Forest Gardening: foray into permaculture

Permaculture is sorta-kinda my latest obsession. I have had a growing interest in the principles and concepts of permaculture and have, as I am prone to do, researched it to “nth” degree over the past couple of years. And I have taken tiny baby perma steps in my garden beds. But recently, I’ve begun to move from researching to planning and putting into action.

For the uninitiated, permaculture is a relatively (as in the last 25 years or so) new term that combines elements of a stable or “permanent” nature to “agriculture”. But it’s also very much a way of life and a way of looking at and valuing life defined through symbiotic relationships within the natural world, conservation of resources, elimination of “waste” (not as in pooping, but as in using all outputs so that nothing goes unused – though poop comes up in that equation a lot!), working with and not against nature, and community (as opposed to rugged individualism).

This summer, I took an online course on permaculture design offered free of charge by Oregon State University. The design project I chose was my own yard which is roughly 1/4 acre. (Design pictured above.)

My vision is to turn my lawn, which consumes resources, into a forest garden which produces resources. Converting grass to a fruit orchard with perennial herbs and other edibles, a small meadow of wildflowers (to encourage pollinators and insect predators), a berry patch with blueberry bushes and strawberries, and garden spaces for annuals like tomatoes, peppers, and other veggies.

One of the really cool things about permaculture is the use of plant guilds or grouping plants together that are mutually beneficial. But, I’ll get into that in a later post as my own food forest develops.

I should explain here the concept of a food forest or forest garden. The concept is pretty straightforward, looking to nature – a forest – and applying those same features to a designed, food-producing garden.

Upper canopy tree layers can be nut and tall fruit trees; the secondary layer is made up of smaller fruit trees; the shrubs and brush layer can consist of blueberry bushes; vining plants such as raspberry and blackberry can grow vertically in the forest garden; with a ground cover that can consist of strawberries, alpine berries, and culinary and medicinal herbs and spices.

Another key feature of the forest garden is using perennial plants that, once established, take less labor and cost to maintain. The plants also work together to reduce the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.

It truly does sound like a fairytale forest, and though I’m experienced enough to realize it will be anything but a fairytale, I’m looking forward to being able to tell my forest garden story!



Spring: the renewal of hope

As you may have guessed I love gardening. But what I REALLY love is the idea of gardening.

I love winter because it is a time I can dream of little plants and seeds and I can think up all the projects that I’ll be able to do as soon as spring arrives. There is no commitment in winter. In winter all is fantasy.

It’s this period of fantasy that allows me to recover from the realities of summer and fall.

Summer is the season when weeding gets out of control, the insects and birds have enjoyed my produce more than I have, it’s when spindly unproductive plants sit there in the garden and openly mock my efforts. Summer is when I fully understand what it means in Genesis that “by the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food”.

Fall is when I fully reap my disappointment. It is a time of reflection when I realize that I spent far more money trying to grow my own produce than I ever would have dreamed of spending at the grocery store. Fall is when I truly do give Thanks, grateful that I don’t rely on my feeble ability to draw sustenance from the soil. It is the season where I harvest the bitter pill of great expectations wilting and shriveling on the vine.

So, I need winter. I need that time to dull the edges of a harsh reality. And I dream.

But spring! Spring is the season of renewed hope! By the time spring has rolled around I’m riding a seed catalog induced high of delusional confidence that this year will finally be my year!

I build on winter’s dreams with spring purchases. I diligently study and research the “how to”s for planting and growing. I’m ready this time. I’ve learned from last year’s mistakes. And, really, so what if I only harvested one tiny watermelon last year? It was after all the best dang watermelon I’ve ever had! I can’t pass up the opportunity to have another one.

So, spring has dawned. And with it the infinite hope for a brighter future. A future without squash beetles or horn worms. A summer with plentiful rains at just the right moment. The hope that benevolent little garden gnomes will pull weeds from the garden while I sleep peacefully – dreaming of blossoms and busy bees and delicious berries that the birds kindly leave for me to enjoy.

Yes, spring is the season of hope and renewal, new beginnings and unbounded optimism.

May spring’s hopes bloom eternal!

