Landscape Gardening: Real Permaculture

Can one woman really garden on about two acres using hand tools in just a couple hours per week? Absolutely! That’s what I do. I occasionally get some help from Matt for special projects. But the routine care is my domain.

My secret weapon in being able to handle all this land is permaculture. And I don’t mean the lightweight “one trick wonders” that pose as permaculture.

The Three Sisters

You know what I’m talking about – those clever ideas that seem so simple on the surface – like the solution to all your problems. Then, after you try them, you realize that can’t be what the hype is all about. There must be more to it.

For example, the “three sisters” is commonly cited as a perfect example of permaculture. You plant the corn first. Then once it gets about a foot high, you plant beans to vine up the corn stalks. Once those emerge, you put in a vining squash plant to spread and grow below those two taller structures as a weed-preventing, moisture-retaining ground cover. Then, after harvesting all your bounty, you chop and drop the plant parts on the beds to act as mulch and decay to feed the next plants grown in that area.

That is a wonderful example of interplanting and green manuring. But it’s not necessarily permaculture. In fact, in my garden conditions, the three sisters is an absolutely terrible plant guild and the anti-example of good permaculture!

The beetles come for the beans then quickly spread to the squash. The fungal pathogens flourish under the humidity retaining squash leaves. When the squash leaves succumb to powdery mildew, then the next big rain splashes fungal spores from the soil up on the corn and it goes too. With all that disease and those insect pests, composting that stuff or leaving it as mulch on the beds perpetuates those fungal and pest problems. So, frankly, it’s not even a good example of interplanting or green manuring in my landscape.

Also, the part that people often leave out when they cite the Aztecs as the source for that brilliant bit of strategic planting is that the Aztecs likely fertilized these plants with nutrient rich night soil (code for humanure). They also planted ancient cultivars of these three crops that have only limited genetic similarity to what we grow today. The wilder variations the Aztecs grew (which still exist today but just aren’t popular) had much better disease, weed, and pest tolerance than our modern, more cultivated varieties.

The reason this example gets used so often though is because it points you in the right general direction of the kind of “systems thinking” that takes place when you practice permaculture. It makes you want to dig deeper and find out what permaculture is really all about.

Permanent Culture

Permaculture is a contraction that means “permanent culture” or “permanent agriculture” (depending on who you ask). It’s about long-term regenerative agricultural and sustainable living practices that typically require significant work in the beginning. After the big jobs involved in setting up permaculture infrastructure are done, then the systems are self-regenerating and require minimal maintenance from you. These systems also typically try to mimic natural ecosystems, but then substitute appropriate domesticated crops and livestock forms into to make them more supportive of human needs.

Obviously planting a few annuals in a smart way isn’t even remotely permanent. But when used in the right environment with the right cultivars, grown with compost, and the food is harvested, cured, and stored without the use of electricity — as part of a much larger lifestyle approach to self-provisioning — the three sisters concept can touch on many or all of the permaculture type goals below.

  • Grow more food on less land.
  • Grow plants in supportive groupings that improves the health of all the plants in the system, reduces gardener work such as time spent on weeding, and reduces the need for precious resources like mined minerals or water.
  • Close the loop on nutrient losses by composting and using organic waste.
  • Protect soil so you can garden in the same area indefinitely without soil quantity or quality declining.
  • Support a diversity of wildlife by not relying on the use of pesticides, offering forage, creating habitat, and increasing soil life biodiversity.
  • Reduce supply chain dependencies such as by allowing you to save seeds to replant, make your own soil amendments, and not go to the grocery store to buy food.
  • Reduce fossil fuel dependence by being able to store these crops at room temperature rather than in a refrigerator or harvesting from the garden without storing at all.
  • Benefit local communities such as by sharing extra harvests with others for free, sale, or trade.

When you begin to use methods for growing and storing food that are more sustainable, require fewer external inputs, lighten your workload, benefit the environment, and your community… well, then you’re in permaculture territory.

That’s what I do here on our land. I am not growing a bunch of high maintenance plants that require my constant care. Instead, I grow diverse plants that once started only require some minimal maintenance from me such as in pruning, mulching, or harvesting. There are times, like during a drought, when I need to jump in and water. But even then — because we have done massive land works on our property to help sink moisture, retain soil, encourage biodiversity, and make our garden landscape more resilient — that work is still minimal.

The Permaculture Path

This part of my potager is not permaculture… it’s just an organically managed garden. But, it is part of our broader “permanent culture” here on our homestead.

