Permaculture Part II – Putting the “Sculpting” Into Landscaping

Intro to Permaculture, Part 1

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.

Getting Started

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:

Click for link to site with more info about 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 . . .

Intro to Permaculture, Part 1

During my Survival Binder posts, I mentioned Permaculture and promised some future blog posts on the concept. Well, now that gardening season is upon us, I’ll talk about this more in-depth.

What’s Permaculture?

Permaculture is a type (some people call it a style or system) of gardening. Like a lot of art forms, there are no hard and fast rules as to what does (or doesn’t) constitute permaculture. But, just as all Impressionist paintings have some techniques or themes in common, so too does Permaculture. Here are the four biggies:

  1. Permanence
  2. Usefulness
  3. Naturalness
  4. Diversity


Permaculture gardens generally start with permanent plants and then non-permanent plants are scattered amongst them. (In permaculture, a “permanent” plant is any that keeps coming back–either because it’s a perennial or because it’s a self-seeding or otherwise self-propagating annual. “Non-permanent” plants are plants that have to be replanted by you every season–be that a true annual, like a tomato plant, or a perennial that dies out every season in your climate.)

This is contrary to the typical garden which places all the annual plants in their own plot of ground and either has no permanent members or has them in a separate location (like an orchard). Flowers and decorative plants also tend to be treated as separate entities and are given their own place (usually the front of the house).

There’s one mistake with this image: walnut trees inhibit the growth of many plants underneath them; only certain plants can grow under them, so if you have a walnut tree, you have to be careful about what you plant under it.

Permaculture integrates everything. Large permanent plants, like trees and bushes, are put in as central cast members, then smaller plants—both permanent and non-permanent—are placed around them as supporting characters.

The benefit to having a lot of permanent plants is that it makes gardening a lot less work. For instance, it’s a lot easier to occasionally trim an established fruit tree than constantly plant, water, fertilize, etc. annual plants. Perennial plants tend to put down deeper roots, which mean they handle dry conditions better, so they don’t have to be watered as often. Those same deep roots also allow them to get better nutrients, so they need little, if any, additional fertilizing once they are established. (Most perennials are fine with a light, once-a-year fertilizing, and in some cases, this can be as simple as dumping some compost or plant mulch on them in the fall.) And calorie-wise, a nut-bearing or fruit-bearing tree is a better investment than pretty much any garden vegetables you can plant.

The permanence aspect tends to be the portion of permaculture that varies the most from garden to garden. Personally, I think of a permaculture garden being a majority of permanent plants, but people with small yards tend to have fewer permanent plants because they have less room for large trees and shrubs and they want to devote most of their space to growing (annual) vegetables which they most frequently eat.

For example, asparagus and ostrich fern both produce edible shoots that are great to eat, and both are permanent plants, but both only produce their shoots for a brief window in the spring; the rest of the year, the plants are not producing edible food. If you are gardening on a very small plot, neither of those are good food investments for the amount of space they take up. I, on the other hand, have more land than I could ever hope to plant and manage, and I have some dense shady areas where nothing much but ferns will grow, so I can plant ostrich ferns by the dozens.

Perhaps a better way of thinking about this aspect of permaculture is not so much about the relative percentage of permanent plants to non-permanent ones, but rather the fact that the garden is treated holistically, if you will, and the two types of plants are integrated.


Permaculture gardens have few, if any, useless plants. People might throw in a few plants that are just for beauty, but the overwhelming majority of the plants are useful.

What kinds of uses?

First and foremost is edibility. A large majority of the plants that are planted (or retained, in the case of plants that pre-date the garden, like large trees) are edible. This is why permaculture is also known as “edible landscaping” and “food forests.”

Second in usefulness is usually medicinal. If you are interested in being self-sufficient in the event of a SHTF scenario, then you’re definitely going to want to put in some medicinal herbs.

Then there are other uses that plants can perform, but they are usually secondary to their primary function of being edible and/or medicinal. One obvious exemption are trees. While there are plenty of edible trees, many that are found around the average home are not fruit- or nut-bearing. But this doesn’t mean that they are useless and should be cut down. Trees are beneficial to other plants because they provide shade, bring up nutrients from deep underground that can help feed shallower-rooted plants, and keep the more smaller, more delicate plants moist (it is more humid under a leafy tree than in direct sunlight and the shade lessens the plants’ and soil’s water loss). Trees can also serve as scaffolding if you want to use them in lieu of a pole or trellis for beans, peas, squashes, cucumbers, kiwis, grapes, etc.

