(This is a paper I recently wrote for a Horticulture Class.)
When we moved into our house in Seaside, California nearly forty years ago, we were initially attracted to the lush green lawn of the small front yard and the large back yard. We were in the process of producing five children and the grassy expanse seemed perfect for kids and dogs. This is before there was talk about climate change and we tried to keep the grass green with sprinklers. But it was a hopeless situation and soon the “good” grass was replaced with coarse, weedy grass and there were large brown areas. We abandoned the idea of manicured turf and let nature (and the kids) take their course. I did maintain a small fenced-in area for vegetables.
By and by, the kids grew up and (mostly) moved away. My husband and I had more room and more money and I decided it was time to improve our property. We had a few ill-pruned fruit trees, some overgrown bushes, and a palm tree that was growing into the power lines. The back yard was an overgrown wilderness and the front yard looked like a kitty litter box. Over the past five years, I have worked on both yards with more enthusiasm than knowledge. The soil in Seaside is very sandy so a lot of effort and money was spent on acquiring bags of potting soil and compost.
I decided to make the small front yard into a drought-tolerant garden and to that end, pulled out most of the coarse weedy grass that remained and replaced it with lavender, salvias, and succulents. My neighbors donated a lot of cuttings and full-grown plants to the project and the results are quite lovely, if I can keep it properly weeded. The back yard is divided into three areas: a fenced vegetable garden on the north side, a fruit garden on the south side, and a big central area with a chicken coop and some large bushes, as well as a pine tree. There is also a small patio.
The framework is in place but there is much work yet to be done. I would like to better conform our property to the principles of permaculture.
What is Permaculture?
I had a vague awareness of the term “permaculture” but thought it had something to do with growing crops on permafrost. After doing a bit of research I think I can best describe permaculture as a form of organic gardening where every element of one’s property works to benefit every other element. The goal, as I see it, is to import very little and to export (as waste) even less. Permaculture is a philosophy that embraces the slow rather than the fast, the gentle rather than the harsh, the long haul rather than the short-term. It is thoughtful gardening.
This particular philosophy of thoughtful gardening has twelve principles. I will compare some of my gardening efforts against the permaculture principles by describing how our property looked 30 (or so) years ago, how it looks now, and how I can make changes in the future in order to conform to the twelve principles.
1. Observe and Interact
Sit quietly on one’s property and listen. In my yard, these are the sounds I typically hear:
- Crows debating theology
- A potato vine-full of cheerfully chattering sparrows
- A pair of Anna’s hummingbirds zooming around my head, with the male dive-bombing to impress his wife
- The thundering of the ocean
- The hens telling each other the latest gossip
- The faint sound of cars on Hwy 1
- Occasional traffic sounds on our street
- The neighbor’s washing machine, which they keep in a shed in their back yard
- The recorded message from the city bus announcing the stop
- An airplane
- The neighbor’s dogs, Zee and Dottie, barking at someone on the street
- Honey bees and bumblebees
- Gulls and geese
- Pigeons and doves
- Scrub jays and mockingbirds
- Hip Hop music coming from the folks across the street
If it were nighttime all the sounds would decrease and we would be honored by the presence of the silent Mr. Possum.
How have I interacted in the past?
In the past, I mostly saw the yard as a playground for children so safety was my main concern. I had the vegetable garden that produced tomatoes and zucchini each summer but grew enormous weeds over the winter, making the spring clean-up an onerous task. I didn’t use pesticides but I did apply Miracle-Gro which looks like ground-up blue plastic. We had a poorly-placed palm and a Monterey Pine that was dying of Pine Pitch Canker.
Now, because I have observed the quantity of birds in the yard by day and critters by night I realized it would be easy to have our yard certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Wildlife Habitat. To qualify, a yard must have water, food, and shelter available in the form of bird baths, bird feeders, fruit trees, and brush. We seem to have what it takes; I just need to send in m $20.
In the future, I intend to purchase better-quality bird seed to attract a greater diversity of birds.
2. Catch and Store Energy (and water, I will add.)
In the past, we thought the occasional droughty years were flukes and that next year there would bring an abundance of rain. Our attempts to save water were not well thought out and too cumbersome to put to practical use. As a result, we didn’t catch and save much water. After a good rainy winter I would use portable sprinklers to water the garden.
Now, we realize that our climatic future is uncertain. We have three large trash barrels set up to collect rainwater from the roof and while I do water the vegetable garden if needed, I don’t use the sprinklers, which waste water. The lawns are all gone and have been replaced by drought-tolerant plants such as succulents and salvias.
In the future I think we will add more water barrels. We have visited homes in Pacific Grove that have very elaborate water-catchment systems which seem beyond our capabilities. Regarding solar, here are not many older houses in our area with solar panels and I don’t foresee us investing in them anytime soon. They are on my “someday” list but not on my husband’s.
