Thursday, February 2, 2012

Learning About Permaculture

When my garden started flooding this past week I suddenly remembered a topic my niece had talked to me about some time ago.   She had taken a class in permaculture and told me about how this system directs water in the garden through the use of swales.  I really didn't know anything about permaculture  so I had to look it up and I discovered that it refers to landscape design that uses naturally occuring patterns in nature to maximize land use and agricultural production.  What I realized as I read is that many of the practices gardeners are encouraged to use such as mulching and using compost are the same practices that permaculture advocates.  However, permaculture takes it a step further by combining these practices into a cohesive garden design.  Instead of focusing on individual steps, permaculture views the garden as a whole ecosystem.

A large part of permaculture appears to be planning.  To create a permaculture garden you must plan it first, then plant it.  A difficult task for me as I'm terrible at planning in the garden.  But after viewing my niece's design it didn't look so hard after all.


The general shape of the beds and a couple large buildings and plants are accounted for but it isn't so detailed as to be daunting.  The most important aspect of the plan is the use of water.  A rain barrel (not pictured) is installed at the highest point in the yard and then water is diverted from the barrel to the garden using the simple principle of gravity.  Water runs through swales which are built through every bed delivering water to the plants.  When I looked at this design I saw how simple it was and wondered how I had never considered this before.  Now looking at water collection in my own garden bed I'm thinking about how these design principles might work for me.

One aspect of permaculture that I found really interesting is the social nature of this idea.  Permaculture is more than just a design principle, it has become a movement.  After planning her garden at permaculture classes my niece held a blitz at her home.  The blitz involved the entire class coming together in her yard and over the course of a couple days turning her design into reality.

Everyone grabbed a shovel and began to dig
Sod was dug up and swales were installed.  Beds were made and covered with cardboard, compost, bone meal, grass clippings, straw and leaves.  So much work was completed so quickly because everyone came together to make it so.

My niece Julia posing in her new garden
I asked my niece about this movement and how permaculture had impacted her and she responded "It is about grass roots earth repair.  Transforming a non-productive resource sucking space, like a yard full of grass, to a food producing self-sustaining system.... I can build a food forest in my backyard.  I can grow a lot of my own food.  I can find most of my materials from back alleys: bricks, leaves, coffee grounds from coffee shops.  I can meet many new faces and build a community and spread the word about permaculture".

Permaculture has become much more than just landscape designing.  It's striking a very personal chord with a lot of people.  As I searched the internet for information permaculture schools and classes popped up, news on the latest blitz, and photos of new gardens appearing in suburban yards.  It's amazing to see people coming together, talking about the environment, sharing their knowledge and their skills.  It reminded me of garden bloggers actually.  By talking about our gardens and how we garden we are spreading new ideas and encouraging one another.  What a fine idea that is.  I can see why it's catching on.

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Julia took classes with Big Sky Permaculture in Calgary, Alberta.  You can learn more about their classes and view details about Julia's blitz here.

31 comments:

  1. Marguerite, This is fascinating. I had heard the term "permaculture," but didn't know much about it. Thanks for the explanation. -Jean

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  2. I too have heard of permaculture, but as an architect, the term swale is used in a somewhat different circumstance. It directs water in a very obvious way, usually away from a property. My yard has trenches with permeable gravel at the base, then like you said compost, straw, and organics filled it to the top of the trench. There is also perforated drain tile below the gravel to prevent excess water from building up in the trenches to rot out plant roots in Spring when the ground is still coming out of the winter thaws. I have a natural Spring under my yard and when I moved here, the backyard was literally a 6" deep 'lake'. A tree the former owner planted died my first year at the home. A lot of trenching solved the problem and my plants love all the underground gravel and drainage.

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  3. What an interesting post. I couldn't picture what these swales were (I was thinking more hills and valleys and couldn't imagine that scale of landscape features in a garden), but when I saw the step by step photos of the permablitz on the Big Sky site it was so clear.

    Your niece has done you a great service by introducing you to the concept and even drawing up a plan. Now we need to see photos of a Canoe Corner permablitz!

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  4. Very interesting. I can't wait to see your garden re-done using these principles. It seems like a very smart idea. Maybe your niece's class could come help you!

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  5. I can understand why this type of landscape design is taking hold. I think it is wonderful when groups of people with common interest get together like this. As you said so much gets accomplished quickly! By the way, I have awarded you the Versatile Blogger award. You can see my post to grab your badge and see the rule! Have a great weekend Marguerite!

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  6. Don't you wish you were more aware of it a couple of seasons ago before you started on your property?

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  7. I really appreciate finding out about what permaculture really means as I had a superficial understanding--fascinating and hopeful.

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  8. We were very aware of the effects of permaculture when designing the build of our home and the way to direct the water from the house towards the trees, garden and forest property.
    The layering effect we call making a lasagna pie and cardboard is a very key ingredient of the recipe.
    Your niece seems like a very smart lady and I can't wait to see what changes you may make.
    You can also tap the rain barrels with a on/off valve which we will be looking into this year. I missed out on the Superstores rain barrels that were going for really cheap at the end of the Summer.

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  9. Very informative post!

    Hope you will visit my blog and enter my GIVEAWAY!
    Just Tututiny

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  10. Great post.. very inspiring, especially now just as spring is on the horizon!

    Thank you so much for coming to see me yesterday at the book launch for The Year Round Vegetable Gardener! I really appreciated it! I'm just sorry you missed gardeningbren, as she arrived not long after you left! It was great to meet you.. thanks again!
    Niki

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  11. Excellent post! I wasn't too familiar with the idea, but you explained it beautifully. Thanks!

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  12. Water control is so vital. I will have to read more about it and go to the Big Sky site. Very interesting.

