Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permacultureby Toby Hemenway, John Todd
Permaculture is a verbal marriage of "permanent" and "agriculture." Australian Bill Mollison pioneered its development. Key features include:
Permaculture is a verbal marriage of "permanent" and "agriculture." Australian Bill Mollison pioneered its development. Key features include:
Now, picture your backyard as one incredibly lush garden, filled with edible flowers, bursting with fruit and berries, and carpeted with scented herbs and tangy salad greens. The visual impact is of Monet's palette, a wash of color, texture, and hue. But this is no still life. The flowers nurture endangered pollinators. Bright-featured songbirds feed on abundant berries and gather twigs for their nests.
The plants themselves are grouped in natural communities, where each species plays a role in building soil, deterring pests, storing nutrients, and luring beneficial insects. And finally, you--good ol' homo sapiens--are an integral part of the scene. Your garden tools are resting against a nearby tree, and have a slight patina of rust, because this garden requires so little maintenance. You recline into a hammock to admire your work. You have created a garden paradise.
This is no dream, but rather an ecological garden, which takes the principles of permaculture and applies them on a home-scale. There is nothing technical, intrusive, secretive, or expensive about this form of gardening. All that is required is some botanical knowledge (which is in this book) and a mindset that defines a backyard paradise as something other than a carpet of grass fed by MiracleGro.
Read an Excerpt
A movement IS AFOOT toward more natural landscaping. Many gardeners are turning their backs on the lawn, in particular. People are digging up their resource-guzzling grassy swards and installing native plant gardens, wildlife attracting thickets, or sun-dappled woodland habitats. It's an encouraging trend, this movement toward more ecologically sound, nature friendly yards.
Yet not everyone is on board. Some gardeners hesitate to go natural because they can't see where their vegetable garden fits into this new style. What will happen to those luscious beefsteak tomatoes? Or ornamental plantsdoes natural gardening mean tearing out a treasured cut-flower bed or pulling up grandmother's heirloom roses to make room for a wild-looking landscape?
Nurturing wildlife and preserving native species are admirable goals, but how do people fit into these natural landscapes? No gardener wants to feel like a stranger in her own backyard. Gardeners who refuse to be excluded from their own yards, but love nature, have been forced to create fragmented gardens: an orderly vegetable plot here, flower beds there, and a back corner for wildlife or a natural landscape. And each of these fragments has its weak nesses. A vegetable garden doesn't offer habitat to native insects, birds, and other wildlife. Quite the contrarymunching bugs and birds are unwelcome visitors. The flower garden, however much pleasure the blooms provide, can't feed the gardener. And a wildlife garden is often unkempt and provides little for people other than the knowledge that it's good for wild creatures.
This book shows how to integrate these isolated and incomplete pieces into a vigorous, thriving backyard ecosystem that benefits both people and wildlife. These gardens are designed using the same principles that nature uses to create healthy plant communities, so that the different plantings and other elements interconnect and nurture one another. These gardens are more than the sum of their parts. Ecological gardens feel like living beings, each with its unique character and essence. Gaia's Garden provides tools to understand, design, and construct a backyard ecosystem that will serve people and the rest of nature.
Ecological gardens meld the best features of wildlife gardens, edible landscapes, and conventional flower and vegetable gardens. They are based on relatively new concepts such as permaculture and ecological design, yet use time-tested techniques honed to perfection by indigenous people, restoration biologists, organic farmers, and cutting-edge landscape designers. These gardens combine low environmental impact, low maintenance once established, and high yields with elegant aesthetics.
Ecological gardens are filled with beautiful plants that have many uses, providing fruit and vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, eye-catching arrays of colorful blossoms, soil-building mulch, protection from pests, and habitat for wildlife. With thousands of plant species to choose from, we can find plenty that do several of these jobs at once. Multifunctional plants are a hallmark of gardens based on ecological principles; that's how nature works. We can choose food plants that support insects and other wildlife, herbs that break up hardpan, cover crops that are edible, or trees that add nutrients to the soil.
