Top Ten Tips We Used to Minimize Weeds

We may think our weeds HATE us, but they sure think we LOVE them!

At least right up to the moment they see us transform into maniacs with weed-wackers and sprays! Because, we treat them like we just can’t get enough of them. It’s like we do everything we can to encourage them to move in, grow and be happy – then all of a sudden we’re re-enacting the shower scene from Psycho with a weeder in hand.

Lately, I’ve been lucky to do a number of talks on Permaculture and forest gardening and the #1 question I get is: “how can I spend less time weeding?”

And the answer is, by and large, stop acting like a crazy human in a love/hate relationship, begging them to come back and then ripping them out again. Talk about mixed signals!
Also, stop bein’ a hater. For most of us, gardening is supposed to be relaxing and getting in touch with nature, right? So, isn’t it kind of a bummer that our number one garden task is eradicating nature from our garden?!
Clearly, there’s something not quite healthy about this relationship we have with “weeds.”
So, here are a few of top top 10 tips we used to minimize our weeding time, bring sanity back to the garden and treat our co-dependent weed neurosis.

10. Understand where the weeds are coming from. When the weeds moved in we used to go ballistic, but then we realized they’re just trying to help us out by turning our boring lawn and needy gardens into productive, low-maintenance forests for us, and they just didn’t get why we were trying to stop them!

Ecologists call this process “natural succession.” If you get more than 30 inches of precipitation per year, like we do east of the Mississippi, your yard wants to naturally become a forest. All those things we call weeds? That’s just what they are, nature’s little helpers re-building the woodland humans thoughtlessly removed.
So, instead of fighting them, we decided to help them out! We planted gardens with ecological succession in mind, letting our landscape evolve over time, from a one-dimensional grassland or flower garden to a young woodland of small trees and shrubs… and eventually to a woodland. It’s easier to slow this process down, direct it and work WITH it, than to try to stop it completely. Once they’ve finished their work, the weeds started to move on.

9. Our soil thinks we’re tacky. We may have our own favorite plants in mind when we plan a garden, but our soil has its own ideas, and it thinks we have bad taste.
Tip: if you have an argument with your soil about what to plant in your garden, your soil is going to win. Every time. So listen to it.
I talk to a LOT of frustrated gardeners who have tomatoes languishing year after year in the shade. Meanwhile, there are lots of “weeds” that are happy to thrive in that soil next to the unhappy tomatoes.
What do they do? Either they keep planting tomatoes and pulling weeds, or they give up! Instead, how about trying something like lettuces, carrots, onions, beets, or perennial vegetables that would work better in the shade?
And the number one frustration I hear is about “invasive” weeds infiltrating “native flower gardens.” We hear all the time that “natives” should be better adapted here, so, why are those weeds kicking the natives’ butts?!? I’ll write another post about this surprising fact next week, but there’s a shocking secret reason why our “native plants” just can’t compete with weeds in our “native gardens,” (Hint: Have you ever seen a “native flower garden” in nature?) We’ll also talk about a complete approach to “weeds” in native gardens.
8. Pamper the soil with organic matter. As we’ve already said, most “weeds” are early “pioneer” species working to repair disturbed forest. They germinate better in depleted soils with low organic matter than they do in rich, forest-like soils. As the soil becomes more “forest-like,” and richer in organic matter, you’ll get fewer weeds.
7. Stop creating perfect weed habitat.
Your weeds: “If you don’t’ like us, why do you keep making us such perfect little weed-homes?”
 See this:

This is why they think we LOVE them.

