Saturday, November 26, 2011

Putting Your Garden to Bed the Permaculture Way

Yep, it's that time again

Allowing your garden to sleep is particularly important in the cycles of growing things. One of the central tenants of Permaculture is to waste nothing and I have a wonderful tip for you this fall/winter - one word: LEAVES!

Leaves are a blessing from nature in the deciduous areas of the Earth, but we have forgotten their worth. Leaves are a natural insulator and fertilizer for the soil they fall on and we can utilize this gift in our veggie gardens as well! So this year instead of carting off your leaves, pile them on your garden beds.

As the leaves break down over the long winter months they add precious nutrients to your top soil effectively replenishing the energy and vital minerals such as carbon and nitrogen that your garden consumed during the spring summer and fall. We hear consistently that top soil quantity and quality around the world diminishes each year, this year I challenge you to help reverse this process and use the gifts that fall at your feet to nourish your home garden.

In addition to adding nutrients leaves help to keep your soil at a higher average temperature which may allow you to start your gardens earlier in the spring than you would have otherwise. Another tip is to layer your garden beds with leaves, then un-inked/soy-inked cardboard and then biodegradable landscaping cover (black fabric-esque material). This will attract worms and help to break down the leaves and cardboard for the spring!

Love your gardens and give them something to snack on all winter long!

My Permaculture Wordle

In this time of thanks and gratitude, I wanted to give some love to Mama Earth! This is my first wordle!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Permaculture: Plant Propogation

From one, come many

Nature has had billions of years to perfect it's strategy for survival. Plants especially are capable of fascinating reproduction. For example by clipping the leaf from a Snake plant, such as the one pictured below, cutting it into three pieces and planting it in soil, a new plant will emerge in 12 weeks.

Spider plants and Mt Hood variety strawberries have a different strategy. They send out shoots of baby plants that have the ability to either cling to the mother plant and function as a part of the whole or they can be rooted themselves as entirely new plants! I have spider plant babies and would be happy to share a few with anyone who is interested.

Propagating plants is a wonderful way to give presents and promote sustainability.  Check out this article on how houseplants actually keep you healthier! House Plants Keep You Healthy!

Permaculture Design Tools

From Pattern to Detail

We design from pattern to detail. In other words make general plans, sketch and re-sketch, find the optimal balance of space for your needs and fill in the nitty-gritty details later. If you know where your herb spiral will be, then move on, no need to know where each herb will go right away. We can learn much from nature, seek out patterns in the natural world and imitate them in your design process.

Value the Marginal - Edges!

Throughout the universe, marginal areas are often the most productive places by any means of measure. Think of a shoreline or where a forest meets and open plain. In these regions there is a disproportionate amount of productivity that supports both human and animal needs. As we design in permaculture the marginal value is a by-product of juxtaposition in your plant/system placements. For example, a pond in your garden should have as much edge as possible so that it can interact more with the systems around it.

Permaculture Zoning

  • Zone 0 - Although this zone is not outside, nor is it a garden, it is essential to the overall design. Zone 0 is your home, the heart of your living space. The key permaculture principles that we can put to use here are in energy and water conservation. Indoor plants are also part of your permaculture system and help to clean the air inside your home. Snake and Spider plants especially are amazing for this reason - and you can propagate them easily!! (I will talk about plant propagation in my next posting)
  • Zone 1 - Physically the zones are in order distance-wise from your kitchen door. This zone is the closest to your kitchen and should include the plants you use most and the plants that need the most attention/care. An herb spiral, soft seasonal fruits and berries, and salad greens are good examples of things you might like to have closer to your door.
  • Zone 2 - is designated for perennials that require less attention, but still may need occasional weeding or other maintenance. Also plants/trees/bushes that need occasional pruning might go here such as currents! Note of interest: most bee keepers tend to put their hives in Zone 2!
  • Zone 3 - your 'bread and butter'. Zone 3 is very important because this is where your main crops will grow. Main crops are those that sustain you throughout the year. Hardy greens such as Kale, squashes, beans, corn, etc may all go here.
  • Zone 4 - Further away than zone 3 and requires no maintenance whatsoever. This is a semi-wild area where you might grow raspberries, st. john's wort, edible ground covers such as trailing thyme, feverfew, etc.
  • Zone 5 - is completely untouched. We allow nature the space to breath and live. This does provide utility however. Remember observe and interact? Well this is the observable portion of your zoning. We get our inspiration from natural systems. Honor zone 5 and do not disturb it's cultivation.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Permaculture Guilds and the Legend of the Three Sisters

A central idea in permaculture is capitalizing on mutually beneficial combinations of plants, we call these combinations 'guilds'. Examples of guilds include: Carrots-Tomatoes-Basil, Radish-Cucumber-Strawberry, and the classic Three Sisters Guild (Corn-Beans-Squash). These guilds not only help eachother grow by providing structure and/or nutrients for eachother, but they also protect eachother from pests and help to keep more moisture in the soil during hot weather and drought.

