Permaculture for the Home Landscape
by Ron Dellapenna
Permaculture is a set of techniques and principles used to create sustainable designs where humans and nature are interconnected. Some areas where permaculture can be used are landscaping/food production, energy efficiency, water management, home building and community design. Resources are used in a sustainable way mimicking the efficiencies found in nature.
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There are three basic principles in permaculture:
1) Care of the earth,
2) Care of people,
3) Share the surplus (food, wealth, time).
These principles emphasize community and the environment vs. individualism and consumerism.
A central theme in permaculture is the design of food producing ecological landscapes. These ecological landscapes are a mixture of wildlife gardening and edible landscaping. The former creates or preserves an environment that provides the essentials for wildlife survival, where native plants are emphasized. The later emphasizes the production of food for human use. The permaculture landscape takes an ecosystem approach, where components provide multiple uses and there is a wide diversity of species. As in natural ecosystems, more complexity means more resilience.
A permaculture landscape is built on a healthy soil ecosystem. Organic material and natural fertilizers are used to enrich the soil which, in turn, feeds the plants in the garden. Compost can be made from yard waste, kitchen scraps and manure, and can be used to supply organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Leaves and grass clippings can be used as mulch that help control weeds, conserve moisture and regulate soil temperature. Composting and mulching return waste, as nutrients to the garden ecosystem, following nature’s cyclical pattern.
The some of planting design methods used in permaculture are interplanting, companion planting, polycultures and guilds. These planting methods use a variety of plants placed in a way that minimizes competition, enhances growth, reduces labor, increases yield and benefits the environment. The edge effect is an important concept in nature and permaculture landscaping. The edge is where two natural systems meet, and it is important because of high biodiversity. Examples would be where a lawn meets a garden or where a garden meets a water feature. The edge effect can be enhanced by making irregular shaped beds and/or by layering plants from short to tall.
Different plant species are selected for various functions such as nitrogen fixation, food production, soil enrichment, medicinal herbs, and wildlife habitat. Below are some examples of how plants can be used in the permaculture garden.
Whether planted individually or as part of a garden bed, trees have many functions. A properly placed tree can help save on home energy use by casting shade in the summer or blocking the cold winter winds. Shade also provides a microclimate for shade loving plants and the leaves are a source of organic material and minerals to enrich the soil. Trees are food producers for humans and wildlife. Apples, peaches, cherries, pears, walnuts and chestnuts are examples of common food produced by trees. Native trees require less maintenance and can produce food for humans and wildlife such as persimmons, paw paws, serviceberries, and hickories.
Shrubs form the next level in the permaculture garden and, like trees, they provide year round structure. Shrubs such as viburnums, inkberry, and winterberry can provide cover, food and nesting sites for birds, which in return, help keep insects under control. Shrubs planted as hedges can provide privacy, a windbreak and a barrier to some garden pests. Hardy native shrubs such as blueberry, elderberry, raspberry, beach plums and hazelnuts provide food for humans and wildlife.
Perennials are very versatile plants since they can be utilized in small spaces and require less maintenance than annuals. Flowering perennials attract beneficial insects; predators to control pests and pollinators that increase fruit yield. Examples of these insectary plants are: bee balm, butterfly weed, mint and lavender. Perennials are also a source of culinary herbs (sage, chives, oregano) and medicinal herbs (comfrey, coneflower, ginseng). Rhubarb and asparagus are examples of two perennial vegetables. Strawberry and creeping thyme, are two perennials that serve both as a groundcover and a food source.
Annuals, though temporary, produce a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Their bounty includes tomatoes, peppers, squash, spinach, lettuce, potatoes, carrots, etc. Some annual vines such as cucumbers and pole beans can be grown on arbors and trees instead of the usual clematis. Some nitrogen fixing annuals provide the important function of supplying available nitrogen to other plants. These legumes include beans and peas. Of course annuals can provide continuous flower blooming for enjoyment through out the growing season.
This was just a very brief introduction to permaculture in the home landscape, but the possibilities are almost endless. Our current agricultural system is heavily dependant on energy from fossil fuels. It takes 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food. Large amounts of land are converted to agriculture to support a growing human population, reducing wildlife habitat. Most of our suburban landscape is used for aesthetic and recreational value. By applying permaculture to the home landscape we can help prevent habitat loss, reduce energy usage, and by supplying food you save money while eating healthier.
Further reading: Gaia’s Garden (Chelsea Green) by Toby Hemenway, 2000
Ron Della Penna is a professional landscaper, and also an avid Green Living Journal reader who wishes someone would start an edition in eastern Pennsylvania.