Lessons I have learned from permaculture
Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature and understanding how we can use these connections to care for the earth and each other. In the last few months, I have been implementing lessons I have learnt from taking a permaculture approach.
Learn from nature
Permaculture uses the patterns and resilient features observed in natural ecosystems to produce productive spaces, regenerative agriculture, rewild areas and create community resilience. It is an ongoing process, starting with observing our natural environment, reflecting upon these observations, putting them into practice, learning from the results and then refining the process. This means understanding your site and working with what is already there (the natural capital) not against it and encourages us to embrace the complex and unexpected. It can teach us not to be too hasty in dismissing or removing things that are not in our original plans or fit with our world view. In my own garden, I inherited sprawling heather that I immediately wanted to rip out, only temporarily leaving it in place as it was helping to stabilise and shade the soil. A year on, I have learnt to live with it and love it, as it also provides food for bees, butterflies and moths over the most desolate months and its discrete white flowers bring a bit of brightness to an otherwise shady patch.
Learn from others
A few years ago I discovered the Croydon Gardener. In addition to creating an extraordinary – and replicable -permaculture garden in a tiny urban plot, Esiah Levy (who sadly passed away last year), started a seed share project, saving and sending seeds across the world to anyone who asked for them. The takeaway lesson from Esiah is to be open to taking inspiration and advice from others. I have gained invaluable knowledge and inspiration from Scottish forest gardening blog Of Plums and Pignuts, Mary Clear at Incredible Edible Todmordon and our own inspiring gardens and gardeners at Ravenscraig Community Training Garden, amongst others.
Conserving water, energy and materials is a core principle in permaculture practice. In my own garden, I am re-purposing stones from my Victorian rockery to create a swale, following the original contours of the terracing and contours of the sloping site. This serves a number of purposes at the same time: it makes the most of materials on-site that would have otherwise been unwanted, it offers stability to the soil, it creates a place to collect water, to add plants that respond well to increased soil moisture and it prevents soil being washed downhill in heavy downpours. My own father, whose garden increasingly suffers from intermittent water shortages, has re-plumbed his washing machine so it now discharges into a bucket and the wastewater goes onto the garden.
Conserving resources could mean exchanging power tools for hand tools, making the most of solar gains and shade, or reducing watering demands, but it also means not growing more than you need – and making sure that you pass on any gluts!
Zone your work, but remember that it’s good to be a bit edgy
Following on from the principle of conserving resources, creating zones helps to maximize energy efficiency. Starting with zone 0, which is the centre of activity, in most cases the home, we can design outwards from zone 0, the area of the highest use, maintenance and investment to zone 5, an area of wilderness, requiring no intervention or maintenance. In practice, this might be keeping herbs for daily use and tender seedlings indoors on the kitchen windowsill, annual plants, herbs and other high maintenance plants in the next zone – often known as the fluffy slippers zone, an area that you could visit in your slippers and dressing gown if needed – followed by densely planted perennials, orchards, polytunnels or chickens in zone 2, and stores or fields in the next. A small urban plot probably won’t have a zone 4 (large areas that only require intermittent management, such as meadows or forests), but it’s useful to know where you’re own zone 5 is as that is usually the best place for foraging as well as learning by observing from nature rather than by trial and error. Following this principle, going down my garden, I have raised beds with salad crops and water-hungry plants at the top of the garden near the front door, then perennial veg, herb and cutting beds, with a mini meadow and woodland area at the bottom.
Permaculture also recognises that there are no straight edges or neat boxes in nature. Edges are areas of abundance, rich in biodiversity, and often offering the greatest yields. Think hedgerows and verges, teaming with life, or the edge of a wood, where deer and other fauna come to graze, and the herb spiral at Ravenscraig Community Training Garden. Increasing edges, either by lengthening or deepening areas where different environments meet, such as creating amorphous, sloping ponds rather than steep, boxy ponds, creates places of interactions where exciting things happen.
Work with what you have got
Taking a permaculture approach means drawing from all the resources, tools and skills you have at hand and putting them together in a “path of least resistance” that emulates natural processes and energy flows. In addition to giving you a better understanding of your environment, it also teaches you things about yourself. I have learnt that I am happy to weed for hours (if need be), but I barely have the patience to water for five minutes(!), and, whilst I like to be out at dawn and have often found myself gardening well past dusk until the point where it is too dark to see, I don’t particularly like gardening, or even just sitting in the garden, at the middle of the day. Knowing this, I’ve prioritised water conservation into my own garden redesign, and incorporated portable low-level solar lights which can extend my gardening hours without disturbing my neighbours.
…But don’t be afraid to take support from others
A key principle of permaculture is co-operation. Taking its cue from nature, you won’t find single species rose beds with big swathes of bare soil that needs constant feeding and weeding in a permaculture garden, but you will probably find companion planting, planting guilds or forest gardens, all examples of assemblies of plants of different varieties that, together, support and enhance rather than compete or suppress. This approach works just as well in our own community. This could be as simple as sharing seeds, cuttings or tools, but can be extended to sharing workloads and yields in a shared allotment or community garden. And just like planting guilds, sharing our resources, time and skills with others well as has the additional benefits of companionship, and creating new connections and communities.
If you’re interested in learning more about permaculture, the Permaculture Association is a good resource for permaculture projects and communities in Scotland, and we’ll explore the topic of permaculture with a film showing at our next climate cafe on Wednesday 1st July 2020.|