Last week I went to some friends living in a village nearby my place to see if I can bring some new life to their garden. This is the start of a small suburban Permaculture design I’m doing, but I decided to do it “backwards” this time.
If you know anything about Permaculture design you know it usually involves a lot of observation, planning, thinking and trying out different options in your mind and on paper before you start doing actual work on the ground.
Since I already had an abundance of tomato plants, lettuce and a few squash and zucchini plants, as well as seeds, I decided to bring them and use actual planting as an observation tool. The idea is that I will come regularly to visit and share the harvest with the owners. I also thought it would be a fun and interesting way to see what works out and not.
Planting as an observation tool
The observations from what grows well and not will tell me a lot about the best design strategies for long-term solutions. By looking at what grows really well I can analyze the surrounding factors better. Is there a good water supply at a particular spot, or is a plant thriving thanks to getting extra heat reflected from something? By looking at what goes “wrong” I can start thinking about preventive measures and strategies to avoid plants being eaten by pests, taken over by weeds, drying out or getting too wet. I already have some ideas of what should work and not for several of the plants, but sometimes you will be surprised by the real world results. It might be that you get the complete opposite of the expected outcome, or that something works rather well even if the conditions aren’t perfect.
To tell you a bit more about what I have to work with here, this plot is the backyard of a house in a village surrounded by neighboring gardens mainly consisting of lawns, which might mean that some of them are using chemical fertilizers or pesticides that could find their ways into this garden. Hopefully not too much. From the variation of flora that could be found on the plot before mowing the lawn (more like a meadow to be honest), it looks like it’s in quite good shape. There is good variety of different species. When starting to dig I found a lot of earth worms and bugs that are a good sign of a healthy soil.
Should we fight weeds or figure out how we can use them?
There is a lot of ground elder at the bottom part of the plot,
a very common “weed” in these regions. It’s considered really difficult to get rid of. Most people say the best way is simply to eat it, but that won’t get rid of the roots. I decided to put a couple of squash and zucchini plants down in the corner where it grows the most + cleared up parts of it roughly by hand to see if the new plants will be able to establish themselves together with it. If it works out there isn’t really a need for fighting it too much. It does protect the soil from drying out. At least I’m leaving the options open regarding if I should try to choke the ground elder with cardboard or even with stone for a couple of years to make it go away or if just letting it be in its corner.
Another plant that had taken over one corner was a huge sage plant that seems to have found an optimal spot next to the water tank. We cut it back since the family won’t need that gigantic amount of sage for cooking or tea. Instead we will try to plant a couple of tomato plants next to it, but first the soil needs to be prepared a bit better there. Right now it’s too hard, full of roots and probably lacking nutrients. I also put tomatoes on another spot which is a lot more moist and has a soil with quite a high amount of clay in it, mainly because I want to compare the results. The varieties I’m using are adapted to cold climates so what’s true for a greenhouse adapted industrial tomato might not be right for these types. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens. I’m also able to compare with the results from my terrace at home since I’m growing the same types there too.
Advantages and limitations in suburban Permaculture design
I’ll go into more detail later when I’m doing my actual designs on paper, but to just sum up some of the really positive bits with this place I can say that they already had water supply in place in the form of a rain gutter-fed 1000 liter farmer tank. There are two large compost bins. The soil appears to be healthy. There were already some fruit trees, bushes and herbs as well as a nice variety of natural plants. It has good solar exposure, is well protected against winds and the house will help radiate heat during the night thanks to its thermal mass heating up in the sun during the day.
Some of the challenges and limitations I have to take in consideration when designing include a really large cherry tree that gives a lot of shade to some parts of the garden. The western part of the garden is very shady due to a high fence with ivy growing on it. Climbing plants such as beans and peas are not allowed to grow on the fence on the other side since it belongs to the neighbor. Almost half of the lawn is wanted for the family to put out their sun chairs, do barbecue evenings and similar. All of this is just fine of course, it’s just factors that I have to remember to bring into my design.
My design plans
The idea I have for this plot is to do two designs. One will be the design I will present to the clients. It will include the limitations set above and be adapted to their wish of having something that is easy to maintain and not very costly to implement. The other design will be an alternative design based on how I would use the plot if it was my own, which means a lot more space would go to cultivating edible plants. I want to add this to my design portfolio as an example of how different two designs can be when changing just a few factors in it. I’m looking forward to sharing my designs with you later and how I have been reasoning in each case.