Posts Tagged ‘permaculture’

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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There is a concept in permaculture, in which you re-frame a pest or a nuisance into a resource to be used.  As in, here at the Acreage, we don’t have too many mosquitoes…we have not enough chickens.  Or, rather, chickens in the wrong places.  After thinking for awhile about the million billion trillion mosquitoes in the barn, we decided to try putting some chickens in with the goats.


After milking and feeding were done, Hubby guarded the chicken coop door, while I grabbed ten chickens at random, and heaved them over the Ladies’ stall door.  The goats immediately started following the chickens around, wanting to check out these new creatures, chasing them all over the stall.  We had ten very put out chickens for about five minutes, but once the goats were over their curiosity, the chickens got down to mosquito eating.  They were very efficient – so efficient that they cleared the stall of mosquitoes, including pecking several right off the goats!


We opened the Ladies’ door to the goat yard, admitting another flood of bugs, and retreated to the house to deal with the milk.  By evening chores, we had two goats and ten chickens, all bunched together in the yard, hanging out.  Milking was much less of an ordeal than it has been recently – I only got bit twice, and Saffron was hardly bothered at all.  Now, we are trying to figure out how to give the chickens access to the rest of the barn without letting them up on the hay stack – goats are extremely picky eaters, and I don’t want to run the risk of the chickens pooping on the goat hay and ruining it.  What I would really like to do is free-range the lot of them, but we’ve seen a red fox in the yard, within twenty feet of the house, twice in the last three days, so I somehow doubt the chickens would last long outside of the fence.  Oh, well, at least the bug problem is somewhat solved…

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…Actually, it’s not just the Jam Gods.  It’s also the Chicken Coop Gods, the Hitting Yourself in the Knee with a Hammer gods, and the Sore Back Gods.  I think they are having a good old laugh at my expense.


We got going on the barn at about 6:00 this morning, as we wanted to get things finished up before the chickens arrive…tomorrow.  Things went fairly well until about 11:00, when we ran out of nails.   It all got pretty frustrating very quickly after that.  Hubby moved some straw bales around and was off doing useful things, but my back was too sore to contemplate most of the useful stuff that I could reasonably tackle.  With my back being so messed up, I can’t reliably work the clutch in the car, so I couldn’t even drive into town for more nails.  It’s probably for the best, as it would be an awful waste to spend $10 in gas to buy $5 in nails.


I was leaning in the doorway of one of the stalls, contemplating the goats’ million dollar view, when I noticed the dandelions getting thick again, even though Hubby just mowed the lawn.  in the spirit of good permaculture, I decided to try to make a resource out of something that is otherwise a nuisance.


I wandered inside and googled ‘dandelion recipes’, and came up with some interesting ideas for a batch of wine.  Unfortunately, they all seemed to call for about four gallons (!) of dandelion flowers.  I decided I had nothing better to do, and at least crawling around on all fours doesn’t aggravate my back.  It was interesting getting down there with a bucket – I noticed all sorts of bugs that I would never normally see, as well as really looking closely at dandelions for probably the first time.  Once you get past the ‘noxious weed’ mindset, they are actually quite pretty.  I was even kind of enjoying myself, but after about two gallons’ worth of dandelion heads picked, the knee I smacked with the hammer earlier (don’t ask) started to protest.  I couldn’t keep picking, but I did not want to have wasted all that effort.


I eventually found a recipe for dandelion jelly that looked pretty good, and only used ingredients I happened to have on hand.  It was fiddly, as you have to cut the petals off of each flower, enough to make a quart of petals (which takes about two quarts of flowers), but again, I had lots of time.  I cut the petals off the couple gallons of flowers I had, and got to work.


The first batch of jelly, I got over-excited, and put the sugar in before the pectin.  That one may just be syrup.  The second batch, I used low-sugar pectin, because I had run out of the regular stuff, and the whole thing set into a solid mass the second I added the sugar.  I am not sure what I did wrong there, as I followed the directions exactly.  Panicking, I added more dandelion broth and sugar, but it just turned into a lumpy soup, even after bringing back to a boil.  That used up almost all of my dandelion broth, so the planned third batch did not happen.  This really sucks, as it actually tastes great, even if neither batch gelled properly.   I am already looking forward to having some on pancakes.


So, in case anyone else wants to tempt the Jam Gods, here is the recipe for Dandelion Jelly:


1 quart dandelion petals (takes about 2 quarts of flowers.  I just used scissors to cut the petals off)

2 quarts water

Boil these together for about 10 minutes.  Strain through several layers of cheesecloth, or a jelly bag.  Add the juice of one lemon.


Measure out 3 cups of dandelion juice, and put it back in the pot.  Return to heat, and add one box of (regular!) pectin.  Following the directions on the package, add 5 cups of sugar (my packet said to add the sugar once the juice has come to a boil, then return to a boil for one full minute before removing from heat).  Ladle into pint or half-pint jars, and process for ten minutes.