This looks like a McMansion to some agressive jerk of a weed. It practically has a “welcome home” sign on the door. Those stones collect water and “food,” provide habitat for worms and a nice empty root zone with no competition. It’s the PERFECT place for weeds! So are lawns: wide open monocultures of grass that weeds have evolved especially to grow in.
Just recognize you’re just asking weeds to move in. “if you build it, they will come.”
6. If you pull a weed, replace it. People weed the same dang spots over and over and over again. Why don’t we learn? If a weed has a perfect, un-tapped niche that it can exploit, it will. So, if you don’t want to encourage them, learn from them. At Lillie House we follow a tried and true Permaculture strategy that turns weeds into valued teachers: if you pull a weed, replace it. Otherwise, you’re just helping it out by clearing out space for it to thrive.
It’s like you’re cleaning it’s house for it.
Nice, huh? Why would your weeds ever want to move out!?
There are lots of great, useful, beautiful plants that can fill that niche as well as the weed could, and once the “house” is filled, the weeds will go elsewhere.
5. Stop digging. Seriously, humans act like they LOVE their weeds. It’s like we go out of our way to do extra work, just to make them happy. Digging (or tilling) destroys the developing soil ecology that would prevent weeds from germinating, exposes a whole new set of latent seeds that were safely buried in the soil to be the surface where they can germinate, and then mixes the soil with oxygen that stimulates bacteria and worms to release tons of nitrogen in the form that your garden plants can’t use fast enough, but it’s like SUPER FOOD for weeds.
Again, we’ll get into the details of this more next week, but the lesson is: If you’re digging, you’re going to have happy weeds. Period.
4. Instead, prep garden beds the way nature does: Mulch! And I mean MULCH! Not just a light sprinkling, but a good 4 – 6 inches or more. Thick mulches build organic matter, shade weed seeds and smother young weeds. The famous “sheet mulch” has some problems in our climate, mainly slugs, but still, we can use simple strategies to minimize slug damage, and sheet-mulching is a great strategy.
3. Fill all the niches: plant in polycultures and “guilds.” Again, don’t leave room for the weeds. Polycultures and guilds are planting strategies of combining multiple plants together in one garden. You can use ground covers like creeping thyme and clover as a natural, weed suppressing mulch. Establishing deep taprooted plants will compete with those taprooted weeds. Bulbs and woody perennials help repell grass. Spring ephemerals soak up excess nitrogen in the early season when weeds could use it to get a foothold. A garden that has a good diversity of useful plants will be more resistant to weeds.
2. Plant perennial fortress plantings. Ecologists have a term, the “edge effect,” which describes how edges of ecosystems, like the forest edge, are the most productive and fertile habitats. For example, the edges of our garden. We always leave them wide open to the weeds!
And we say we hate them?
Clearly, we have a very confused relationship here.
“Fortress plantings” are perennial plants at the edge of a garden bed that keep weeds from invading this fertile habitat. Woody perennials, bulbs, woody herbs and dense ground covers all make good “fortress plantings around our beds.
1. Appreciate your weeds, eat them. Or, more generally “harvest” them. In Permaculture, we define weeds as “a plant we have more of than we can use.” Virtually all our “weeds” have uses if we’re creative enough to utilize them. Dandelions feed our rabbits, make wine, and can be “cellar-forced” to produce a vegetable in mid-winter, comparable to the Belgian endive we pay $5/head for in the store! Each one can be harvested 3-5 times or more. Imagine each of our dandelions is worth $15 or more and we’re pulling them out to make room for a $2 head of lettuce! Poke and chicory roots can be used the same way to produce gourmet winter vegetables with no greenhouse or grow lights.
We used the same strategy for “sticky willy” and garlic mustard, which were absolutely out of control when we moved in. We got so used to using them that these days we rarely see them here, and when I do, I actually get excited!
Thistles and burdock can be put to good use, too, as they add a rich artichoke-like flavor when used as the base of vegetable broth (just don’t use the bitter skin of burdock.) The root of burdock makes a great vegetable (“gobo”) and the large leaves make fantastic deer-repellent mulch. A few years ago, we had deer eating all our pumpkin seeds before they’d germinate so we covered them with bitter burdock leaves and solved the problem.
Inedible plants and even poisonous plants like full-grown pokeweed can still be used in the garden, by being harvested for mulch. Many of these fast growing weeds produce lots of nitrogen-rich biomass to feed the soil.
Think about it: If you fill up most of the niches, stop exposing new seeds by digging, keep the soil covered and shaded, and use the few weeds you do get, weeding will stop being a “problem.”
Altogether, these tips create a much healthier relationship with weeds, and mother nature. Appreciate weeds, invite them to dinner, put them to work, value their ecological function, and let them do their job making your garden a richer, more diverse ecosystem. When they’re done, they’ll be less likely to overstay their welcome and cause you grief.
Who knows, you may even be sad to see them go.


