Some readers seem to have got the completely wrong impression about applying the principles of permaculture to their gardens. Permaculture does not mean simply planting your garden with perennials and then leaving nature to get on with the job of creating an endlessly self-generating haven of plants, bees, butterflies and birds. Let me explain further and better put the record straight.
First and foremost: permaculture is the art of creating, and maintaining, an area of perennial plants, preferably utilising the numerous ‘edible’ ones available, and doing this in an organic, chemical free, way. It is also about inter-planting, under-planting, using trees, shrubs, climbers, creepers, herbs, vegetables, flowers and anything else that strikes your fancy which can be used to create a naturally balanced effect. Again, this does not mean whizzing selected plants in wherever you happen to spot a space as not all plant species are happy together and some totally refuse to co-exist with others. It is important, therefore, that you have some knowledge of what you are doing. This knowledge can be obtained through reading books, doing internet searches, studying plants in a natural environment and, of course, by continuing to read this column!
Here are a couple of examples of plants that hate each other to bits:
1. Passion flowers will grow any which way they can to escape any threat of competition from ivy.
2. Beetroot does not thrive if planted very close to trees as the tree roots starve it of necessary nutrients.
Plants that love each other and encourage those around to thrive:
1. Borage is the best ‘companion’ plant around as it helps other plants maintain essential vigour, encourages bees and other beneficial insects to take up residence in the garden.
2. Achillea millifolium actively assists grape vines to flourish when planted around their roots.
3. Garlic chives keep green fly and some other pests away from roses.
I may have put the cart before the horse in providing the above examples at this point but the information is extremely pertinent and should help you to understand the gist of the matter.
When you look at fertile areas of the natural world, an untouched rain forest for example, the relationship between plants becomes obvious: Creepers grow on certain tree species, orchids on others and fungi on yet others, while in their shade different plant species thrive in different locations with some enjoying full shade, and others dappled shade or partial sunlight. No one helped these plants to become established, no one selected where they should grow or not be allowed to grow as Mother Nature is wise enough to coordinate exactly what is suitable for where, in creating a permaculture garden, and you are trying (please take serious note of ‘trying’) to emulate Mother Nature as best you can. Inevitably, particularly in the early stages, you will make mistakes but, instead of being disheartened by these look on them as a learning process, using them as a basis for progression. No one gets it right all the time!
What you are doing is working with nature rather than against it and, in doing so, encouraging suitable plants to interact to the benefit of all concerned: this includes birds, bees, butterflies, etc.
Before sceptics leap in declaring that permaculture practices are not, for climatic reasons, workable in Pakistan, I must stress that, with the use of the correct, often indigenous plant species, permaculture can be extremely successful throughout the country. After all, what is difficult about growing grape vines up mango trees, without the use of any chemical intervention, in order to gain maximum production from limited space which is yet another aspect of permaculture which aims to gain as much produce from any given area as possible.
Applying permaculture techniques can quadruple the amount of edible produce harvested as every square inch, including the vertical, is used. Climbing beans and squash are grown up and over suitable shrubs and trees without any detrimental effect to either. Herbs and vegetables, chosen wisely, flourish underneath and in-between fruit trees which can benefit tremendously from the association. The soil is kept permanently covered either by productive plants or useful green manure crops and the space between say rows of carrots and onions is kept lightly mulched at all times. Mulching deters weeds and serves to retain soil moisture thereby reducing the need for watering.
A permaculture plot may look chaotically cluttered to the uninitiated yet, to its ‘guardian’ it is nothing of the sort. Every plant, large or small, has its place and, if properly maintained, all should be visibly healthy and largely pest free.
Maintenance of such a plot is an on going process: invasive plants must be controlled either by regular thinning or pruning, dead or damaged twigs and plants must be removed and, preferably, composted. Ripe seeds should be harvested instead of just being allowed to scatter themselves and germinate in unsuitable or overcrowded locations. Care must be taken that plants requiring a certain amount of direct sunlight are not deprived of this by other, perhaps more competitive plants and there should be cuttings to propagate, roots to divide and other general work to be done around the year.
If plants are allowed to self-seed then, quite often, such seedlings will need to be thinned out or even, if there are far too many of them for comfort, pulled up and added to the compost bin. Failure to do this will result in, over a two to four year period depending on which species are involved, particular families of plants dominating the garden and, indeed, completely taking over to the detriment of everything else, destroying the all important balance in the process.
In any permaculture plot, particularly if it is intended to provide a regular supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs for household consumption, it is usually necessary to dedicate three relatively small areas for the cultivation of seasonal annual varieties such as cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, capsicums, chillies, coriander, etc. with each plot being used for allied species on seasonal rotation to help retain soil productivity and associated nutrition. Alternatively, instead of retaining three large or medium sized plots for this purpose, such seasonal items can be scattered throughout the garden in small areas and, of course, in plant pots and other suitable containers.
Flowers too, especially edible or otherwise useful ones, do have their place in a permaculture plot as some species deter insect pests, others attract bees and butterflies and others are, quite simply, attractive to look at and, hopefully, to smell!
I sincerely hope that this gives you a better idea of permaculture than you may have picked up from a long ago, previous column on this fascinating subject, and it will encourage you to rethink your gardens in a more long term, economically feasible, way.
Give permaculture some serious thought please… it’s well worth losing yourself in!
Please continue sending your gardening queries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember to include your location. Answers to selected questions will appear in a future issue of the magazine. This takes time. The writer will not respond directly by e-mail. E-mails with attachments will not be opened. Please note: the writer’s garden is not open to the public.