Starting a Permaculture Garden

Author Jenni Blackmore reflects on the principles of permaculture after years of experience.

Permaculture garden

Squash, beans and sunflowers thriving on reclaimed forest floor.

Photo by Jenni Blackmore

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Jenni Blackmore presents a highly entertaining, personal account of how permaculture can be practiced in adverse conditions, allowing anyone to learn to live more sustainably in a less-than-perfect world.

The perfect antidote to dense, high-level technical manuals, Permaculture for the Rest of Us presents the fundamental principles of this sometimes confusing concept in a humorous, reader-friendly way.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Permaculture for the Rest of Us.

When I first developed an interest in permaculture and started amassing a library of the great books available I’d gobble up the first few chapters but begin to lose my appetite when it came to zones and guilds, in part because the diagrams looked a little overwhelming in their apparent complexity. I was tempted to — okay, I did — hurriedly scan through those chapters so I could get back to the growing and harvesting parts that interested me the most. My abject fear of all things mathematical was rekindled by any mention of degrees of slope, angle of sunlight, or exactitude of compass points. In actual fact, the concepts of zones and sectors are based in common sense and are essential to any successful permaculture plan.

Zones range from one to five, from the most often to the least often visited. For example, I don’t want to have to charge to the far end of the garden for some fresh basil, with my sauce already bubbling and company due to arrive in five minutes. Therefore zone one includes herb pots on the deck by the kitchen door. Potatoes, once planted, require almost no attention until harvest time, so they will be best placed in zone three.

Sectors are like slices of a pie-chart that clearly define the sunniest spots, the wind tunnels, any natural water courses and so on. Once these characteristics have been itemized it’s much simpler to take full advantages of their attributes and take steps to minimize any negative effects. Having them drawn out on paper helps solidify the existence of these invisible boundaries.

Every homestead, regardless of size, will be unique when laid out to incorporate permaculture ideals. This is one of the many wonderfully satisfying aspects of living in harmony with the natural world although, as with any retrofit, things don’t happen overnight. Patience is a virtue that doesn’t get mentioned often enough as a necessary requirement in many of the informative books already written on attaining the dream-state of sustainable living. On the other hand, even though things might not always zoom along on the permaculture way, they often seem to have a knack of integrating and developing very smoothly.  

A few years ago hurricane Juan ripped through Nova Scotia. If I was a paranoid type I’d believe it specifically targeted our property, leaving in its wake a gnarly, impassable wreck of fractured and uprooted trees. For a while we tried the “I can’t see you” and the “If we ignore it, it will go away” approaches, which were as successful as might be expected. Finally we began the painstaking (read aching muscles) job of first removing the debris and then attempting to reclaim the land.

After weeks, then months, of exhausting and dispiriting work it seemed that progress was virtually a non-happening. Because progress was so gradual any proof that it actually was happening tended to jump out unexpectedly; sudden realizations at the sight of brilliant orange pumpkins flourishing on what had been ravaged forest floor or awakening moments ignited by the strike of sunlight on mammoth sunflowers towering above broken tree stumps. It was at times like this that we forgot all the discouragement and instead allowed ourselves to be amazed at how well everything was coming together. As time progressed these moments became more frequent and now, looking around our fertile little haven, it’s sometimes hard to remember how broken and barren it was back then.

The sunflowers mentioned above were planted in used feed sacks interspersed around the berry patch. The ground was so root riddled and virtually impenetrable in places that it was much easier to “plant up” and mulch heavily rather than try to dig down. The roots left in the ground gradually rotted and now help to maintain moisture while also creating an explosion of beneficial microbes and bacterial action. Over the past couple of years this piece of ravaged ground has become amazingly fertile and supplies liters of lush berries. It also exemplifies one of the mainstays of permaculture philosophy: there are no problems in permaculture, only creative solutions.

The location of pathways surrounding the various plots was dictated to quite a degree by the location of larger immovable stumps that will obviously take more than a couple of years to rot away. As it happens, this seemingly random layout has created a pleasing yet efficient organization of space. The position of the greenhouse, for example, was determined by the location of a relatively unobstructed space. It now effectively blocks the prevailing ocean breeze while still allowing the sunlight to pass through and has provided a snug microclimate for the berry patch to the north of it.