"Food Forests Are Horrible Ugly Awful Places that Make Your Neighbors HATE You!!!"

(Food Forest in June of its first year at Lillie House. Ugly? Heck no! Not at Lillie House! PS – all those beautiful flowering plants are EDIBLE!)
Gaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!! This is driving me crazy!
I keep hearing from people that one of the LAWS OF NATURE of forest gardens is that for AT LEAST the first few years they’ll be ugly tangled messes that will drive your neighbors to drink – and then rotten egg your car, T.P. your house and vote you off the island. 5 times this week alone I heard this concern from 5 different people! I’m not entirely sure where this is coming from, but I’m guessing it has to do with rural agriforest systems. 
Here’s the thing, rural agriforest systems on farms aren’t designed for beauty. So don’t judge them for it! 
They’re designed to get farmers and homesteaders up and going with an easy and cheap planting that gets fruit trees in the ground on a large commercial scale with as little fuss, investment and planning as possible. Eventually, they turn into beautiful landscapes, but that’s just an added benefit, not their goal for the first year of planting. 
Forest gardens in urban/suburban areas CAN ABSOLUTELY be designed to be beautiful places, even in the first year. Personally, I consider it one of the most important factors of these gardens, that unlike conventional agriculture, forest gardens create a beautiful landscape for our communities. In fact, most academic researches include “beauty” as a part of the very definition of traditional forest garden systems, from the cottage gardens and hedgerows of England to the “home gardens” of the tropics! 
“Young food forest = ugly” is totally and completely false. Period. 
In my opinion, early establishment can be the neatest and most conventionally beautiful stage of a forest garden, if planned to meet that goal. 
The fact is, if you’re willng to spend as much on a forest garden as you are on conventional landscaping, you can have a functional forest garden that looks just like conventional landscaping. 
Easy peasy.
Of course, I have no idea why anyone would ever WANT to do that, because I personally think 99% of modern conventional landscaping looks horrendous and appalling and reflects the worst of cheap, disposable destructive consumer cultural values. “Conspicuous consumption” in plant form. But still, as a matter of point, there’s absolutely no reason that it can’t be done. 
(This is “attractive?” Sigh. Everybody’s entitled an opinion, right? Still, with plant substitutions this depressing landscape could AT LEAST be a productive edible forest garden…) 
These landscapes are designed for one thing, and one thing only: making money off of the human need for conformity. The style means that any unskilled laborer, with absolutely no understanding of plants, ecology, garden history or aesthetics, can make your yard look like every body else’s. 
On the other hand, well-designed forest garden aesthetics can reflect a whole history of human cultures, ideals of wealth and happiness, art and architecuture traditions, and a more rewarding relationship with nature that modern landscaping doesn’t even concern itself with. 
But that doesn’t necessarily mean forest gardens are “messy” or “ugly.” 
So lets put this bad, totally wrong idea to rest once and for all. Let’s look at some well-designed forest gardens in their first year in the ground. Some, in their very first spring, judging from the daffodils, not long after snow melt! So, not just beautiful in year 1, but from the beginnings of the first growing season. Beautiful. 
Forest garden polyculture bed in year 1 at Lillie House, in classic “Jardin de Cure” style. Dug just months before….
Center for Alternative Technology forest garden in year 1. Now, that’s beautiful! Speaks of a balanced, appreciative view of nature and our place in the world. 
Young food forest in an English back yard, from the great blog:  Reminds me a great deal of George Washington’s garden at Mt. Vernon, which could a great model for a food forest! 
There it is, one of the most famous gardens in American history, designed by the father of our country – I dare you to say THAT’s un-American! I can design you a food forest that looks just like this in its FIRST SEASON for a fraction fo the cost of conventional landscaping and it would feed you fresh vegetables, salad and fruit every day of the growing season. And your “patriot” neighbors won’t be able to say a word about your Washington-inspired aesthetics!