If that sounds like your cup of herbal, homegrown tea – then I should also warn you that the permaculture path is frequently lined with good intentions, but silly actions. For example, when I first learned about permaculture, I felt compelled to grow all the plants people commonly cited on permaculture lists that would improve soil by fixing nitrogen, adding biomass, or breaking up soil compaction.

So, in went the comfrey, Jerusalem artichokes, lupines, false indigo, pea shrubs, goji, horseradish, and more. Sadly, they wouldn’t grow no matter how much care I gave them. However, since I had put mulch down on all our paths, I noticed other plants started to volunteer.

The white clover was spreading. Curly dock germinated everywhere. Lemon balm that I’d started in just two locations had self-sowed and was growing like a cover crop in areas that were once bare. Red perilla also started cropping up even though I didn’t plant any. Black locust and Staghorn sumac saplings were starting in small patches from the forest edge out.

When I researched those plants, the first thing I noted was that they all grew well in acidic soil. Then I realized that many of them served the same functions in the soil as the plants I had been unsuccessful at growing.

White clover and black locust are nitrogen fixers just like the like lupine, false indigo, and pea shrub I’d failed to grow. Curly dock had a deep tap root like comfrey and made a lot of leaf mass especially if you mowed it regularly. Perilla and lemon balm made a great self-renewing chop and drop green manure. Sumac had underground roots that spread both down and across like horseradish. Essentially, nature had just supplied better plant choices than I’d come up with.

The only analog I was missing was Jerusalem artichokes. However, after about a year of allowing those so-called “weeds” to function as my cover crops, the tubers I had sown previously started putting up greens.

Honestly, I could have saved myself hundreds of dollars and lots of heartache if I’d just know three words.

Soil Seed Bank

Most soils have a stock of seeds that some people call “weeds”. Permaculture practitioners think of these plants as “pioneering plants” or “biomass makers” and often use them as free soil improvers in the early phases of landscape development. Even my seemingly lifeless dirt that couldn’t grow scrubby broom straw turned out to be a treasure trove of free seeds.

The only things lacking were the organic matter, nutrients, and water necessary to signal to those dormant seeds that it’s time to wake up. As soon as I suppled those, plant life happened!

So before you spend on seeds, why not just add a little compost and water to see what comes up? The things that emerge first will tell you quite a bit about your soil conditions, particularly your pH, and your organic matter content. Plus, those plants could be exactly what you need to regenerate lifeless soil quickly. (Or, at the very least, they’ll tell you what’s in your soil seed bank that you might need to control later.)

Strategic Livestock Decisions

At first, I also tried to use free-range chickens on our land and expected them to improve the soil. I didn’t even know why I was using them. I mean, everyone had permaculture chickens, so I just assumed I should too. But, frankly, all they did was disturb and dry out the soil which encouraged erosion and killed the plants I was trying to grow.

So, then, I started running ducks whose poop was more permeable due to the high water content. Ducks also weren’t scratchers. So they occasionally squashed a few plants, but mostly they just fertilized and benefited anything I tried to grow. Within two years, our plant biodiversity had skyrocketed and our landscape hydrology was dramatically improved. The soil held more moisture. Topsoil was forming on what once looked like a Mars landing site.

Ducks were definitely the right Permaculture choice for us! And unless you are one of those weird anti-duck people who think they are loud, stinky, and stare at you too intently, then there’s a good chance they’ll be a good choice for you too.

Real Permaculture

This is our land in late winter 2013 just after we bought the property but before we moved in. Note the fake rock and shed to compare with the photos that follow.

Now, readers, I hope I didn’t fool you into thinking you could solve your soil problems and practice permaculture by adding mulch, allowing the soil seed bank to self-sow, and running ducks. Like the three sisters, those have been a powerful threesome in our soil regeneration process. But they are just a few tricks we use as part of a much larger plan of restoration and self-renewal in our landscape.

They were also only the right answer for us because we had severely eroded, compacted clay soil on a slope, with a soil pH of around 4.5. In my old suburban neighborhood in Maryland, chickens and all those permaculture plants I listed would have worked just fine given our conditions there. So, the set of solutions you use is going to be very specific to your conditions and your goals.

Preparation

What I really want you to take away from all that information above is that permaculture is personal. Permaculture is only useful if you adapt it for your climate, your actual on the ground conditions, and your needs. And it’s only permaculture — if once you get all your systems in place — it adds up to a permanent culture that you can maintain without being stressed out keeping up with all the systems you put in place.

