Our gardening adventures last growing season were anticlimactic, to say the least. Our wimpy little raised bed produced little and did not fare well with the hard soil and dry Chicago summer we had. The whole concept of "vegetable garden" as something where you have a patch of this, a patch of that, neat rows of beans and carrots, and so forth is something it honestly never occurred to me to mess with, until a friend mentioned the word "permaculture" to me.
According to Wikipedia, the definition of "permaculture" is: "an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies." Merriam-Webster calls it "an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystem." And Houghton-Mifflin: "A system of perennial agriculture emphasizing the use of renewable natural resources and the enrichment of local ecosystems."
This past autumn, we completely redid our backyard. Got rid of a lot of grass, tore out the sort of sad-looking raised bed and built up the entire rear of the yard with organic material pilfered from neighbor's leafy yards (not really pilfered--we raked their leaves for them!) and the local horse stable. This spring we're actually going to pay someone to bring a truckload or two of good topsoil to finish it off, and then wood chips over that. And I'm looking at ideas for a more "permaculture" kind of garden, something that mixes veggies, fruits, herbs, and ornamental perennials in a way that a) is attractive, and b) allows the plants to help each other out as well as growing on their own. Some of our early ideas are along these lines:
- a water-loving tree of some kind to help mitigate the drainage issues we have back there, and maybe suck up some of the excess water that makes things so squishy back there and drowns plants' feet. (That's why we also have to build up a good bit.)
- Ground cover that will die off in the winter and give us more good organic matter under our other plants, discourage weeds, and maybe produce something useful on its own--carpet thyme and/or chamomile comes to mine
- Some taller and bushier plants--maybe some taller bush blueberry?--that will get big enough by the time it's really hot out to give a little shade to some lettuce plants, so I won't lose all my lettuce by the first week in June
- Calendula and fennel interspersed through the garden especially where the squash and cucumbers grow, both to use on their own (calendula makes lovely soothing herbal preps, and fennel is one of my go-to Italian spices) and to discourage squash bugs and cuke beetles
- A few more bushy English Lavender plants to dig in their nice deep roots and give me pretty purple flowers from which to make potions, and also give some pretty silvery contrast to the deeper green leaves around them
- A trellis somewhere to train scarlet runner beans and snap peas, for added color and more yummy veggies
That's just the beginning...the challenge for us will be to actually develop a plan and stick to it, an overall vision of what we want to do beyond the very Monet-like dots of vague color we already have. We're also pretty committed to the principles of "weedless gardening"--a plan whereby you clearly delineate your walking paths as opposed to your planting sections, you keep adding organic matter on top every year without tilling (which wakes up the weed seeds and invites them to germinate away happily), and avoid a lot of the pain in the butt of weeds popping up everywhere. It apparently takes a few years to really get one's garden going that way, but once it's working, it works.
I'm so jealous of y'all who are already able to till soil, or whose ground never had a hard freeze all winter...does anyone else garden this way as a matter of course? How does it work for you? More important, how did you get started? Any evil little lessons you learned along the way that you can pass on to us, and help us avoid disaster?
--Jenn the Greenmom