Another function that plants can serve is to repair the soil. Comfrey can both add nitrogen to the soil and be used medicinally; beans and peas can also add nitrogen while also being edible. There are a number of plants that will “fix” soil that is “tired” or poor and other plants tend to like to grow around them for the immediate benefit.

Then there are plants—usually flowers—that are used to attract bees and butterflies, which, in turn, pollinate the rest of the plants. Gardens that are in a very open place, with carefully-mowed ground all around them, will have difficulty attracting pollinators because there’s nowhere nearby for them to live. But a permaculture garden with trees gives them a place to shelter, and the more flowering plants—and the longer the flowering season in your garden—the more likely beneficial bugs (and bug-eating birds!) will camp out in your garden.

And then there are a few plants that are beneficial to people in non-edible and non-medical ways. For instance, gourds. Most people are familiar with using gourds as birdhouses (which is very beneficial in the permaculture garden), but there are a lot of different kinds of gourds with a lot of different shapes. There are some barbell-shaped ones that were traditionally used in Japan for centuries as a water bottle. The “dipper gourd,” oddly enough, gets turned into spoons and ladles. Other kinds can be used as bowls. Loofa “sponges” are actually the innards of a loofa gourd; plant a loofa vine and harvest all the pot scrubbers and back scrubbers you will ever need.


Probably the most identifiable part of a permaculture garden is its naturalness. The typical landscaping in an American yard is what I think of as “English formal garden.” Each plant is planted by itself, like a palm tree on a desert island, then it’s surrounded by a sea of mulch. Once or twice a year, it’s pruned down so that it has a more geometric shape and it doesn’t touch its neighbors. More mulch is added to keep anything else from growing up around it.

Permaculture gardens may look like spaces that were once cleared, but have been allowed to get overgrown or revert back to woods:

. . . or they may look more like Japanese or English country gardens which have some defined paths and buildings or artistic features, but still retain a sort of overgrown look that might best be described as “tidy wildness:”

. . . or they might be very symmetrical, with defined plant beds, and look like a regular vegetable garden that’s been way overplanted:

What they all have in common is that the plants are close together, there isn’t any bare space (unless it’s a walking path), and while some of the plants are cut for production purposes (i.e. trimming back a fruit tree to make it branch out more), or trimmed back to keep them from dominating or crowding out other plants, none are cut to be shapely or keep it from touching its neighbor. In fact, you want some plant overlap because the more shade the plants put on the ground, the less likely things you don’t want (i.e. weeds) will grow up, and the better the soil will retain moisture.

In short, a permaculture garden is just as planned as any landscape, it just doesn’t look like it!

Why would anyone want landscaping that looks wild? Isn’t the point of landscaping to look tidy and attractive?

Done properly, dense and integrated plantings can look just as attractive as conventional and monoculture gardens and landscapes. The Japanese have made an art form out of it. Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the first practitioners in the U.S., designing the landscape at Biltmore House and Central Park. That tree-shaded drive you’re moving down? That impressive outcropping of stone right around the corner? The lovely little pond? Everything was installed intentionally to make you feel like you’re completely in nature, but nature as you imagined it as a child or in a fairytale: always tranquil and picture-perfect. Things like tangles of briars, poison ivy, and boggy, stinky ground aren’t a part of this “natural” landscaping.

This picture-perfect scene isn’t natural; it was created by landscape architecture.

Beautiful, yet completely functional as well.

Even vegetables can double as ornamentals; colored cabbages, rainbow rhubarbs, and flowering medicinals, like yarrow, can make for an attractive front yard just as well as purely ornamental flowers, like daffodils, hydrangeas, and azaleas. And if you’re ever in a SHTF situation, these edibles will be overlooked by the ravenous hordes because they look like landscaping . . . and everyone knows you can’t eat that!


The final critical aspect of permaculture is diversity. Most people who plant a traditional garden grow one kind of corn, one or two kinds of squash, one kind of onions, one kind of potatoes, one or two kinds of tomatoes, etc. This is really bad for survival, though. Think of your garden like your stock or retirement portfolio: diversify. Don’t have all of your eggs in one basket.

