I first became aware of something called permaculture quite some years ago. You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to understand a word like that which includes the words permanent and agriculture. But, sad to say, I couldn’t figure it out. I spent some years of my childhood on a Vermont farm and there was nothing of a permanent nature that I could remember.
The first book I found about permaculture was a hefty tome that described permaculture as being based on the forest. This made no sense to me. How can you have farming in a forest. Finally, I did come to understand that the term forest farming had more to do with the practice of having layers of growth, like tree, shrub, then low growing plants.
Happily, Jono Neiger, of the Regenerative Design Group in Greenfield, has written The Permaculture Promise: What Permaculture Is and How it Can Help Us (Storey Publishing $16.95), a beautifully understandable book about permaculture on gardens and farms, plus the ways that permaculture and its principles can help us build a more resilient future. After a brief introduction Neiger launches into a series of 22 short chapters that begin with the words Permaculture Can.
These chapters cover the topics you might expect like “Permaculture can ‘create self-fertile soil”, and “turn waste into food”, but these are followed by chapters on larger, more unexpected topics including: “create more livable cities, stabilize our food supply, help reverse climate change, and you can become a better designer of landscapes and of life.” Photographs illustrate the techniques that are being used.
One example that Neiger uses to show the ways that permaculture can be used are at Sue Bridge’s Wildside Cottage in Conway. I have visited Bridge who built a small energy efficient house powered by the sun, a root cellar for storing her harvests, and a small greenhouse. Neiger designed the terraces for growing vegetables and herbs, as well as a hillside planted with fruit trees and a fertility bank. A fertility bank consists of a variety of plants including comfrey and sweet fern that are called accumulators because their deep roots accumulate nutrients from the soil are and store them in their leaves. The plants can then be harvested and used as fertilizer.
A wet meadow was transformed into a rice paddy which amazed me. The Wildside site is productive in every way – for Bridge, the animals and pollinators that make use of it, and the visitors who come to learn and marvel.
Neiger gives examples of the way permaculture is being used around the world to collect water, regenerate eroded land, and build a resilient future.
As we built our new garden we used a permaculture technique called hugelkultur. We built a hugel. Hugel is a German word for mound. We begged our hilltown friends for logs, then built our mound by putting the logs on the ground and covering them with soil. Thank heaven for Martin’s compost farm. Our hugel is about 20 inches high, 8 feet wide and 20 feet long. This spring we will finish planting. We all know that buried logs stay wet. The purpose of the hugel is twofold, to capture rainfall and make irrigation unnecessary.
In his new book, Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change (Timber Press $39.95) Larry Weaner does not use the word permaculture. However, he has spent the last 30 years designing landscapes that make use of nature’s tendencies instead of imposing a design that does not take into consideration the attributes of the site, or the effect on the gardener.
Garden Revolution, written with Thomas Christopher, the author of many books including Essential Perennials, includes photographs of many of the woodlands and meadows that he has designed, but he explains the ecological principals can guide us in our own modest urban and suburban gardens. One of the most charming stories in the book is the tale of the cardinal flower that came to bring bright beauty to his stone patio. This did not happen overnight. It involved luck, and some very careful observation to see how and why the cardinal flower seed moved around the patio. Careful observation is always smart in the garden.
As knowledgeable as he is Weaner realizes there are many surprises in the garden. He has learned to welcome those changes. For 28 years he has tended his third of an acre garden, and he says every year has brought him a surprise. This is one of the pleasures of the garden. Even experts are not The Boss. Mother Nature is always eager to have her say.
Weaner is aware of the importance of native plants which support the birds, insects and butterflies of our area, but he also understands that the gardener wants an attractive garden, and preferably one that does not require constant labor by the gardener.
The Garden Revolution that Weaner describes is a focus on plantings that work with natural laws, that remain beautiful to our garden loving eyes, and that will mean less labor on the gardener’s part.
In my own garden I am always aware that there is more to learn bout plants, about the interaction between plants and the local wildlife, and about the effect even my little garden has on the environment. I turn to teachers like Neiger and Weaner with gratitude and pleasure.
Between the Rows January 21, 2017