A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture

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permaculturePermaculture is a set of techniques and principles to design and implement sustainable human settlements. It is dependent on place and each garden is different, with diverse climates, resources and needs. This book seeks to aid the gardener in finding the potential of his/her garden, treating the entire property, including the buildings, as part of a living and dynamic ecosystem.

I recommend this book to anyone who is also trying to “grow their way to freedom”. The book is geared toward a suburban lot of at least ¼ acre. Although many of the ideas can be applied to a smaller area, for those with a very small gardening area, another book might be more appropriate.

Toby Hemenway describes a gardening system of working with nature to provide for many of our food needs right in our own yards. He combines wildlife habitat and edible landscaping, as well as more conventional vegetable and flower gardening, to create a self-renewing, resilient, evolving ecological system that aims to let nature do much of the work once it is established. Building on natural systems, Hemenway describes in detail the basic components of a healthy system: soil, water, plants, animals (wild and domesticated) and humans.

The chapter devoted to bringing the soil to life described the diversity found in healthy soil (e.g. bacteria, fungi, amoebae, insects, clay, silt, sand, water, air, humus) and several methods to achieve healthy, vital soil life (e.g. compost, mulch and sheet mulch, hugelkultur and cover crops). Hugelkulture was a new concept for me. It is a technique that uses the decomposition of wood to build a long lasting, nutrient-rich mound for planting. He explains that you pile up branches or brush into a mound, one or two feet deep and four to eight feet long, cover the branches with decomposable material (grass clippings, sod, straw) and then cover with several inches of soil. Evidently potatoes and squash particularly enjoy growing in a hugelkulture bed and I am inspired to try it as we have an abundant source of decaying wood as a result of our devastating ice storm last winter.

The chapter devoted to water described five ways to catch, conserve and use water: high organic matter content, deep mulching, water-conserving plants, dense plantings, harvesting rainfall and soil contouring. Soil contouring to capture and preserve water really caught my attention, particularly his description of swales. Swales are shallow, level trenches laid out along the land’s contours. It can range from one to several feet across and as long as necessary. The dirt removed is used to build a slight berm on the downhill side of the trench. Surface water and rain run into the swale, spread out and slowly seep into the soil rather than run off as surface water. The result is that underground water seeps downhill creating an underground reservoir that aids plants long after rain falls.

When describing the role of plants within the system, Hemenway enumerates the many functions plants perform in a natural ecosystem. Plants create mulch, accumulate nutrients, fix nitrogen, attract insects, birds and wildlife, build barriers and shelters, and restore tilth into the soil. He stresses that plants can perform multiple functions and that by placing the right plants in the right place, plants can perform many of the jobs a gardener must perform in a conventional garden. The book covers the role of animals in the same level of detail and then the author brings the components of the system together.

Starting with concepts that are familiar to many experienced gardeners, such as inter-planting of species and companion planting, he brings these together in the concept of polyculture. Polycultures are dynamic, self-organizing plant communities composed of several to many species, adapted to their environment to create the best conditions for growth. The plants themselves create conditions attractive to other species, such as providing shade, shelter from wind or moist ground. As these conditions multiply, more species find places to live and variety increases, eventually creating a stable self-sustaining balance. This is where Hemenway’s ideas really started to catch my attention. I already have many of the individual components of the system on my little farm; his approach will help me tie them together so they are no longer little islands of productivity, but part of a healthier, sustainable whole.

One example is the fruit tree guild. Using a fruit tree as a center for the guild, he offers a sample guild that will support the apple tree in numerous ways, such as attracting beneficial insects for pollination and pest control, building soil tilth and fertility, reducing root competition and conserving water. He places the fruit tree in the center of guild. Around the drip line of the tree, he suggests planting a ring of bulbs (daffodils, perennial onions, garlic, camas) to discourage deer and the encroachment of grass. Within the ring of bulbs, he suggests flowering comfrey and artichoke plants to help build up mulch and provide a source of humus for the soil. In between are edible flowers and herbs, as well as a ground cover such as clover in between them, to attract beneficial insects and further protect and enhance the soil. He suggests plants such as Fava beans or other legumes to fix nitrogen and deep rooted plants to reach down and bring deeper buried nutrients up into the top soil. From a basic guild, such as the fruit tree guild, he expands to networks of guilds and culminates with the concept of a food forest.

Hemenway offers so many good ideas; my review could run much longer. I hope I have given you enough information to inspire you to go find this book at your local library and read it for yourself. Happy reading!

Review by Garden Tenders

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