Gardening

Permaculture Is NOT Gardening…So What Is It?

George showing off one morning’s pickings in early Sept 2016

“Stick to gardening, lady.”

If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “Leave that other stuff out of your content, and stick to gardening!!“…I would could easily treat myself to a wedge of the world’s best bleu cheese (made right here in Oregon).

These folks getting their hackles up in the comments section don’t yet understand: permaculture is not gardening. And my work revolves around permaculture. So no, I won’t “stick to gardening” and leave 75% of what permaculture is collecting dust on the shelf.

Maple and cedar the author split for firewood

What is Permaculture, Then?

Permaculture as a term is actually a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture” and a portmanteau of “permanent” and “culture”. Its focus is on creating permanent, resilient systems for people, and the food they grow.

Coined by Bill Mollison in the 1970s, permaculture is a design system for creating robust communities of people that live in a way that heals our relatioship with the planet, increases the quality of life for all, and creates permanent, regenerative ways of feeding those communities. To limit it to “just gardening” would be reducing permaculture to something far less integrated and effective.

Mollison – along with his student and co-founder of permaculture, David Holmgren – sought to create a set of ethics and principles that could be used to guide any design, from growing food to building homes, from urban planning to creating healthier social relationships. The obvious benefits of this system for gardening and farming helped launch permaculture into the consciousness of the ag world, especially since the founders “borrowed” heavily from proven traditional indigenous agricultural techniques.

The benefits of growing food using this system are often the way folks are first introduced to permaculture. So it is understandable that people new to permaculture would only have heard that it can be a frugal, natural, and productive way to grow food. But permaculture is so much more. It can do so much more to improve our communities and personal lives.

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The principles and ethics of permaculture are not confined to the production of food. Rather, growing food is but one integrated component of building resilient human communities. The three ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share guide all our design processes. In permaculture, we make a conscious choice to interact with the world in a way that cares for the Earth, cares for all people, and uses a fair share of resources (the third ethic obviously reinforces the first two).

The 12 principles of permaculture are a box of tools to help us craft gardens and homes and communities that will thrive. Using effective strategies that have evolved in nature as a guide, the 12 principles are a launching off point to get us to think about creating more interconnected and successful ways of being human beings on this planet. The 12 principles help us improve the ways we grow food and shelter ourselves, in the ways we interact with nature, in the ways we interact with other humans. (I will dive deeply into these incredibly helpful 12 design tools in a future post.)

A late spring harvest in the author’s garden. Herbs and rhubarb and artichokes abound in early June.

Does Permaculture Really Work?

If permaculture is such an expansive and sweeping design system, does it really work? The answer is both “yes” and “not yet”.

The beautiful thing about permaculture design is it is scalable. The principles work whether you’re applying them to a small veggie garden, or to entire economic systems. They work whether you’re designing a whole new “green” housing development, or looking to retrofit portions of your 100 year-old house for greater efficiency.

It does not matter if you’re new to permaculture and only know its application to gardening, or whether you’re an old-hat like me, searching for the ways permaculture can help us create healthier, more compassionate, and stronger societies – permaculture design principles will work for both of us. The more we use the tools in our permaculture tool box, the more ways we can create those resilient connections in our lives, our homes, our food systems, our societies. Doing so will benefit us right now on the small scale. And the the potential is there to make large permanent systemic changes using permaculture that will only increase our resilience, our positive impact on the planet, and our quality of life as human beings.

Permaculture is about connection, and so it makes no sense to isolate the gardening aspects of it. The more we see the connections in all things, the more we realize that strengthening other elements benefits us, and makes the whole system stronger. Permaculture says, “integrate, don’t segregrate.” The more we learn that we can not partition our gardens and farms from everything else in life and in nature, the more we see the potential to harness the connections that already exist to build a better world for us, our neighbors, and the Planet.