In Progress: the lazy gardener’s guide

I believe that in about 10 years’ time I may have built up enough experience to write the definitive guide for lazy gardeners. Though the word “lazy” gets a bad rap, in my humble opinion. There are a few synonyms for lazy that I feel describe my approach to gardening pretty well. Inattentive, dallying, neglectful and lackadaisical are a few of them. None of those are particularly flattering words either… though “dallying” and “lackadaisical” sound kinda fun! 🙂

I have nothing against tidy yards and gardens. I love to look at them and fully appreciate their symmetrical, well designed and pristine aesthetic. It’s sort of like looking at magazine photos of immaculate houses… they’re gorgeous… but I wouldn’t want to live there!

The green spaces that really draw me in are those that are more in line with nature. And

My backyard garden in all its unruliness!

tidy, nature is not! And when you quit trying to fight with nature and just sort of decide to go along with it, things naturally simplify themselves.

Let me throw in an analogy here. I don’t have curly hair. I don’t really have straight hair either. For years, well decades really, I fought the nature of my hair. I permed it. More times than I can count. I used curling irons. Diffusers. Hair product galore. Time, money – resources – were spent forcing my hair to be something it wasn’t. I won’t even go into the straight hair phase!

One day, as if awaking from some sort of trance, I decided not to have curly hair or straight hair. Instead, I would find a style that worked with my not curly, not straight hair. What an amazing idea! Now, I’m not going to say that I have had great looking hair ever since that remarkable breakthrough, but I will say that it has been an improvement  – and it’s WAY less expensive to maintain, it’s MUCH healthier, and I rarely spend more than a few minutes in a day fixing it.

So, am I lazy for choosing a low-maintenance hairstyle that requires little effort on my part? I don’t know. Maybe a little lackadaisical (defined as lacking enthusiasm and determination) – I think I could get on board with that.

My beautiful Zinnias come back year after without me having to plant them, they kindly re-seed themselves because I allow them to go to seed and don’t til the soil the following spring.

So, how does that apply to gardening? I don’t know! I’m still trying to figure this crap out, ok? But I do have a few working theories that experience will flesh out and time will tell.

Here are a few of my theories (most of which are actually someone else’s theory first and most of these theories can be read about if you research organic or permaculture gardening – though they probably don’t have the same names!).

Garden Ecology Requires Balance: This theory is pretty simple. If I use pesticides on my garden, I not only kill the pests, but I kill the beneficial insects too! My plants need pollinators, I don’t want to kill those. And lady bugs. Which are not pollinators, but they are adorable! And more importantly, they are ferocious and voracious. And what do they eat? Why aphids, of course.

And what about my dragonflies and damselflies… they do no harm to me. In fact, they bring me great pleasure as I watch them dart about in all their beautiful array of flashy colors. And they too are voracious… eating up mosquitoes and gnats and all kinds of pesky flyers.

The Circle of Life: This one is very similar to the first in that what you do to one species will always effect another. If you kill off (even using safe organic products) the insects in the garden, you will remove the food source for and therefor drive off all their natural predators.

This means that when the insects make their comeback (which they will do!), they will have fewer natural predators to contend with. Which in turn, creates more work for me (the gardener) to have to deal with these pests AGAIN.

But what if the pests are not removed, but allowed to hang around. They become a sort of living, breathing, breeding food buffet for their natural predators. This in turn draws in the predators, they are of course attracted to this handy and ready-made feast awaiting them. And as the cycle continues and the pests keep coming back, they keep being met by their natural predators which keep them in check.

It may be lazy of me, but if nature wants to do my work for me, who am I to argue?

Tidiness Equals Death!!!!  Ok, this one may be a slight exaggeration but I think it makes my point nicely. Like I mentioned above, nature is not tidy! Perhaps you noticed this the last time you took a walk in the woods.

Last fall’s debris still lying about all over the place, fallen limbs decaying in place and mercy-me-there-are-weeds-everywhere! What else do you see when you pause for a moment to be still and listen and watch? LIFE! It is all around in great abundance and thriving in all that mess!

No one waters the forest or pulls weeds or kills pests or fertilizes  or plants seeds or fusses. Yet plants flourish and life abounds.

Part of what allows a forest to be self-sustaining is the mess! All that decaying debris nourishes the soil, holds in moisture, protects against soil erosion and provides habitat for countless critters. Seeds fall and work their way into the ground and even plants that have an annual life cycle will reseed themselves and come back year after year.