Real permaculture also starts with study, observation and planning. It’s only after you’ve taken the time to truly understand your landscape and determined appropriate actions to make it a sustainable sanctuary that implementation begins. Then, unless you luck into perfect situation, most land requires some pretty major earthworks and infrastructure installations to lay the ground work for a long-term functional landscape.

The fact is, permaculture isn’t something you do in a day or even a year. No collection of one trick wonder type gardening strategies will ever add up to real permaculture. It’s also not just about growing a vegetable garden, growing a food forest, starting aquaculture, composting, sheet mulching, regenerating pasture using livestock rotation, catching rainwater, etc.

You may end up doing all of these things things on your permaculture landscape. But unless these activities relate and integrate in ways that support the long term environmental health of our your land and make supplying your basic needs easy with minimal work, it’s not likely to become permanent culture.

Lots of people set up elaborate permaculture systems only to realize they failed to make it sustainable in terms of the amount of routine work they have to do to maintain it. The fact is, many of us have been so programmed by consumer culture and imaging the answer is something we must keep on buying or work hard to do, we often fail to practice permaculture. Instead, we create new systems of reliance that look like our old systems in disguise. If you really want to practice permaculture, there are no one trick wonders that will make it all easy. You must rethink the entire way you live and provide the necessities of your life.

To give you a sense of the real scope of work that goes into landscape gardening in the permaculture sense, I want to share some of the large infrastructure and land works that give shape to our homestead landscape. These were essential first steps to shape our land and install the infrastructure we needed to create a permaculture life.

Beginnings

middles
We moved in and started work on our homestead on March 29, 2014. This photo was taken about a year and a half later. Note the shed and fake rock to compare to the earlier photo.

Back in December 2016, I started a blog called reLuxe Renderings. My writings there were my first attempts to share some of what we were doing and the life we were living here on our homestead with others who might be ready to start similar journeys. My first post was called “Beginnings” and featured the photo above.

As is obvious from the photo, I’d already begun using wood mulch as a magical tool to improve soil. There are also a mix of nature-supplied plants as well as cultivated plants. The yellow coreopsis and young trees in this photo were planted by me. Most of the other plants though were nature supplied. More importantly, this photo shows the some of earthworks and building installations that had completely altered the slope and utility of the severely degraded hillside we started with.

For starters, we created a plateau on the top of that slope for our greenhouse. This point on our property gets sun from first thing in the morning to the last rays at night. So, we knew the greenhouse would require less heat in this location. It’s also somewhat sheltered from our worst winds here. Plus, we knew we had to slow water down here or we couldn’t plant below this area. (If you go back to the original photo you can see the signs of massive water run off between the shed and rock that started where we put the greenhouse.)

We also installed a pond next to the greenhouse to catch all the run off and store rainwater high on our property to use for the greenhouse, the adjacent plant areas, and to gravity feed water to the vegetable garden lower down.

Below that pond, we created a steep slope that drained into a swale and charged a hugelkultur (marked with an H below) with water. That is followed by another plateau and a shipping container with our solar panels installed on it. (Our house roof couldn’t support the weight of solar panels and we needed a place for the batteries and additional storage.)

In the 2015 photo, you can also see part of the vineyard, obvious in the endposts. But not so obvious is the fact that I hand dug several swales and mellowed the slope of that whole area to slow drainage and catch soil that rain from above.

There’s also a deep swale, hugelkultur, and series of raised beds topped with compost where the lush vegetation grows in the slope in the 2015 photo.

May 15, 2021 – Note the wellhead at center.

I took the photo above from roughly the same spot in our landscape this morning. If not for the wellhead, you might not even know this was the same land as shown in the 2014 or 2015 photos. The shed, solar panels, and greenhouse are hidden behind the dense plantings of maturing fruit trees, blackberries, comfrey, lemon balm, rye grass, Jerusalem artichokes, mustard, several mints, native flowering plants, and lots of other herbs and medicinals that we harvest regularly for us and livestock.

Back to the Future

Now, back to my original statement about one woman gardening on two acres with only hand tools and a couple hours a week… Yep, I absolutely do. That little tour I just gave above is less 1/7th of the space I call my garden. However, because we took a lot of our gardening ideas straight from nature, and put in the work to make these systems self-sustaining, frankly, I spend most of gardening time inside the greenhouse and annual vegetable gardens (not shown here).

Here are some of the nature-inspired ideas we put to work in the spaces above that worked effectively.