3. Obtain a yield
In former days, I worked like crazy preparing the garden for spring planting and was rewarded with a nice crop of tomatoes, lettuce, corn, green beans, onions, pumpkins, zucchini, and English peas, mostly thanks to the miracle of Miracle-Gro. The ground was still sandy and sterile and was not improved. I wanted to improve our plot but the cost of bringing in good soil was prohibitive. Even if I did buy a few bags of good soil it was soon lost in the sandy expanse of the garden. Basically, we live on a flattened sand dune.
Now, we have raised beds. This was a huge improvement because the sides of the beds keep whatever amendments I add to the soil corralled so they aren’t wasted. We have a compost pile that is full of earth worms and I no longer use Miracle-Gro or any other artificial fertilizer. The results have been very gratifying. As I write this in early December, there are mature carrots, carrot seedlings, mature mizuna, immature turnips, French breakfast radishes, onions, basil, mature beets and green tomatoes ready to ripen. This is the first successful winter garden I have ever managed and it’s because of the raised beds and the compost. Weeds are much easier to control and water requirements are greatly reduced. The yield is much greater than in former days.
In the future we would like to build a few more raised beds and get a few more compost piles working. We would like to learn more about fruit trees to increase the yield of our apricot and apple trees as well as the blackberry and grape vines. We know we can do much better in that area.
4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
This principle is subtitled: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children of the seventh generation” I take this to mean that we can make destructive decisions that can cause problems on our land for a very long time to come.
In the past, we didn’t really do anything that was destructive but we were thoughtless in planting several trees. We moved what we thought was a shrub to the front yard only to discover it was a palm tree that grew to 30 feet in height, interfered with the power lines, and had to be removed. On the whole, we didn’t do anything bad to our land, we just didn’t have the means at that time to do anything good.
Now, we are trying to grow plants that will encourage urban wildlife. This means that I have allowed certain bee, butterfly and bird- friendly shrubs to grow very large as they are serving as a shelter for birds. The tree mallow is always buzzing with honey bees and assorted birds.
When our house was painted this fall, the painter threw buckets of paint water over parts of the ornamental garden in front. I think this falls into the category of “a destructive act,” but appears to have caused no harm. The neighbor’s gardener sprayed (what I believe was) Round Up (or similar) on their side of the fence which caused a big dead patch on my side. I think the use of Round Up is destructive.
In the future I hope to be even more mindful of the use of pesticides and herbicides by my neighbors.
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services ( Make use of Nature’s Abundance)
“Nature’s abundance,” in our case, would include chicken and rabbit manure, pulled weeds, fallen leaves, vegetable trimmings, spent plants, inedible fruit and vegetables, and trimmed branches.
In the past, pulled weeds and other garden “waste” filled up the trash bin and was carted off to the landfill. These were the days before the Sanitation Dept. provided us with recycling bins.
Now we try to think hard about each item before we toss it blithely into the bin labeled “garbage.”
- Vegetable scraps that are still fresh and wholesome go to the hens and rabbit.
- Inedible vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and egg shells go to the compost pile.
- Rabbit droppings are scattered directly onto the raised beds. It is surprising how much manure one small rabbit can produce.
- Chicken manure goes into the compost pile to age. It’s too hot to place directly on the garden.
- Raked leaves go into the compost pile or are used as mulch.
- Leftover bread is offered to the birds.
- Some vegetable scraps go to the red wigglers, who don’t each much.
- Meat scraps are offered to the cat and dog.
- Garden trimmings that are too coarse for the compost pile to digest go into the “Yard Waste Bin” where it is turned into compost by the good people at the Dump because they have an industrial-sized wood-chipper. This would include items like bougainvillea and tree mallow trimmings. There is a lady I know in Pacific Grove who has her own wood-chipper and is able to turn everything into mulch or compost.
- Really big trimmings get burned in the fireplace.
- Fireplace ashes go into the compost.
In the future I will try to be more consistent. I am not always diligent in these matters.
6. Produce No Waste
This means using up the stuff you have around your property rather than rushing out to buy something new. Unfortunately, this also means saving stuff which might come in handy some day- old boards, jars of bent nails, a yard of chicken wire, quarter-full cans of paint, stacks of used plastic pots, and that’s just stuff laying around outside. Becoming a hoarder is a real possibility and one finds oneself swamped with the very sort of junk one wants to be rid of. You never know if you might need that old clothesline one day!
The way to avoid this is to take in very few things to begin with but that assumes one had the mind of a permaculturist from the beginning. My husband collects stuff and I try to get rid of it. It always happens that we need the very thing my husband had squirreled away. I have noticed from surfing the web that permaculture sites seem very messy with a lot of old pipes, PVC, lumber, tires, and other debris laying around.
