Friday, December 19, 2008

Better Permaculture Through Garden Disasters

Sometimes my theoretical knowledge of gardening and permaculture exceeds my practical knowledge and experience. Indeed, I have been known to use my academic credentials to add weight to my gardening suggestions: “look Babcia (grandmother in Polish), I have a Ph.D. in biology and I'm telling you don't have to dig the garden...” A case in point was my first large (20 by 20 ft.) garden in 10 or so years. I had had a garden plot in the same community garden 10 years previously. Unfortunately, at that time, the 10 km distance between the garden and my apartment door meant few trips to the garden resulting in a 20 by 20 ft. island of weeds in a sea of well-tended crops. This time it would be different.

Although we were much closer to the garden (5 km), I swore that I would not be weeding (or using fertiliser, pesticides, or herbicides for that matter). Indeed it would not be necessary as my close plantings of beans, lettuce, etc., would quickly shade them out. In one bed I planted the well-known three sisters guild of corn, climbing beans, and squash. This guild has an ecological foundation. Climbing beans are planted around clusters of corn stalks. The beans and corn have a symbiotic relationship, with the beans fixing nitrogen for the corn, and the corn providing sugars for the beans at their roots. The squash plants that are planted between the corn groupings shade the soil, thus reducing weed growth and soil evaporation. I planted the guild in a state of great excitement and expectation; after all, I was planting a vegetable community that was not only ecologically sound, but that was the basis for much of native North American agriculture for thousands of years. I was reliving history.

My garden did not live up to my expectations. The end result is best described by the broken English of a Korean woman who had wandered over to see my cute and irresistible two year old son. She looked at my plot with a mixed expression of horror and wonder and repeated, “so much weeds, so much weeds”. I was even too embarrassed to put up the rustic “Pureland Garden” sign that I had woodburned onto a split plank. The only worthwhile harvest I had was of tomatoes. The tomato plants had been heavily mulched with straw and grew practically weed free. They also required very little watering, as the straw greatly reduced soil evaporation.

What happened? How could something that appeared so ecologically sound on paper turn so wrong in the ground? This is where my experience as an ecologist comes in handy. A clue to the problem can be found in the histories of the weeds that were overtaking my garden. Most, if not all, of the weeds were not species native to North America, but instead aliens that came over with the European settlers. This means that the Native Americans did not have to contend with many of the weeds that are currently plaguing our conventional agricultural system. From what I have read, their gardens were created by girdling trees in and around natural forest clearings and then burning the undergrowth the following spring. After 10-20 years they allowed the garden to regrow as forest and moved to a different spot. They were, in effect, starting their gardens from scratch and thus had no real weeds to deal with.

A second clue came from the biological attributes of the weed species. Weeds (well all plants) can be classified as being either annual or perennial in nature. Annuals, germinate, grow flowers, and die in a single year. In contrast, perennials live year after year and can typically propagate by both seed and by root division. Annuals produce large numbers of seeds in order to ensure their continued existence. For example, individual plants of Lambsquarters and Red Pigweed can produce close to 100 000 seeds. Chickweed can produce 3 generations a year thus tripling its seed production. Seeds can also remain viable for long periods of time: Red pigweed is viable for at least 40 years while 1 700 year old Lambsquarters seeds have demonstrated the ability to sprout. These species are often considered to be indicators of fertile land. However, they had no problem growing in my garden despite garden plants that showed signs of nitrogen and possibly phosphorus deficiencies. My garden’s soil deficiencies were particularly evident by bean plants that were stunted and yellow-green in colour. Bean plants that were given 20-20-20 fertilizer in a controlled “experiment” turned healthy and green. I think the soil was heavily depleted by the previous tenant who had planted potatoes in it for years. More likely the presence of the weeds is indicative of the gardens disturbance regime. Species are typically adapted to a particular sequenced of environmental disturbances. A dramatic example would be such trees species as Ponderosa pine, Jack pine, and black spruce, which possess cones that open when there is a forest fire in order to regenerate the forest. Similarly, the weeds in our garden are adapted to disturbance. Weed books and manuals indicate that my garden’s annual weeds are either found in cultivated soils or at open, disturbed sites. Part of this community garden’s policy is that the soil is turned over with a tractor every spring. While it is called cultivation or plowing, it could also be labelled as an annual disturbance event. Annual weeds, which only live one year and produce massive numbers of seeds, are perfectly adapted to plowing and will only increase in numbers if they are not eradicated. Even if they are totally removed, a huge number of seeds will still exist in the soil seed bank and will continue to germinate and grow each spring. Indeed, some seeds need the soil to be disturbed to start growing.