Because the weather’s unpredictable, one year you may end up with a cold spring, hot, dry summer, a late fall, followed by a mild winter. Then you may end up with a wet spring, a cool, wet summer, a dry, early fall, and a cold, snowy winter.

Some varieties of a plant might do well with that hot dry summer, but other varieties will do better with the cool, wet summer. The wet spring might rot all of one kind of plant in the ground, but allow another kind to go wild.

That’s why you should plant a lot of different kinds of plants and a lot of different varieties of each of those plants. No matter the weather, the bugs, or the blight, something will survive. Make a record of what did well in those conditions and what did poorly. If your season starts out hot and dry, make sure to plant some extra plants that did well in those conditions previously.

There’s also another reason to have a lot of diversity: food fatigue. This is a concept I wasn’t familiar with until I started researching prepping. Food fatigue is when people get tired of eating—to the point they quit eating altogether. This most commonly happens in war zones where people are reduced to eating the same thing day in and day out.

If you’ve ever read the Laura Ingalls book, The Long Winter, you know that their food dwindled until they were eating nothing but coarse brown bread and plain potatoes—then the potatoes gave out. One person writing about the book said that the real Laura Ingalls (instead of the somewhat fictionalized one in the books) must have been very hungry during that period, although the fictional Laura never mentions it.

But if you read the text closely, you’ll see that Laura complains of being so tired of brown bread, she doesn’t want to eat it; Ma has to order her to eat. At another point, Laura says that the all the women were listless and didn’t want to eat; only Pa, who was having to work so hard, looked at the food hungrily.

I’m sure Laura and the others felt plenty of hunger during that period—hunger that wasn’t described in the book—but she (and the others) clearly also go through a phase which probably came after the hungry part: food fatigue. The fact that no one really wanted to eat—even that Laura would rather go hungry than eat the bread—is a classic symptom of food fatigue. And it’s not necessarily even a matter of choosing hunger over food; a symptom of food fatigue–aka appetite fatigue, for just this reason–is not being hungry at all. In other words, you can get so tired of eating the same thing over and over again, you lose all appetite and you refuse to eat because you don’t feel hungry.

You will experience food fatigue in less than a month if all you have to eat 3 times a day are rice and beans.

Food fatigue is a real concern in a survival situation because people will be limited to what they can grow, gather/hunt, and what they have stockpiled. And too many people have very limited gardens, little to no gathering or hunting skills, and if they have a stockpile at all, it’s full of little more than rice and beans. Let me tell you, you will be over the beans and rice within a month and your mindset will change from “It’s a complete, nutritional meal!” to “I’d rather starve to death than eat one more bean!” Or, as one Confederate soldier put it, after eating endless amounts of (often wormy) rice: “I used to like rice, but goddamn the stuff now.” Some veterans refused to eat rice for the rest of their lives.

This is why garden diversity is so important. You’re not going to want to eat nothing but corn, squash, and tomatoes any more than you’re going to want to eat nothing but rice and beans. If you do 3 or 4 season gardening, your selection will naturally change with the seasons; by the time you’re starting to get tired of blueberries, they will be done for the season, but by the time next year rolls around, you will be eagerly anticipating them again. Planting different varieties of the same species also helps because the flavors and textures can vary quite widely. Part of the reason why people swear by heirloom varieties isn’t because modern hybrids lack flavor, it’s more that the heirlooms provide a new flavor, which is exciting. And because there is so much flavor variation between varieties, if you don’t like the taste or texture of one plant, try a different variety of it.

And don’t forget to plant as many herbs as you can (and spices, if you are in the tropics): you can choke down many more meals of beans and rice if you can vary the flavor through seasoning.

Herbs Gone Wild!

I promised some pictures of my herb garden in a previous post about my vegetable garden. I actually have two herb gardens–one with cooking herbs and another with medicinal herbs. I’m still making improvements on the latter, so I’ll give a complete before and after tour of it in a future post. So, for now, my cooking herbs!