Seriously, does anybody on the planet think this looks better than George Washington’s garden? Think anybody’s going to be visiting this place to admire it’s beauty in 200 years? And keeping that ocean of chemical lawn from washing away those lonely little lumps of green –  clearly all hunkered down in battle formation – probably takes way more time and energy to care for than Washington’s work does.
Now, here’s a professionally installed forest garden in year 1. Beautifully done! Great use of color and texture, plus a feeling of being in cooperation with nature, rather than dominating it to submission with precise ruler-measured plant spacings, plastic cloth, poison and bizarre dyed mulches. I guarantee you it takes less work to maintain than the picture above it!

Beautiful beginnings of PJ Chmiel’s forest garden in Lawton, early implementation on a large, challenging site! Just one dude did that on a very limited budget as just one small part of a large project. 
Simple, standard suburban home forest garden year 1. Very well done. Anybody can do that. And it even looks good in suburbia!
Row of beautiful guilded fruit trees in their first year. Great use of layers and seasonal interest. 
Angelo’s famous sub-tropical Urban food forest in its first year. Well done! This micro-mini organic forest garden is famous the world over as a beautiful back yard that beats the productivity of professional, chemical agriculture many times over. In this early picture the largest plants are all annuals that could grow in our Michigan climate. You want to invest in quality hardscaping and your forest garden can look just like this – or better!
Young fruit trees in their second spring. There’s nothing about this guild that couldn’t look like this in year one….

Young (first year) fruit trees guilded with a beautiful herb garden. A great strategy for early succession.

The CAT forest garden ground covers, again in year 1.

At our place again. See that stick in the ground on the right? Year one! 

My “stick collection” in its first Spring. Guilded with beautiful, edible plants. Formal layout and mown grass paths kept a formal feel.

Beautiful thickly planted carpet of daffs act as a pest deterrent. Also pretty. 

Fall of year 2. Still lookin’ good! Visitors would often say: “Beautiful garden! Do you also grow food?” Clearly our forest garden didn’t look like a tangled mess of ground covers. 

Another view of daffs in the forest garden. All of what you see is in its first year, though we had the benefit of an unusually warm spring to get an early start. And our project prioritized low cost and ease of establishment over early aesthetics. We were dead broke after buying a house and relocating to a new state. That there garden probably cost around $100.

And finally, Hidcote Manor garden, one of the most famous and beautiful gardens in history. Often considered an “ornamental forest garden,” could easily be adapted with mostly edible species. Edible Hidcote, imagine that. Not hard, actually, since I see many edible species in the virtually every garden at Hidcote! Just one of MANY gardens in the English and French tradition that could easily be food forest gardens. 
So that’s that! I could have posted another 50 pictures from well-done projects I’m familair with… because food forests are just plain beautiful places.  
And if you’ve got a horrible, weedy tangled mess of a forest garden and the neighbors are starting to egg your car, get in touch with me and I’ll come show you how to fix it!
For more on food forest aesthetics, check out: 
(NOTE: Please be patient as I update this post with links. I published it with the Blogger App which doesn’t handle hyper links and it appears to have removed them all. So now I have to hunt them all down again. A blogging app that can’t use hyper links makes about as much sense as conventional landscaping….)

Permaculture Design Certificate Course-Fall 2016 at Lillie House

With “extras” on “Regenerative Living and Enterprise.”
(Page Under Construction Final Details TBD)

Course Runs 8 Saturdays, October – December, with a Design Presentation Symposium (TBD) 

The PDC developed specifically with Southwestern Michigan in mind! Get to know our local Permaculture opportunities, resources and projects, as well as growing information and experience refined to our local climate, soils, community character and market. Includes a list of over two dozen scalable “regenerative” business ideas with an unmet demand in our market, to help us grow a broad “regenerative enterprise community” to transform Southwest Michigan!

We teach the “PRI” curriculum, as taught by Geoff Lawton, which, from our research is the best around! And we teach that curriculum through a radically interactive, student-centered and “research based” educational approach developed by a professional pedagogy instructor who’s taught hundreds of teachers how to craft engaging, effective lesson plans.


