Permaculture not Monoculture
For some time now we at the Gardeners Calendar have been following greener and more environmentally sympathetic lifestyles.
We have been harvesting rainwater, reducing our carbon footprints, generating alternative sources of energy, we have planted our vegetable crops using the lunar calendar, we have even had forays into composting toilets.
All these things are lifestyle choices we have made because we are concerned with the impact we have on the environment. These choices are a small part of a lifestyle culture known as 'Permaculture'.
30 or so years ago two Australians wrote a book called "Permaculture One", Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Being all too aware of our destructive use of the environment, they created a set of driving principles and techniques for a more sustainable way of living. Some of these principles affect the way we use our gardens to produce food, so we thought we would introduce some of them to you. For more reading on a Permaculture way of life see the reading list on the right.
The Zone System
Imagine a set of five concentric circles emanating from a center point where your house sits on your property. Zone 1 is the smallest circle in the centres, and Zone 5 is the largest.
(According to the reference material I have, anything over zone 4 is for larger properties, but I don't know about you but zone 3 with it's orchard and grain crops would put a house in the 'larger' league in my book. In the UK I think most houses would be lucky to get to zone 2)
In the zone closest to your house plant herbs, salad leaves, and flowers. This is the area you will visit the most and being the closest to the house you are more likely to see and remove weeds. If you like it is the 'high maintenance' zone.
Next is zone 2, here you should plant fruit trees, berry bushes, and your vegetable beds. You would not expect to visit this zone every day.
This is the Orchard zone, here you should also grow your grain crops, and nut bearing trees.
This is the place for grazing animals and a timber supplying wood.
This is the wildlife zone, and no matter what the size of your property you must have a section reserved and untouched.
In addition to placing the crops in the correct zones, their placement should reflect the local environment and also seasonal changes to the weather. So shelter and shade will also affect the planting design.
This is quite ingenious, with a traditional vegetable bed where you plant in rows, and to provide access to each row you will need a path. So for 5 rows you will need a minimum of 4 paths. If to save space you shuffle all the rows together so they are 1.5m in deep, you now only need one path to give you access to the whole bed. But wait, if you then curl the whole bed around into a circle 3m across, with a single path into the centres of the bed you can still reach all of the bed, but the path is only half the length. Plant your keyhole bed using the zone system so the most picked crops are next to the path and the least picked crops are at the back.
Some more benefits of the closer planting is to encourage competitive growth with the plants, and to make companion planting more effective.
Here is an example of a Keyhole Bed. (The path faces South)
Zone A - Lettuce, Radish, salad veg, and herbs
Zone B - Tomatoes, Peppers, and bush peas
Zone C - Cabbage, Potatoes, Onions, and Carrots
Zone D - Tagettes, Nasturtiums, Wormwood, and Tansy.
The Zones do not have to be filled with all of them mentioned vegetables and herbs, they are just given as examples of the type of crops you can use.
Depending on the exposure of the bed you can plant taller plants in Zone D at the top of the bed and it will protect against the cold Northly winds. This will create a small micro-climate within the bed.
We have setup a test Keyhole bed here, and will monitor it to see if the yields we get from the bed is greater than a traditional of the same size. The bed measures 8ft x 8ft and the path is 5ft long and 1.5ft wide. In the first picture the ground has been forked over to remove weeds, roots, and any stones. Then the soil has been dug to one spades depth, over the whole area. The entrance to the bed is at the south.
The planting has been quite compact with a complete mixture of vegetables. Around the outside of the bed we have put a border of Tagettes, then a layer of bush Courgette's, next is a line of Bulb Fennel, and on the inside is a double row of Basil. The whole area has been treated with NemaSlug, so hopefully once the beer traps have caught the adults, the rest will be finished off by the natural predators
I read in a Permaculture book called 'Gaia's Garden - Toby Hemenway' about a 'Herb Spiral'. It struck me that this was an excellent example of how easy it could be for anyone with a small amount of ground could build a herb garden and crop a dozen or more herb plants. Without giving too much away from the book, the basic idea is to build a mound of earth into a cone shape 5 to 6 feet across and 3 feet high. Then lay a spiral path from the bottom to the top using stones ranging from 'head' sized at the bottom to 'fist' sized at the top. Keeping 1 foot between the coils as you go.
Now plant herbs between the path all the way up the cone, but when planting you will need to take into consideration the location and the type of herb. For example Rosemary likes hot dry locations, so place it at the top and on the south side, where as Parsley will do better with more moisture (lower down) and in a little more shade.