This is what I started out with this spring. This is where I had last year’s straw bale garden. When it was finished in the ball, I broke the bales apart and leveled the ground. (I also had to build up the right side, which was on a somewhat steep slope. Even before I put the straw down, this area had pretty good-looking dirt; it was clearly a flower bed once before.

I planted sweet mint, peppermint, dill, fennel, oregano, parsley, cilantro, thyme, basil, rosemary, sage, and boarge. In most cases, I have two of everything.

It’s fenced in because the dog likes to dig (and kill plants). The wooden pole that you see against the fence post to the left is the “gate.”

Here’s the garden after a couple of months. Mind you, I’ve given it a trim once already!

This is growing outside the fence. I’m pretty up on my native weeds, but I’m not sure what this is. Out of curiosity, I’m leaving it alone. Maybe once it blooms I can figure out what it is . . . and whether I want to keep it. Heck, for all I know, it could be something leftover from last year’s garden. I got all of my plants from the local Amish market, which predominately sells heirloom plants. And while seeds from hybrids will grow, the heirloom plants seem more willing to self-propagate.

Speaking of self-propagating, check out this runner that my peppermint plant sent out. I think I got a total of four runners off of it–and that’s not counting stems that bent over, touched the ground, and put out roots. This is why people warn that mint can take over your garden.

I told it, “You think you’re bad-ass, peppermint plant?” and I dug a little hole with my fingers and planted it on the embankment behind the house–which is currently overrun with poison ivy. If I can choke the poison ivy out with mint, I’ll consider that a big win. Plus, imagine how great the yard will smell!

I think I need one of these Alaskan mosquito suits. I can’t garden otherwise.

And maybe all that scent will get rid of the mosquitoes. They’re so bad, I can barely stand to take the dog out for a few minutes to potty. This morning I looked down and there was a swarm of mosquitoes around me, the dog, and the cat. Insect repellent only works for about 30 minutes at a time, and even then, they’re still swarming around your head and trying to fly into your ears. I have nearly as many bites on my face as I do on my arms and legs. And don’t talk to me about long-sleeves and pants! The fuggers will bite through your clothes.

If there was a DDT bomb, I’d press that button and drop it right in the middle of our yard. Where’s a mosquito-sized nuclear bomb when you need one?


So, here’s the herb patch after I’ve given it a serious haircut and have weeded a bit. The only thing that’s not doing very well is the dill; I think it’s in too shady a spot. I have one more mint plant to plant–spearmint. Since mint seems to be very hardy, I may dig up the dill and plant the spearmint there instead. If I can salvage the dill, I may stick it in one of my bales and see if I can get it to perk up.

Can you see the red tomato cage on the right hand side? The dill may not be growing over there, but I have some of those self-seeing heirloom tomato plants growing. I’m not sure if there are 4 different plants or one plant with branches; it was laying on the ground and half-buried under the sweet mint and borage. So I put the cage over it and propped it up. Once it straightens out, I can see better what I’m dealing with.

And see the marker in front of the cage? I picked it up at Hobby Lobby last year because I thought it was funny. Instead, it’s turned out prophetic: I don’t remember planting this!

Here’s the haul. The laundry basket is full of nothing but sweet mint!

And here’s the same material stripped of stems and a couple of days into drying. I’ve found for relatively small amounts of material, drying them loose on a paper plate works just as well as setting up screens or dehydrating in an oven. It does take longer this way, but it doesn’t require special equipment or extra time; I just make it a point to turn the piles of leaves whenever I’m in the kitchen until they’re all dry and crunchy. Then I can put them into storage.

My Straw Bale Garden

Despite the best efforts of and repeated attempts by our Alaskan-sized mosquitoes to kill me, I am still alive. And gardening!

Gardening is something I have wanted to do for a long time and something I have failed to actually accomplish for a long time. (We will not speak of the bags of dirt that eventually decomposed on our front porch some years ago.) But last year, I finally, actually made a small attempt at it. It wasn’t terribly successful–some of which was my fault, some of which was the fault of the constant heat and severe drought conditions, some of which was down to the dog–but I learned a lot and decided to persevere.

I got a start a little later than I wanted this year–a combination of rainy weather and a cold snap  prevented me from getting my stuff set out–but I’m still within the planting season for the things I’ve put out, so I’m not actually behind.

