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Monday, July 13, 2009

It's a jungle out there

We hear talk of Permaculture all the time now, though we don't know personally anyone around here who claims to be doing exactly that; when I first read about it I got all excited, and then I as read further, I kept running into "wowie-zowie" stuff -- artwork like that from the Sixties that came out of the psychedelic crowd, and varying sets of "principles" that reminded me of the lists of rules from communes I visited -- but did not settle down in -- in the Seventies. I felt like an outsider then, and am feeling a bit like one today.

Pictures of Permaculture study sessions that I've seen have a similar effect on me; everyone sitting in a circle looking suspiciously like a pantheistic religious ceremony in progress. I'm too deaf for circle-sitting, not to mention impatient and cantankerous, so while I'm not as critical of these really quite nice goings-on as the double quotes around things in the preceding paragraph might lead you to think, I'm not going to latch on to the term to describe what we do at Stony Run, at least just yet.

A word we have used, which is popular with permaculturists, and which I wish had wider dissemination, is polyculture. It's a useful term, for me, because it seems to combine elements of companion cropping with succession cropping, and even of crop rotation. There are also aspects of overstory-understory cropping, which is certainly one of the things one reads about in the Permaculture literature.

We have twenty-one garden beds here, and twelve of these are fifty feet long by three feet wide. There are fruit trees in several of these, not columnar apples (which would have been a fine idea) but serious semi-dwarf apples, plums, and nectarines, some of whom are ambitious to be standards (full-size). Their roots are of course just ... everywhere ... and sapping nutrition and moisture from the garden, just like the books say, but we're not too worried. There is enough to go around, especially as we use quite a lot of manure tea and compost tea on all our mulch, even on the pathways. And the shade from these trees is useful for helping some crops, such as lettuce, reach maturity in hot weather without bolting.

In the same beds we also have t-posts planted at the ends, with wire strung between them, for racking beanpoles or tying up tomato plants with string suspended from above. By planting peas and beans practically everywhere, we add nitrogen and shade the soil, conserving moisture and encouraging earthworms. This is companion planting, but it also meets some of the requirements that have led to the practice of rotation planting with "green-manure" crops.

In the understory beneath the beans and peas there are beets, turnips, radishes, spinach, onions, leeks, garlic, red cabbage, green cabbage, broccoli, collards, tomatoes, bok choi, kale, lettuces, chard, and even a few carrots scattered everywhere and growing in profusion. Many of these were planted from an herb shaker into which a variety of different seeds had been poured and shaken together. Small hills, scarce six inches across, made from mixed potting soil and compost and tucked into the wintered-over mulch, alternately received plantings of beans and coles in this manner, across half the garden. I've done this for years, though I can't find anything quite like it in books.

Say I'm naive, but to me all these plants seem to have enough to eat and drink, and are stunningly free of insect pests and diseases, despite being grown in such a tangle of root and branch. Some young things have suffered, but it is usually because they were not all thinned when they came up together in the same spot.

Since there is no particular place you can go to pick a crop of all one kind of thing all maturing at once, most harvesting here amounts to a kind of treasure hunt. (Beloved says it is a scavenger hunt ...) I'm never quite sure what will hit the basket and in what order; or, if I'm really only after spinach to blanch and freeze, I have to cruise around looking for the right plant or plants for my purpose. But since the spinach plant, even in a hot July, is two feet tall and wide, has deep green twelve inch leaves, and hasn't bolted, the basket fills quickly enough.

I'm not sure how you would apply such a system to market farming on any sort of industrial scale, but for feeding the family at home it seems to have lots to recommend it. At our place, it does, anyway. YMMV, as always.

I've described this polyculture subsistence farming perspective to friends, and then they say, "Oh, Permaculture." Maybe; except the touchy-feely bit is limited mostly to the silken texture of the spinach leaf as it goes into the salad bowl.

For some maybe similar views, see Sharon and Greenpa. And: what do you think? Is Permaculture going to box itself in as a patchouli/grainola thing? Is that bad? Am I overreacting? What's going on?


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