Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
It turns out I was practicing permaculture before I ever heard the word. The coined word means “permanent agriculture,” referring to finding the way to let nature seek its own balance in gardening and other areas of life.
Here are some sections adapted from my Self-Sufficient Home book.
FIGURING THINGS OUT
When I was still living with my parents, we had no space at all to garden. It was unthinkable then to tear up a front lawn and use it for a garden – something I wouldn’t hesitate to do today. The next door neighbor offered us the use of an empty yard between our houses. My mother – who grew up on a farm – sat up at night with me planning how to use that space for gardening. Most of what I learned about what to plant and not to plant was learned by making mistakes.
I began by planting herbs, tomatoes, and corn, all neatly arranged in north-south lines with some pathways in-between. I knew nothing about fertilizer or mulch or pest control. I just went out there and planted what I believed would make the best garden, and I watched the results.
Herbs took care of themselves – mints, fennel, oregano, lavendar, and others. Herbs tended to be drought-tolerant, and required very little of my time and effort.
Tomatoes grew good too, but I learned that they just grew and grew, longer and longer, and only began to produce lots of tomatoes when I pinched back the stems so the branches would not grow as long. Yes, I got tomato worms, which I just picked off and tossed to the birds.
Corn was quite an education. It grew tall and the ears formed. As they got bigger, I noticed that they were very infested with lots of ants, and aphids, and earwigs. In horror, I would take the hose and wash all the bugs off, and this worked to some extent since it was a small garden.
That first season’s corn was a disaster, with bug-infested, half-developed ears, and I even used some bug poison for the first and last time. I experimented with some of the natural pest-repellants, and made my own insecticide from a mixture of garlics and hot peppers, liquified in the blender, and sprayed on the plants. I even added a little Basic H to the mix. I had some results, but I was still working with poor soil.
In desperation, I studied all I could on natural pest control. After all, I had fresh memories of one of my uncles in Chardon, Ohio, who had to dress up in what looked like a bee suit every time he went into his apple orchards so he would be protected from all the pesticides that he sprayed on the apples. (He died of cancer). Shouldn’t farming and gardening be about life, not death, I wondered? Can’t nature take care of itself? Isn’t there a way to find a balance so that the bugs keep the other bugs in check?
BUILD THE SOIL
I learned that – regardless of what you grow or where you live – the health of the soil is the single most important factor in producing plants that are drought-tolerant, bug resistant, and able to survive in the greatest range of temperature.
My next experiment in that small yard was to go to the grocery store and get boxes of old produce and just dig a hole here and there in the garden and bury the old vegetables so they’d decompose and enrich the soil. Simultaneously, I went to the local cemetery and obtained bags of grass clippings. I began to layer the bare ground around the base of the plants with liberal amounts of grass clippings. This was a thick layer, not a thin sprinkling of grass clippings. The top layer would dry out a bit, but underneath, it stayed moist, softened the soil, and provided an environment where earthworms thrived as well as lots of other bugs thriving. With the layered grass clippings on the ground, I now noticed that the herbs and vegetables thrived and grew well, and the bug infestation was at a minimum. Plus I didn’t need to water as much. I continued to get as many bags of grass clippings as possible and mulched the soil. And I continued to bury old vegetables in the garden. I produced onions and tomatoes and Swiss chard and zuchinnis, and lots of herbs. I decided to skip the corn.
THE SQUATTER’S GARDEN
A few years later, I was a squatter in a house in a hilly part of Los Angeles. The house was empty and I simply moved in, had utilities turned on in my name, and lived there for a year and a half until it was clear I had to move on.
I had an enclosed yard, and I kept some ducks there. I grew many vegetables there, corn included. I had tomatoes and peas and vegetables. I didn’t bring grass clippings here, but I did maintain a compost pit where I produced my own fertilizer from kitchen and yard scraps. I had a tree pruner dump his massive load of wood chips in my yard and I used them to mulch every square inch of my garden. At night, I would put the hose in my corn patch and let it dribble out. My ducks would spend the evening there, and they loved to eat all the earwigs and whatever other bugs the water brought out.
And the corn grew tall and strong. One day my friend David Ashley and I stood in the corn patch eating raw corn. David had assumed that corn had to be cooked, and was amazed at the sweetness of the raw corn. We stood there for 15 minutes or so talking, and David was amazed that the experience of standing in my little duck-fertilized corn patch was like being in another world. It was like my own postage stamp-size field of dreams, my own Walden pond. David talked about it for years afterward.
In this garden, I grew only non-hybrid varieties whose seeds I could harvest and replant. These were the vegetables also known as the heirloom varieties. At the time, I was not aware of how today’s farmers are captive to the corporations which produce the hybrid seeds, the widely touted miracle of modern farming. I was always disturbed about hybrids, whose seeds would not produce the same plant that they came from. Wherever possible, I have always obtained and used the non-hybrid, or heirloom seeds, and would save some of the seed for the next season, just as small farmers and families have done for centuries.
Part of my garden was the famed three sisters of the Southwest – corn, squash, and beans, which David Ashley suggested I grow. Squash is planted, and allowed to sprawl on the ground as a ground-cover, keeping some moisture in the soil. Corn is planted throughout the area, and once it gets a foot or so tall, native beans are planted. The roots of the beans fix nitrogen, meaning you are increasing the nitrogen content for your corn by growing the beans nearby. And the corn provides a trellis of sorts for the beans. This “three sisters” garden is a common theme in arid Southwestern gardens.
Nyerges is the author of Self-Sufficient Home, and numerous other books. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com.