A philosophy of gardening. Gardening and philosophy. Either way it seems strange to the uninitiated. However, one thing permaculture isn't, to many people's surprise, is a cult. So what exactly is it?
Permaculture is a design system which sprang up during the 1970s oil crisis, a reaction to food insecurity and the desire for self-reliance. Combining attitude and practical application, it encompasses anything from recycling, reusing and regenerating, to simply observing.
When applied to gardening it suggests that not only can we grow food almost anywhere - from fruit shrubs in patio pots to vines on fences - but we can get higher yields with less effort simply by mimicking nature.
When I started to view every niche as a potential food-growing zone, for me the world turned into one big gingerbread house.
In contrast to many modern agricultural methods, a natural growing system sustains a continuous cycle, with dead plants becoming mulch for new growth. Permaculture gardening seeks to recreate this cycle, turning food waste into valuable compost and replacing slug pellets and weedkillers with natural predators and natural competition. According to co-founder Bill Mollison, it is about working with nature, not against it.
Survey your plot
Permaculture isn't prescriptive and methods should be applied to each garden or balcony individually. The first step, therefore, is observation. Although common sense, this aspect in particular surprised me whilst attending a permaculture course in North London one chilly February weekend.
The group was asked to stand in a forest garden (a permaculture design concept, in which a garden is established to mimic a young forest ecosystem) and simply observe a small area for 15 minutes. Stock still in front of an apple tree in the bitter, fading light, looking at lichen patterns and wondering where the sun rose and set, I started to see the garden differently.
I realised that to avoid winding up with a lot of shrivelled plants, it is vital to learn how much light, wind, and water a plot receives before jumping in with a trowel and a packet of seeds. Ideally this phase should span a year, to observe changes through the seasons.
In any outdoor space microclimates exist, and where a south-facing wall will protect delicate plants, a windy balcony may be better suited to fruit shrubs such as gooseberry and damson, providing a natural, edible windbreak.
If you are keen to start growing before your year is up, try a few things out on a small space first. This is a perfect time to limber up green fingers and establish skills, some compost and avoid biting off more than you can chew. Green manure is excellent preparation for future veggies.
A key aspect of permaculture garden design is growing a diverse range of foods with mutually beneficial relationships. Marigolds, for example, deter eel worms from nearby tomatoes, while lovage and sweet cicely attract aphids' natural predators.
Plants are carefully chosen, often native varieties, only a fraction of which we currently eat. Those most suited to local conditions require less tending - ticking another key permaculture box: minimal input for maximum gain. A mixture of annuals and perennials can be aesthetically pleasing while providing food throughout the year.
When planning your plot, think: which plants will I visit the most? Which ones will require the most tending? These will live in the 'zone' closest to the house, zone one (or indoors, zone zero). This means ripe foods will be picked in time, and delicate plants won't shrivel away unnoticed at the back of the garden.
If zone one is the 'busiest', zone four contains the plants requiring the least attention, further away. Traditionally zone five will be a wild, undisturbed haven for natural predators and wildlife. This can exist even in a small plot.
As permaculture is a low-impact model, it encompasses a no-dig philosophy. Sounding more like a dream come true than a practical method, it is possible to change what grows in a space without turning over the soil. The key word here is mulch, and I was enlightened on the benefits during my permaculture course.
This method is best for potatoes, cabbages and marrows. After knocking down any weeds, a layer of cardboard, newspapers or natural-fibre carpets will kill weeds by blocking out their light. Some mulch or compost on top provides nutrients for the plants and by piercing the cardboard layer you help new roots reach the soil. Then add compost or topsoil before sprinkling straw, or grass clippings and leaves (often in surplus in local councils).
In nature, not only does variety exist on a two dimensional plane, but each family of plants will grow to different heights. Known as ‘stacking', a permaculture forest garden sees tall fruiting trees above a layer of dwarf varieties and nut bushes, which in turn shelter fruiting shrubs, with perennial herbs and vegetables, and finally roots underground. By covering the soil with plants, it is protected from water loss and erosion.
UK households use masses of pesticides for every invertebrate going. In a natural ecosystem predators will carry out this job without negative environmental impact - for example frogs do the same job as slug repellent without the shrivelled corpses or having to keep the children away. Last year after visiting a Froglife stall I filled a planter in my garden with water and a frog moved into permanent residence within three weeks. It doesn't need to be Lake Baikal, and could provide a lifelong home for your own natural slug patrol.
The modern Transition Town movement emerged from the permaculture model, as a reaction to concerns over peak oil. With some thought it is possible to grow food in a sustainable way using practical skills, while benefiting ourselves, our communities and wildlife. That is a satisfying thought when you're tucking into your own home-grown dinner.
- The Permaculture Association
- Permaculture Magazine
- Video on how to build your own permaculture herb spiral
- Permaculture images: www.flickr.com/photos/naturewise
- London permaculture network
- Edible Forest Gardens: Part 1 and Part 2 by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005
- Permaculture in a Nutshell by Patrick Whitefield, Permanent Publications, 2008
- Permaculture: A Beginner's Guide by Graham Burnett, Spiralseed, 2009
Laura Laker is a freelance journalist
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