Permaculture Helps You Garden Smarter

Learn how to create a low-maintenance landscape in perfect harmony with its environment.
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Climbing Vines

Climbing Vines

A trellis vine provides shade in the summer and fruit for birds, a perfect example of permaculture.

A trellis vine provides shade in the summer and fruit for birds, a perfect example of permaculture.

Imagine a garden filled with edible fruits, trees, flowers and vegetables. And then imagine that each plant plays a specific role in helping the environment by improving the soil, deterring pests and luring beneficial insects. Synergy ties the apple tree to the plants beneath.

The comfrey provides mulch, the leeks repel gophers and the yarrow attracts insects for pollination. In other words, there's a sophisticated ecosystem in perfect balance.

Permaculture refers to gardens that essentially take care of themselves. Permaculture requires less work, fewer resources and less money. To be effective, permanent agriculture should occur without polluting or depleting natural resources.

Take water, for example. "Water is one of our most limited and precious resources," says ecology expert Toby Hemenway. "Conserving water is something that we'd want to do both to cut down on the amount of money we have to spend on our water bill but also to reduce the pressure that we're putting on aquifers, lakes, rivers and other resources like that."

He reduces the amount of water he uses, by reusing rainwater that gets recycled back into the garden during a dry spell. The added bonus to using a rain barrel is that rain is loaded with nutrients that plants need to stay healthy. A rain barrel is both practical and effective, just like Heneway's next idea.

"Here's a simple idea that takes advantage of the fact that many plants are deciduous, that is, they lose their leaves in the winter," says Heneway. "Winter is when you want the sunlight coming through, whereas in the summer you want shade, like with a grape trellis." By creating more shade in the summer, Heneway may be less inclined to crank up the air conditioner. Plus, there will be grapes for his family, birds and other wildlife. When you apply this concept closer to the house, the benefits become even more evident.

You can replicate this idea on a trellis near your house or what would normally be a hot, sunny patio: You could plant deciduous trees on the south side of your house so that in the summer they would keep your house shady, but in the winter the leaves will drop, creating a nice view and allowing the sun to come in your windows.

Use less space. "An herb spiral is a very simple way to put a lot of plants, herbs or vegetables into a small space to create a really attractive landscape feature," Heneway says.

To create an herb spiral, Heneway first lays down cardboard to get rid of grass and weeds. The cardboard will eventually breakdown and let water and plant roots penetrate the soil.

The next step is adding a drip irrigation system. Heneway uses a mini-sprinkler that's adjustable; a temporary stake holds the tubing in place. Heneway pushes the existing soil into the shape of a mound and uses a piece of wood to tamp the soil into the shape of a pyramid. Then, he adds a layer of rich soil and tamps the soil down again.

Next, he outlines the area with a series of rocks to define the contour more clearly. This spiral alone will hold at least 25 plants. When the stones are positioned to his liking, he removes the stake, and it's time to plant.

Herb spirals are fun, space-saving and easy-to-harvest ways to grow food or flowers. When all these plants grow in, it will be as attractive as it is functional. Heneway also says that design is important for making your yard an efficient place. For example, the herb spiral should be close enough to the house to step out, harvest what you need and be back in the kitchen preparing dinner without missing a beat.

Permanent agriculture means gardening year-round no matter where you live.

"Chard, arugula and other leafy greens can stand a certain amount of frost, and for people who live in northern climates, a little bit of an enclosure like a small greenhouse or a plastic covering will help those plants make it through even bitterly cold winters so that you can harvest year-round," says Heneway. Many of these plants are re-seeders, so they replant themselves year after year.

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