Permaculture for every yard

September 20, 2006 lawanda Newspaper Columns

      Permaculture, coined from “permanent agriculture” may seem an obscure or unobtainable theory that doesn’t apply to the average yard or garden.  But there is no need to adopt the entire permaculture philosophy to derive some benefits.  Just a few of the concepts can be applied to make your yard and garden more beautiful and productive.

      Suzette said that when she looks at a landscape, her first thought is to cover the soil.  Mulch has many benefits including temperature regulation, moisture conservation, erosion protection, weed suppression, disease reduction and soil improvement.  Soil open to the sun and wind can become dry, hard and cracked, or blow away.

      An important permaculture concept is that of guilds, or plant groupings that assist each other in some way.  Many gardeners are familiar with the Native American triad of corn, beans and squash, a combination called the Three Sisters.  When planted in proximity, each plant supports the other two in some way.  The cornstalks provide a trellis for the beans.  The beans draw nitrogen from the air and make them available to the other plants in the soil.  The corn roots ooze sugars that feed the bacteria that produce this nitrogen.  The broad leaves of the squash plant shade the soil, keeping it cool and moist and preventing weeds.  Each of these plants produces more food with less water and fertilizer than any one of the three planted in isolation.  The study of guilds is relatively new, but there are several of them for which information can be found in permaculture books.

      The book Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway talks of keyhole-shaped planting beds.  These are circular beds about 8 to 12 feet in diameter pierced on one side with a path to the middle.  The benefits are of this shape are many.  First, 50 square feet of planting space on a keyhole bed needs only 6 feet of pathway.  In a traditional single row planting, 50 square feet of planting space requires 40 square feet of path.  A raised bed of the same planting size requires 10 square feet of pathway.  Keyhole beds can be planted next to each other or around each other in increasingly intricate patterns to really maximize planting opportunities. 

      When a keyhole bed’s path is pointed toward the south and tall plants are located at the back, or northern edge, the bed creates a U-shaped sun bowl that traps warmth.  The microclimate inside is a great place for heat-loving plants.

      An significant principal of permaculture is water conservation.  This can be done in many ways including the aforementioned mulching, catching rain in rain barrels, building swales or berms to contour the land to make water flow where you need it, planting densely, planting water-conserving plants, and adding organic matter to soil so that it better holds water.  One interesting technique for keeping water in the soil longer is to dig trenches about 18 inches deep and bury woody tree trunks or rotten firewood.  If you’ve ever seen a rotting log in the woods, you know that they act like sponges, holding water long after the surrounding area has dried.  This will happen underground as well.  The wood will eventually decompose, adding organic matter and fertility to the soil.  

      There are many more simple permaculture techniques that can add beauty and fertility to your life.  Gaia’s Garden is the best and most interesting book I’ve found on the topic.

Gardening techniques and toolsMiscellaneousOrganic gardening

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