I chose a different location this year for the vegetable garden. One, I wanted to go bigger and the little bed beside the sunroom only holds about 5 straw bales. (It’s now my herb garden. Pictures of that in a later post.) Second, our plants seriously wilted when the sun was on them–despite the fact that the area didn’t get direct sun until about 10:00-11:00 AM and it slowly went into the shade between 2:00 and 4:00 PM. No matter how much we watered them, they wilted every day and perked back up again as soon as they were in the shade.

Now, according to conventional garden wisdom, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and the like are supposed to need all day sun. But our plants didn’t seem to like that at all. And researching it this winter, I found that’s really a guideline more for the northern latitudes of the country where the angle of the sun is lower, so it’s less intense. It’s also not as hot, on average, and the hot days don’t last nearly as long. There are some gardeners who say that not only will summer plants be okay with just partial sun, but in southern areas, it’s necessary to limit the amount of sunlight to keep the plants from getting too hot.

For instance, when days get over 90 degrees and nights don’t fall below 75 degrees, tomato plants won’t produce pollen in their flowers. We went over 2 months last year with no days/nights under 70 degrees and pretty much every day was around 90 degrees. The drought made things worse because it was all sun all the time; never any clouds to provide some shade or cool breeze.

Something else I hadn’t considered until recently was that those plants were all planted against a light-colored wall, which meant that all the sunlight they got was amplified. (The concrete block portion of the wall behind them probably didn’t help either; it can hold heat and radiate it at night, keeping the air around the plants hotter than it would otherwise be.)

So, this year, I put my straw bales behind my house, next to the woods. They are against an open deck, not a solid wall, so there will be nothing radiating heat to them at night. They should get roughly the same amount of direct sun as before, around the same times every day, but there is no white backdrop reflecting a lot of light back on them. And instead of being across from our driveway–which is open, sunny, and the hottest place to be anywhere on our property–the plants will be across from the shady woods. But they are still in a corridor of our property that gets a nice breeze, which should help keep them cooler. The day may be 90+ degrees, but the air around my tomato plants should be down in the 80’s. (This is called creating a micro-climate. Most people make them so that their plants will be warmer–that’s how a family friend can have a large palm tree growing next to his log cabin in Middle Tennessee–but where you have hot temps, you may need to do things to cool your plants.)

We shall see how well things do this year. The fact that we’re not in a drought and aren’t predicted to have one this year will help, I’m sure. But this is why I said in my posts on being prepared that you need to garden now, when your life doesn’t depend on it, because gardening takes practice. You have to learn through experience what works (and doesn’t work) for your weather, your latitude/zone, your soil, your sun exposure, etc. Certain varieties may do better than others. A “summer” crop in northern zones may need to be a spring/fall crop in southern areas, and “cool weather” crops may grow all winter! Reading about gardening will only get you so far because just about all gardening manuals are written to be as generic and universal as possible, even though the continental United States has zones ranging from 2b to 11b. That is an area that goes from an average minimum temperature of -45 to an area that doesn’t get below 50 degrees. Logic dictates that gardening rules for Minnesota cannot be the same rules for Florida.

Making the Garden

After arranging my bales, I fenced them in. Why? Well, that would be one of those things I learned last year: the dog likes to rip up plants. I think I lost a total of three bell pepper plants to her (one pepper plant got ripped up twice; I wasn’t able to save it the second time around), the catnip, most–or was it all?–of the dill, I think another herb, and the watermelon plant. (It was replanted and it survived, but it lost the one melon it had started to produce and only ever produced one full-size one.)

The fence is constructed from plastic, step-in fence poles and, oddly enough, trellis netting. I found it on the discount rack at Wal-Mart for 50 cents per 5.5′ x 8′ package. You can’t get any fencing cheaper than that. It’s not like I needed to fence coyotes out of a chicken run; I just needed to deter the dog. Plus, if she ever gets to the point where I don’t need to fence her out, these can go back to being trellises.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “What on earth do straw bales have to do with gardening?” My friends, straw bales are pretty much the laziest, easiest way to have a raised bed garden! All you have to do is wet them and fertilize them. (And, honestly, these only got one dose of fertilizer; they got wet long before I used them, so they cooked all on their own, no fertilizer help required. I only gave them a good dosing of fertilizer a few days before planting to make sure they had nutrients in them.) Once the bales have started to decompose (and they are no longer hot in the middle), you can plant or sow seeds right in them. And at the end of the season, you can put them on your garden or flower beds elsewhere and they make great mulch. Last year’s bales are mulch for my herb garden this year and it not only looks good, but it holds in moisture so I don’t have to water my plants nearly as often. Plus, any residual fertilizer remaining on the straw goes to the plants in the bed.