  • On slopes in our woods, we saw soil accumulating behind downed trees and saplings easily taking root there. So, we used that concept to create those semi-terraced beds where we now grow fruit trees.
  • We saw how well water flowed downhill and how divots and organic matter were so effective at slowing it down in certain places. So, we created a high pond and implemented swales and hugelkultures to catch and direct waterflow.
  • We saw that nature kept the soil mulched with decaying matter and grew leafy green plants way closer together than suggested in plant profiles. So, we found ways to plant or mulch anywhere we didn’t want water to run.
  • Initially we used whatever plants nature supplied as green manure and erosion protection. Now that our soil has improved and our pH close to neutral we’ve integrated lots more diverse cultivated plants that feed us, wildlife, and our livestock. This is also how nature gardens – after pioneering plants come the more permanent plants such as in a mature forest.
  • We also became believers in the idea that “if you build it, they will come”. Wildlife showed up in droves the more we grew — some of it not so beneficial from our perspective. So, we had to adapt and create some no-go zones for deer, rabbits, and voles. We did this by introducing predators (2 dogs, 4 cats) into the mix.

Landscape gardening as part of a broader permaculture perspective is a process that starts with first understanding your landscape and environment. Then, you have to strategically work with nature and use natural concepts to create an environment you can sustain long-term. Only after you’ve done this initial work does the gardening become easy.

This might seem like a lot of work. But we got it done in under a year. And except for some silly mistakes we made installing the greenhouse (don’t do it on a windy day), none of that work was hard. In fact, most of it was exciting. We also hired some help to install the shipping container and the solar panels since those weren’t tasks we had time to do ourselves at that point.

Even though there will absolutely be some work in this process, there’s no reason to make it hard or suck the fun and life out of it. You can completely transform your landscape with pleasurable work if you take the long view and find ways to enjoy the process as you go.

Getting Started

The first step in permaculture is always observe and interact. This is about getting to know your landscape and also nature. Matt and I spent a lot of time on folding chairs and on a blanket hanging out on the hillside pictured above before we figured out what to do with it.

So, the first phase of the process is really to spend time getting to know your land, it’s resources, and what it inspires you to want to create. Here are some ways to get started.

Step 1: Create Paths

For starters, if you can’t even walk your landscape, then you can’t possibly study and understand it. So, begin by creating temporary paths to all parts of your landscape.

Depending on the condition of your land, this might mean clearing some brush through the woods. Perhaps you need to mow tall grasses in long swaths. Maybe you have to lay down boards to cross boggy much. Whatever the case, try to find a creative, no or low cost way to be able to access all the different part of your landscape that you know you’ll want to garden on at some point.

It’s important to be able to access your whole landscape before you start planning because you may find resources in one place that can be perfect for addressing problems in another area. For example, all the water running like a river down our property was a perfect resource to catch high then use to store for irrigation for lower down. Silty soil near the bottom of our property was a wonderful resource to mix with clay soil uphill to create soil more suitable to start a few trees. A secret bamboo forest in our woods has helped with lots of projects.

Step 2: Make Destinations

At the end of those paths, set up a bench, a chair, or some other place where you can sit and stay for a while. You’ll be amazed how much more you notice if you sit down, especially with a cup of tea and notebook, and really pay attention to the land.

Some of this might be uncomfortable. You may be bombarded by bog-loving bugs that alert you to the the fact you have a stagnant water flow problem. You may notice disease on the native plants that highlight the number of fungal pathogens already present on your landscape. Maybe you see more snakes than you realized occupied this space too.

So, dress appropriately for any potential hazards. That way you can stay awhile even if it’s not the most fun thing you ever did. The fact is, anything that makes you uncomfortable at the outset is something you’ll need to factor in to your landscape garden plan. If you don’t, then chances are you won’t want to spend time there to do the gardening or enjoy that part of your landscape much either.

Step 3: Begin to personalize.

You don’t want to make big changes until you have a good handle on all the problems and potential uses for your landscape. But, if you can make some small, non-committing changes to address whatever makes you uncomfortable in a particular part of your land, then it will make it easier to imagine possible uses for that area.

Perhaps plant a few inexpensive bog plants to soak up the moisture where mosquitos are breeding. Put in a few metal fence posts and a rope to mark a steep area that way you don’t feel so insecure sitting up there. Dig a small rain puddle to test your theories about swales in a dry area. Put up a small wind block to see if a natural hedge will make an area feel cozier and less exposed.

With some small changes that help create a sense of ownership, responsibility, and domestication of a space, you’ll begin to envision yourself there in your future garden. Also, if you can temporarily halt the uncomfortable distractions, creativity will flow better. Then, perhaps that mosquito infested bog will seem like the perfect spot for an intentional pond with a waterfall to keep the water flowing and solve the insect problem. Maybe that steep slope that feels too precarious becomes a terrace with a retaining wall that gives you a beautiful view of the rest of your landscape.