These gardens can even yield income from edible and medicinal plants, seeds and nursery stock, or dried flowers, and provide construction or craft materials such as lumber, bamboo poles, basket willow, and vegetable dyes. Yet in a garden designed along ecological principles, birds and other animals feel just as welcome in these living landscapes as the gardener. With good design, these gardens need only infrequent watering, and the soil renews itself rather than demanding heavy fertilizing. These are living ecosystems, designed using nature's rules, and boasting the lushness and resilience of the natural environment.
Gardens that Really Work
Ecology, Mr. Webster tells us, is "concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments." I call these gardens ecological because they connect one organismpeopleto their environment, they link the many pieces of a garden together, and because they can play a role in preserving healthy ecosystems.
Ecological gardens also blend many garden styles together, which gives the gardener enough leeway to emphasize the qualitiesfood, flowers, herbs, crafts, and so onhe or she likes most. Some of ecological gardening finds its roots in edible landscaping, which freed food plants from their vegetable-patch prison and let them mix with the respectable front-yard society of ornamentals. Ecological landscapes also share traits with wildlife gardens, since they provide habitat for the more than-human world. And since local flora get prominent billing in these gardens, they have much in common with native plant gardens.
But these landscapes aren't just a simple lumping together of other garden styles. They take their cues from the way nature works. Some gardens look like natural landscapes, but that's as far as the resemblance goes. I've seen native plant gardens that require mountains of fertilizer to survive in unsuitable soil, and buckets of herbicides to quell the vigorous grasses and weeds that happily rampage among the slow-growing natives. That's hardly "natural." An ecological gar den both looks and works the way nature does. It does this by building strong connections among the plants, soil life, beneficial insects and other animals, and the gardener, to weave a resilient, natural web. Each organism is tied to many others. It's this interconnectedness that gives nature strength. Think of a net or web: Snip one thread, and the net still functions, because all the other connections are holding it together.
Nothing in nature does just one thing. This multipurposenesswherein each interconnected piece plays many rolesis another quality that distinguishes an ecologically designed garden from others. In the typical garden, most elements are intended to serve only a single purpose. A tree is chosen for shade, a shrub for its berries, a trellis to restrain that unruly grapevine. But by designing a garden so that each piece can play all the roles it's capable of, not only can the gardener let nature do much of the work, the garden will be prone to fewer problems, and will become a lusher, richer place. That shade tree, for example. Can't it also offer nuts or other food for both people and wildlife, and maybe attract pollinators that will later help fruit trees bear more heavily? Plus, the tree's leaves will harvest rainwater and pull dust out of the air, and build the soil when they fall. That tree is already doing about fifteen different jobs. We just need to connect these "yields" to other parts of the garden that need them. That will mean less work for us and better health for the landscape.
The grape arbor could be shading a too-sunny deck on the hot south side of the house; that means it will cool both deck and building, and offer fruit to the lucky souls lounging beneath it. The pieces are all there, ready and waiting. We just need to link them together, using nature's marvelous interconnectedness as a model.
This connectedness goes two ways. In nature each piece not only plays many roles, each role is supported by many players. For example, each insect pest in a natural landscape is pursued by a hungry army of natural predators. If one predator bug, or even a whole species, falls down on the job, others are there to pick up me slack. This redundancy shrinks the risk of failure. So, looking back at that lone shade tree from this perspective, don't plant just one, plant a cluster of several varieties. If one grows slowly or doesn't leaf out densely, the others are there to fill in. The combination will cast shade over a longer season, too. See the synergy? Continuing in this vein, to the grape arbor we could add a clematis to contribute color, a jasmine for scent, or some beans to boost the harvest.
Here's another example of how connectedness can make gardens more natural and also save work. Deer are a big problem for me, chomping down almost any unprotected plant. They've trampled a well-worn path into my yard from the southwest. So I have placed a curving hedge on that side to deflect them from other tasty plantings. The hedge is partly made up of a few native shrubs already growing thereoceanspray, wild roses, a lone manzanita. But I chose the other hedge species to do several jobs. I've planted bush cherries, Manchurian apricots, currants, and other wildlife plants, including thorny wild plums and gooseberries to hold back the deer. But on the inside of the hedgemy sideto some of these I've grafted domestic fruit varieties. The wild cherries have a few twigs of sweet cultivars on them, and the shrubby apricots and wild plums are sprouting an assortment of luscious Asian plums. This food-bearing hedge (sometimes called a fedge) will feed both the deer and me.
