lot of terraforming, you just have to roll with it.
But that’s the great thing about permaculture: the overall principle is to just roll with it. So much of modern landscaping and farming is about straight lines, defined edges, swaths of identical things, and rigid control. Permaculture takes the approach of the sculptor who said that there’s a figure inside the stone and all you have to do is chip off the stone that’s not part of the figure.
There are probably things on your property that you could chip away to make it better–whether that’s getting rid of an ugly concrete patio or a dead tree, or digging a swale to stop the soil from washing away.
More on that next time . . .