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.
A patch is an area of habitat.
Patches can come in any size. For example, balsam fir trees enjoy a huge patch of habitat across Canada’s boreal forest. But, a small Wisconsin yard with the right site conditions could also be a habitat patch for balsam fir.
If you own a yard – or even a balcony that could host a few flowerpots – then you have a patch. It is your choice what to do with it.
Some people choose to have a lawn, maybe with some non-native ornamental flowers or shrubs, and to prevent any other plant or animal from living on their property. Other people choose to make space for many species in their patch.
Even in a small yard, it is possible to have multiple patches. For example, one corner of the yard might include trees, along with plants that like shade. Squirrels may nest here, and forest birds might drop by. Another corner of the yard could host sun-loving plants, and the insects that frequent them. A third corner could feature a pond or rain garden, providing a habitat patch for wetland plants and birds that like to bathe.
Patches differ in quality as well as size. While a grouping of woodland plants in a corner of a suburban yard is not as good as a forest, it is better than a single aggressively-pruned tree standing in a lawn. Even relatively small, low-quality patches can provide critical resources for struggling species.
By taking small steps to improve the quality of our very own patches, we can enjoy seeing species not normally observed in the suburbs.
Diggers Hotline is a free service that locates and marks buried utility lines on your property.
To avoid expensive and dangerous accidents that can result from striking underground pipes or wires, it’s important to know where these lines are before doing any kind of digging, including digging related to gardening.
Diggers Hotline can be contacted at their website or by calling 811. Within a few days, they will send someone to your property to mark the lines with flags or paint. After that, simply avoid the marked area when digging in your garden.
When making a garden plan, it’s also important to look up! Avoid establishing tall plants, especially trees, under overhead lines.
While utility lines aren’t usually considered a type of site condition, being mindful of what plants you put near them can save a lot of trouble in the future.
The answer to this question is the topic of the previous post: natural succession.
Dandelions are the type of plants that characterize early stages of succession. As anyone who has battled with them knows, they prefer areas with lots of sun and little competition.
The secret of getting rid of them, then, is to eliminate these conditions.
Most lawns, if left to their own devices, would move away from these conditions by turning into forests. Mowing prevents this progression by serving as an artificial disturbance. By preventing any plants from growing more than a couple of inches tall, mowing maintains a site characterized by low competition for light and space at ground level – exactly the conditions that dandelions love! So long as a yard is kept in an early succession stage, early succession “weeds” will continue to move in.
In a natural yard that mimics a prairie, with native plants adapted to grow 2-3 feet high and thrive in Wisconsin’s climate, dandelions have no place to squeeze in. They cease invading such a yard, simply because the conditions there are not inviting to them.
Astronomically, spring comes to the whole Northern Hemisphere around March 21. The date of the spring equinox is determined by the Earth’s movements through space.
Meteorologically, however, the arrival of spring is related to local climate conditions. Winter can be said to end when the temperature rises above freezing and stays that way. Winter returns when temperatures again drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
The days on which these events are likely to occur are called frost dates. The time between the spring frost date and the fall frost date is the growing season. Because these phenomena were important to farmers throughout history, the average frost dates for each area are well known. In Madison, the growing season runs from about May 20 to September 21. Frost dates for other locations can be looked up here.
Because of climate change, however, estimates of frost dates based on past weather are becoming increasingly unreliable. In general, growing seasons are becoming longer. Because a late frost can kill plants, though, it’s often best to err on the side of caution when beginning the gardening season.
Snow: It gets dumped on your property uninvited, and you have to clean it up. Can we find any reasons to see snow as a resource instead of as a problem?
One reason to see snow as a resource is that it can help you learn about your site conditions. Yes, you already know you live in a snowy climate. But look more closely at the fresh powder before you shovel or blow it away. What animals have visited your yard, looking for food and shelter to help them survive the winter? Maybe you can find the distinctive tracks of rabbits. (The tracks may lead to a little pile of dung. This will become great fertilizer for your plants in the spring.)
Also notice the pattern of snowfall. Where is the snow piled up? This tells you how wind moves across your property. Where is the snow already melting? This is the warmest spot in your yard – a sunny place, or maybe a leak in your insulation.
A second reason to see snow as a resource is that – somewhat counterintuitively – it improves your insulation. Being mostly air pockets, snow is great at trapping heat. A thick blanket of it on your roof helps keep warmth from escaping through the attic. How wonderful of Nature to throw some extra insulation on our houses, just when we need it!
It may be hard to think of snow as helping us stay warm, when it’s so cold – especially because the presence of snow makes the whole planet colder. This is because one factor affecting the average temperature of the Earth is albedo, or reflectiveness. Light-colored features, like snow and ice, reflect more of the Sun’s energy back into space than dark-colored features do. When more solar energy goes back into space, the Earth stays cooler. In other words, letting a layer of white snow stay on your black driveway helps fight climate change!
To answer the question from the last post, consider the benefits of snow when deciding how much of it needs to be moved. You may find that a few minutes of shoveling strikes the best balance between the advantages and frustrations of our bountiful Wisconsin snow.
A region’s climate is made up of its precipitation patterns, average temperatures, and number of sunny or cloudy days. A microclimate consists of similar components, but refers to a very small location.
A microclimate is similar to site conditions, but doesn’t include features of the soil. Instead, it includes factors such as shadiness and wind.
A small urban yard often includes many microclimates. The spot under the leaky gutter will get much more precipitation than the average for the region, while the strip under the eaves will be dry and shady all year round.
Just like with site conditions, matching plants to microclimates will help them thrive. Simple observation can reveal microclimates in a yard: observe which areas are dry or wet after a rain, or watch to see where snow melts first and where it lingers longest.
Plants respond to microclimates, but also help to create them. Adding or removing plants changes patterns of shade, wind movement, and water flow. Installing a plant that can tolerate a currently-existing microclimate can thus help create favorable conditions for adding a more sensitive plant later.
Microclimates can create other interesting opportunities as well. The warmest spot in your yard may be a suitable location for a plant that would not normally survive in your hardiness zone.