I've connected this hedge to other natural cycles. It's a good distance from our house, and I quickly tired of lugging fertilizer and the hose to it. So I planted some clovers and two shrubs, Siberian pea shrub and buffaloberry, in the hedge, to add nitrogen to the soil. And I seeded-in several deep-rooted species, including chicory, yarrow, and daikon radish, which pull nutrients from the subsoil and deposit them on the surface at leaf fall. These will build up the soil naturally. I wanted to conserve water, so I planted mulch-producing species such as comfrey and cardoon (a thick-leaved artichoke relative). I slash their leaves periodically and leave them on the ground to create a mulch laver that holds moisture in the soil under the hedge. The hedge still needs some irrigation in southern Oregon's ninety-day dry season, but the mulch plants have saved lots of water. And the fruit is looking plump this spring.
Nature has a broad back, and with a little ingenuity and a change in viewpoint, a gardener can shift plenty of labor to this willing partner. Nature can be the gardener's ally. We still hold vestiges of an earlier time's regard for nature as an enemy, or as something to be conquered and restrained. Say the word "insect" to a gardener, and he will nearly always think of some chomping, sucking pest that tatters leaves and ruins fruit. Yet the vast majority90 percent or moreof all insects are beneficial or harmless. A diverse and balanced ensemble of insects in the landscape means good pollination and fruit set, and quick, nontoxic control of pest outbreaks, held in check by predaceous bugs. We need insects in the garden. Without them, our workload would be crippling hand pollinating every bloom, grinding fallen leaves into compost by hand.
The same applies for all the other denizens of life's kingdoms. Not only are bugs, birds, mammals, and microbes essential partners in every kind of garden, but with clever design, they can work with us to minimize our labor and maximize the beauty, health, and productivity of our landscapes. Even domestic animals can help with gardening, as I'll explain in chapter 7.
Why Is Gardening So Much Work?
One object of an ecological garden is to restore the natural cycles that have been broken by conventional landscape design and agriculture. Have you ever wondered why a forest or meadow looks perfect and stays nearly disease free with no care at all, while a garden demands arduous hours of labor? In a garden, weeds still pop up like, well, weeds, and every plant seems to be covered in its own set of weird spots and chomping bugs. This happens because most gardens ignore nature's rules.
Look how gardens differ from natural landscapes. Not only does nature never do just one thing, nature abhors bare soil, large blocks of a single plant type, and vegetation that's all the same height and root depth. Nature doesn't till, eitherabout the only time soil is disturbed in the wild is when a tree topples and its upturned roots churn the earth. Yet our gardens are virtual showcases of all these unnatural methods. Not to mention our broadscale pesticide use and chemical fertilizers.
Each of these unnatural garden techniques was developed for a specific purpose. Tilling, for example, destroys weeds and pumps air to microbes that, metabolically supercharged, release a flood of nutrients for fast crop growth. These are great short term boons to plant-growers. But we now know that in the long term, tilling depletes fertility (those revved-up microbes will burn up all the nutrients, then die), causes more disease, and ruins the soil structure with compaction to hardpan and massive erosion as the result.
The bare soil in a typical garden, whether in a freshly tilled plot or between neatly spaced plants, is a perfect habitat for weed seeds. Weeds are simply pioneer plants, molded by millions of years of evolution to quickly cover disturbed, open ground. They'll do that relentlessly in the bare ground of a garden. Naked earth also washes away with rain, which means we'll have to do more tilling to fluff the scoured, pounded earth that's left, and add more fertilizer to replace lost nutrients.
Solid blocks of the same plant variety, though easy to seed and harvest, act as an "all you can eat" sign to insect pests and diseases. Harmful bugs will stuff themselves on this unbroken field of abundant food as they make unimpeded hops from plant to plant, and breed to plague proportions.
