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

Permanence

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.

Usefulness

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.

Naturalness

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!

Diversity

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.

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