I used a couple of trellis nets as actual trellis. This was partly to keep the dog from jumping into the garden from the porch, but mostly it’s to act as a trellis for the cucumbers and tomatoes. Last year’s cucumbers climbed up onto my porch by themselves and started to take over. Old garden hands will probably laugh at me, but I didn’t know cucumbers grew like that. I know my grandparents had cucumbers in their garden when I was growing up, but they never had any trellises. Either they had a bushy cucumber variety and I have a vine variety, or their cucumbers just trailed along the ground and I never noticed they were a vine rather than a bush like everything else.

This year, though, my cucumbers will have a proper trellis and we will control how much of the porch they overtake.

So here’s what the bales look like up close. Those dark spots you are seeing are mushrooms. Mushrooms are a good sign when you’re cooking your bales (i.e. starting the decomposition process) because it means the bales are decomposing. Last year, I had mushrooms on the bales the entire season–not just when the bales first started to cook. I also had these exact same types of mushrooms, even though I’m sure this year’s bales were sourced from a different source than last year’s. That means the spores are probably coming from our woods.

Using a garden shovel and my hands (mostly my hands), I pulled out a big plug of straw from the bale. If you prepared your bales correctly, the straw will be slimy and you should see white or black mildew-looking stuff on it (that’s more fungus). This is also good; that sort of thing will break down the bales and feed the nutrients to your plants.

The straw from the center of the bale may still be warm when you pull it out, but it should not be hot; that will cook the roots of your plants–especially any that are cool-weather. I had one bale that was hotter than the rest for some reason. I didn’t think it was dangerously hot, but I made sure to put a pepper plant in it; of everything I had, I knew the pepper plants like the warmest soil.

I made sure to save the straw I pulled out of the bales; it will get used as mulch in an herb bed. Also, if you find you pull too much out (it wants to come out in long flakes, but you will be trying to get a round hole), you can stuff some of the straw back in where you need it. It pretty well sticks to itself at this stage.

Next, I put some dirt in the hole I made, banking it up the sides so it was essentially a dirt-lined hole. For the pepper plant in the hot bale, I made a bit bigger hole and put more dirt in, hoping that the dirt will keep the roots off the hotter straw until the bale cools down.

The plant (this is a tomato plant) goes in next, then I fill in the rest of the hole with dirt and pack it down a bit. I don’t have to worry about compacting it too much; the roots have all the room in the world on the straw side of things. In fact, when I busted up last year’s bales, I found that my tomato plants had put roots all the way down through the bale. If it hadn’t been sitting on some old vinyl signage repurposed as landscape fabric, those tomato plants would have struck dirt.

This year’s bales are not sitting on landscaping fabric, so who knows how deep their roots may go?

Once the plant was in and the hole filled, I took some of the straw I pulled out and put it around the plant so that no dirt is showing. This works just like any mulch: it keeps the moisture in and helps insulate the plant’s roots so they stay a more constant temperature.

So, how many plants can you put into a bale? Well, that depends on what you’re comfortable with. Last year, I put two tomato plants and one bell pepper plant in a single bale and they were pretty crowded (although a lot of the crowding came from the tomato cages rather than the plants themselves). I have seen people with more densely-planted bales, but I don’t know whether my dense plantings were okay or harmful last year. I have the feeling that dense plantings in full-sun locations are not only okay, but preferable, because the plants help shade one another, keep their roots cooler, and trap more moist/humid air around them. However, my bales are not in the full sun, so I think it’s better that my plants have room to bush out and collect as much sunlight as possible. So I only planted two plants per bale this year (although if I had had more than 2 cucumber plants, I would have done up to four in that bale, the same as last year; they have plenty of room to spread out vertically).

You can also plant the sides of the bales. If I had smaller plants, like maybe lettuces or spinach, I would plant those in the sides of the bales. You can also plant herbs (although my herbs are now in a permanent bed). You don’t even have to put dirt in the holes (especially when planting something that won’t be there long, like leaf lettuce).

