By Bev Sandlin, Fillmore County Master Gardener
What is Permaculture? I lifted this explanation here:
What is a Permaculture Garden?
Permaculture gardens are self-sustaining. Some of the gardening and recycling methods that are common to permaculture include:
Edible gardening & companion planting – Edible gardening practices are commonplace. Vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, small fruit-bearing trees, and companion plantings are commonly grown together. The closest plants are those that get used on a regular basis or those requiring higher maintenance. Greenhouses can be used year round for growing a variety of plants as well.
Raised beds & Vertical gardening techniques – Permaculture gardens are usually quite small in size; however, every piece of available space is used. Raised beds are a commonplace with a permaculture garden, filled with an assortment of plants. Raised beds take up little room, are more easily accessible, drain easily and are attractive. Vertical gardening practices are often used. These include growing plants on trellises and in hanging baskets.
Keyhole gardening – Creative patterns in the permaculture garden define edges and increase productivity. One of these designs includes the keyhole garden. Not only is it beautiful, but it is extremely productive. It can easily be adapted to the specific needs of the gardener. The beds in this garden are normally horseshoe shaped and are sized so that it is easily accessible in all areas. The beds can be situated near the home for quick access or along a well-traversed path.
There are different ways to construct a keyhole garden. Generally, raised beds are preferred and well-suited for perennial plants, which are also commonly favored. Because of the fact that most perennials have deeper root systems and can, therefore, tap into the moisture and minerals needed from deep beneath the ground, these plants do not require as much water or fertilizer as other plants, such as annuals. Also, perennials are usually around throughout the year, offering shelter to wildlife. Keyhole gardens can also be designed in a circle, with the center housing a variety of herbs and perennials. The center can also include a small tree or shrub, and if space permits, a small pond or other water feature may be added.
Sheet mulching – Sheet mulching (such as lasagna gardening) is another alternative, especially for annual plantings. Rather than tilling up the soil, a weed barrier such as wet newspaper or cardboard is applied to the area. These will eventually breakdown over time, allowing both water and plant roots to enter the soil. It also helps to enrich the soil. Another layer of straw, or other suitable organic mulch, is then put down to define the keyhole’s path. Around its outer edges, a layer of compost and soil is applied for plantings. This will then be covered with additional straw to help retain moisture.
Soil & Composting – Soil is always important and great care is given to this in a permaculture garden. Worms are essential in permaculture gardens. They help keep soil loose and healthy. A good soil structure consists of a large population of earthworms and a natural balance of beneficial insects. Compost piles are another important element in permaculture gardens. All materials for fertilizing and mulching are produced within the permaculture garden.
Benefits of Permaculture Gardening
Nothing within the permaculture garden should ever be wasted. Garden waste is used for composting, which in turn, is used for soil amendment and fertilizer.
Water is also an important element with permaculture gardens. Not only does water keep the soil and plants hydrated, but it is also used to attract wildlife to the permaculture garden. Many permaculture gardens even implement recycling practices for watering. For instance, rain barrels are often used to catch rainwater coming from the gutter downspout. This not only saves on water but is especially good for the garden as rainwater is loaded with nutrients.
There is no need for pesticides in a permaculture garden. Water features often encourage beneficial insects, birds, frogs, and other small wildlife creatures, and many of these will feed on pests in the permaculture garden. Companion plantings also help keep insect and other pest problems to a minimum.
Permaculture gardens require less maintenance. Once a permaculture garden has established itself, you do nothing but water and harvest crops or add occasional mulch.
Permaculture simply refers to a garden that can essentially take care of itself. Each plant in a permaculture garden has a specific purpose. Some are used solely for food and others for medicine. Some are planted to attract beneficial insects, while others are planted to deter pests. Then there are those that are strictly planted for improving the soil, and those that simply boost the permaculture garden’s beauty.
There’s no better way to enjoy and benefit from all that nature has to offer than in a permaculture garden.
Polyculture is a part of permaculture and here is a link to a PDF on polyculture that incorporates medicinal plants as well:
I am a true believer in permaculture and I utilize all of these practices in my landscape, not just my fruit and vegetable gardens. Permaculture, to me, defines survival landscaping because it focuses on food security.
Why not plant a bush like blueberries that not only provides the fruit but also turns a brilliant red in the fall to add to the landscape? What about currants, high bush cranberry, elderberry, or whatever grows in your climate? Apple, cherry, and pecan trees can also provide fruit and shade. Perennial flowers such as monarda (bee balm) and purple cones flowers are beautiful and medicinal. And then there are all the herb plants such as borage that not only bring in pollinators, are beneficial companion plants but are edible and beautiful – I have borage planted around my deck area and vegetable gardens and it has lovely small blue flowers that add color and taste to any salad or even a glass of iced tea.
Or how about edible ground covers? Remember my asking what this plant is? Well, it turns out to be an Australian native Creeping Christian also known as Scurvy Weed. An edible ground cover that is beautiful and full of vitamin C. Not supposed to be hardy to zone 4, but it is doing well here in Minnesota!
A quick note here is that in an extended grid down situation more plant-able area will be needed quickly. I have found that laying black plastic or tarps down will kill the vegetation within 2 to 8 weeks (2 weeks for standard lawn and 8 weeks for heavily weeded areas) and the ground beneath will actually be very friable and soft from the decomposed plant material.
An outdoor cooking area should also be an essential part of your permaculture design. The best is to have a summer kitchen, but whatever works in your situation.