Introduction to Permaculture:

Ethics and Principles

Concepts and Themes in Design

Methods of Design

Pattern Understanding

Climatic Factors and Design

Trees and Their Energy Transactions

Water in the Landscape


Eathworks and Earth Reources


Social Permaculture and Strategies for an Alterative Global Nation

EXTRAS in Social Permaculture, Financial Permaculture, and Regnerative Enterprise

Detailed Curriculum:

Day 1: Introduction to Permaculture

• Human past, present and future Permaculture design philosophy. Holistic thinking. • Key problems: Soil erosion, Deforestation, Pollution, Carbon, Climate and Consumption

• Ethics of Permaculture – Earth care, People care, Return of surplus

Comparing the “3rd ethic,” different perspecitves.)

• Definitions of Permaculture. Sustainability outcomes. History of Permaculture.

• Permanent culture. Urban Permaculture. Permaculture and City repair.

• Permaculture aid work. The Peraculture Master Plan.

• Permaculture in society.

• Permaculture as an holistic design

Example of a Permaculture System: Exploring and Analyzing Lillie House Design. 

Day 2: Concepts & Themes in Design (Approx. 4hrs ) • Sustainable systems • Hierarchy of soil creation in natural systems • Permaculture is primarily a design for a sustainable, human-controlled support systems. • The Prime Directive of Permaculture: Nature is the “super-client” • Principles of natural systems and design. Elements -needs and products • Guiding principles of permaculture design • The web of life and net of functional relationships of designed ecosystems. • Entropy extension • Energy capture within • Categories of resources and their management • Diversity -Yield • Mollison and Holmgren Principles 

Chapter 3: Methods of Design (3 hrs) • Design emphasizes patterning of landscape, function, and species assemblies. • Approaches to design • Analysis of elements • Maps • Sector planning • Observational, Experiential • Zones, Sectors • Slope, Orientation • Putting it together- Listing possibilities • Selection of random assemblies-Connecting components in a system 

Day 3 Chapter 4: Pattern Understanding (4hrs) • Seeing pattern as valuable connections • Growth patterns and explosive patterns • Scale of orders of size • Edge events and pressure between media • Recognizing pattern

Chapter 5: Climate Factors 3hrs 35mins • Climate and classic landscape profiles • Climate Differences Temperate Tropical, Dry-lands, • Continental effect, Maritime effect, Rain shadow • Orographic effects • Climate analogues • Classic landscape profiles • Major landscapes Humid and Arid • Minor landscapes Volcanic, islands high and low, coasts, Flatlands, wetlands, estuaries • Ecosystems as climate moderators 

Day 4 Chapter 6: Trees and their Energy Transactions 1 hr • Wind, Rain • Types of forest • Role of fungi • Legumes as support species EXAMPLE OF ENERGY TRANSACTION ANALYSIS

Chapter 7: Water 3hrs • Water harvesting earthworks • Rechargeable water and non-rechargeable water • The duties of water in landscape design • Swales, Gabions, Limonias, Dams • Types of dams • Capturing water from hard surfaces 

Day 5: Chapter 8: Soils 4hrs  • Collapsing soil fertility, difficult soils • Understanding soil erosion as number one global problem • Understanding where and why soils are conserved or increased • Understanding pH acid/alkaline analysis and interpret the consequence • Role of Weeds as repair mechanisms • Compost and the decomposition cycle of humus creation • The function of the hair roots of plants feeding on minerals and structuring soil starch exchange.

 Chapter 9: Earthworking and Earth Resources 3hrs • Earthworks and earth resources • Terra-forming • Landscape restitution • Machines used in earthworks • Planning earthworks • Soil tests • Surveying and site pegging • Planting after earthworks • Slope measurements • Levels and leveling • A design for water harvesting earthworks 

Day 6 Chapter 10: Climate Design 4 hours • Climate comparisons -house design • Energy use • Aspect -Heating /Cooling • Waste systems • Garden design • Food Forest comparisons across climates • Main crop comparisons • Seasonal timing • Mulch and forage production • Small animals • Comparisons in zone 3 • Comparisons in farm forestry 

Chapter 11: Aquaculture 1 hr 35mins • Chain of life in water design • Selection of species • Self-foraging systems for fish • Pond sizes • Aquaponics

