Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.
A major concern of those who have natural yards is what kind of reactions they will get from neighbors who are used to lawns. The fourth principle, however, doesn’t refer to accepting feedback from people. It’s about accepting feedback from the yard itself.
Lawns, industrial agriculture, and other conventional practices are based on the concept that a person will dictate which plants will grow – and where, and how – and the plants will obey. A permaculture practitioner, in contrast, works with the plants. They lay out an (often very detailed) plan, and work to implement it, but they accept that not all plans will succeed.
A plant that dies is a form of feedback: that plant was not successful. A conventional gardener responds to this feedback by forcing the plant to grow through inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, supplemental water, and so on. A permaculture practitioner, on the other hand, makes changes that respond to the specific needs of the plant: providing different companion plants, for example, or moving the plant to a sunnier location. If these changes don’t work, the permaculture practitioner accepts that they will not have that plant in their yard.
Many of us are used to getting what we want; accepting setbacks and disappointments can be hard. But by recognizing that not all of our plans will work out as we hoped, we can stop fighting with our yards and just enjoy what is.
Obtain a yield.
One of the problems with lawns is that they produce nothing for anyone, forcing their owners to go out and buy everything they need – as well as everything the lawn needs. Permaculture practitioners are committed to getting something of value out of their yards.
Often, this value comes in the form of food: permaculture practitioners typically grow a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Some even raise chickens or fish in their yards.
As described in the last post, the value could also come in the form of energy. Rainwater, solar heat, and compost can all be considered valuable yields.
Those whose gardening practice runs more towards native plants might consider new generations of struggling species to be a yield. Every time a rare plant sets seed, a songbird raises a brood of chicks, or a monarch caterpillar turns into a butterfly, the yard and its resources have produced something of value.
The enjoyment we get from a yard that provides for our needs and the needs of other species can also be a yield. By having a yard that gives, instead of one that takes, we can enrich ourselves and the world around us.
Catch and store energy.
We usually think of energy as something we need to extract, transport, and pay for. But really, energy is all around us, just waiting to be put to good use.
Plants do this every day. Put a vegetable plant in your yard, and it will turn solar energy into food, producing no emissions except for water vapor.
And plants aren’t the only way to capture solar energy. A house can be designed to be lit and heated primarily by sunshine coming through the windows, a technique known as passive solar. Or, a pile of rocks or a brick wall can serve as thermal mass, absorbing the sun’s heat during the day, and releasing it at night to keep nearby areas warm.
Other forms of energy can be captured as well. Water can be stored in rain barrels, organic matter can be kept on site instead of being sent away, and the behavior of animals can be channeled into productive work.
By using clean, freely-available energy sources, we can save money and live more sustainably.
Observe and interact.
A natural yard is always a response to a specific place – there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all natural yard plan. A plan may incorporate plants native to the region, and will certainly account for site conditions.
The only way to know the site conditions is to observe the site for a period of time. Permaculture experts urge practitioners to observe a site for a full year, if possible, before undertaking any major projects. Practitioners who don’t follow this guideline typically find that their impatience results in costly mistakes.
Many permaculture practitioners like to draw maps of their zones and sectors. Others simply absorb knowledge about patterns of sun and shade, water movement, animal behavior, and so on.
This observation is not passive, however. The second part of the principle is interact. While beginning major projects too soon is unwise, conducting small experiments is good. Bring in a few plants and see how they do. Dig a hole and watch how quickly it empties after a rain. Stroll around the yard and notice which areas you are drawn to.
The first principle of permaculture may seem simple, but it lays a crucial foundation for a successful natural yard.
In many ways, permaculture is a creative pursuit – practitioners are always looking for better solutions to problems, and those solutions usually rely on the generative powers of nature. At the same time, permaculture is a disciplined set of practices.
The center of the image below shows the three pillars of permaculture. In all their actions, permaculture practitioners strive to care for the Earth, care for people, and fairly share resources.
While these goals are self-explanatory, the twelve principles of permaculture – represented around the outside of the image – are a little more difficult to grasp. As the Northern Hemisphere heads into the winter season, That Blog will spend twelve chilly weeks exploring these principles. Then, as spring approaches again, posts will return to practical questions about how to apply these principles.
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.
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.
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.
No, 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.
This post is a cross between What is Hugelkultur? and What is having a natural yard like? It is That Blog’s first photo-essay.
In this essay, the goal is to build a sun trap. A sun trap is a warm, sunny microclimate. In this case, the chosen site is a south-facing slope: it is sunny most of the day. A Hugelkultur bed along the north and east sides will protect the site from wind.
The first step is to cover the site for about six months, to kill whatever is already growing there. Old carpet makes great sheet mulch.
Next, use a length of rope to mark the outline of the work area.
Build the Hugelkultur bed from old wood. Stuff the cracks with leaves, plants and sod dug out of the work area, and other organic material. Add water. Make the pile bigger than it needs to be, because it will shrink a lot as it decomposes.
Clear the old plants from the sun trap area. If it’s small, this can be done with hand tools. If it’s larger, a sod stripper may be appropriate technology. Spread clean soil over the area.
Cover the Hugelkultur bed with mulch. Replace the sheet mulch until it is time to add plants to the sun trap. For this project, the prepared site will be left to settle for a little while before new plants are added.
This project took approximately ten hours over three days. All tools and materials were already onsite, except for the cart in the second picture.
Hugelkultur (pronounced who-gull-cull-ter) is a way of building raised beds. The technique has been used for hundreds of years, and mirrors the way nutrients return to the soil in a forest.
A Hugelkultur bed is a low mound built of dead wood covered with other organic materials. The decomposing wood gradually turns into great soil for new plants: it releases nutrients, holds water, and keeps plants warm with the heat produced by the composting process.
A Hugelkultur bed is easy to build, and uses materials that are often found in yards for free and thrown away as waste. The first step is to place logs, branches, or other woody material where the mound will be built. The material can be placed in a shallow trench, or can be broken up so that it will lie close to the ground. Contact with the soil helps the decomposition process. Watering the pile thoroughly also helps the organic material begin to break down.
Once this “frame” has been built, the spaces between the wood can be filled with leaves, grass clippings, food waste from the kitchen, and other small organic matter. Finally, the pile is covered with topsoil or mulch.
The bed can be planted into immediately, with either seeds or transplants, or can be left to break down for a few months before being planted. The new occupants of the bed will benefit from both the quality of the soil and the favorable microclimates that develop on mounds.