So, here is something else I learned last year: when it’s really hot and dry, you need to water the garden every single day. We’re not always home every single day. Also, I didn’t fertilize the bales like I should have once they got started because it was hard to do. You can’t get fertilizer on the plants, because it burns up the leaves (ask me how I know), but when they get big and bushy, it can be hard to get the jug of fertilizer in there to it.

Ollas can be kind of expensive. Click the picture for link to a website that shows you how to make them out of much cheaper terracotta pots. You can even fill them up automatically!

Enter redneck ollas. (Or, if you prefer, upcycled ollas.) An olla is old technology (2,000+ years old). It’s nothing more than an unglazed terracotta bottle that you bury in your garden and fill with water. The terracotta will slowly weep water, providing your plants with a constant moist (but not too wet) earth. When the ground is wet from rain, the water will not wick out of the olla, so you don’t waste the water or overwater your plants. It pretty much idiot-proofs watering your plants. And, depending on the size of the olla and how moist your ground is, you may only have to fill it once a week.

It works most efficiently if you put your plants in a circle and bury the olla in the middle, but you can use it however your garden is configured. However, it’s important to note that it’s best to plant the olla when you plant your plants. If you wait until later, when your plants are bigger, you will be digging down into their roots to bury it. This may not kill them, but it’s better not to take the risk; just plant your ollas when you plant your plants. Your plants will soon discover this reliable water source and they will surround it with their roots and be happy as little clam . . . plants. Happy clam plants.

So, what’s a redneck olla and how does it work?

I saved up some small plastic coke bottles, removed the labels, and used a pin to poke a hole in each “foot” on the bottom of the bottle. (There are five feet on a standard American coke bottle. Some bottles are tougher on the bottom than others, but all of feet are thinner at their edge, right where the plastic bends up to form the side of the bottle. It’s easier to put a hole there.) I got this idea from the internet, but other people poked holes up and down the sides of their bottles and said they needed to refill them every day or two (they may have been using 2-liter bottles, too). I didn’t want water coming out of my bottle that quickly, especially since I was planning on having 1 bottle per plant/2 per bale. So I poked a hole in the bottom of one bottle, filled it with water and tested it. I decided it didn’t drip enough, so I ended up adding 5 holes–one in each foot. This made a slow, but constant drip out of the bottom of the bottle. I also found that if there was any pressure on the side of the bottle (just the pressure from my grip), the water would squirt out like I was milking a cow.

Once my bottles were prepped, I hollowed out a little hole for the bottle next to each of my plants and stuck the bottom of the bottle in the bale.

Why didn’t I bury the entire thing? One, since the holes are only in the bottom of the bottle, the entire bottle doesn’t have to be buried. So why make extra work for myself?

Secondly, one of the drawbacks to the ollas is you can’t see how much water is left in them. Some people recommend sticking something like a surveyor’s flag in a cork and dropping it into the olla so you can tell where the water level is. By using clear bottles and leaving more than half of them aboveground, I can see where the water level is and can refill as necessary.

Thirdly, as I mentioned before, even a small amount of pressure on the sides of the bottle will cause the water to squirt out instead of drip out. I was afraid if I buried them completely, the straw would squeeze the sides; this way, there is little pressure on the bottle, so it should stay in drip mode.

Now, if we’re going to be gone for a weekend, I can fill the bottles and not have to worry about missing a day of watering the garden. I can also pull the bottles out, fill them with liquid fertilizer and stick them back into the bales to slowly–and safely–feed my plants.

At least, that’s the plan. We will see how well it works.

 You’ll be relieved to know that this project had appropriate supervision. (I’m just glad I don’t have any real plants in that planter yet.)

Here’s everything planted out. In the two foreground bales, there are 4 bell pepper plants. Starting on the back-right bale, I have 2 jalapeno plants, 2 cucumbers, a sweet banana pepper, 2 roma tomatoes, 2 Florida 91 tomato plants (a solidly average tomato in size, weight, shape, seed count, etc), then 2 more Roma tomatoes.

