Seems like just yesterday I showed Rosie my plan for a permaculture garden and began ordering seeds, itching to get out there once the snow disappeared and start transforming the sandy, rocky patch around the propane tank.
I remember the miracle of baby plants sprouting and growing on window sills inside and their trip out to the funky cold frame on the deck before finding their places in the ground. I witnessed their struggle through the endless chilly, wet spring and urged them on, willing them to grow, protecting them the best I could from deer, trampling dogs and slugs.
Then there was the anticipation of fresh greens and herbs and finally tasting them, benefiting from the energy they contained.
There was the thrill of the first California poppy glowing bright as the sun, scarlet runners climbing deck railings and flowering, peas and beans to steam for dinner, kale and chard to stir-fry.
Even today, as the garden fades into fall, there’s still evidence of growth: blooming wildflowers, calendula and aster; another zucchini, herbs galore, and the comfrey won’t quit.
To think how different it would be if I hadn’t seen a notice at the post office last fall advertising an intro to permaculture at Selkirk College.
Dimes to donuts there are folks in our community who are, for all intents and purposes, permaculturists (you, or your neighbour over the fence maybe) are people making the most of their land, growing enough food for themselves and their families, using all available resources and wasting nothing.
Simply, permaculture is a word coined by Bill Mollison in 1974 for “a framework for a sustainable agricultural system based on a multi-crop of perennial trees, shrubs, herbs, fungi, and root systems.”
The term was introduced to me as a derivative of permanent agriculture and permanent culture by my first teacher, Valerie Kraft, who stressed that it was about building soil and community. According to her, permaculture is about the interconnectedness of all things, caring for Earth and each other, sharing surplus and cooperating rather than competing.
Now my own attempt at defining something so broad in scope keeps changing. The latest goes, “Among other things, permaculture is a name for a theoretical, system-based approach to a way of life many of our ancestors, people connected to the land, lived before globalisation and the corporatisation of agriculture (apologies for getting political but, hey, some say growing food is a political act).”
The more I study the subject and see how it applies to my life, the more aware I become of ways permaculture invites me to change.
Take the concepts of observation and doing nothing for example. In permaculture we are taught to spend long periods observing our site before beginning the work of transformation.
And watching is a continuous process. If we see something happening in the food forest we’ve created and don’t understand it, rather than making assumptions, we continue to observe and do nothing, something I find challenging coming from a culture where the emphasis is on do-do-doing as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and assuming we know what’s best.
But the solution is found within the problem, another permaculture idea. In this case, instead of fighting against cultural conditioning I can begin to change the way I think and act, letting go of old patterns and habits in order to allow new, healthy ones to take root and grow.
Then there’s the idea of tidy versus chaotic. Our traditional way of gardening is to plant in neat, straight rows and whole patches of things (mono-crops). A permaculture garden, on the other hand, is a riot of diversity (an affront to my Virgoian sensibilities). The techniques of stacking, which is arranging plants in layers from tall trees down to fungi and root crops, and planting guilds (a number of compatible plants growing together – beans, squash and corn for example) create a healthier environment less prone to disease.
As for my own practical experience, this spring I started incorporating some of what I’ve learned and used a technique called sheet mulching to prepare a small area at home.
I built an herb spiral just outside our door and transplanted tarragon, parsley, chives, stevia, sage, thyme, holy basil and rosemary with some calendula for colour and edible flowers. Besides being beautiful, the spiral is seconds from kitchen counter.
We have also been collecting rainwater from the roof and planting beets and leeks in undulating lines (you get more plants than traditional rows).
I’m so excited about sharing these and permaculture’s many other possible applications because helping others will ultimately increase their well-being and that of the community.