The Iroquois Nation that thrived on the east coast of pre-colonial America believed that corn, beans and squash were precious gifts from the Great Spirit. Their planting season was marked by ceremonies to honor the sister spirits and thank the Earth for providing them with fertile soil in which to cultivate this ancient gift. By retelling the stories and performing annual rituals, Native Americans passed down the knowledge of how to grow and honor the Three Sisters from generation to generation. Now it is up to us to continue using these gifts.

What's the Big Deal?

Corn provides natural structure for bean vines to climb, and in turn the bean vines help to strengthen the corn stalk in the case of high winds or a storm. The Beans fix nitrogen into the soil by absorbing it from the air (Nitrogen makes up about 3/4 of atmospheric content) and releasing it from the root system. The Squash and Corn both LOVE Nitrogen-rich soil and will produce more edible harvest when it is readily available. The squash also plays a critical role. The roots of the squash plant are shallow but spread wide, they deter weeds from growing with their large leaves and roots that absorb much of the surface nutrients and most squash vines have thorny protrusions which deter animals from approaching the corn and beans. The Squash also provides ground cover that helps to keep moisture in the soil by shading the top layer and absorbing most of the sunlight. When grown together the three sisters produce nearly 50% more than when grown separately.

In addition to the benefits in your garden and for the plants themselves. The nutritional benefits of the three sisters is a tri-fecta of healthy goodness! The corn provides carbohydrates, the beans are rich in protein and the squash is high in vitamins and minerals, and the squash seeds can be pressed for oil as well!

Planting Instructions

Plant corn 2ft apart, when they reach a height of 1ft plant beans from seed, or when the corn reaches plant bean starts directly at the foot of the plant, 2 bean plants for each corn plant (using a variety of beans will further deter pests). Plant the squash starts between corn plants when the corn is 1.5ft tall (this is to ensure that the corn still gets enough sunlight because the squash leaves grow very fast and the leaves tend to get large quickly and have the potential to smother smaller corn plants.

Try this in your garden and experience the wisdom of the Iroquois in your garden! Grow your own!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Permaculture 101: All about Worms!

Vermiculture Explored and Explained

Vermiculture is the practice of keeping worms for the purposes of super-speed composting and generating what is known as worm-castings, an INCREDIBLE fertilizer for your garden or pots. Worm castings are full of micro-organisms and bacterium that are helpful and healthy for your soil - and when you make your own, it's the cheapest fertilizer you can get. Another helpful by-product is the compost tea that you can drain from your worm bin and use as additional fertilizer for your garden (not as strong or balanced as compost tea you might find in a garden store or online, but it still works!).

Keeping worms? Don't they just live in the soil? Well, yes, but worms actually travel quite a ways under ground and if they're not finding delicious food for themselves in and around your garden, then they will move on and you will lose the benefit. For some time now humans have been creating worm bins/enclosures that are ideal for the tiny vermin and in turn they solve a major problem for us...what to do with food-waste?

For longer than I can remember my parents tried different methods of composting. Trenching - digging in your garden and dumping food waste there, once the hole is full you cover it up and the worms in your garden do the rest. Compost Bin - one of the most popular methods for dealing with food-waste, but it often results in other unwanted guests in your yard or garden such as raccoons and rats/mice. Some compost bins deal with with this better by providing a frame and a container that does not touch the ground, but in my experience, the mice are smarter that the air-born compost bins and find a way to get in all the same. With each attempt we continually attracted raccoons, rats and mice and wound up having to set traps which never felt right to my family.

The Solution!

Build a worm-bin! I decided that instead of just showing pictures and writing about what a worm-bin is like it would be more beneficial to give you a video experience of the worm-bin I built with my community for our apartment complex. Enjoy and as always, please ask questions, let me know what you're interested in and I will do my best to incorporate the answer into my future posts. Grow your own!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Beat Video

Enjoy my public beat blog video on Mycorrhizae!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blog Action Day & Permaculture

Out of the many reasons to grow your own food, improving personal sustainability and promoting food security are two of the most important. Today, on blog action day on issues concerning food, I thought it would be appropriate to give a general description of each of the twelve permaculture principles.

