Learn from the finest
Permaculture is the finest guide for sustainable, organic food gardening. It is a complete ‘system’ that ultimately becomes self-generating, with synergies between environment, plants, animals and people so that nothing is wasted. It’s about benefitting all forms of life, about caring for and cooperating with the environment so that we can live in a healthy world. What a way of life to aspire to! In its purest form, permaculture (short for permanent agriculture) is beyond the reach of most urban food gardeners. For one thing, it requires space, such as a sizeable plot, to accommodate the animals, orchards, beds for rotational growing and land contouring for water harvesting and storage. But there is no reason why we can’t be inspired by the ethos of permaculture and apply its methods to our own small spaces. For example, companion planting for pest control, recycling household and garden waste into compost, and harvesting rainwater from our gutters. It is about treading as lightly as possible on the earth while using its resources wisely.
It’s all about attitude: the way we think about things and the way we do them. Take a look at your space with new eyes to see how the soil, space, layout, sunshine, shade, water, plants and even animals can be combined to work more effectively.
Use the Resources Around You
One of the main principles of permaculture is that you use every resource around you. Instead of buying compost, fertiliser or insect sprays (even if they are organic), the permaculture-minded gardener makes their own.
Even weeds are useful
Instead of regarding weeds as a problem, chop them up (but not the flower-heads) and combine them with shredded newspaper as mulch. Don’t rake up autumn leaves and throw them away, but spread them over the beds instead.
Rubble is not rubbish
Instead of carting away surplus or half bricks, use them as bed edgings. The old-fashioned way of setting them in at an angle is the new retro look. Too much hassle to recycle wine bottles? Sink them into the ground (neck down) as bed edgings, especially for raised beds. Even garden stones come in handy as edgings or for lining channels for diverting rainwater.
Maximise rainwater run-off
Divert rainwater from gutters, or the overflow from rainwater tanks, by digging ditches that channel the water to fruit and vegetable beds. Plants that like more water should be planted at the bottom of sloping gardens, where they can make full use of the water that runs down. Or make a mini wetland to attract frogs, which are very efficient pest controllers (they even eat mozzies).
Think before you throw
Before throwing anything away, see if there isn’t another use for it. You could use egg boxes for seed trays, CDs as bird deterrents, old tyres or strong plastic bags (with holes in them) as containers for growing herbs or vegetables.
Collect orange, squash and pumpkin bags, cut them open and sow them together to make shade cloth for covering seedlings or seed beds. Support the shade cloth with short sticks to keep it off the ground.
Make your own fertiliser
Just about everything that comes out of the garden (except for diseased growth) as well as household scraps can be composted. Your best investment is a shredder that chops it all up into smaller pieces, especially the woodier parts, which then break down much faster. To make green teas (liquid plant food), use any green leafy plant for a nitrogen-rich tea. Add comfrey, borage or yarrow leaves for additional nutrients like calcium and potassium. A wormery will supply worm compost or worm tea. Sow green manures, like buckwheat, lupins, mustard or lucerne, and dig them into the ground as green manure.
Swot those pests
Swot up on companion planting and use the recommended aromatic herbs to keep pests away from veggies. Home-grown chillies, garlic, khakibos or marigolds, southernwood and other strong-smelling herbs can be used as insect-repellent sprays.
Use energy wisely – especially your own
Tailor the size of your veggie garden to the time and energy you have available to spend on it. Zoning the garden also saves energy. Plants needing the most attention are planted close to the house while those needing less attention, like fruit trees, are planted further away.
Permaculture Plant choices
- Use indigenous and non-invasive plants if possible, but don’t pull out exotics. Biodiversity is the watchword.
- Choose plants that have many uses instead of just one. Herbs, edible flowers, veggies with harvestable roots, stems and leaves, and shade-giving fruit trees are good choices.
- Instead of mono-cropping (planting the same vegetable in one bed) opt for intercropping (planting different kinds of plants next to each other) and companion planting. The rationale is that different plants take out or put in different nutrients, act as insect repellents or attract pollinators.
- If space allows, rotate your crops by alternating legume, leaf, fruit and root crops.
Fertility trench bed
This is a deep trench (60cm deep) filled with garden and kitchen waste (even tin cans and bones). When making the trench, put topsoil to one side and sub soil to the other side. Almost fill the hole with garden waste (you can include some subsoil) then cover it with the topsoil that came out of the trench and water it well. Plant directly into the bed. The remaining subsoil can be used elsewhere.
SWALE is a ditch that follows the contour of the land so that water running down will be caught by the ditch and soak into the ground. Soil from the ditch is piled up downhill from the ditch to form a berm (wall). Close the ditch at both ends to hold the water.
PIONEER PLANTS are used when establishing a garden because these plants grow quickly and strongly, and as they heal the soil other plants can start to grow.
PLANT GUILDS are small groups of plants that help each other, like beans, marigolds and maize. Beans are nitrogen fixers, maize provides support for the beans and marigolds chase away nematodes.
KEYHOLE BEDS are raised beds shaped like keyholes. They save space and provide easy access to plants.
TIME STACKING is another word for succession planting, where only a few vegetable seeds or seedlings are planted every second or third week to extend the harvest.
CHICKEN TRACTOR is a moveable chicken run that is moved from place to place in the garden, along with the chickens. First the chickens clear the ground by scratching and eating all the weeds, and then their droppings fertilise the soil. Check the bylaws (and your neighbours) before getting your own flock. Don’t name the chickens because when their laying days are over, they can become Sunday roast chicken.