by Olivia Stewart
1st April 2020
This past week we have enjoyed glorious daily sunshine in such contrast to our seemingly endless wet and grey winter. This week has also been unusual in many more ways as we all adapt to a new rhythm of working and living full time at home with our loved one.
This has been a great time to reconnect not only with one another but also with our gardens as the need to escape the house into outdoors is irresistible. Gardens have historically been places of healing and equally a source of health, happiness and also FOOD! Since the recent surge on loo roll and produce in the supermarket, there has equally been a renewed focus on “grow your own” and self-sufficiency. Humans have an ingrained natural instinct to forage, gather, till and sow, and it doesn’t take a huge push to get us off our seats and going again.
Permaculture is a complex and intricate process and can take years to learn, as it involves some understanding of ecosystem, food chains and natural processes. I will try to cover the very basic principle but would highly recommend you watch The Biggest Little Farm, or try reading Wilding, by Isabella Tree for a more detailed introduction to the philosophy. Broadly speaking, permaculture is “whole systems thinking” simulating the natural patterns and features observed in nature.
Although I have a small suburban garden, I have for a year now been experimenting with permaculture on a very small scale. I have no space for livestock, I do grow in my limited space what vegetables we use regularly in our daily cooking, and I limit what I grow to plants that are easy, require little maintenance and are heavy croppers. I buy organic seeds online and grow things like Tomato “Gardeners Delight” and Courgette “Alberello”. I also interlace all my vegetables with companion plants and flowers such as Calendula, Nasturtiums, Alliums and aromatics like Lavender. These combine to attract desirables such as bees and ladybirds, and also detract pests.
The way I distil the broad principles of permaculture into in my own little garden are a few elementary steps to respect and allow nature to do its magic with minimal intervention. I don’t use chemicals, nor do I abhor all weeds and understand that the odd nettle or thistle is not a threat but may be a treat to special types of butterfly or beetle, and I tend to let them be. Equally a well planted garden will out compete most weeds and the trick is to minimise bare earth. Bare earth does not occur for long in nature, as it is constantly covered under successive layers of growth and decay.
Throughout the year I interlace many layers of different organic materials on top of my plant and vegetable beds and allow all my creepy crawly friends in the ground to do the hard work for me. The soil is always covered up and retains moisture, thus reducing weeds and the need to water. The underground fauna pulls down the organic materials, mix them into the soil, eat them up and expel them in wonderful forms such as worm casts and beetle poop. They produce plant feed, condition the soil, and best of all they aerate it and dig it over for you. Using this system, I don’t need to violently fork or turn my soil over, destroying all the natural systems evolving within, from animal, insect, bacterial and mycelium colonies, all working hard to improve and enrich the soil.
All my plant-based kitchen food waste is recycled into a wormery which breaks it down into a lovely rich mulch, or put directly onto the soil underneath a layer of brown or green mulch. Once I’ve recycled the food waste into the vegetable beds, I layer grass clippings on top, or rotted manure if I can get hold of it. I then add more fibrous layers to counteract all these very nutrient rich elements and to give it all a bit of structure. I use leaves and leaf mould as my favourite form of fibre, but one can equally add cardboard, shredded paper, rotted wood chips, pine needles, twigs etc. Think of it as the gardens equivalent to “All Bran” and the various other organic layers as the 5 a day! Or think of it as a giant lasagne, with structural fibrous layers and wet saucy food and grass clippings decomposing in between.
To date I have had no trouble with pets or rats and mice, however as I am experimenting this could be a fluke of my location. Sometimes I find the beds have been disturbed, but accept this as part of the natural process. If an animal passing in the night finds something worth their while they are welcome to it. Equally it could be the worm rich soils attracting hedgehogs and birds. As I don’t put anything other than green waste, and well rotted manure, grass and cardboard, I have not encountered bad smells or anaerobic processes.
The ingredients to this type of gardening are simple and so is the recipe! Et voila, the foundations for strong and healthy growth are set and can start giving back to you in the form of food and flower. I plant directly into this joyous organic mix and am constantly renewing it. The garden is always growing and shedding, thus providing the materials that can be incorporated onto the plant beds to feed your plants and grow your food. Once you have understood basic elements of managing your own kitchen garden in this holistic, way you can start tapping into the bounty of nature and soon start reaping the rewards.