Field bindweed, which is listed as one of the world’s most undesirable weeds, was the only perennial I found growing in my garden. This plant can develop 20-30 foot lateral roots with vertical roots having been found 30 feet deep in some cases. New shoots can develop from buds along the roots and these buds can develop into new plants if separated. Thus, while this weed is a perennial and is not necessarily adapted to tilling, its deep root system and ability to expand laterally likely ensures its existence at the garden plot.

The reasons behind my garden’s weed problem are simple enough to explain, but what is the solution to this problem? The weed free and healthy state of my tomatoes provided the answer: sheet mulch. Sheet mulch is basically a horizontal compost pile that is spread over your garden. While sheet mulch instructions vary, they typically call for the following steps:

1. cut or trample weeds and plants on the site;
2. add any required soil amendments (manure, bonemeal, rock dust, etc);
3. apply a biodegradable weed barrier of cardboard or layered newspaper;
4. spread 6 inches or more of compost, leaves, grass clippings, vegetable scraps, etc. on the barrier; and
5. cover with 3 inches or so of weed free hay, wood chips, or ground leaves for a “finished” look.

This method provides a physical barrier to weeds growing at the site as well as dormant seeds in the seed bank. It also releases nutrients as it breaks down which allows for very healthy plants. In the first year plants are placed into the soil underneath the mulch by first tunnelling through the mulch and cutting through the weed barrier. In subsequent years they can be planted directly in the mulch. The web has all kinds of information on this technique as do any of Ruth Stout’s no-dig gardening books or Toby Hemenway Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.

If the answer is so simple, why do I not do it? Again, I have no control over the plowing policy of the garden plot and the powers that be do not want to change it. I could sheet mulch every year, however that would not only be labour intensive, but I would also lose much of the organic material that I add as the gardens are raked with the plowing. As such, I have decided that next year I will move my garden to a community garden where I can control the “disturbance regime” and construct permanent raised mulch beds.

While I did harvest some vegetable from the garden, I am sure that my gardening neighbours would say that it was a complete disaster. However, I would argue that I received a hands-on education in gardening ecology and weed dynamics. In terms of permaculture design, one way to learn is by observing nature. Observing the life histories of plants can provide us with clues to understanding the landscape and conceiving a better design. In my garden I learned through my three sisters guild planting that while the idea appears to be ecologically sound, it may not work in all circumstances. This might be because of weeds that were not around when it was historically planted. Does that mean that the technique is worthless? No, but like all techniques it must be modified to fit the circumstances. Perhaps, a fourth guild member is necessary. Would a ground cover of white clover smother the weeds? That would be a good experiment. I also learned that the practice of tilling was actually creating optimum conditions for weed development. The solution would be to stop tilling and create permanent sheet mulched gardens.

My garden was based on the principle that I did not want to weed it or use artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. I remember that Masanobu Fukuoka in “The One-Straw Revolution” describes how he pruned and killed some 400 tangerine trees while endeavouring to find the natural growth form of the trees. When we look at the end results of his “research”, it is hard to imagine his early disastrous results. His natural way of farming that uses no cultivation, no fertilizer, no weeding, and no pesticides is a model for us all. In the same vein, Yoshikazu Kawaguchi, a disciple of Fukuoka, applied Fukuoka’s method of growing rice and lost two seasons of rice before realizing that the natural farming methods must be adapted to the circumstances. With this in mind, I believe the final lesson of my garden experiment is to let our principles guide us, learn from our mistakes, and keep working towards our goals. If we do this, then a disastrous garden is really a step in the right direction.

NOTE: I wrote this a couple of years ago, thus the reference to moving to a community garden. I did do that and had a pretty good garden and met lots of interesting people. I have since given up my plot there to work on my own yard.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Permaculture Raspberry and Strawberry Bed

Some of the goals and /or principles that are guiding the permacultural changes on my property include:

Grow as much food as possible

Replace lawn with something useful (of course leaving lawn for the family to play IS useful. I would say though that most lawns do not get used except to serve as something green infront of the house. It can be replaced with other green things that do not require so many energy, poisonous, and maintenence inputs!!!

