Two years ago, I took a Permaculture Design Course from Oregon State University online (best course out there, I highly recommend it). I earned my Permaculture Design Certification, and set about applying all that new knowledge on our Homestead. I quickly learned that some of what permaculturist may teach is not always practical.
Permaculture is still a very useful tool. Everything I do here at Tanglefoot, I do after considering the Permaculturist approach or solution to the problem. But I decided that some of the Pie-in-the-sky ideals may not be the easiest or most efficient means of getting things done.
On Soil Restoration
Permaculture is all about restoring the soil to it’s natural, nourishing state. This is done through the use of cover crops, organic amendments and no-till practices. What many permaculturist fail to mention is that you are looking at a 3-5 year process if you are working on really poor quality soils. That’s at least three years before gardens will flourish and trees survive planting.
One can try hugelkultur beds or sheet composting to get some fertile ground to work. However, even this can get pretty expensive it you aren’t able to source free components. Both methods take several months of “curing” before they are ready to use.
So if one wants to obtain a decent yield in those first few years, fertility needs to be imported onto the property. This is primarily in the form of compost, organic fertilizers. Soil amendments such as green sand, sulfur, or gypsum also help. This gets pricey pretty quickly. However, if you plan to live off of what you grow, you need decent soil right away. Not three to five years down the road.
On Water Management
“Plan for water” is something your hear often in any permaculture conversation, and for very good reason. Without water, you won’t grow much at all. Permaculturist are huge advocates of rain water collection. But they often won’t tell you that rooftop water collection is illegal in many areas. And on heavy air pollution days, water catchment is a poor idea, anyway. Secondly, setting up a water catchment system doesn’t really offer up any “small and slow” solutions. Its an all or nothing deal. A half done catchment system will undoubtedly cause problems. Finally, even a simple rain barrel requires some technical expertise. DIYers can end up with unintended consequences when diverting water from one location to another.
For example, our backyard kept flooding, because our acreage has a significant slope. We installed an fairly large on-contour swale (disguised as a dry creek bed). This was intended to catch this water as it was coming downhill. Unfortunately the overflow decided to shunt through the garden. We finally have a working water management system now, where the water fills and overflows into a whole series of swales. Once safely past the garden, it overflows to the creek. But it took months of corrections to finally get it right.
I would highly recommend hitting up the local NRCS office to request assistance in developing a water plan. This holds doubly true if you are in an urban area, where any water collection or diversion you attempt may adversely impact your neighbors.
On using Natural Patterns for Garden Design
I love the idea of a meandering garden path, I really do. So I laid out some on-contour beds for blueberries and other perennials. I then set the annual beds up along a semi-circular path with two foot wide rows between them, as discussed many times in the various permaculture courses I’ve taken. What a permaculturist may not tell you is how impractical a curving garden path can be. I can’t even tell you how many times the wheelbarrow tipped over while navigating these curved walkways. And once plants grow in, it’s difficult to even see a two foot wide path, much less navigate it without damaging plants.
Thus redesign of our garden that is currently under way. The perennial side of the garden remains as on-contour swales and beds, with widened paths. The annual beds are now raised, so we can get some decent soil in here. They are laid out in a grid pattern with three-foot-wide arrow-straight pathways between them. I realize this doesn’t mimic nature, but it’s a damned sight easier to push a wheelbarrow down a straight path than a curvy one. Sometimes one has to yield to function over form.
This is not to say that natural patterns can’t be used in other areas of a Permaculture homestead or back yard. I just don’t recommend they be used in the annual veggie patch. Or in any other area that requires frequent access with equipment.
Permaculture as a tool for Homesteading
In spite of the sometimes impractical ides put forth in permaculture, the good information and skills taught make this type of regenerative agriculture worth learning about. It is truly designed for small-scale gardeners and homesteaders. It’s lesson is to utilize intensive and successional planting while always remembering to “feed the soil” and leave your little patch of green better than when you assumed it’s care.