Day 7 Chapter 12: “The Strategies of an Alternate Global Nation 4 hours • Invisible structures • Establishing permaculture community groups • Bioregional resilience • Necessary legal structures • Formal and informal financial strategies. Trade • Village systems Community land development • Establishing not for proit Permaculture Institutes & Mollisonian “Invisible Structures”

Day 8: Social Permaculture and Design Discussion and Review 8 hours  • Review and case studies of social Permaculture structures around the world • Building effective social Polycultures • Financial Permaculture and Regenerative Enterprise  • 

Design Symposium and Public Presentation 



Gardening in the 2016 Drought

Last year was so wet, and so predictably so, that we didn’t even bother to put out our rain barrels. No need. Would have been a waste of time and energy. All our beds are designed to collect water, and we were getting at least an inch per week anyway. Other than “watering-in” seedlings, I never watered once all season.

Same thing the year before. Two good years in a row!

Spring 2016 will bring the return of our rain barrels. After looking at US and EU drought monitors, as well as a private service, all are predicting that we’ll fall somewhere between “drier than average” and severe drought for the Great Lakes region by August. Since I’ve only got about a half-hour to type this up, I don’t have time to link all my sources, so if you’re curious you can get online and search for “2016 drought predictions.” (Edited to add one article:
No need for panic, but with the possibity of dry weather looming, smart gardeners and Permaculture designers will plan to mitigate that risk and take advantage of potential opportunities for the season. 
Be prepaired to take advantage of a possible early, warm, dry spring. Dry weather means we may be able to work soil, dig and plant earlier than usual, but that doesn’t mean we won’t necessarily get snow in April. So consider early plantings of frost-tolerant “spring mixes” of mustards, cold-tolerant lettuces, arugula, salad cress, shungiku, baby bok choi and other cabage relatives that can survive a week under snow cover should the need fall. 
If you till for cold-season crops like oats or peas, this might be a good year to give them the early start (February-March) that they like.
If you’re looking to establish a Permaculture or forest garden season, it pays to plan well for dry weather. 
The old-fashioned Permaculture advice of establishing a food forest by planting small, dense, manageable “guilds” of plants right close to your door or outside living areas would be a good approach this year. Try to get the ground completely shaded. I’d only plant as much as I knew I could water once a week, each week. And I’ll be mulching like crazy. 
More distant plantings that are unlikely to receive weekly watering should focus exclusively on “early pioneer” species that do well in dry thin soils: Elderberry, Eleagnus, rugosa roses, hawthorn, hackberry, black cherry, locusts, mulberry, nanking cherry, sand cherry, and hazel. Planting black raspberry requires special maintenance considerations (they can be weedy in mid-succession before the trees and bushes fill in) but would ensure a fruit yield in the second and third year.  These plants together could make a good “pioneer guild” for starting a hedgerow or forest garden. Then, plant in some higher value species later. This is how we established our hedgerow in a droughty year, and I’m glad we did it that way. Paw paw is often listed by university extensions as drought tolerant, but keep in mind that they also require shade during establishment. Same with aronias and vibirnums.  

For ground covers, consider a high percentage of drought tolerant mediterranean herbs, which have a stronger flavor in dry weather: lavender, oregano, thyme, sage, salvias. 

Turkish rocket, Egyptian onions, chives, and asparagus are generally drought-tolerant perennial vegetables that could establish well in a dry year. Pay extra this year for larger asparagus crowns and send them back if they arrive dried out. 

Squash are a good, drought-tolerant annual and I have a wacky theory that the leaf-shape evolved specifically to somehow create a moist, micro-climate underneath. If I want to show off my soil on a dry day, I go straight to a squash plant, lift a leaf and pull out some nice, rich, moist soil. It’s reliably some of the best soil in the garden. I’ve seen other gardeners do the same! 
I consider a “STUN” (Sheer Total Uttern Neglect) approach (which has become quite fashionable) of large, linear plantings over large spaces (an acre or more) to be an important experiment (to be conducted with good documentation and A-B testing on site, of course!) but completely experimental none-the-less, rather than a “tried and true” recommendation. But this year (in my opinion) would be a bad year to try that experiment, unless you’ve got free plants or “farm grant” money you don’t mind wasting on a truck-load of dead trees. 
Instead, look into the well researched “Miyawaki method,” developed and tested in temperate Japan then tested in many different climates. While developed to restore native forest, it has been widely adopted by Permaculturists outside the US (including Geoff Lawton) especially in tropical, dry and Mediteranean climates: extremely dense plantings in a diamond at least several rows thick. Collect stock from local wild populations (like rest stops and parks.) Prep the soil well. Mulch heavily. 
If planting on a slope, use swales or “passive swales” made by piling organic debris like tree limbs on contour, on the uphill side of your tree planting. Take time to plant trees with “watering basins” around them to collect whatever rain water they get. You do this by creating little raised “dog dishes” of soil around the trees when you plant. Mulch, mulch, mulch. 
It might also be a good year for rock gardens, alpine gardens, herb spirals, or prickly pear cactus. 

