Permaculture for home gardeners
In the late 1970s Australian biologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term ‘permaculture’ to describe a philosophy of ecologically and socially sustainable human settlement. In its broadest sense the concept can be applied to commercial agriculture and horticulture, town planning and renewable energy technologies. The principles, however, can be applied on any scale, even a small inner city courtyard garden. Here is a selection of ideas for those who would like to venture into the world of urban permaculture.
Worm farms for permaculture
Worm farming is a terrific example of something that fits in well with the permaculture ethos. Virtually any organic material can be fed to worms that will recycle it into a fantastic fertiliser as well as keeping it out of our already choked urban waste stream. Worm farms can be designed to suit any amount of organic waste right down to self-contained box systems that can be used on balconies without too much fuss or trouble.
Most commercially available worm farms come with directions that are simple to follow. Perhaps the most important advice is to alternate the types of wastes used between ‘wet’ waste such as vegetable and fruit peelings and ‘dry’ fibrous waste such as shredded paper, corrugated cardboard or straw. A balance between the two is important as the dry material helps to ensure that the worms can find oxygen within the farm. Also, vegetable and fruit waste tends to be high in nitrogen, whereas the dry matter tends to be high in carbon. Too much nitrogen rich material can end up burning tender worm skin, so be sure to balance what you put into your worm farms so you end up with healthy worms and good rich worm castings to enrich your garden beds.
The end products of worm farms need to be used in an informed way also, for instance the liquid that drains out of a self-contained system makes an outstanding liquid fertiliser. However, it is often very concentrated and should be diluted 10:1 with water so it is not too strong. It is best used on plants that require lots of nutrients such as herbs and vegetables as the phosphorus levels can be a little high for Australian native species. Similarly the castings left after the worms have finished feeding should be sprinkled around the base of heavy feeding plants as well.
Cool composting for permaculture
For gardeners with small amounts of organic wastes, a classical, steaming hot compost heap is not particularly practical, as they usually do not have sufficient volume of material to make this happen. A far better solution is the more user-friendly cool compost heap that can be created from recycled timber, preferably hardwood. A crudely constructed box up to a cubic metre in volume is all that is required. It should have gaps between the timber slats to allow for aeration and a gap about 20-30 cm high should be left at the bottom of the box to allow finished compost to be extracted. The heap is managed by simply adding organic materials to the top of the heap as they become available. It is best to alternate between dry low nutrient materials such as dead leaves and more succulent nutrient-rich materials such as kitchen scraps and lawn clippings. Once the heap has been going a few months compost can be extracted from the base of the heap every month or so thus dropping the heap and creating space to add more waste to the top.
Getting rid of lawns
Lawns are a massive waste of resources constantly requiring fertiliser, noisy polluting machinery and labour to maintain them as well as herbicides. Many attractive ground covers; particularly herbs can be used to create very attractive low maintenance alternatives. Herbs such as Chamomile, Lemon Thyme, Oregano, Mint and Catmint all form dense ground covers that spread and form a weed resistant mat. These plants will not withstand foot traffic like a lawn will, however, the use of paving (that can be created for very little cost by using recycled bricks) will solve the problem and give the area a lovely rustic feel.
Growing edible plants for permaculture
There are many edible and highly ornamental plants that will not only look good in the garden but will also give us beautifully nutritious home grown produce. The secret of a successful permaculture garden lies in choosing plants that will require no or very minimal amounts of environmentally damaging chemicals such as pesticides. Examples for the general landscape include citrus trees, cherry tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, peppers and silver beet. Fences and walls can be covered in attractive yet productive vines such as passionfruit. Sweet potato can grow into a weed deterring ground cover that can also be harvested for tubers in 3 to 6 months. Edible plants can be subtly interspersed with flowering plants without detracting from the ornamental appearance of a landscape; after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Seed Savers’ Network is a non-profit organization that can put you in touch with a wealth of information and seed of edible plants for permaculture.
Propagate your own plants for permaculture
Collecting your own seed and cuttings from friends and neighbours is a cheap and effective way to build your garden. Recycled PET plastic bottles with the bottoms cut out make perfect miniature greenhouses for cuttings. Homemade compost is a perfect medium for both seed and cuttings.
Trees and shrubs
Vegetables are not the only plants that will produce food. A key part of permaculture is creating long lived edible plantings as well as annual crops. There are many shrubs and trees which will provide shade and shelter, food and can also look very attractive. Citrus and macadamias and other nut trees have glossy foliage and decorative flowers, with bonus fruit or nuts. Bananas will give a tropical feel to warm areas. You can even grow your own tea plants, with coffee bushes and camellia sinsensis (which provides tea) readily available, and many different herbs such as lemon myrtle and ginger which can also be used to make your own unique flavor blend. Trees and shrubs provide welcome shade for chickens and ducks if you choose to add these to your garden, and can create microclimates too.
Chooks and ducks for permaculture
In days gone by many urban gardens had their own chook run. Whilst you need a larger garden for poultry, the joy of fresh eggs is worth the trouble. It is a terrific and very efficient way to recycle organic wastes such as kitchen scraps and the manure can be collected to make a tremendous organic fertiliser for the garden (be careful not to use it fresh though). Ducks or chooks that can roam around the garden are a tremendous way to control snails and other insect pests provided you have an enclosed yard. An alternative is to have a moveable wire cage, the advantage of which is that the chooks will dig an area and free it of weeds, and add their own fertilizer in the forms of droppings, making it easier to ready an area to plant into. Consult your local council as each has their own guidelines for keeping of poultry.
Wildlife in the permaculture garden
Creating a habitat that will attract animals such as birds, frogs and lizards will help to keep pests and diseases at bay without you having to lift a finger or pollute your neighbourhood with toxic chemicals. A small pond in the garden surrounded by native plants such as Grevilleas, Banksias and native grasses will not only look good but will also bring a better balance between pests and their predators in your garden. Native fish like blue eyes added to the pond will eat mosquito larvae.
Further information about permaculture can be found in several books and magazines on the subject, available at local libraries and book sellers.
Grow Your Own, How To Be An Urban Farmer has a section on permaculture, plus heaps of useful information on growing your own edibles.