What is this blog?

This blog seeks to answer questions about native landscaping for those who are not familiar with the practice. The author is a master’s student in Environmental Health, a permaculture practitioner, and a published journalist, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Leave your own questions as a comment on any post, and they will be answered soon!

This blog is best read from the beginning.

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What is this blog?

What’s going on in That Yard?

This is the 100th post on That Blog. While the blog was started just over a year ago, That Yard has been a work in progress for three summers. Since permaculture practitioners say it takes three years for a design to come together and start functioning as a self-sustaining system, this seems like a good time to review what’s going on in That Yard.

The first summer was spent observing, learning about the site conditions, and planning for subsequent years.

In the second summer, several different plantings were established. These formed the nuclei for miniature ecosystems, including a prairie, a forest, and a rain garden.

In the third year, these ecosystems were expanded on, and remaining unconverted areas were turned into a Hugelkultur bed and a pond. Now the entire yard is planted with native species, except for a few oddly-shaped corners, which will be filled in next year.

All of this has been accomplished with no chemicals and no powered equipment. What have been the effects?

First, life abounds. At any given time, from early spring through late fall, multiple species of plants are flowering. These plants attract a wide assortment of pollinators, among them bumblebees and monarch butterflies. The yard has hosted at least 49 species of birds, and thanks to the pond, a pair of frogs has recently moved in.

There are lots of benefits for people, too. All those plants provide plenty of clean air for the neighborhood. They don’t need to be mown, eliminating noise and air pollution. They capture rain before it reaches the street, while taking nothing from municipal water supplies.

What remains to be done? In summers four and five, the new plants will continue to get established. As they do, the number of species flowering will increase, and the odd corners will fill in. Non-native species, such as buckthorn and garlic mustard, will be pulled out to help with this process.

Before long, the yard will be a healthy, mature system, providing a variety of benefits and requiring minimal work.

Like any kind of transition, establishing a natural yard can be difficult and messy. But success is virtually guaranteed, and the results are more than worth it!

What’s going on in That Yard?

What is an herb spiral?

Ask a permaculture practitioner to name a design pattern, and they’ll probably describe the herb spiral – a way of creating a lot of microclimates and producing a lot of food in a small space.

An herb spiral is built by piling up a mound of soil. Stones are then placed in a spiral pattern down the sides of the mound, and the soil between the rows of stones is flattened out. This forms a sort of spiral path, which serves as a planting bed.

As the name of the design suggests, it is customary to plant herbs along the spiral. The plants are placed according to their preferred microclimates. A species that likes cool, damp spots can go at the bottom of the shady side of the mound, while a species that thrives in hot, sunny, dry conditions can go on top.

herb spiral

By building up, the spiral creates a lot of planting space in a small footprint. It also makes plants easier to reach.

Building an herb spiral outside your kitchen door can provide you with fresh flavor all summer long.

What is an herb spiral?

What is a keyhole garden?

Every vegetable garden needs paths – if you can’t reach the plants, you can’t eat them.

The simplest layout for a garden is to plant in rows, alternating planting beds with paths. This design, however, results in a lot of space devoted to walking, relative to the space used for producing food. That’s not a very efficient way to garden in a small yard.

Raised beds are a little more efficient. Because they’re higher and easier to reach, the beds can be wider, increasing the ratio of planting area to walking space.

An even better way is a layout called a keyhole garden. This design features a circular planting bed with an open work space in the middle, and a single narrow path connecting the inside to the outside. By standing in the center and by walking around the outer edge, the gardener can reach all the plants to care for and harvest them, while not taking up any more space than necessary for paths.

This image compares traditional rows, raised beds, and keyhole gardens.

Keyhole gardens must be relatively small, since they only work if the gardener can reach the middle of the planting bed from either side. When more space is available, however, multiple keyhole gardens can be linked together in a pattern called a mandala garden.

By using space creatively, we can produce a surprising amount of food, even in a small suburban yard.

What is a keyhole garden?

What is Earth Overshoot Day?

We all understand budgeting with money. If a household makes $50,000 in a year, then $50,000 is the most they should spend in a year. To spend more, they would have to overdraw their checking account or run up their credit card balance – practices that can quickly lead to financial disaster.

Ecosystem services need to be budgeted, too. The Earth “pays” us various resources, like food, wood, clean water, and breathable air. These resources continually replenish themselves, which is why we call them “renewable”.

