Diary of a permaculture novice


Happy New Year! Welcome to 2016. I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to 2016 being my best year yet. Last year was the first year that I was really intentional about what I wanted to achieve. In doing so I learned a valuable life lesson- when you set your intentions, and work towards them, you will find a way to make them happen.

There are a number of things I want to work towards this year. You may have seen in a recent post that one of my resolutions for this year is to increase my gardening knowledge so I can we can eat more home grown food. So to make this happen, I thought I should share my learning process with you. Perhaps you have some tips to share with me? Or perhaps I can inspire you to start your own journey with growing food.

My gardening journey thus far has been a lot of trial and error. My father has an amazing green thumb. He can grown anything he puts his mind to. He has even grown and sold orchids in the back yard. Now, in his 60s and living in a tiny unit, he still managed to grow some veges, and countless ferns in his tiny courtyard. Yet when I started growing a few things about 7 years ago it was clear that I didn’t inherit this green thumb. Unlike my cooking skills, which I seemed to absorb by osmosis growing up, this gardening knowledge was not absorbed. I clearly had to work to be any good at it.

My first few years were disheartening. Greens would be ravaged by caterpillars on my balcony garden. Then we we moved into our new family home, complete with modest suburban garden, it would be possums that would come and eat my greens. Some things I couldn’t keep alive. Whilst others seemed to bounce back no matter how terribly I neglected them. But through all of this trial and error I have begun to learn what works for my garden and climate, and what is worth my time and effort.

In the garden at present (in the southern hemishpere’s summertime), I have climbing green beans, tomatoes, silverbeet (swiss chard), kale, parsley, basil, cucumber, zucchinis, rocket, and mustard greens, watermelon, pumpkin and squash. Many of these are quite productive (especially the herbs and greens), but then others barely give a result (no pumpkins yet this year, or watermelon). I also have a lime tree, which gives us a handful of limes each year, and three pineapple guava trees that haven’t fruited yet (a problem I need to fix).

But I have had some successes. Here is my newborn last January, with a zucchini from the garden:

Home grown zucchini

So my garden is a mixed bag. Over summer I might managed to produce 20%-30% of my families veges, and over winter it is more like 10% or less. But this is something that I want to improve this year. With my interest in sustainability, it is natural that I am drawn to gardening ideas that aim to mimic our natural systems, and reduce the need for external inputs. This is why I am drawn to permaculture.

According to wikipedia, Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.”  Permaculture theory has twelve design principles, which I think are useful to read in full

(Taken from the Wikipedia entry) Twelve Permaculture design principles articulated by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:[15]

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

This philosophy sits so well with how I feel about sustainability, and the changes that we need to make on a personal, family, society and economic levels. I have applied many of these principles to my wardrobe changes already, such as aiming to produce no waste from my clothing, or using slow solutions. So I know that I can start to apply some of these principles in my garden.

Shelling home grown peas

Shelling home grown peas

The aim of a permaculture garden is to grow food in a way that enhances the natural environment, and that can be nourished and sustained without need the intensive inputs of industrial agriculture. In my humble backyard I doubt that I will be able to create a system that doesn’t need any external inputs, but I certainly work towards that as much as I can.

At the moment my main external inputs are:

  1. Plastic netting to protect plants from possums (otherwise I would lose all my crops). I reuse these from year to year, but need to replace them as they wear out.
  2. Liquid fertilizer (organic)
  3. Pest control (organic sprays)
  4. Some compost and extra soil
  5. Seeds and (occassionally) seedlings
  6. Straw (for mulch, and for my chicken coop)
  7. Wooden and bamboo stakes (for climbing plants)

When it comes to netting, I don’t think I can avoid this external input, but I am working on reducing the other ones this year. It will be interesting to see how I go.

Aside from increasing the self-sustaining nature of my garden, I also need to work on it’s productivity. My biggest issue I scheduling. I tend to leave it a bit late to start my seeds, or get the seedling transplanted in the ground. This is something that I’ll need to work on this year, particularly my planning for the Autumn crop. I have learnt that a well timed Autumn planting means a productive garden all Winter, whereas a poorly timed planting means nothing will really produce for me. Hopefully I will get it right this year. I’ll check back in in April to let you know how it is going.

What about you? Do you love to garden? Are you thinking of giving it a go?

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