Each of the conventional techniques cited above arose to solve a specific problem, but like any single-minded approach, they often don't combine well with other one-purpose methods, and they miss the big picture. The big picture here, in the typical garden, is not a happy one. Lots of tedious work, no habitat for native or rare species, struggling plants on intensive care, reliance on resource-gobbling poisonous chemicals, and in general, a decline in the garden's health, yield, and beauty unless we constantly and laboriously intervene. Yet we've come to accept all this as part of gardening.
There is another way to garden. Conventional landscapes have torn the web of nature. Important threads are missing. We can restore many of these broken links, and work with nature to lessen our own load, not to mention the cost to the environment. For example, why till and add trainloads of fertilizer, when worms and other soil life, combined with fertility-building plants, will tailor the finest soil possible, with very little work? That's how nature does it. Then all we need to do is make up for the small amount of nutrients lost to harvest. (Plants are mostly water, plus some carbon from the air. The tiny amounts of minerals they take from the soil can easily be replaced if we use the proper techniques.)
"Let nature do it" also applies to dealing with pests. In a balanced landscape, diseases and insect problems rarely get out of control. That's because in the diverse, many-specied garden that this book tells how to create, each insect, fungus, bacterium, or potentially invasive plant is surrounded by a natural web of checks and balances. If one species becomes too abundant, its sheer availability makes it a tasty, irresistible food source for something else, which will knock it back to manageable levels. That's how nature works, and it's a useful trick for the ecological gardener.
To create a well-balanced garden, we must know something about how nature behaves. Toward that end, this book offers a chapter on ecology for gardeners; many examples of nature's principles at work are woven throughout the other chapters. When we use nature's methodswhether for growing vegetables, flowers, or wildlife plantsthe garden becomes less work, less prone to problems, and vastly more like the dynamic, vibrant landscapes found in nature. These backyard ecosystems are deeply welcoming both for the wild world and for people, offering food and other products for self-reliance, as well as beauty and inspiration.
Some of what you have read so far may sound familiar. The past twenty years have seen the arrival of native plant gardens and landscapes that mimic natural groupings of vegetation, a style usually called natural gardening. Many of these gardens attempt to re-create native plant communities by assembling plants into backyard prairies, woodlands, wetlands, and other wild habitats. So gardening with nature may not be a new idea to some readers.
Ecological gardens also use principles derived from observing and living in wild land, but toward a different end. Natural gardens consist almost exclusively of native plants, and are intended to create and restore habitat for oft-endangered flora and wildlife. They are often described, as Ken Druse puts it in The Natural Habitat Garden, as "essential to the planet's future." I support using native plants in the landscape. But natural gardens, offering little for people, will never have more than a tiny effect on environmental damage. Here's why.
Excerpted from Gaia's Garden by TOBY HEMENWAY. Copyright © 2001 by Toby Hemenway. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Toby Hemenway is the author of the first major North American book on permaculture, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, now in its second edition, and an adjunct assistant professor at Portland State University. After obtaining a degree in biology from Tufts University, Toby worked for many years as a researcher in genetics and immunology, first in academic laboratories including Harvard and the University of Washington in Seattle, and then at Immunex, a major medical biotech company. At about the time he was growing dissatisfied with the direction biotechnology was taking, he discovered permaculture, a design approach based on ecological principles that creates sustainable landscapes, homes, and workplaces. A career change followed, and Toby and his wife spent ten years creating a rural permaculture site in southern Oregon. He was associate editor of Permaculture Activist, a journal of ecological design and sustainable culture, from 1999 to 2004. His current project is developing urban sustainability resources in Portland, Oregon, where he now lives. He teaches permaculture and consults and lectures on ecological design throughout the country. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Whole Earth Review, Natural Home, and Kitchen Gardener, and he wrote the foreword for Heather C. Flores' Food Not Lawns. He is available for workshops, lectures, and consulting in ecological design. Visit his web site at http://www.patternliteracy.com
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