I discovered permaculture last spring when I stumbled upon the memoir Paradise Lot, by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. The book is aptly subtitled “Two plant geeks, one-tenth of an acre and the making of an edible garden oasis in the city.” This book is my inspiration—if these guys can grow 800 pounds of food a year on a tiny lot in suburban Massachusetts, why can’t I do the same on two acres?
Eric and Jonathan began their project with significantly more agriculture and horticulture experience than I—they were already well-educated and experienced in the field. But what they offer their readers when detailing their 10+ years in Holyoke, MA, is the encouragement to take nothing and turn it into paradise. They took a dilapidated property with poor soil, toxic fill, and no vegetation other than Norway maples (as well as the resulting shade from the trees’ canopies) and turned it into a four-season gardening oasis by following the principles of permaculture. I have two acres of nutrient-rich clay-loam soil with full sun. I’m sure I can do the same thing if I’m willing to put in the same time and effort—and here’s where “permanent agriculture” piqued my interest.
According to Toby Hemenway, the author of Gaia’s Garden, a must-have resource on home-scale permaculture, permaculture principles create gardens that really work with nature. “Permaculture uses a set of principles and practices to design sustainable human settlements. If we think of practices like organic gardening, recycling, natural building, renewable energy, and even consensus decision-making and social-justice efforts as tools for sustainability, then permaculture is the toolbox that helps us organize and decide when and how to use those tools (5).”
Whew, that is a mouth-full. I have been reading resources on permaculture for over a year now, and I am still wrapping my head around the vast spectrum of theories, techniques, and practices that make up this new way to approach gardening. So here is how I simplify it in my head:
Permaculture is way to model your landscape design that mimics the way nature sustains itself without human intervention. It then uses ecology to work for humans in the most productive and sustainable ways, with the least amount of effort and resources needed to maintain production. Still too dense? How about this: Permaculture works by creating systems where each part benefits the other parts in multiple ways, naturally. And as Paradise Lot details, permaculture creates ecosystems that require much less human support once established, thereby freeing up time, money, and resources—especially important to this newbie homesteader.
After thousands of pages of reading, being both inspired and overwhelmed, it is difficult to figure out where to start. Do I map out my whole property? Do amend all the soil? Do re-do all my current garden spaces? Do I map the sun for a year over my gardens? I have worked on all of these in increments, but two acres is just too large (and too expensive) to design all in one shot. So what seems most applicable and relative to me in the immediate present is to apply permaculture principles to the orchard we will be planting in a few short weeks. I will work on one space at a time and as I continue, I will link the next piece to the last. I will start with a drawn design of the orchard. I will test and amend the soil. I have informally kept track of the sun’s movement over this plot throughout the day and over the course of the year. I will invest the time in planning so that I do not waste time or money on creating a garden that will not succeed as I envision.
But the part I am most excited about is establishing “polycultures” around each fruit tree—a variety of plants working together to benefit each other—plants to benefit soil heath and provide nutrition for the orchard, plants to attract pollinators, host plants for beneficial/predatory insects, plants to repel pests, plants for mulch and/or ground cover. And not only do these supporting plants benefit the fruit trees, but they also benefit us by providing a decorative landscape and additional food sources (eg: herbs).
I am very excited about changing the way I garden, even if that means having to rip up a lot of lawn we worked so hard to establish. And though permaculture can seem too grand and lofty to attempt as an individual, by reading about Eric’s paradise project and the years it took to establish, I know that by working on one space at a time in my own landscape, while keeping the overarching permaculture principles in my head, I will be able to do the same thing.
Stay tuned for the next permaculture post—Permaculture Orchard Landscape Plan—which will detail the plans and plants I am considering for the orchard polyculture.