Make it interesting and fun

With these in mind I decided to put in a raspberry and strawberry bed at the side of the house this summer. Not only did I want to have berries, but I wanted them to be located in front of a weeping mulberry tree in which the kids like to play and eat the mulberries. I thought it would be fun for them to have berry patch that produces foods at different times throught the season so that they can snack all summer long and into the fall (Permaculture principles: Dispersal of yield over time and Diversify).

In the picture below we see the Mulberry tree in the background and the bed in which I have already planted a couple of Heritage everbearing raspberry.

A layer of leaves is put over the bed to add some humus to the soil as they break down and are eaten by worms. They will also retain moisture and smother weeds. The leaves were saved from the previous fall (Permaculture principles: Use biological resources, Use onsite resources, Produce no waste (i.e., throwing the leaves out).

A layer of cardboard ensures that no weeds will come through (Permaculture principles: Appropriate technology (no roundup required!), Use onsite resources).

Another layer of leaves (Permaculture principle: Observation, layering the leaves in what will be here after a no-dig bed models natural systems where organics decompose on top of the soil and are incorporated into the underlying soil by natural processes including bugs and worms). Each layer has been watered. A border of logs is placed around the bed. They are from branches that I cut down to let some more sun into the yard. I am trying not to "export" any materials from the site. That means that I am not using the city's green recycling program but instead reusing the materials in my own yard (Use onsite resources).

A layer of soil tops off the leaves and the Veestar strawberries are planted. The runners should root this summer so that we will have an early summer crop next year. White clover is all sown as it fixes nitrogen, which will naturally fertilize the plants, and will displace weeds. The interplanting of raspberries, strawberries, and clover demonstrate the permaculture principle of Stacking or Layers, where plants with different heights and root depths are planted in the same physical space.

I've listed a few of the key permaculture design principles that were used in creating the raspberry and strawberry bed throughout the blog, although I am sure that several more would apply. It does give and idea of how permaculturalists think. See if you can apply any of them to your yard. Also, if you have them, try to get your kids involved too. They usually like to help and it is great to let them learn about how food is produced.

To finish, the bed really took off and is now covered with strawberry runners. I am expecting a good crop next spring. The raspberry plant also produced raspberries in both the summer and fall. My daughter loved being able to go out and eat them. While I forgot to get a shot of the established bed, I'll leave you with one from the other side of the mulberry tree . As you can see, this little patch will be a guaranteed play spot for years to come.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Designing a Permanent Culture

Permaculture was a term coined by Bill Molson and David Holmgren in the 1970s. It was a combination of two words: permanent and agriculture. The choice of words reflected their desire to create a stable, sustainable (able to persist through time) system of agriculture. Permaculture was in large part a reaction to the observation that our current system of agriculture is not sustainable. Given that modern agriculture is based on energy subsidies, i.e., fossil fuels for machinery and fertilizer, it will collapse once fossil fuels run out. This is without going into other problems associated with modern agriculture including: soil erosion, the creation of super bugs through pesticide use, the salinization of soils from improper irrigation, soil compaction, the poisoning of surface and ground waters due to pesticides and fertilizer, and the destruction of habitat to name a few. All of these problems threaten not only our agricultural system, but our society as well. Read Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is to see what happens when soil resources are destroyed and the agricultural base of the society fails. What we are seeing happening today is nothing new. It has happened to other societies and civilizations that existed before ors.
Being optimistic, I will say that these problems can be turned around through proper design. I really like the word “design”. A couple of definitions for "design" that I found on the internet are:

-to plan something for a specific role, purpose, or affect; and
-a plan for the structure and function of a system.

The use of the word “plan” in these definitions implies a conscious directed effort. How is our current agricultural system designed and planned? Besides saying not very well, I would add that it is designed (in the short-term) to make money. The ecology and permanence of the system have been given little thought. As our society is in fact an agricultural society, the permanence of our agricultural system and the food that we derive from it are of utmost importance!