Of course, the predictions could be wrong. It could be another wet, wild, slip’N’slide of a year like the last two. But I’m confident these are good recommendations in any year. We were spoiled by the last two seasons. Starting a garden project on a drought-tolerant foundation will ensure a resilent ecosystem that can stand the dry, when it inevitably does come. 

8 Patterns for a Permaculture Kitchen Garden Make-over

Check out this new short video of Geoff Lawton’s Kitchen Garden Make-over at Zaytuna farm:

The garden beds you’ll see in the video above, like most of Geoff Lawton’s kitchen-garden designs, look very much like the kitchen garden beds you see in our pictures at Lillie House, and that’s no coincidence. 

I wanted to share this video because it shows a collection of classic Permaculture patterns that go together well to create a style of vegetable gardening that work well almost anywhere. This video is at Zaytuna, Geoff Lawton’s farm in subtropical Australia, but the patterns can be adapted easily to the Great Lakes growing region. 

Anybody can use these 8 patterns in their garden for less work, more productivity and a more natural ecosystem that’s better for the planet. 

Together, these patterns create a garden that is self-weeding, self-watering, self-fertilizing and easy to maintain.

1. Garden beds designed to collect water. When on a slope put beds and paths “on contour,” as you see in this video. On flat land there are other strategies, such as collecting water from downspouts. 

2. Permanent, no-till beds that last many years before needing to be dug again (if ever!)

3. Double-reach size beds, where you can reach to the center from both sides. Typically, this is said to be 4-5 feet, but may be smaller depending on your body and reach. 

4. Right-sized paths. Geoff made his paths large enough to run a rototiller through, since maintaining paths is one of the most time-consuming garden chores. I’ve seen other Permaculturists take this route derived from traditional French gardening. This is often called “dust mulching.” In our climate, and because I want to access the garden even when it’s wet, I prefer to mulch deeply and periodically use the composted mulch to fertilize the beds. But the general rule in Permaculture is that narrow paths (1 – 2 feet) reduce maintenance and weed pressures, while wider paths increase access. So, the general  recommendation is to have a few nice, wide paths (4 feet or more) for access and keep other paths small. Since, some people find small paths uncomfortable to work in, so there’s nothing wrong with wider paths, but remember that each wide path take significantly more time and energy to maintain. 

5. Use of nitrogen fixing plants. Of all the “fertilizers” required by garden plants, Nitrogen is often considered the most important, usually because it’s the most in demand. And since it’s water-soluble, it’s hard to keep around in a climate with much rain. Nitrogen fixing plants have a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria that actually allows them to pull nitrogen from the air and deposit it in the soil where it can be used by plants. At sub-tropical Zaytuna, they’re using cow pea, pigeon pea, and alphalfa. Here at Lillie House, we use lupines, blue false indigo, lead plant, clovers and nitrogen-fixing bushes like goumi. In climates with cold winters, it’s also important to plant winter ephemeral plants that catch and hold nitrogen from dying plants and keep it from washing away in winter rains and snow. 

6. Close plantings that create a “living mulch.” If you plant closely, you shade the soil, actually conserving water. The old thinking was that close plantings would create competition and deplete resources, but new research indicates the opposite is true. Cooperation between plants actually helps more than competition hurts. Gee, I guess that’s why natural plant communities tend to be tight, rather than at botanical-garden spacings…. 