There is also an unknown plant growing out of the backside of the jalapeno bale. I found it when I was plucking a few grass weeds out of my herb bed. I picked it up and was about to throw it out when I said to myself, “Self, that looks like a tomato plant.” So I sniffed it. And then I said, “Self, that smells mighty like a tomato plant.” This was, after all, the spot where last year’s garden was and at the end of the season, like any good permaculture gardener, I pulled up my dead plants, tossed them into the bed, then broke up the strawbales on top of them. Some of the tomato plants had tomatoes on them that we didn’t harvest because they never grew to size or cooked in the heat before they every really ripened. So I was thinking to myself, “Self, this might possibly be a tomato plant.”

I didn’t want a tomato plant growing in my herb garden–there’s no room for it, so I took it over to my bales. I had fertilizer on top of the bales that hadn’t yet soaked in, so I just stuck the little plant into the side of the bale, where the fertilizer hopefully wouldn’t burn it. It’s still there a couple of weeks later and growing, so we’ll see what it turns into.

If you have any questions about straw bale gardening, ask below in the comments.


Okay, so I’ve said several times that I’m going to start blogging regularly again. But I’ve fallen off that wagon faster than I’ve fallen off diets. But things are sort of starting to calm down in my life, meaning I ought to be able to give up a lunch hour or two every week to make a blog post.

So, where am I and what have I been up to?

Firstly, my husband and I bought a house in January and moved to beautiful Polk County, TN, within sight of the Cherokee National Forest and the Appalachian Mountains, and 15 minutes’ drive from the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater kayaking course.


Not the actual view from our house, but just down the road from our place. We’re actually so surrounded by trees, you can just barely see a little mountain peak from our front porch.

It’s everything we’ve wanted in a house: no visible neighbors, a creek, plenty of woods, and more. It even has a shed on the back of the garage that’s just what my husband has always wanted for a blacksmith’s shop.

Unfortunately, it has no internet. But, unlike many of our unfortunate neighbors in the area, we actually have the ability to get cable internet–if we only pay to have it run to the house. We’re over 900 feet from the road, so that’s no small expense, but we’re hoping to have it done in the next month or two.

And, of course, there are a lot of other projects and improvements to do around the house. We’re actually still trying to get unpacked and figure out where everything goes. (Although I did make good progress on my craft room recently; it will be ready to use soon.)

Secondly, I’ve finished the proofreading of The Flames of Prague. I just need to order a proof copy, check the new cover and the formatting, and format the print book for ebook. We’re going to a big event in a couple of weeks, but after that, I should be able to get the final formatting done. So the publishing date for Flames is no later than July 31st!

Thirdly, I’ve been hard at work on medieval stuff, including finishing my illustrated medieval history! So look for me to start posting those again. I’m also going to start blogging more about my medieval projects because I want to showcase what I’m working on. And I’ve about been talked into doing some YouTube videos of 14th century hairstyles. (I just started teaching them as a class at our SCA events.) IMG_20160321_143701_889

Fourthly, we have a dog now. We were planning on getting one once we got fully settled at our new place, but she found us first. (Someone apparently dumped her out at the storage place on a night that was too cold for a short-haired pup and far too close to the highway. She now has our sunroom as her very own room and a 5 acre yard to play in.) Based on her coloration, confirmation, and temperament, we believe Zorra to be a black lab/smooth fox terrier mix. Her hobbies include finding trash we didn’t even know we had in the yard and bringing it up to the house, chasing cats, and barking at the cows, horses, and donkeys in the field next door. She loves fetching a ball more than anything. She’s about 6 months old.

Fifthly, I finally started that garden that I wanted to do X number of years ago (and had given up as a pipe dream). All of our stuff is looking good and we’re just waiting for our first tomato to ripen. Biting the bullet and actually doing the work necessary to have even a small garden was hard, but now that we’re over that hump, I don’t think it will be so hard to get started in future years. Even though we haven’t harvested anything yet, we’re really into watching our herbs and plants grow. I mean, I’m counting blooms daily just to see where we stand. I think once we start eating what we’ve grown, we’ll be well and truly hooked. I already have plans for expansion next year! (Not to mention we want to start planting fruit and nut trees this fall.) Up next: chickens!

So, now that we have our own place, we can settle down and start working on long-term and outdoor projects. It’s a lot going on, but it’s a lot to share, too.