Permaculture for Sanity Retention (and Landscape Management)
Kneeling on the lawn, dirty gloves to your face, you see the writing on the garden wall: you now understand the “gardener’s trap” you find yourself in – and you find yourself praying to that great tiller in the sky, to just come end it all. Now. Your garden (literally) looks like the heat death of the universe. A manifestation of pure chaos. The apocalypse, but with weeds.
I know this is a very geeky metaphor for a gardening blog, but it might seem clever in a moment if you bare with me.
Two years ago, you started your first garden bed. And while the work filled up much of your freetime, it was sooooo worth it: Beauty, cut flowers, fresh food – you were hooked.
You wanted more. You came up with a plan to convert your whole yard into gardens. Maybe annual flowers. Maybe an annual vegetable patch. Perhaps an English border garden. “Lawn be gone!” you proclaimed.
But in the second year, as you started working on your new beds, last year’s beds still demanded your attention. “That’s ok,” you thought,” this is my hobby.” And your expanded gardens expanded into your life, taking up the rest of your freetime. You still had dreams of conquering that lawn, but realized in your heart that you’ll never get there. Unless you can coax someone else into helping you.
I talk to many gardeners who’ve run up against this wall of time constraints. So many with big plans, but not enough time to implement them – and still keep up the gardens we already have.
But at least it works. You have enough time to maintain the gardens you’ve created. You and your garden are a “stable system.”
Until there’s a problem. (And there’s always a problem.) A particular “weed,” or even a beloved plant gets out of control. Ants start farming aphids on your favorite tree. A family of rabbits moves into your vegetable garden. Powdery mildew. Or even just a few weeks of extra rain and cool weather causing the lawn to need more mowing can tip you into the trap.
And because these problems require additional time to solve, and because you’ve already run yourself up against your personal time limit, you’re now in:
The Gardener’s Entropy Trap: Where your gardens takes increasing time and energy to maintain, but you’re all out of time and energy. And if your problem gets out of control, there’s a real chance it will enter into what’s called a “phase shift,” like the melting of an ice cube, a move towards chaos that takes a LOT of energy to get it back to the original state of organization (being a garden.)
So there’s no time to lose! You need energy!
Seeing the desperate look in your eye, neighborhood children run as you approach. Friends, family and even the significant other are all suddenly VERY busy with work/knitting/darning socks.
Now, the only viable solution is to dig up all the perennial weeds, till the garden under and start all over again. You give up. Fall down face first into the tangle, and let the minty darkness of the weeds envolope you….
You now understand one of the fundamental ideas in Permaculture. Blown up onto the societal level, you can recognize the same “entropy trap” or “complexity trap” in the problems of Urban decay, ever-growing taxes, our declining infrastructure, failing schools, our unstable financial system, a floundering industrial food system….
Whether you’re a ornamental gardener, market gardener, farmer, or homesteader, as we put energy into our landscapes, we all run up against this complexity trap sooner or later. The Energy Law of Gardens: A garden in motion will always expand to fill your life.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The primary idea of Permaculture is that there is one force, one source of energy that was available to us all along, and it WANTS to help us, if only we’d have chosen to make a place for it. That force is nature. And the energy it can provide is through what’s called “ecosystem services.”
(This naturally-occuring food forest filled with garlic, mustards, medicinal herbs and fruits requires 0 maintenance.)
In this way, we can finally conquer the lawn, and transform our yards the way we always wanted to.
Now, I can’t reduce all of Permaculture to one article. But I want to give you the single most important concept to understand HOW we can recruit mother nature (and her services) into our landscapes, farms and gardens.
The Intensity Spectrum
In Permaculture, systems that require a lot of energy and time from us humans are called “intensive.” This includes things like flower beds, veggie patches, produce fields and native gardens. Those where we let nature do the heavy lifting are called “extensive.” These include: naturally occuring ecosystems, stable agriforest systems, mature forest gardens and well-designed guilds.
Somewhere inbetween these two, there is a spectrum of relatively intensive systems, like edible meadows, intensive forest gardens and guids, hedgerows, slashmulch gardens, annual polycultures, etc.
The whole point of Permaculture is to balance intensive/extensive systems in a landscape (or city, or business, or organization) so that they better fit our available resources and our goals, minimize maintenance (by relying heavily on extensive, self-organizing systems) and maximize usefulness (by using JUST ENOUGH well-chosen intensive systems.) Period.
Zones are the most important tool for helping us achieve a good energy balance in the landscape.
Choose your battles.
Whether your goal is profit, beauty, or food sovereignty, keep intensive systems small and focussed.
(Clean edges where it counts at Lillie House)
Again, one of the most important concepts in Permaculture. We expect clean lines in the garden, even in the market farm. But these take a LOT of energy to maintain. So choose the places where clean edges will have the biggest impact on aesthetics and productivity.
(Edible border garden with “clean edge”.)
Elsewhere, we can use “soft edges” with fortress plantings and pioneer plant communities to maintain the edges for us.
(Soft edges at Lillie House.)
Post Wild Aesthetics
Even in the ornamental landscape, we can blend Intensive and Extensive. Having tidy Intensive gardens where it counts to make a visual statement, and using “Wild” aesthetics to lower our maintenance elsewhere. This ain’t a Permaculture idea though, this was once a major concept in horticulture, now mostly forgotten.
(The “wild” potager at Cambo is famous as an ornamental food garden.)
(A “Post Wild” landscape design.)
(An edible cottage garden associated with the PFAF project.)
Armed with Permaculture, and with nature as an ally, you’re ready to take on the lawn, once and for all. Working with nature, a little at a time, creating stable communities and plantings as we go, we shall garden the world.
Michael Hoag: Manager/teacher/gardener/author/designer/consultant.
Michael Hoag has spent over 20 years as a full-time worker in the army of Permaculture change-makers. He is founder of the Transformative Adventures Cooperative, managing director of Lillie House Permaculture, and a full-time Permaculture designer and consultant who has participated in over 300 projects. He has worked on farms of all sizes, worked with food justice organizations, colleges and universities, and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, and PIRGIM. As a teacher trainer, he has worked as a pedagog in crafting university curricula, adult education curricula, and programs for environmental and ecological awareness, and Permaculture. He has worked at a farm credit bureau, a commodities exchange, and managed farmers markets. He has created businesses including market gardens, vermicomposting operations, and helped start and lead multiple community and non-profit organizations.
Michael has over 20 years experience teaching classes and facilitating group projects, including community garden and forest garden projects. He’s an enthusiastic researcher of traditional temperate forest garden systems and productive ecologies of the Great Lakes region. The culture, history and aesthetics of gardens and garden architecture are his great passions, and he believes beautiful, healthy landscapes grow beautiful, healthy people and cultures. He has taught and lectured for McHenry County College, Arora University, the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, the Chicago Adult Learning Resource Center, The Kalamazoo Nature Center, and gives presentations to community groups, organizations and churches. He helps organize Van-Kal Permaculture, the SoMi Permimixer, Michigan Safe Energy Future, CORE and the Kalamazoo Climate Change Coalition’s Food Group.
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