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  13. I like your take on permaculture, I find a lot of the ideas really attractive, but over here it also seems to come with a rather zealous "this is the only way to live" vibe that puts me off. I want to use a lot of the ideas, but not have to take on some of the more extreme notions. I do love your niece's description of what it is to her. Thank you for making me think!

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  14. What a wonderful class that must have been. I love the idea of the class getting together to help each other install their designs. Grass roots movement is the perfect way to describe it.

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  15. I've heard of permaculture before, but really had no idea what it meant. Thanks for the informative post, Marguerite; I'm going to do a little more research on this. My favorite part, though, is the class coming together to help your niece plan her own garden--I'd love to have to have more hands with shovels here!

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  16. I had no idea that common sense + working with water instead of against it = permaculture. I thought permaculture was something else. It sounds like the perfect solution for your soggy yard. :o) Plus, you shouldn't have to water much. I LOVE that Julia's classmates came out to help create her new garden. That's amazing!! I also love how dedicated you are to your land. It will pay off in the long run.

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  17. Marguerite: I'm nominating you for a Versatile Blogger Award! Details will be up soon on my blog a www.aagaardfarms.ca

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  18. Jean - you and me both. When she said she was taking a permaculture course I kind of nodded along but I quickly realized that even though I knew the word I didn't fully understand what permaculture meant.

    Donna - It seems a lot of people have trouble with water on their property and what a lot of work it is to fix! I don't envy you having to do that. A former workmate of mine underwent something similar and the costs were unreal.

    Laurrie - you sound like my niece! As soon as I caught on to the concept she was telling me about courses in my area. I think she would love to see me have a blitz.

    Holley - unfortunately PEI is quite a small province and to my knowledge there aren't any permaculture courses in my area so no blitzes in the near future but it's great to learn about these principles and think about how they apply to my own situation.

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  19. Karin - Thanks so much for the award. I too loved the idea of this idea catching on and people working together to promote it. If we all work together so much can be accomplished.

    Aagaard Farms - I definitely need to do a Versatile Award post, two nominations! Thanks again. It's funny, until I saw the water pooling in the yard I didn't realize how permaculture could be useful to me, now the ideas are starting to formulate.

    Carolyn - I'm so glad to be able to pass this idea on. It really struck me that although I knew about so many organic principles it was an entirely different concept to try and pull them all together.

    Witch - Superstore has rain barrels? I have to check those out. I've seen a few at various hardware stores but haven't been thrilled with the design of any of them. I have a spot all picked out for rain barrels but so far cost and design have stopped me from purchasing.

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  20. Niki - I was very glad to finally meet you and I've been diving into the book already. Nothing like reading about gardens to make me impatient for spring. What a shame I missed Brenda, I looked for her but thought perhaps she didn't make it.

    Kevin - thank you, I had to read a lot about permaculture first to decipher it for myself so it's nothing short of a miracle I was able to explain it to my readers!

    Queen Janet - I've never had trouble with lack of water in my garden so I didn't think this would ever apply to me but now seeing that I have excess water I'm realizing how it applies in a whole other way.

    Janet - I hear what you mean, sometimes the back to the earth ideas are so far from where you might be at and the pressure to adopt those ideas can be overwhelming and make you want to do the opposite. One thing I liked about this was my niece's infectious enthusiasm. She just really really loved this and had to share it and that was enough to make me want to know more without being pushed.

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  21. Debbie - I was stunned when she said they all came over and dug her garden for her. What could have taken all summer to do was accomplished in a weekend. It's really rather inspiring.

    Rose - what I wouldn't give for a team of people to come over and help dig up my garden!! It sounds like a dream come true.

    Tammy - well I'm a bit haphazard in my approach thus far (kind of dig first and think later) but I'm certainly learning a lot as I go and to me that's one of the great joys of gardening.

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  22. Your niece is enjoying today's version of barn raising or a quilting spree. Delightful to see. Permaculture lurks guiltily at the back of my mind. We have swales, and inherited elderly fruit trees. Need to take it a few steps further.

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  23. http://buzz.blogger.com/2012/01/engage-with-your-readers-through.html

    See if it works for you? Screenshots here, make it easy to revert to what works now!

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    1. Fantastic, thank you so much Diana! Had to change a few settings but it's working!

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  24. I found your blog through "blotanical" and have enjoyed reading through your archives and seeing pictures of your land/plants/gardens since you've moved.

    I like your compost design and may try to build something similar as ours is currently an ugly contraption of pallets that doesn't keep the raccoons out.

    Happy gardening!

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    1. Thanks Marcelle and welcome! the one flaw in my composter is that the front isn't removable. If I was ever to do this again I would make sure I could have a side that I could remove. In order to completely empty the bins I have to climb right in.

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  25. Marguerite I wish I had known about this before I put my garden in .. I need more drainage at the right of the garden (would stop the ice rink in winter ?) .. but, I can truly say there is so little grass compared to when we moved in .. the owners would never recognize it now ! LOL
    Joy

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    1. Joy, that is my ultimate goal with this yard. Remove as much grass as possible! You have done very well in this regard, there are so many lovely plants in your garden it's a sight for sore eyes.

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  26. I belong to a small gardening group , 6 of us, who volunteer to keep the demonstration gardens at the university in shape. Once a week from early spring to late fall. every 5th week we help each other do big jobs in our own gardens. It's amazing what we accomplish and we often thought about hiring ourselves out to work in other peoples gardens :)
    I've been eyeing
    Gaia's Garden: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture at teh bookstore, now after reading your post I'm going to buy it.

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    1. Wow, that's a fantastic group that you belong to. I knew you visited the university frequently as you've mentioned it in your posts but had no idea why. How wonderful that you all find time to help each other out as well. Sometimes I find the projects I want done in my yard rather daunting and I think having a group like that would really help to accomplish some major goals.

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