Removing weeds and debris and keeping very tidy yards and gardens removes vast areas of

The unkempt area to the right is where the bees have decided to nest. And though it looks untidy, the greenery in the forefront is actually some very healthy blackberry vines, oregano, zinnias, mint, thyme, Mexican heather and citronella. This bed is my foray into Permaculture gardening.

habitat for our powerful little insect allies! I am so committed to this theory that I have even learned to not begrudge this good habitat for the spiders that live in my garden (and run across my bare toes or God help me, run up my arm when I’m digging around without gloves). Now, that’s commitment!

Sometimes, however, my commitment to my theories gets tested in dramatic fashion. I am currently experiencing one of those situations! My untidy garden is the perfect habitat, it would seem, for nesting bumblebees.

Bumblebees are harmless, they say! Don’t disturb them and they won’t disturb you, they say! They’re completely docile, they say! One of the most loved insects on the planet, they say!

The humble Bumble Bee!

Well, let’s just say I may soon be starring in my very own episode of “When good bees go bad!” and I find myself facing somewhat of a moral dilemma. Do I exterminate them and chalk it up to irreconcilable differences? Or do I stick to my theoretical guns and figure out a way to peacefully coexist with one of God’s smallest creatures?

The jury is still out on this one, but I’m hoping to find a peaceful resolution.

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Gardening: and so it begins

This is the time of year when the weather turns warm for a brief period and reminds me that spring is just around the corner. And being reminded of spring brings the realization that I have a LOT of work to do!

My favorite time of year to be a gardener is in the dead of winter when the first seed azaleacatalog arrives. It’s during this season that my garden exists in sublime perfection. The beds are without weeds, the destructive insects have chosen to bypass my little part of the world, the pollinators are plentiful, the flowers are beautiful and neatly arrayed, the vegetables (all 20 or 30 varieties of them) are hearty and producing large and vibrant produce that would be the envy of any self-respecting farmer.

Of course, it’s all in my imagination.

The true state of my garden in winter is one of neglect – sad, pathetic, dismal neglect.

So, as the robins fill my yard heralding the arrival of spring, I am spurred into action. So much to do and less and less time to do it!

Today, I picked up 10 bags of mulch, probably 1/3 of what I’ll end up needing when it’s all said and done. That was the only thing I had planned to purchase, but somehow I came home with two azaleas and a gardenia.

in progress
If you buy the bags of mulch that  have been split and are re-bagged, you get them discounted!

I tackled one of two front beds on either side of my porch. For years it has had lantana which has steadily looked worse and worse and I’m pretty sure finally died of natural causes (neglect is a natural cause, right???). I’ve wanted to do away with the lantana and replace it with something a bit more structured for some time, but I tend to focus my limited gardening attention span on plants that produce things that I can eat.

Since the lantana had mostly died back and I had actually done a pretty thorough job of weeding the bed already, I decided today was the day.

partly coveredAfter digging the holes and planting my new little shrubs, I covered the rest of the ground with several layers of newspaper and topped with about 2 inches of mulch. I’m hoping, with that special kind of optimism that only a gardener can muster, that it will be enough to keep the future weeding to a minimum.

I’m thinking of filling in some of the bare space with perennial herbs like thyme and oregano for some ground cover and maybe a couple lavender plants for some varied height. I’m also going to keep an eye out for something interesting and artsy to place toward the back of the bed for some additional height and interest. (Since I can’t plant back there because there are no gutters to divert the watershed.)

The bed on the other side of the porch is still a work-in-progress,  in my mind, that is. I’m limited to what I can plant there because it is entirely shaded. I am thinking of putting hydrangeas there, which I love, but have never grown successfully. Any thoughts or suggestions on shade loving plants that work well in Zone 8? (Oh, and that don’t mind too much if they are somewhat neglected?)azalea bed

Speaking of neglect in the garden, I do find that sometimes it works quite well in my favor. Especially with organic gardening, it can provide some great benefits.

Plants left in place will die and return their nutrients to the soil where they fall. The layer of debris protects the soil from erosion and drying out, it also provides a place for many beneficial insects to winter over. Some plants will generously reseed themselves. The little volunteers pop up and are often a pleasant surprise. (Though the time I had 20 volunteer Mexican sunflowers in the vegetable bed felt a bit more like an invasion than anything else.)

At any rate, I prefer to think of neglect as a clever plan rather than a dereliction of duty on my part.

One bed taken care of, but it is just the beginning…