Accusations of my being a permaculturalist, that is, a practitioner of permaculture, are true, but only partially so. Yes, I grow peppers in a flower garden and persimmon as much for its beauty (see Landscaping with Fruit) as for its delicious fruits, also integrating other edibles right into the landscape. And, like permaculturalists, I do try to maximize use of the 3-dimensional space in my farmden with, for example, shade-loving black currants growing beneath my pawpaw trees.
I am also a permaculturalistic in maintaining the integrity of my soil by not tilling it or otherwise disrupting the structure that builds up naturally in undisturbed soils. New ground is prepared for planting by merely smothering existing mowed or stomped down vegetation. I mulch with compost, leaves, wood chips and other organic materials to keep bare ground from ever showing.
And like permaculturalists, I try to grow plants adapted to the setting so as to minimize pest problems. And poultry — ducks here on the farmden — wander freely, except in the vegetable gardens, to minimize pest problems, to provide fresh eggs, to add to the bucolic atmosphere, and to provide entertainment. And, in the shade of a Norway spruce, a rack holds up oak logs from which pop out shiitake mushrooms. I could go on.
Why I Am Not a Full-Fledged Permy
Despite the assertion of one young, self-described “expert” permaculturalist, I am not a permaculturalist. I tend a permaculturesque farmden. Why the “-esque”? Because I part with true permaculturalists in a few critical ways.
Let’s begin with soil preparation. I smother existing vegetation beneath a few, typically four, sheets of newspaper topped with compost or some other weed-free, organic mulch. (I describe my methods in more detail in my book Weedless Gardening.) Many, perhaps most or all, permaculturalists prefer using corrugated cardboard from boxes as that first layer. The longevity of that cardboard on the ground is seen as an asset over paper. But I use paper so that soon after existing vegetation is smothered, the mulch and the soil below can begin to meld together. I don’t want any barrier to water and nutrients, or bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and myriad other soil organisms in place any longer than necessary.
I part ways with permaculturalists by growing my vegetables rectilinearly, in straight rows within rectangular 3-foot-wide beds. Yes, the idea of organically shaped beds and keyhole gardens is very appealing –- on paper. But time, my time, is also an important element in the garden, and it takes a lot longer to maintain curved and somewhat randomly shaped bed than it does rectilinear beds.
And then there’s the permy way of tucking, say lettuce plants, beneath fruiting shrubs and trees. But I eat a lot of vegetables and there’s nothing like straight rows running down straight beds for packing a lot of vegetables into a given area, and making planting, weeding, and harvesting quicker and easier. When I go out to pick some vegetables for a meal, I don’t want to be remembering where I tucked the lettuce and wending my way through trees and then crawling beneath some shrub to get at it.
Permaculture originated and thrives in the dry climates of Australia and our Southwest. Over much of the country, and especially here in the Northeast, rainfall coaxes very exuberant growth from crop plants and weeds alike. Too many permaculturalists are liable to spend their first few permaculture years admiring their efficient and attractive use of space, and all the years hence cursing all the time needed cutting and weeding needed to keep growth of various plants in balance. What I need are some straight lines and a little elbow room.
(I have been hired more than once as a consultant on a property designed and planted by a true permaculturalist. I’m sure it looked great on paper and for the first few years, until it became a tangled mass of plants, more than most people could handle long term. Sometimes, the best course moving forward is to remove everything for a fresh, perhaps permaculturalesque start this time around. As one landowner told me, “a few years back I was ‘permacultured’ by some fine folks. I have been fighting my way back ever since.”)
“Forest gardening,” growing and eating from your planted forest, is receiving growing interest within permaculture circles. As you might guess, I’m also not a forest gardener, despite the fact that I have integrated fruiting trees, which do come from forests somewhere, as well as chestnuts, English walnuts, black walnuts, and other nutty things into my landscape.
I do have a miniforest in a portion of my meadow. The cool shade beneath the now large buartnut, shellbark hickory, maple, and river birch trees is not planted with herbs and vegetables for nibbling. It’s mostly a leafy mulch that fall in autumn, as in any forest floor. Oh, with a bow to forest gardening, I also planted ramps there.
I plant fruits, vegetables, and nuts to provide sustenance, not just a nibble here and there.
I Aim for Good Food, Not a Concept
I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I want great-tasting food. It seems to me that permaculture is usually about making growing plants easier. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except sometimes plants that are easiest to grow aren’t those that have the best flavor. I grow elderberries (back in my more hard-core permaculture planting along with aronia, rosa rugosa, seaberry, and highbush cranberry). Could anybody claim that a fresh picked elderberry can hold a candle to, flavorwise, a fresh picked blueberry?
Speaking of blueberry, they are easy to grow. But, if you want best production of flavorful berries, best to put some effort into getting the soil right, pruning correctly and annually, and netting to fend off birds so you can harvest truly ripe berries. Grapes? They need abundant sunlight, not the shady but easily supplied support of a nearby tree, for best quality and easy picking. Pruning is critical for topnotch flavor and pest control. It all takes effort, but is worth it.
Although I am very intimate and knowledgeable about the plants I grow, I am no expert on permaculture. Perhaps I have misconstrued certain permaculture techniques or am totally missing the concept (even though I was accused of being a permaculturalist). I welcome feedback.