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THE ORGANIC LANDSCAPE: Backyard Permaculture

by Lynn Janes


My first encounter with perma-culture came on a dusty, deserted road in Northern Queensland, Australia some seven years ago. It was there that my friend and I hitched a ride with permaculture enthusiast Simon Fell. He quickly acquainted us with the basics of permaculture: how nature can work for us in sustainable systems which are virtually waste-free and earth-replenishing, requiring minimal effort once established. We discovered how the outputs of one element could fuel the needs of another, how we could observe and replicate natural processes and patterns, how one element should serve multiple functions, how multiple elements could support a single function, how the maximizing of "edges" enhances biodiversity. We heard of the miracles of sheetmulching and the importance of agroforestry. We were told how to turn problems into solutions. If we found it hard to sleep that night, it wasn’t just the hardwood floor we lay on; we had awakened to the vast potential of permaculture. For me it was a kind of homecoming; after two and a half years on the road, I had finally found what I’d been looking for.

On my return to Canada in 1990, I pursued the concept of permaculture. The only source I could find was a magazine called The Permaculture Activist and it was through this contact that I learned of the first Permaculture Design Course to be held in Ontario. Naturally, I leapt at the opportunity. From this, I gleaned a much more comprehensive foundation in permaculture and returned home in late May, 1994 with the objective of putting it all into practice.

To my surprise, my yard in Ottawa had already begun its transformation from a barren, flat rectangle of sod. During my absence, my husband had designed and erected a mini-shed/greenhouse in one corner of the backyard. He chose not to incorporate a chicken coop into the structure (a classic permaculture practice). The heat, carbon dioxide and manure from the chickens would have all proved useful in helping our plants grow; however, we hadn’t even established our garden yet, let alone researched the local bylaws! The shed has become a convenient place to store garden tools and supplies, start seedlings and house heat-loving plants. It was also built exclusively of reclaimed local timber, old windows and patio stones; only the roof required new materials.

Because of time constraints, we were unable to conduct a thorough analysis of our site (i.e., soil type and condition, drainage, shade and wind patterns, aspect, microclimates, and observation through the seasons...). Suffice it to say that the land’s history of annual pesticide applications and inherent shaly clay soil would prove no obstacle to permaculture.

We had just bought our house the preceding December and this summer was to be our first real chance to try our hand at backyard self-sufficiency. We decided on a string of keyhole beds, all to be sheet-mulched except the one for our root crops of beets and onions. This one and another two beds, which reused rectangular wooden frames from our previous garden, were double-dug to allow for good root growth. We used keyhole beds because they are thought to maximize garden space, minimize path area and, depending on how they are planted, provide various microclimates. Unfortunately, some of our path areas became SO minimized at the height of the season (either we planted too intensively or we needed wider paths) that it became a trifle difficult to access the beds!

Sheet-mulching is very easy, doesn’t disturb the soil, and results in a raised bed with good drainage. It does, however, require a lot of materials: cardboard and/or newspaper as well as organic matter such as leaves, compost, manure, blood and bone meal, and straw mulch. There are many versions of sheet mulching. Ours followed no recipe, and just used what available resources we happened to have on hand. First we placed cardboard over the grass. Next, we added plenty of water, and then we piled a mixture of compost, leaves and horse manure on top. Straw mulch was added a bit later to some of the beds; unfortunately, we found the straw was an appealing haven for slugs. The seedlings and seeds were planted out in soil plugs (a double handful of earth) in the organic mulch layer on top of the cardboard. For seeds or tubers, the mulch was pulled back over; for seedlings, it was returned close to the base of the plant.

Our strategies for crop placement followed the ideas of polyculture and companion planting. For example, we tried beans with potatoes, beets with onions, tomatoes with cabbage and basil; marigolds and nasturtiums were scattered throughout. We put compatible crops in adjacent beds and separated those which were not.

In addition to these annual crop beds, we had two other features of interest. One was an attempt at constructing a pond. Its situation in full sun, however, rapidly made the water too warm for goldfish and too attractive for mosquito larvae and algae. In true permaculture style, we turned our problem into a solution by converting the old pond pit into a repository for yard wastes which, with a little added soil and compost on top, became a highly productive melon bed the following summer!

The other feature, adjacent to the pond and resulting from its excavation, was a herb spiral. This was a raving success and as a result, was duplicated in our second year. It is basically a mound of soil and fill, topped with compost and manure, with a spiral of rocks snaking from the ground level periphery to the summit, about a meter in elevation. The spiral, by virtue of its different aspects and drainage, creates a diversity of microclimates: sunny dry sites for thyme, sage and rosemary, and more shaded, moist sites for parsley, chives and coriander.

To maximize our water supply, we set up two rain barrels to collect runoff from our house for hand watering. We also laid out a system of weeper hose which runs off our back faucet on a timer.

Both our first and second summers have provided ample food both to give away to friends and to see us through the winter. We are not 100% self-sufficient, but we have significantly reduced our food bill (to $25 a week) and we now know what we are eating.

I am perpetually amazed with the biodiversity we have attracted to our garden. Never have I seen such a range of insect life. Though many are so-called pests, nature seems to maintain them in balance. A lot of time is spent in the garden, but it is a joy, not a chore, and much of this time is spent simply observing and admiring. I try as much as possible to work with, not against, nature. I’ve watched "weeds" growing in my garden and have learned to identify most of them. Some, such as the vetches and clovers, are nitrogen fixers and good for the soil and as living mulch. Others provide me with as much harvestable produce as the seeds I planted – salad delights such as purslane, chickweed and johnny-jump-ups; weed soups; pestos from lamb’s quarters and amaranth; herbal tea from dandelion roots and yarrow; broccoli-like cooked milkweed buds... And still others can be used as mulch, compost, or even sprouts!

There are many more permaculture ideas that we could incorporate into our garden, but the secret is to expand gradually. Each year we add a few perennials. Every year there are more lessons to be learned and literally everything we do is an experiment. The key is to be open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things. It is only our imaginations which limit our potential.


Lynn Janes and her husband, Graeme Chisnall, live & garden in Ottawa, Ontario.




Copyright 1996. Lynn Janes

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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