In the past, finances required that we buy a lot of our consumer goods from thrift shops and garage sales. We enjoyed the treasure hunt. As a result, re-using and re-cycling was already part of our world. In those days, we would buy used garden tools. If we could avoid buying new, we would. Oddly enough….
….now we buy more new things because we can afford them. We buy new and better garden tools, new wood for the raised beds, hired someone to paint the house, and so forth. As our collection of good tools becomes complete, we won’t need to buy any more.
Until very recently, we had our daughter and her husband living with us. They produced an enormous amount of trash, really unbelievable! They wasted an incredible amount of food, for example. They have since moved (we miss them very much) but our trash out-put has been significantly reduced. Here’s where food scraps go in our household:
- All meat scraps are either boiled into broth or fed to the cat and dog
- Fresh vegetable scraps go to the hens or to the rabbit
- Vegetable scraps that the hens and rabbit won’t eat (like orange peels) go into the compost.
- Some scraps go to the red wigglers in the worm bin
- At restaurants, we make it our practice to order just what we can eat so there is no take-home box to be forgotten in the refrigerator
We still get a lot of our clothing and kitchenware from thrift shops.
In the future I would like to thin out many of our possessions and buy fewer things. I would like to produce most of our vegetables and eggs here at the house. I would like to put an end to big shopping carts-full of packaged groceries. We are making good progress towards this goal. Also, I am just getting starting saving seeds from my garden.
7. Design From Patterns to Details .
Permaculture theory promotes an ideal set up- maybe a pattern- made of concentric circles radiating out from the house. The zone closest to the house contains plants and animals that require the most intensive care while the zone farthest from the house could be primal wilderness- or at least, a forest.
At our house:
Zone 0 is the house which shelters the people, dog, cat, rabbit and houseplants.
Zone 1 might be considered the patio, where seedlings and cuttings get their start in life. This is where most of the herbs grow in pots.
Zone 2 might be considered the central part of the yard where dwelleth the hens.
Zone 3 is the vegetable garden
Zone 4 is the unattended part of the yard that has some fruit trees. I let grass grow here to give to the hens and the rabbit.
Zone 5 does not really exist in our urban yard but we do have an enormous bush that is home to a lot of wildlife. We jokingly call it “the wilderness.”
I think this is the best I can do on a small urban lot. So “designing from pattern to details” in my case would mean understanding the purpose of each zone and caring for it accordingly.
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
The subtext for this principle is to put everything in its proper place so everything will work together. At our house, everything is already pretty close together but we do have the compost bin next to the chicken coop so it’s easy to toss the manure into the bin. I am not entirely clear on the concept of this principle so I don’t know how to “integrate” it into our household.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
O, if only I had the knowledge and resources 40 years ago that I have now!
I would have:
- Been more careful in my choice of fruit trees and would have planted more of them
- Probably have put the garden closer to the house
- Would have worked on improving the soil naturally rather than relying on Miracle-Gro.
- Would have constructed a sturdy greenhouse
- Would have come up with a better water-catchment system
- Would have bought heirloom seeds rather than what the drug store sold
- Would have collected seeds. Imagine the collection I could have accumulated over the years!
- Would have roses and wisteria covering an arbor in the front yard.
I have begun ordering good quality seeds from catalogues. I don’t buy as many six-pack veggies as I used to and start the plants from seed instead.
10. Use and Value Diversity
In former days, I generally bought whatever vegetable standard seeds and seedlings they were selling at K-Mart and grew some good vegetables. But…
…now I have become interested in more exotic varieties. I have discovered the world of heirloom seeds. That’s what I have been planting lately.
In the future I hope to plant the seeds I have collected myself.
Diversity doesn’t always work out, though. When we bought our first batch of baby chicks, I picked a variety. Turns out, they didn’t get along very well. The Rhode Island Reds picked on the other varieties. From now on, I am going to stick with the Rhode Islands so peace will reign in the henhouse.
11. Use the Edge and Value the Marginal
The idea behind this principle is to observe what works best, even if it’s not something you originally planned, and run with it. In my case, rather than struggling to grow members of the Brassiacaceae family, which always attracts white butterflies and their offspring, why not grow greens that are not affected by this voracious bug? I am still working on this.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
I have always been an experimental sort of person, always willing to try new things and making drastic changes in my life. All that held me back in the past was lack of time and resources. One way to learn about new methods is to participate in the “Sustainable” open houses, such as Sustainable Seaside and Sustainable Pacific Grove. It’s one thing to read a blog post about urban chickens but quite another thing so see how the person just a few streets away is able to have hens. It is tours like these that have given me impetuous to build raised beds and to get some hens of my own.