Originally published at Women Not Dabbling by the Slow turn farmer
You were expecting Robbyn, I know. She couldn’t be here today so it’s me, Laurie, guest posting from the other Back Forty (square feet, that is).
My “Back Forty” is on a small urban lot in a historic district between a medium-sized university and the downtown of a small Southern city. I’ve been converting this lot into a permaculture garden since we moved here in December 2001. During this time, we’ve had four years of major drought and we are now in the second year straight of an extreme drought. Needless to say, it has been a challenge. After the first two years of drought, I installed a rain barrel on each corner of the house. It occurred to me during the current drought that you do need RAIN in order for a rain barrel to work. But I digress. I don’t want to chase away the dark clouds outside my window by discussing it further.
Here’s a little information about me and my patch of dirt.
I always thought that vegetable gardening was an affair with turned earth. Growing up on an eastern North Carolina tobacco farm, we always had part of a field behind our house plowed for the use of growing vegetables, in addition to a patch of blueberries and sweet Silver Queen corn at the main part of the farm. My father or brother plowed it with a tractor into neat sandy rows. When I moved to Greensboro and finally owned a yard of my own but no tractor, I tried to French double-dig a garden, following the gardening advice of John Jeavons and Mel Bartholomew. My back pain and chronic tendinitis generally flared up at the beginning of every year, and every summer was a disappointment as I became less physically able to do the work. Then I discovered a wondrous thing – a similar backyard space a few blocks away that grew twenty different kinds of fruit and many vegetables. And, for the most part, it was very low maintenance. The garden was developed over years by a permaculturist, who later became my mentor.
The term “permaculture” was coined by Australian Bill Mollison; a combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture.” In permaculture, farmers and gardeners attempt to mimic natural patterns to establish a sustainable, healthy environment that supports human, animal, and plant needs. The nurturing of the soil and the microbes and other little critters critical to its health plays a huge role. Permaculture is no-till agriculture, and it is much too complex to sum up in a single post. So I’ll hit briefly on a few simple principles.
First of all, soil is built in nature by layering. You need a lot of organic matter and minerals. In permaculture, we build raised beds by layering wet newspaper or cardboard over an area to smother the plants there. Earthworms love newspaper and cardboard and are attracted to it. They, in turn, till your soil for you to a depth of twelve inches! Keep your worms healthy and well-fed and they will fertilize and dig for you in return. I then put a mulch of straw or compost over the paper and plant into holes punched into the paper, if needed. Every winter I add more compost to the beds. Many gardeners plant a nitrogen producing cover crop and plant over it.
Secondly, diversity is important in nature. There are several levels of plant heights, and most plants naturally evolve to benefit from relationships with others. Think of the classic example of the three sisters: corn, pole beans, and squash. The corn supports the beans, the squash provides mulch, and the beans provide nitrogen. There are many known and still-to-be discovered beneficial and detrimental relationships between plants and insects. Observation in the actual environment over seasons and even years is the key, and the adventure. Nature does not understand monoculture. Unwanted bugs and disease love it though.
The last thing that I’ll mention is the relationship of your garden and you and your home. Permaculture design includes human habitat, and focuses not only on food, but on human comfort and efficiency. Traditionally, permaculture divides the outside space surrounding your home into design “zones.” Another nickname I have for the “Back Forty” is “Zone One,” which is the permaculture designation for a kitchen garden closest to your door. The furthest zone, if you are so lucky to have this much land, would be the edge of the natural habitat.
My Back Forty was developed a few square feet at a time, and expanded as my observations and whims dictated. I do most of my maintenance work over the late fall, winter, and early spring. I’ve learned what works, what doesn’t, and I will still be learning this space as long as I interact with it. I’m learning step by step, inch by inch.
My suggestion to my readers who long to begin a garden is to start small and expand to the size most suited to your lifestyle and ability. Use containers and straw bales if you have to! Don’t hurry. Don’t do more than you can do. Spend as much time as you can observing the light patterns and wildlife in different seasons. Remember that gardening is a connection between you and the land and everything in it. That is why it is so satisfying when it works, and when it doesn’t work, you will be less frustrated if you feel that interconnection with the earth. We all really are in this together.
Interesting links and books:
Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway
A Pattern Language (about design pattern for living structures and communities)
About the author: When not pushing papers in her day job, Laurie O’Neill grows tomatoes, okra, butterbeans, and many other vegetables and fruits in her urban backyard. She is a perennial student and fiber/book artist. An advocate of voluntary simplicity and Slow Food, she lives with four cats, eight fish, and one husband in the center of Greensboro, North Carolina and blogs at slowlysheturned.net.