Hopefully it will work better for you than it did for me, but by all means try it – it really does taste great!

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It’s gonna be busy around here for the next month or two.  Being the queen of biting off more than I can chew, I have ordered 50 chickens, 4 goats, and over a hundred trees.  Not to mention the vegetable garden, the herb garden, and the house renovations.  Then, of course, I wrecked my back, so Hubby is having to do all the actual work, and all I can do is supervise.  Poor guy.  I am unspeakably glad he is patient and easygoing – he just keeps repeating his mantra “you will get better soon”.  I hope he is right.  I am on three different medications, and none of them is working very well.   I only seem to get 4 hours of sleep at a stretch, and commuting to work is excruciating at the moment.  But I digress.

Last weekend, we (Hubby) planted 50 hazelnut trees at the Farm.  The University of Saskatchewan had a seedling variety trial on offer, and the trees were cheap cheap cheap.   Mom had commented that they needed a shelterbelt along the lane…so now they have one.  Or at least 150 feet of one (we planted in two rows).  We did not have enough spare cash to have someone else plow up the area, so we dug each hole by hand, then surrounded each tree with landscape fabric held down by rotten hay.  It was a loooonnngggg couple of days.

While we were at the Farm, we took a look at the orchard.  The temporary fence (long rebar stakes and plastic deer netting) did not hold up well, and the deer have nibbled off the tips of most of the apple trees.  Fortunately, they do not look too dead, so I guess we will just plan a better fence for next year…if we can afford it.  There was unfortunately a lot of damage to the apricot shrub, though – we did not wrap mouse / rabbit protector around the little shrubs, as we were afraid it would harm them.  It looks like the mice will harm them more.  I doubt the apricot will survive, as it is completely girdled on one side, for about three inches up the trunk.  That’s really too bad, as the tree would have been on its third year this year, and might have been bearing soon.   We had ordered another apricot for the acreage, and might just put it down at the Farm, instead.  We will see.

Our order from Grimo Nut Nursery (sorry, links don’t seem to be working today) arrived yesterday, and everything appeared to be there and in good shape. We ordered two types of black walnuts, a couple of butternuts, some shagbark hickories, and two Ultra Northern Pecans. All of them are questionable for our climate – there is some disagreement over whether they are zone 3 or zone 4, and the pecan could even be a zone 5. However, we decided we would plant them and see what happens – maybe they will be like the apricots, and grow just fine, but only bear nuts when it is a long summer. Even if they only bear one year in five, I would call them a good investment. If they survive the winter (and decades after), the walnuts and butternuts could also be used for lumber (I have heard of a good, straight tree being sold for ten grand, for furniture making), and the hickory wood can be used for smoking. So most of them have a purpose, even without the nuts.

We still have a ton of fruit, nut, and shelterbelt trees on order from Rhora’s Nut Farm and T & T Seeds. We have ordered from T & T before, and been pleased with the results. Rhora’s is new this year, so we will see how they do. Both Rhora’s and Grimo are in southern Ontario, so I am not so sure about how hardy their stock will be, but as they are the only reasonably-priced places I could find the nut trees I wanted, I will take the risk of losing some to winter kill.

In other news, the chickens will be coming in about two weeks. Fifty day-old chicks – some Plymouth Rocks, and some Silver-Laced Wyandottes. We have gotten the heat lamps, feeders, and waterers. We have not quite decided how we will contain them, or what to use for bedding. We actually don’t have a proper chicken coop, yet – it went on the back burner, as they have to be inside for the first few weeks, anyways. We have the choice of three different run-down former chicken coops here at the Acreage, or we might build their coop into the goat shed, so they can all help keep each other warm in the winter. We will need to decide soon, though!

We put a deposit down on four Toggenburg goats. The breed is the oldest registered, and although they don’t give the most milk, they are winter-hardy and calm. We will be getting an adult milking doe, a dry (not milking yet) adult doe, a baby doe, and a baby buck. I milked a goat a few times as a teenager, but Hubby has never been within five feet of a goat, so it will be a steep learning curve. They were supposed to be delivered this coming weekend, but the fellow had an emergency and had to change the delivery date. We were pretty relieved! Now, the goats are supposed to be coming in mid-June. That will give us more time to build the fence and renovate the former-granary / soon-to-be-goat-shed. We’ve already been in there cleaning, and that was a big job. Hubby has dug a couple of fencepost holes, but that job got interrupted when the hazelnuts arrived, and will be interrupted again to go plant the latest batch of nut trees this weekend. Too bad the Farm is so far – it is a 3 or 3.5 hour drive, so not really a day trip when you are doing heavy work in between. Oh, well, at least we have a bit of time on that, now…

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