Monday, July 23, 2007

Edible Earth

The latest New Internationalist magazine has an excellent permaculture section which needs to be mentioned here, as permaculture is a system of design whose ethics incorporate earth care, people care, and fair share.

Founded by Bill Mollison in the 1970's in Australia, permaculture design is argueably a design system that can bring about social change. It is a design system that is based on observing what makes natural systems endure, establishing simple yet effective pinciples and using them to mirror nature in whatever we choose to design (e.g. gardens, farms, buildings, woodlots, communities, businesses, towns).

Permaculture is about creating beneficial relationships between individual elements, using principles such as:
- work with nature, not against it (use it as a teacher)
- everything in nature "gardens" (e.g. deer in the woods "prune" edible shoots)
- minimum effort for maximum output
- see the problem as the solution (e.g. thistles actually benefit the soil they are growing in)
- multiple functions (e.g. a greenhouse propagates plants, harvests rainwater, extends the growing season, reflects sunlight)

Here are a few simple do-it-yourself permaculture ideas for the city.

1) Living Roofs
By adding boards, pond membrance, and soil growing medium a sturdy roof can be turned into a fabulous garden. Make sure the rafters are adequately load-bearing for the volume of soil you plan to use. Then plant drought-resistant plants into the soil, mulch the gaps and watch everything grow. Incorporate bees, flowers, planter boxes...

2) Growing in Small Spaces
Balconies, windowsills, sunny walls, trellises, and patios are all great places to increase your garden yield when growing in small spaces. Contianers can be hung from the celieing and railings to grow edibles such as berries and vining plants. It's even possible to grow dwarf apple and fig trees in pots on a warm patio. Shady balconies can grow rhubarb, salad greens, and garlic. You can include innoculated oak logs to grow shiitake mushrooms. Keeping chickens for eggs is possible if you have enough space for a run.

3) Forest Gardens
The idea of a forest garden is to grow mainly perennial food crops in every available niche, from the roots, ground cover and shrub layer, up to the small trees and larger trees. In this way, we learn from and mimic how a forest grows.

4) Community Garden Plots
Gardening communally or with individual plots in an urban community garden has so many advantages. Allowing people to share the work, expertise, and the harvest, as well as providing opportunities for adding ponds, shelters, strawbale buildings, worm composting, rainwater harvesting, even planting fruit trees and berry bushes.

5) Water Harvesting
There are many ways to harvest and collect rainwater. Placing a barrel at the end of a down-spout is the most obvious. Why not add a tray of watercress at the bottom to grow some edible water-loving greens? Incorporating a series of interconnected rainbarrels, larger tanks, bird baths, ponds, greywater systems allows more rain and household water to be saved for gardening use and diverted from our sewer systems.

6) Reusing Tires
This was an early permaculture idea, given than used abandoned tires are virtually everywhere and will not break down easily in the landfill. Tire ponds can be created by digging a tire into the ground and lining with plastic. Cover the edges with soil and stones to make a natural looking finish. Tires have also been used to make retaining walls, planter beds, potato planters, composters (using tractor tires), and even walls for "earthship" rammed earth homes.

7) No-Dig Mulch Gardens
This idea was first written about by Masanobu Fukuoka, a pioneer of natural farming in Japan (see his book The One-Straw Revolution). The idea is simple - healthy soil is an ecosystem in itself, a complex web of microorganisms, plant ntrients, and organic matter necessary for healthy plants. If we dig the soil, we disrupt that ecosystem and reduce fertility. The easiest way to grow vegetables in the no-dig way is in a raised bed where organic matter can be accumulated each year, and the gardener's feet do not compact the soil. All sorts of material can be used for mulch - newspaper, non-synthetic carpet, black plastic, leaves, strawy, cardboard.

8) Animal Tractors
Till the soil (if necessary) by using animal power, such as a chicken or a pig. Chickens naturally scratch up the soil, eat disturbed pests and small weeds and leave their manure behind - a perfect example of permaculture given the multiple functions and interconnections of this relationship. Chickens can roam from raised bed to bed, in a simple chicken tractor which is a fenced in run on wheels that is moved as each bed becomes ready for planting.

9) Chicken Greenhouse
Multiple yields again - the antithesis of monoculture. Chickesn are inherently useful creatures! No only do they yield eggs, they are good waste-disposal birds eating vegetable scraps and garden weeds. They produce rich manure for hte garden and are useful pest controllers, Place them inside or their house outside on the shady side of a green house and you can also harvest their heat at night, their carbon dioxide for plants, and use th early morning heat from the green house to warm them up to lay eggs. Add a rainwater collection and plant a forage garden around their run to make them more self-sufficient. In a largescale battery house (chicken barn) their carbon dioxide, manure, feathers and heat are a problem. However, in the small-scale permaculture system they are yields! The key to this success is scale, and the relationship between all the elements in balance.

10) Swales
Swales are small ditches that hold water and allow them it to penetrate the soil They slow down, even stop, water run-off and soil erosion. They can be smlal ridges in garens, rock piles place across a slope or excavated hollows. Essential is the planting of trees.

This information taken from New Internationalist, July 2007.

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