1 - Observe and Interact
By taking the time to engage with nature, we can design solutions that suit our particular situation

This principle informs the entirety of the design process. Permaculture is essentially a practice of creative response and the best results are achieved when plant selection and placement are a direct response to the existing landscape.

2 - Catch and Store Energy
By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

This is an age-old concept and needs almost no explanation. Planning ahead by storing energy and goods while they are abundant is critical for permaculture systems and for sustainability generally.
3 - Obtain a Yield
Ensure you are producing useful rewards as part of the work you are doing.

All your hard work should pay off. Permaculture systems should be rewarding and should create more value than simply the sum of the inputs.
4 - Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems continue to function well.

We intentionally say that we are practicing permaculture for a reason. There is no one right way to do things. Just because something worked in the past doesn't mean it will work in the future. Remember, someone else may see something you don't - always listen when advice is given.

5 - Use and Value Renewable Resources
Make the best use natures abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

From the systems perspective it is highly important that we implement renewable energy solutions and natural building materials whenever possible.

6 - Produce no Waste
By taking the time to engage with nature, we can design solutions that suit our particular situation

Producing no waste goes hand-in-hand with cradle-to-cradle design principles. Eliminating the waste stream often leads to Pareto Efficiency and should be a primary goal in any sustainable system.

7 - Design from Pattern to Detail
By stepping back we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the background of our designs, we can fill in the details as we go

Nature developed strategies over billions of years of evolution. Think of the structure/design of a spiderweb. from a ways away it might look like a hexagonal sheet, as we get closer we can see more of the pattern and then looking at the individual strands under a microscope we finally can see the function of the design. When practicing permaculture, think of your meta-pattern first and fill in the details later.
8 - Integrate Rather than Segregate
But putting the right things in the right place we allow symbiotic relationships to develop and they support eachother.

Clumping different plants together instead of in segregated rows creates plant-communities that are more capable of defending themselves from pests and can benefit from eachother's beneficial qualities.
9 - Use Small and Slow Solutions
Small and slow systems are easier to setup and maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.

Don't bite off more than you can chew! Establishing a permaculture system that is too large for you to take care of is counter productive and even though you may be growing more, more will go to waste and your efforts will have been in vain. Never aggregate your problems! When we combine our problems into a single large issue it can be overwhelming to work with and often can obscure the simplest solutions.
10 - Use and Value Diversity
Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides

Diversity is insurance of success. We cannot tell the future and in the event where conditions change and do not favor a particular plant or subset of plants we have not over-invested in a failed crop.
11 - Use Edges and Value the Marginal
The Interface between things is where the most interesting events take place, these are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

Permaculture guilds are groupings of plants that have been proven to grow well together. Guilds are not strict and have not all been discovered. The most valuable contribution you can make to your own permaculture garden is experimentation. Record your results, remember the good and improve upon what didn't work!
12 - Creatively Use and Respond to Change
We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

The only consistency is change, so plan for it. Treat current assets as potential future liabilities and current liabilities as potential future assets. When a change occurs in your system observe it, create a solution and act accordingly.

~ Summary ~
Permaculture is a philosophical result of evolution and so it is constantly evolving and changing. Stay within the guidelines, but allow your creativity to flow. As I continue to add more information to this blog on Permaculture, please feel free to ask questions or request a blog on something you're curious about, e.g. 'What is a mycorrhizea anyway?'

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Ancient Wisdom, Modern Ingenuity

I was first introduced to the concept of Permaculture at orientation for my masters program at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. I have had a garden my whole life and some of my best memories are from helping my parents out in the garden weeding and picking fresh fruits, veggies, herbs and berries since I was about 5 years old. When I learned about permaculture, I immediately felt a deep connection to the philosophy, it just clicked.

The basic concept behind permaculture is that we as a species have had knowledge of symbiotic relationships in nature. Just like people, certain types of plants like eachother and other combinations just don't get along. By capitalizing on the natural symbiosis, as gardeners we can coax more productivity from our gardens with minimal effort. Permaculture works best on a small scale (less than 3 acres) due to the fully embraced methodology of Poly-Cropping. Or in other words, when practicing permaculture, it is essential that one does not simply plant in rows of the same, but rather we tend to think in clusters so that pests and molds have a more difficult time settling in.

Really though, there are no rules - just basic guidelines. My intent for this blog is to outline the basic concepts of permaculture and give detailed examples of how to make them work. Anyone can be a permaculture practitioner, it just takes a little creativity and willingness to go off the beaten path. Here is to growing your own!!