Permaculture is a mindset, a way of looking at nature as the ultimate example of successful design, then using our own wits to sculpt that design into something both ecological and economic (especially when food, sustainable energy and self-sufficiency equal money). One of my favorite examples of this is the food forest.

Careful observations of forests have revealed that the plant life co-exists in very specific arrangements, or layers. Large trees create a canopy under which smaller trees grow, and beneath the smaller trees there is room from woody shrubs around which herbaceous plants can fill in the space. Then, of course, there are plants with edible roots to create layers below the soil, and plants that spread out over the ground to protect from drying out too much or eroding. And, we mustn’t forget the vines that are climbing all over everything. All of these plants grow and thrive together, without mono-cropping, pesticides or human aid.

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Using the idea of these layers, wily permaculturalists build food forests in which those canopy trees, like mangoes or macadamia, produce something to eat, and those medium trees, like limes or pigeon pea trees, produce something else to eat. And, the bushes might provide some berries while the herbaceous layer provides greens and vegetables. The roots could be sweet potatoes or carrots or cassava, or all three of those and more. Wild edible mushrooms would probably grow. Vines could be delicious grapes, passion fruit, kiwi, and so on. With this arrangement, a forest becomes a food forest.

Like a normal forest, once in place, food forests are self-regulating, full of life and stunning. Plus, there is the added bonus of filling your belly with an abundance of choices. Unlike orchards or standard garden rows, there is a healthy balance of plants to provide different crops year round, helping with human diets as well as animals and insects, especially those bees that have become so popular lately.

Some Other Innovative Gardening Ideas

  • Swales are another great re-innovation that permaculturalists like. Noting how well plants grow around water — surprise, surprise — farmers build swales to create more fertile land. Basically, the standard swale looks like a large ditch, but rather than draining, the ends are capped so that that precious water stays put. Eventually, it will soak into the land where roots can reach it , and plants in turn get big and luscious. The absorbed water refills the water table below the earth’s surface and within the soil it will move towards the lowest point. So, on hillsides, swales are great for catching water before it runs off. In desserts, it’s great for holding water so it can get into the ground to help plants grow. Then, the plants will block the sun from making the water evaporate so quickly. Swales are magical.
  • Real-time composting is a much lazier, more natural way of utilizing the power of compost. Besides making a lot of careful layers and tediously turning it, permaculture has different ideas on composting, including things like hugelkultur (burying large chunks of wood that decay slowly to feed plants for years), magic circles (building a garden ring around a compost pit that feeds the plants as the pit decomposes) and vertical gardening (dig a trench next to a garden row and filling the trench with organic material). Like in nature, fallen organic matter starts going right back into the living. Permaculturalists know how valuable just leaving a log in a garden bed can be: It attracts worms, enriches the soil around it and provides a habitat for useful insect and animals. For a while, it can even bee a seat.
  • Zoning your garden is perhaps one of the most sensible things that doesn’t occur to many people. Permaculture tries to design systems in ways that use the least energy, including our own. The basic idea of zones is that items of the garden that a gardener would visit most often, either to harvest or to care for, should be placed closest to the house (Zone Zero). An example of what would be in zone one is an herb spiral, lettuce bed, greenhouse and compost. Zone two might have berry bushes and more seasonal perennial plants, like fruit trees. This goes all the way out to zones with sustainable sources of timber and firewood to areas reserved for wildlife. By planning the garden this way, everything is suitably accessible. It could even be done in a house, saying the kitchen is Zone Zero (with herb and lettuce leaves on the windowsill) and varying potted plants could provide other food through an apartment, patio and/or balcony.

These are just some examples I’ve latched onto in planning my own environment, but there are many more interesting ideas — for harvesting water, producing electricity, reducing waste, and so on — to explore. Just like in nature, not every forest or environment is the same, but they often work with similar principles. The trick is finding your own best way to combine the concepts.

Image source: Øyvind Holmstad/Wikimedia

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