7. Chop and drop mulching. First you chop it. Then you drop it. No trip to the compost pile with that weed you just pulled, you just put it right there on the ground to “tuck in” your prized plants. Geoff shows this in the video. In tight natural plantings, as plants grow, we harvest some and cut some out to make room for the important ones we want to encourage. Ideally we want every plant to get lots of sun, but not the soil underneath. As we pull plants, we can use these fallen comrades, especially nitrogen-rich ones, to mulch and fertilize the garden. 

8. Well-designed, mixed Perennial/Annual “polyculture.” Rather than just planting one plant per bed (monoculture,) the gardens at Zaytuna and Lillie House both use a polyculture designed to be scatter sown over the garden to reduce maintenance. Here, we’ve even designed ours to be “self sowing” by selecting cultivars and species that are known to self-sow well. This dramatically reduces the time we spend sowing crops. Whenever we harvest something, the seeds are already there in the seed bank, ready to spring into action when a space opens up. We just select the ones we want as they grow. The “thinnings” either get used in salads or “chop and dropped” back onto the soil as fertilizer. 

And of course, you can select plants that are not only useful and edible, but also beautiful, for a garden that’s both attractive and functional. 

If you want more Permaculture inspiration for this year’s garden plans, come out to the showing of Geoff Lawton’s Urban Permaculture video at 7:00 in Kalamazoo. For more info, visit:

And if you liked this post, consider signing up for our free mini-series on Forest Gardening:

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Envisioning a Forest Garden

As we get ready to start our email series on forest gardening basics in mid-February, I wanted to serve up a few appetizers.

The Permaculture design process starts from patterns and moves to details, so to get familar with what food forests are about and more importantly, what they look and feel like, here are 3 really fantastic videos featuring cold-climate forest gardens. They’re each about 15 minutes long and well worth the time.

Martin Crawford’s Forest Garden

This video features one of the oldest temperate forest gardens in the world, possibly the oldest that was designed and created as a forest garden instead of being adapted later from a more conventional garden or orchard. Martin Crawford is the author of many fantastic books on forest gardening and the publisher of Agroforestry News.


Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute forest garden.

Another early example from a dryer climate than we have in the Great Lakes region.


The Avis’ zone 3 micro-food forest.

This video from Calgary Canada shows what’s possible on a VERY small urban r suburban yard. The first video features the forest garden, while the rest shows other design features from their very cold climate. Many of these features aren’t necessary in the Great Lakes region, but the forest garden’s a good example of how to make good use of small spaces.


If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave me a comment.



Forest Gardening with Native Plants

Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of questions from native plant lovers who want to know if they can create native forest gardens, or even adapt their current native flower gardens into food forests. 
Of course! 
In fact, many researchers now believe that the whole of the Eastern Woodland was one big “anthropogenic” food forest, meaning, humans were one of the keystone species controlling the plant varieties, spacings, etc. So, when we create native food forests, or at least food forests with lots of natives, we’re re-creating our true lost “pre-Colombian” habitat. 
In fact, our back-yard is a “mostly native” forest garden, that fades into an emerging native coppice lot (though this transformation is still underway.) 
Transforming an existing native planting into a native forest garden is one of the easiest ways to get started with a food forest. And since you’re handing over your maintenance to mother nature, who’d really like to turn your “native garden” into a forest anyway, it’s probably one of the easiest ways to maintain your native planting. 
To help you get started, I worked with my buddy PJ Chmiel to create an extensive list of edible native plants, along with our top recommendations, and included it as part of a free short email series: 

Getting Started with Forest Gardening

This short series will focus on the basics, and giving tips for an easy, DIY approach to creating a small starter forest garden that can later be expanded to transform your entire yard. We’ll get started in February and run through part of the growing season, so you don’t have to worry about getting junk mail from us for all eternity. 
Sign up and you’ll get our pamphlet on edible native plants today!

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And starting this Spring, we’ll even help you walk through every step of creating your own forest garden with our complete Forest Gardening Course, which I’ll be writing more about later. Right now, we haven’t officially opened this course for registration, but we’re taking feedback and questions. And for blog readers, it’s available for an early registration discount that will go away once we launch the course. So now’s the time to get a good deal!