Permaculture is the practice of gardening such that you don’t have to do so freakin’ much work. The idea is to let Mama Nature handle the heavy lifting while I make suggestions and sit back, sipping fizzy fruit drinks under a shady umbrella.
Step one: introduce a hideously invasive plant species to my yard. Ha ha, no, I’m kidding. Jerusalem Artichoke (sunchoke) is perfectly controllable if you eat it. A lot of it. Even if you find you can’t stand the stuff yourself, you can always feed it to the livestock. Even better, it is a perennial sunflower, so it’s pretty.
Step two: Perennial vegetables. I’m not sure what has to be done to kale to make it edible, but sea kale is an “edible” perennial kale that puts out little broccoli-type florets. Frankly, this sounds disgusting. People keep trying to tell me you can make kale fit for human consumption by cooking it with lemon or vinegar or several quarts of raspberry jam, but I remain dubious.
Another perennial vegetable that grows abundantly in the Pacific Northwest is Stinging Nettle, a highly nutritious plant which, when harvested using moderately heavy garden gloves, can be stir-fried, or blanched and chopped fine and used like spinach in a quiche.
IT’S A TRICK! DON’T FALL FOR IT.
Nettles are not actually fit for human consumption. Even when you cook them down to the point where they can’t sting, they are unpleasantly fuzzy, and they make my feet swell up and itch. Your mileage may vary.
Step three: Plant guilds. Did you know that different species of plants like to form gangs and loiter around together, waving their sepals and making lewd comments to the bees? Yes indeed. Walnut trees, for example, like to hang out with the madrones and the hazelnuts and the thimbleberries. I have no walnut trees, but madrones I’ve got aplenty. Sure enough, the madrones are always surrounded by hazelnuts and thimbleberries.
Thimbleberries are my sworn enemies. It’s not that they aren’t pretty, just that they take up space and light, are mostly leaves, and the berries they do have are small, seedy and fall apart when you try to eat them. But it turns out they are related to raspberries. The essence of plant guilds is to replace wild varieties with their domesticated cousins. I get fruit, while the madrones and the raspberries have congenial companionship. There’s still a pretty wild pack of thimbleberries across the street, but we each stay on our own side, and we’re actually pretty good friends.
Step four: Hugelkultur.[iii] All that time I have been trying to shore up my steep south slope, I should have been building it out, adding material to fill in the slope and make it shallower. This can be accomplished by Hugelkultur.
Hugelkultur is a system which enables you to build terraces and raised beds without all that tiresome digging and dragging and hauling of dirt. What you do is you call your local tree guy, point him at the two humongous maple trees that have been plotting among themselves to fall on the house in the next windstorm, and tell him where you want the terrace to be. He fires up the chainsaw and before you know it, you have hugelkultur.
Okay, specifically, you now have a big barrier across the slope that will slow erosion and capture moisture, preventing it from seeping away and leaving your slope dry and barren.
I exaggerate the simplicity of this process. I still have to do a lot of cutting and dragging to fill in around the big log with additional branches, yard waste etc., but I will be a lot less concerned about the house either being flattened or slithering down the slope such that I find myself living in the bottom of the gully rather than at the top of the ridge.
Meanwhile, I add some rotted barn scrapings and a bit of topsoil and plant some nice annuals over the top of the messIn the fall, I sow some clover and oats. It all kinda settles while underneath, the maple tree goes to work breaking down and slowly releasing all the wonderful nutrients it has been storing up for 80 years. Which is exactly what it would have done anyway after the next windstorm—only it would have been doing it on top of my house, so I have just worked *with* nature to save my house, bolster my slope, and give myself a little more light and garden area with just a stroke of the chainsaw.
I don’t mean to under-represent the amount of labor involved in this process. I expect it to be strenuous to say the least, but that’s what spring is for! The sap is rising in my blood! The oil is oozing in my chainsaw! The seeds are on their way from the nursery!
[i] For a GREAT read about home permaculture: Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway
[ii] My little inside joke. I decided to call it “Goose Crossing” because my summer days are largely occupied in running out into the street screaming, “You geese get out of the road and quit playing in traffic.” I have a sign in the shape of two geese.
[iii] Outlined here in Sepp Holzer's Permaculture along with a lot of other great facts and ideas.
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