Editorial: October 2009
When we are looking at plot design, the Permaculture approach is first to look long and hard at what is there and what is not there. This guides our decision-making and gives us useful clues as to what is needed and appropriate. In my garden, one of the things I noticed was the absence of nettle. Knowing how useful
nettles are, this was a cause for concern, and I was forced to hunt them down elsewhere and bring them back to enrich compost and make eco- friendly insecticidal spray.
Archaeologists sometimes spot potential sites of interest from the presence of nettles – they have been known to grow prolifically on the sites of old Roman settlements for example – because the nitrogen content of the soil is still high, even after so many years - and nettles love nitrogen.
So I was both shocked (literally) and delighted to be stungby nettles when picking crops in the last few weeks – and where did I find them? Next to the peas and the French beans, and in the polyveg bed where I had sown agricultural mustard as green manure: all of these plants take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil through their root nodules. Comforting to know it works.
It is these small early successes that really help to give you much needed confidence when you are beginning your Permaculture journey. Like the way the plants in the polyveg beds did consistently better than their fellows planted conventionally in other beds.
Today I made holes down through the layers of one of the beds I sheet mulched earlier this season in order to plant the autumn onions. After only a few months the cardboard has completely disappeared, and there is a moist layer of promising brown stuff under the straw. Having spent the last few days sheet mulching the beds at the top of our hill, and pretty exhausted, I was heartened to see how well this earlier, newly created mulched bed was doing.
I was so excited this summer by the high performing experimental poly bed that I have extended the idea to several more planted areas, and the winter veg of kales, mustard greens and cabbages are sharing space with hardy leeks, late chard and romanesco, as well as celery, some late developing amaranth, and some newly planted stray onions and garlic. The white mustard I scattered as seed when I put the first plants in is still going strong, providing soil cover in between everything; I keep cutting them back and leaving the tops to rot down in situ. These beds do indeed resemble a small forest, just like it says on the tin.
Every time I find a foxglove coming through near the veg garden, I chop up the leaves and use them as green mulch on the beds. Permaculture has changed my take on weeds quite a lot. Wild flowers are thriving as bee forage and medicine chest in the herb bed – yarrow, corn marigolds, self heal, toadflax, bedstraw . . . Some of these are dried and in jars for herbal and garden use. I have discovered a talent for propagating cuttings from the wormwood bush – never been able to grow from cuttings before, but I followed the advice to put a willow leaf in each pot – the natural aspirin serves as a rooting activator. Some of these will be planted close to the veg patch for their pest deterrent properties, and they are now so abundant there will be plenty left over for other gardeners.
At the beginning of the season I was in despair because of our poor soil, altitude, climate, and the enormity of the task of carving out a garden on this rocky mountainside. Permaculture gave me new insights into how to solve these problems – the problem is the solution, as they say. It gave me ways of achieving a high yield with the prospect of less input over time, and that is becoming a reality, even at this early stage. The creation of a small forest garden is the next target, and that will begin properly this autumn, just as other work in the garden begins to slow down. It seems attainable, and all the indicators are giving me positive feedback. So if you are new to Permaculture, and wondering if it really works, and how long it will take before you see the results – be encouraged: in my experience, the benefits have already been enormous, and all in the space of less than one season – happy gardening!