However, even renewable resources only renew so fast. Each year, the Earth only generates a certain amount of the products and services we need. To budget wisely, we should make sure we aren’t using these services faster than the Earth can provide more of them.

Unfortunately, right now we’re not living within our ecosystem budget. Between last January 1st and today – August 8th – humans have collectively used as many resources as the Earth will produce in all of 2016. In other words, it’s taken us just over seven months to use up resources that our planet needs an entire year to generate.

That’s why today is called Earth Overshoot Day. But don’t mark your calendar for August 8th, 2017 – unlike other holidays, Earth Overshoot Day gets earlier every year. That is, we’re using up resources faster and faster, and wiping out the plants and animals that provide those resources, thus slowing down the rate at which the Earth can produce more of the things we need.

In 2015, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 13th. As recently as 2009, it was in September. And in 1970, we just barely overspent our ecological income, using up a year’s worth of resources on December 23rd.

This isn’t a sustainable path. By taking less from the Earth, and putting back more, we can live within our ecological means.

What is Earth Overshoot Day?

What is a lasagna garden?

N0, it isn’t a garden that produces the ingredients for a baked pasta dish. Rather, it’s a type of raised bed that is built in layers, like a lasagna.

The first step in building a lasagna garden is to choose a good location and put down a layer of sheet mulch.

Next, add layers of organic material, such as compost, grass clippings, fallen leaves, or old newspaper. A frame can help to hold the materials together, but isn’t strictly necessary.

A lasagna garden should stand eight to twelve inches above ground level. It needs to be built higher than this, though, because the materials will settle a lot as they break down into soil.

As with a Hugelkultur bed, a new lasagna garden should be watered thoroughly, to help the materials break down and to provide plenty of moisture for the soil. Once the lasagna garden is established, it will hold moisture well and need little additional watering.

Late summer or early fall is a great time to build a lasagna garden. Plenty of yard waste is available for building up the layers. The material will break down over the winter, and will be watered in the spring by rain and snowmelt. Then, it will be ready for planting!

Seeds and seedlings can be planted directly into the lasagna garden. A final layer of mulch – such as straw or wood chips – will help prevent unwanted plants from inviting themselves in.

What is a lasagna garden?

What is a raised bed?

A raised bed is exactly what it sounds like – a place for plants that is higher than the surrounding ground. There are a number of advantages to raised beds.

First, when plants are grown on a higher level, it is easier for the gardener to reach them. Raised beds reduce the need for bending, squatting, or kneeling.

Second, raised beds are established by building up instead of digging down. This is generally an easier way of replacing a section of lawn.

Third, by working up from ground level, raised beds build soil. Healthy soil helps plants grow quickly.

Fourth, ground-level beds are tempting to walk on, but raised beds aren’t. Resisting the urge to walk on a planting bed helps avoid soil compaction, which is bad for soil quality.

The easiest way to establish a raised bed is to place a frame in the desired location, and fill it with store-bought soil. Frames can be bought at a gardening store, or built at home from scrap wood. Be sure to use wood that is not treated with chemicals, as the chemicals can leach into the soil and harm plants.

The next post will look at a special type of raised bed that supercharges soil and reduces work throughout the gardening season.

What is a raised bed?

Where does food come from?

We all have to eat. Some people, however, believe that the production of food is unsightly, and should take place far away.

Perhaps this is part of why food in America travels an average of 1,500 miles from where it is produced to where it is eaten. It is also why a woman in Michigan was threatened with jail time for growing vegetables in her yard.

While centralized food production does allow for economies of scale, transportation is expensive, and fruits and vegetables lose a lot of their flavor and nutrition during the journey. By growing edible plants at home, we can enjoy better-quality food while paying less than we would at the supermarket.

Growing food at home also gives us an opportunity to limit how much pesticide is on our produce, to enjoy the health benefits associated with gardening, and to teach children about healthy eating.

It’s also popular in Madison – many people have fruit trees or vegetable gardens in their yards, or are raising chickens as a source of eggs. Those who’d like to help provide local food for others can apply to plant an Edible Landscape on city-owned land. And those who don’t have a yard of their own can obtain a community garden plot, though currently all 61 of Madison’s community gardens have waiting lists!

The next few posts on That Blog will look at different strategies for producing food in our own yards.

Where does food come from?