With the move to the acreage and the planting of trees and all the rest, I have been doing a lot of reading about permaculture.
The word permaculture is a contraction from ‘permanent agriculture’ and ‘permanent culture’, and although it is mostly applied fairly specifically to gardens and planting, the principles are broad enough to apply to homes, communities, and nations. Permaculture is, in essence, both a philosophy and a design strategy of mimicking nature, through specific principles like catching and storing energy, producing no waste, and valuing diversity.
In my own case, I am looking to apply it to…well…gardens. I have ten acres to ‘do something’ with, including a couple of acres of grass to mow (not including the pastures), and I felt that permaculture could offer an interesting way to tackle my hatred of lawns as well as my wish to do something a little different. I also love the idea of ‘food forests’, which relate very closely to permaculture ideas, in which the gardener creates a multi-story ‘forest’ of trees, shrubs, and ground-hugging plants that produces food, fiber, and useful herbs for the gardener’s consumption.
With that in mind, I acquired a number of books about permaculture. I thought it would be interesting to review a few of them:
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, 2002.
David Holmgren was a co-originator of the original concepts of permaculture, and his book explores the twelve broad philosophical principles that inform more applied practical designs. It is an interesting read, and is probably an appropriate introduction to someone wanting to understand the ideas behind the practice. It does touch on some of the basics of actual design, but very generally, typically in a paragraph or two, as an example to illustrate the principle. This book was well-written, and I enjoyed reading it, but it certainly is not a practical manual for how to design or create a permaculture planting.
The Basics of Permaculture Design, Ross Mars, 1996.
I had high hopes for this book, just based on the practical-application bent of the title. It does address much more specific aspects of permaculture design, including the zone system (zone 1, closest to the house, is the best place to plant things that need a high level of care, or that are frequently used, like herbs or lettuce, whereas zone 3, further from the house, is a good place for, say, a fruit tree that really only needs attention a few times a year), water-capture techniques like swales (water-capture ditches) and directing drainage, and strategies for arranging plantings. This book has something of a focus on big solutions more suited to larger properties, which was not an issue for us with our ten acres, but city dwellers with a small urban lot might find that a fair bit of the design information does not really apply to their situation. There are a few pages addressing limited spaces, but they are not a primary focus of the book. This book was still more of an overview of design, however, and did not get into specifics on guilds (groupings of various types of plants and trees that work well together) or soil building – it is a handy reference for someone who knows a bit about permaculture and wants to sit down and draw out a general plan for a large property, but not a detailed guide for how to actually decide what plants to put where.
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home Scale Permaculture, Second Edition, Toby Hemenway, 2009.
This was the most detailed of the three permaculture books I am reviewing. There are chapters on how to build soil, specific home-scale strategies for catching and holding water in the landscape, and designing garden guilds through observation and understanding the functions of various plants. It also addresses small properties, devoting an entire chapter to how to tailor solutions to limited spaces. While this book does briefly discuss the principles of permaculture and permaculture design, the bulk of the writing is about the nuts and bolts of improving your soil and planning how to plant things in your yard. This is what I had been looking for, and was therefore the most immediately useful book for me, right at this moment. The writing was engaging, and the author went into enough theory for the reader to have a basic understanding of why you should do something a certain way, without bogging down on the philosophy or pedantic detail.
All three books were interesting, and each approached permaculture from a different perspective. I know a lot more about permaculture now than when I started out, for sure. If you were wanting to understand the philosophy of the movement, Holmgren’s book is a must, but if you just want to plant a few trees with berry bushes and insect-attracting flowers underneath, it is probably not the best choice. Of the three, The Basics of Permaculture Design was probably the least-useful book, as it was too general to really use as a manual for how to plant your garden, but not broad enough to thoroughly cover the various philosophical aspects that inform permaculture, overall. However, if you are buying a group of books on permaculture, this one is worth considering, as it fills in the intermediate details of how to pull together a larger plan, particularly for more rural properties with lots of space.
I was somewhat disappointed that neither of the practical manuals gave a detailed list of guilds. Guilds are communities of plants, usually including at least one major tree, that support each other in various ways, including attracting beneficial insects for pollenation and pest control, fixing nitrogen in the soil, providing shade for plants that need it, and so on. The expectation is that most, or all, of the plants used in a guild have multiple functions, including some that are useful to humans, like providing fruit, or beauty, or medicinal or culinary herbs. Hemenway’s book took a stab at detailing a few guilds (particularly the apple and walnut guilds), and gave a detailed analysis of how to create a working guild from plants that are suitable to the specific conditions in your yard, but there was no clear indication of what plants are best with, say, a plum, or peach, or nut pine, or hickory. Apparently, permaculture is new enough in the temperate zones that this information is still being worked out, but as a gal who has planted more than 200 trees (of several dozen varieties) in the last few years, I don’t really want (or have time) to go into the sort of research that would be necessary to create appropriate guilds for all of them. My own situation is particularly unlikely to have a thorough and detailed analysis anytime soon, as I don’t think there are enough people living in zone 2 and 3 to make it a priority for permaculturists doing practical research.
At any rate, if you are considering re-designing your backyard, or planting a few trees, I would encourage you to look into permaculture as a tool in your gardening toolbox. It is a radical re-thinking of gardening and orchard-keeping, but one that has a lot of potential, especially for lazy gardeners like me, since a central theme is to design your planting so that nature takes care of most of the watering, weeding, and pest control.
…and if anyone knows of a detailed list of zone 2 and 3 guild possibilities, or even a comprehensive plant list that details different functions (like nitrogen fixing, attracting pollenators, accumulating nutrients, etc), please point me in that direction…
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