Planning Ahead

As you begin to gently work and get to know your landscape, take notes on all the ideas that flow from this new relationship. Not all of your ideas will work, but much of what flows intuitively from this act of getting to know your place will be useful when you start to formally map out a landscape plan. More importantly, you’ll begin to feel like you belong to the permanent culture you are going to be creating over time.

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10 thoughts on “Landscape Gardening: Real Permaculture

  1. This is a fabulous write-up on the steps, trials, tribulations, joys and UGHs of working with new land from a permaculture perspective! We moved onto our property in southeastern Wisconsin late summer 2019 and are still very much a work in progress. We have 8.5 acres with about 3 acres of prairie at the bottom, 1.5ish acres at the top of a very steep kame (glacial hill) where our house and new small barn (garage attachment) are located, and the rest is the heavily wooded sides of the kame. The area up top I’m letting rest with no-dig covers for now slopes toward the hillside and I am curious how you created your terraced beds in the “after” photo (caption: We moved in and started work on our homestead on March 29, 2014. This photo was taken about a year and a half later…) — are those railroad ties serving as barriers? They look very squared off. If yes, where does one source those? Seems potentially low cost… but I could be wrong!

    Thanks so much for your help,
    Heather

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Heather – Thanks so much for reading! It sounds like you have a fun property to work with. I only garden on two acres, but we have another 7.5ish acres that are wooded and even more sloped than our lower area. It’s really nice to have some wild buffer lands to protect from drift since we’re in an agricultural zone. Also, all those high areas are potential sources for water collection if we need it later.

      I started those terraced beds using downed trees from the woods, piling organic matter like weeds and leaves and livestock litter behind them, digging swales at the top of each bed and flipping that over the organic matter, then I covered it all with lots of wood chips to keep it in place until the trees and perennial plants rooted well. But then once those downed trees decayed – which happened in under a year because of all the fungal activity those woodchips set off – we wanted something more permanent that made the mess of plants seem more cultivated. So, we installed old rail ties using rebar. They us cost about $10 each and are 9 feet long. The rail ties are mainly decorative because the hillside has been stabilized by the plants. But they help keep the eager growing plants behind from taking over the pathways. Also, the plants I have nearest to to the rail ties are just flowering rather than edible because there’s still a small risk that the old rail ties are toxic since they were soaked with creosote many years ago. Good luck with your landscape!

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      1. here. The former owner used some railroad ties for support structures of the elevated deck we have off the back of the house and mentioned to me that some of the discoloration is due to the creosote — I had no idea! Still, I think we could get away with using them to help create a “stair” down the hill. Can I ask how/where you sourced the ties, and also if you cut any into smaller portions yourself, was it hard on the (chain?chop?)saw? Thanks again!

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      2. We also used them for stairs and they work wonderfully! We get ours from the same bulk materials supplier who delivers our mulch. But I am pretty sure Lowe’s has them and a lot of farm supply places carry them too. Southern States has them where we live. They are probably close to 200 pounds each and you have to cut them with a chain saw. If I didn’t have Matt to help me, I’d probably have to hire someone to help me get them in place. I can lift about 70 pounds, but that’s my limit!

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      3. I had no idea you could get them at big box stores! I will definitely check that out. And woooof, heavy! Good to know that a chainsaw can cut through. Thanks for your help and CHEERS 🙂

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  2. Wow! You have definitely achieved a lot! Your guidelines in the post are excellent, and there are a number we use in our small suburban garden. You have also given me some good ideas put into place in the future. Our garden is also relatively new, but we have been mulching, putting in small scale swales etc, and we have noticed the increased diversity of insects, birds and skinks in the garden. And snakes. The top soil is improving each year, and both the front and back gardens are diverse and growing well, and surviving the summer heat more easily. Thank you for a ver interesting and helpful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s pretty incredible how fast things happen when you put in a bit of work up front. It sounds like you’ve been doing that work and are reaping the benefits of more biodiversity. It’s funny that you set snakes apart. They are a great sign that you are on the right track but I know they can be daunting. Most of my interactions with them have been them slithering slowly away when they notice me in the garden. So, I know they live there and that they recognize I need the space. However, when we found a copperhead in a pile of pallet wood we were using for a project, it gave us pause. Now, we have to be careful not to create habitat on accident – especially where we are working. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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