As well as blackcurrants and blueberries I planted a couple of Northern Kiwis and a couple of grape vines. My plan is to create an arbor type of setting that will disguise the netting used to protect the blackcurrants and blue berries from the birds. They don’t share very well when it comes to berries!

There are several Indian Pear trees on the property. These never did much when competing with the spruce trees but are now responding well to our nurturing and hopefully will help satisfy the birds’ needs. Maintaining enough wild area to support the needs of wildlife is one of the rules of permaculture and we have left several pockets of wild growth which have regenerated with an amazing diversity of native species.

The ducks and geese also benefited from the devastation of Hurricane Juan (it’s an ill wind etc.) as they now have a large open corral with their own 10' by 15' barn, which they share with the rabbits. Rainfall runs off the metal roof, down the eaves-trough and is collected in 45 gallon barrels which gravity feed the duck pond. Very simple, very effective. This brings up another permaculture aim, which is to generate maximum gain from minimum expenditure. As an example, the non-permaculture way to fill the duck pond might be to use an electric pump and well water. The effect would be the same but the water used might have been better conserved for other use and the electric pump would obviously add to our carbon footprint.

As already mentioned, the layout of our design was definitely influenced by the immovable stumps and the need to construct pathways around them. As it happens, I don’t believe we could have done it half so well sitting at a desk with a blank sheet of paper and no restraints. This exemplifies another law of permaculture which outlines the necessity of an intimate knowledge of the land you intend to unite with. It is essential to be aware of every bump and undulation, every wild flower, every shrub. Walking and working on the land, even in the early stages of clean-up, certainly created in us a much better understanding of what we had to work with.

One of the few plants that really seemed to thrive in those early days was comfrey. It is a terrific source of nitrogen, whether as compost or simply cut and laid between rows as a green “manure” mulch, but at the time I saw it only as a weed that needed to be removed. More about comfrey and other naturally occurring plants later, but for now I must just mention how glad I am that all my early attempts to eradicate it failed. If I had been successful I would have lost many benefits and certainly would have been in conflict with another permaculture practice — encouraging the preservation and diversity of nature.

Similarly, yellow irises thrive here to a height of nine or ten feet and in the spring several kinds of wild ferns grace the property with their elegance. I have purposely encouraged clumps of them in various spots where they originally chose to grow. Ferns don’t much like being moved but will accept being relocated as long as it is done as early in spring as possible, with the least amount of root damage. Hosta lilies, although not naturally occurring, were one of the few perennials willing to stick around during my early gardening days and they make great natural retaining walls on sloping banks. Learning to work with what we have has made life so much easier. Encourage what wants to stay — let the rest go away. That has been my motto for a while now.

I don’t believe that any knowledgeable person in their right mind would have chosen this location to start up a micro-farm or even a serious garden. The North and South boundaries of the property merge into shore line and such close proximity to the ocean means that temperatures in the growing season are always cooler than on the mainland and more often than not a wind of some description will be blowing. The existing soil can only be described as being poor to terrible and the solid clay substrata creates its own set of drainage problems. And, it’s not like we have “acreage.” We have just about one acre, that we are successfully turning into a micro-farm which, if all goes according to plan, will eventually make us around sixty per cent self-sufficient.

Other than the view and the tranquility it has to offer, this place could not be described as the optimum choice for a self-sufficient lifestyle, but it has led us and taught us how to discover what is possible and that of course is half the thrill. And yes, life is a thrill, in strange unexpected ways. Just as the land itself dictates how it will be used, a permaculture plan will direct, at least to a certain extent, how the lives of those who practice it will be lived. We try not impose our will but rather to integrate our living as just another dimension of the great and glorious cycle we all participate in.

If this pathway into permaculture seems somewhat circuitous and meandering, well, that’s a good thing, because in fact the natural world is not structured in straight lines. Each healthy system rolls back on itself, forming its own sustainable circle while also connecting to many other circular systems, which in turn connect.... This intricate interconnectedness makes it difficult, near impossible, to stay on a linear path while also stating the actual facts. And besides, I don’t think the amazing beauty of natural design should be sliced and diced too finely. Attempts to isolate specific elements to the detriment of others are greatly responsible for the devastating imbalance that is presently endemic to most of the world’s agriculture.


Reprinted with permission from Permaculture for the  Rest of Us by Jenni Blackmore and published by New Society Publishers, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Permaculture for the Rest of Us.