In contrast, the permaculture design process, at a fundamental level, asks, “how can we design a system that will be sustainable through time and provide for our food and material needs?” Observing the processes and functions of natural systems can provide many answers to this question. In an ecosystem system everything is interconnected. This can help us realize that we are not only connected to everything else in nature, but that we are also interlinked with the constructs of our human society. For example, I am connected to the agricultural system that I've been harping about. In many ways I still support it through the products that I buy and the choices that I make. Understanding this I can start to find ways in which I can help shift the agricultural system to something more sustainable. I can buy more organic foods, thus supporting the emerging organic industry. I can buy local produce at the farmers market and support the both the local farmers and the community. Finally, and this is the favorite amongst permaculture practitioners, I can do everything I can to grow my own food and control the manner in which they are grown. With the purchase of our home this year I finally have a property that I can transform using the permaculture or approach of conscious design. One of the primary goals will be to grow as much food as possible in an ecologically sustainable manner. In my next installment I will show some practical permaculture applications that I have implemented on my property.

To get back to the word “permaculture”, the original contraction of permanent agriculture has changed over time to mean that of permanent culture. With culture being, “the set of learned beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization, I think that this change underscores the fact that changing the agricultural system involves much more than simply substituting a few organic techniques, it involves changing our whole relationship to the “environment” (part of this is realizing that the environment is not something that is “out there”, but something that we are fully part of). Permaculture is guided by principles that can help bring about this change in mentality. In addition to the Prime Directive (the only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our existence and that of our children), permaculture is guided by three ethical principles:

Earthcarerecognizing that the Earth is the source of all life (and is possibly itself a living entity- see Gaia theory) and that we recognize and respect that the Earth is our valuable home and we are a part of the Earth, not apart from it.
Peoplecaresupporting and helping each other to change to ways of living that are not harming ourselves or the planet, and to develop healthy societies.
Fairshare (or placing limits on consumption) - ensuring that the Earth's limited resources are utilised in ways that are equitable and wise. (These have been taken from

These ethics provide simple guidelines that can be used not only to help guide permaculture plans, but also to help with the choices that we make every day including what to eat, what to buy, where to shop, how to spend our leisure time, should we drive, should we walk, etc. They are a great starting point for the creation of a Permanent Culture.

Note: Anyone can start to grow some of their own food. The picture in this post is a container on our patio that provided us with beans, lettuce, and tomatos.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I have been putting off starting this blog for about a year now. Coming from an academic background, where anything you write may be picked apart by your peers, there is an element of fear regarding writing what I believe, know, or am learning, about permaculture. Today I've decided to ignore that fear and just write. If it isn't perfect, who cares? It's better just to get it out there.

What is permaculture you ask? Permaculture, a contraction of permanent agriculture or culture, is basically a design system that integrates the landscape, plants, animals, and people to create sustainable human environments and futures. It deals with connecting the various elements of a system in such a matter that energy flows are maximized and recycled with the goal of creating a high output, low input, self-sustaining whole.

Why do I believe this is important? Well, I don’t think the system that we have now is working or sustainable, meaning that it will not last. Take a look at the news or read a paper: global warming, ozone depletion, poor air quality, pollution, threatened species, extinct species, collapsed fisheries, timber resources depleted, antidepressant use on the rise, increased risks for cancer, genetically modified crops, oil reserves running out, wars over oil and people still driving SUVs, multinationals who don't give a damn about us when times are good but want to be bailed out when things go sour, lower sperm counts, earlier female puberty, water shortages, contaminated waters, mad cow disease and the list goes on and on. Something just doesn't seem right here. In fact, that is not a correct statement. Something is definitely wrong. Furthermore, it doesn't appear like it is getting better. What can be done about it? Can we rely on governments to solve these problems? Sure we can. When (and if) the majority of the general public decide that these issues are important, than politicians will take up these causes and act on them. Until that time arrives, they won't. I think that politicians are largely a construct of the society that they live in. Change society and the politicians will change.

With that it in mind I think of Henry Rollin’s saying, “All it takes is for one person to stand up and say screw this”, (or something like that). Permaculture is a vehicle that allows me to do this, to say this isn't working so I’m going to try to design and do something that does. Things WILL change for the better if enough people start taking steps in the right direction. If not, well at least I tried...

The PRIME DIRECTIVE of permaculture: the only ethical decision is to take responsibility for your own existence and that of our children.

NOTE: The picture is of the garden that I started this summer at our new house. The drawers were rescued from the garbage and made into miniature raised beds in which the kids grew beans and lettuce.