What I do want to explore a bit more is how we can possibly use permaculture practices in a defensive landscape which we talked about in Part 1 of this series.
A hedge can be created from any number of edible bushes suited to your growing zone. Here in zone 4 a thorny edible hedge could be of blackberries or raspberries – this would be considered a monoculture hedge – now consider adding a living mulch of strawberries. If you have ever tried to walk through a mat of strawberries you know what a tangled mess they can be. An edible hedge like this could be just as effective as barbed wire and provide an important food source in time of need.
Or how about inter-planting several different varieties and heights of fruiting bushes that are suitable to your climate? In a time of need, barbed wire (as we talked about in Part 2) could be strung through them to create an almost impenetrable barrier that is both beautiful and edible.
An excellent article on edible hedges can be found here:
Fences in permaculture are often used as vertical supports to grow edible plants on. Imagine the perimeter of your property with an edible hedge in front backed by a fence of whatever you choose. Or if you are a rural property, I find cattle panels to be tough enough to handle even mature grapes and at 52″ too tall to leap and it takes a bolt cutters to even consider cutting them. Add a post at either end and barbed wire on top and you have the equivalent of a prison fence that you can grow edibles on.
An FYI here is that grapes will make this fence almost impenetrable even with a bolt cutters and grapes have been used for thousands of years to make wine which is one way of making your water fit to drink. Horses do not eat grapevines, don’t know about cows but I’m sure goats will (brushers), but a grape arbor over and around a pig pen is ideal as pigs need shade and sturdy fencing – good for poultry too.
Espalier is a technique that has been used for thousands of years with grapes and for at least 2,000 years (Roman courtyard gardens) with fruit trees. Grapes need the support of some kind of fencing to get started (or woven between trees), but apple and pear trees can be formed into an almost impenetrable fence.
An excellent article on this technique for trees can be seen here:
Paths & Entrances
We discussed the importance of pathways to direct traffic in Part 1 of this series. What I do want you to realize that is the landscaping on paths that funnel people to entrances can be beautiful, edible and defensive.
We discussed the “fatal funnel” at the doorway in Part 1 of this series, but how may that be looked at with permaculture design? Essentially any type of planting, or hardscape, on both sides of the entryway that doesn’t allow for a person(s) hiding beside an entrance will accomplish this. Consider trellis roses, bushes with edible fruit, a hardscape of statuary, or if you have steps, simple railings on either side flanked by bushes.
Water features incorporated into the landscape can provide irrigation and defense as well, streams as motes either real or manmade, ponds, and irrigation ditches. An interesting read on Medieval gardens and defense can be had here which includes a bit on sunken garden used in arid regions:
Animals and animal enclosures are something I haven’t seen addressed in defensive landscaping and I would like to put in a word on that. Animals are an excellent protein source and usually part of the permaculture landscape. Strategic selection of the animals to be incorporated and their housing can be thought of in defensive terms.
The one most important animal any defensive landscape should include is the goose. Day or night, geese are very aware of their surroundings and make a noise that will wake you up no matter what! And they can not be bribed like a dog. Geese were used as animal guards both for escape and defense in the concentration camps of World Wars I & II, and they eat nothing but grass and grain. Plus they attack and can even kill a small child with the beating of their wings. Not to say that you can’t have a goose that is social-able with people (the caretakers), but most will attack strangers and a group will even attack coyotes and stray dogs – mine did! Guineas are also very noisy.
The next animal I strongly recommend in the landscape is the chicken – eggs, meat, and bug control. And most cities now allow them in the backyard. No real protection, but I have had more than one rooster stake out his territory and attack anyone who came into it including me.
Since the most important resource your animals give to the garden is their manure, having their pens enclosing the garden will not only help prevent theft of garden produce by presenting another barrier thieves need to breach and get back over but also makes it handy to the compost piles.
A note here on the homestead hog: Hogs have long been known to attack and eat people. Hogs are easy to care for and valuable homestead animals. I’ve found the combination panel (cattle panel with extra rods at the bottom) to be excellent in keeping them in. Surrounding your garden on 2 or 3 sides with a hog pen will pretty much make it impervious to thieves.
Pasture is to be considered open space like a lawn around your buildings and valuable for that purpose in defensive landscaping. I won’t go further into this as I figure husbandry is another subject.
Beyond the Perimeter
I personally do not believe that a lone individual, family or even a retreat community can survive a long grid down situation unless willing to think beyond their own property and/or safety. I advise looking beyond the borders of your own property and thinking about a defensive position as part of a larger community.
Where are the travel routes that can be cut off if needed and how?
Where is the high ground?
Where is the water?
Who are the neighbors that can be trusted and who to watch out for?
When I think of this in my position, I have a heavily wooded 30′ RR tressel to the west with only a 40′ gap to be filled. My stock trailer and some barbed wire or fence panels could easily block that to vehicle and foot traffic. If that were breached, there is 200′ of open ground anyone would have to traverse to get to the house. On the north I have a heavily wooded low land area bordered by a creek and again open area where I could put anyone coming into my rifle sites. To the east I have a creek border and somewhat less open space, but I have the high ground and the narrow bridge could be blocked easily. To the south is where the danger would lay because it is fairly open and accessible, but again with a good 200′ of open space where anyone approaching would be a good target.
Just sayin’, it doesn’t hurt to think about this stuff. And just pray that we never have to defend ourselves…
Links to other parts of this series…