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Diversifying Our Berry Harvests with Mulberries

Illinois Everbearing Mulberry Fruit

A Hard Year For Fruit Growers

2022 thus far has proven to be a difficult year for fruit growers in my part of of the world. Coming out of multiple years of drought, we started off the year with record cold snaps. We had a freak 3 inches of snow after our last frost date. In fact, the snow hit so late that stone fruit were already blooming in the Pacific Northwest. Frozen blossoms are nothing short of a disaster for orchardists. Many gardeners liked me had to face the harsh reality of a year with no cherries, no peaches, and few plums. Even early apples and breba figs yields have been hit.

On top of the freeze, a cold rainy spring kept pollinators hunkered down. And heavy rains created unusually high fungal pressure. Blueberry crops have disappointed many, since they bloomed while temperatures were too cool or the weather too rainy for bees to be out foraging. Decade-old raspberry patches have root rot for the first time ever. Even my blackcap raspberries – a reliable crop with consistently large yields – had poor pollination.

A Resilient Berry in Hard Times


While the weather has absolutely crushed many harvests in my garden this year, all is not lost. In fact, one of the reason I grow a huge diversity of fruits is so that if one – or 6 – crops fail, I have many others that are likely to produce well for me. Building diversity into our systems increases our resilience. And one such insurance policy that has yielded fantastically for me over the years it the mulberry.

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Mulberries (Morus rubra, Morus alba, or Morus alba x rubra), are a genus of trees known for their production of deep reddish-purple fruits that are reminiscient of blackberries (Rubus genus). (White mulberries are, obviously, white or pale pink). The fruit is delightfully sweet, and lacks the acidity of blackberries.

These beautiful trees produce profusely, with berries ripening over several weeks to months. This results in a reliable daily harvest for long periods of time. I pick for a f ew minutes daily, and quickly fill multiple gallon containers in the freezer, with lots leftover for fresh eating each day. In July, dessert in the evening often looks like a handful of mulberries straight off the tree.

(Note, unlike blackberries and raspberries, the stem of the mulberry runs the whole length of the inside of the fruit. It’s totally edible! You can eat it, or not. Your choice, but the fruit is melded to the stem at its core and the stem cannot be removed.)

For me, growing mulberries has been a critically important part of our resilient design. When other berries fail, no matter the weird weather, my 3 mulberry trees produce reliably. There is plenty to share with wildlife (and my poultry – ducks love mulberries). When we build diversity into our permaculture systems, we create insurance policies for ourselves. My mulberries are my berry insurance policy: when more fiddly and delicate fruits fail, I can count on mulberries to give me a yield.

The author’s 13 year-old Illinois Everbearing Mulberry. The tree is pollarded to keep it small. One of three varieties of mulberry at Parkrose Permaculture.

Tips for Growing Mulberries

  • In my temperate climate, both red (M. rubra) and white (M. alba) grow well, but in many places white mulberries are an invasive species, spreading vigorously and displacing native trees and shrubs. Check before you plant, or consider only red mulberry species.
  • Fruit size, color and quality vary considerably across varieties, but all are sweet and good eating. My Contorted Mulberry produces rather small fruit in moderate quantities, but my Illinois Everbearing is a workhorse: cranking out huge quantities of good-sized fruit for weeks on end. The Pakistani mulberry produces elongated fruits prized for their unusual length, but can be a bit less cold tolerant, so I chose not to grow it here.
  • Consider that birds will love your mulberries, too. I count on 20% of my harvest going to wildlife and plan accordingly when it comes to pruning.
  • More cold hardy varieties can be grown in zones 5 and 6-8, with less tolerant varieties 7-9 (In cold snaps, the trees can get die-back, particularly in areas pruned during the previous year.)
  • Trees range from 6-20 meters (20-60+ft) at maturity, depending on species and variety. Choose carefully I don’t care what the catalogs tell you, mulberries are fast-growing, vigorous trees, and mine needs diligent pruning (pollarding) to keep it an appropriate size for my garden (see video above for more info).
  • Mulberries like a sunny spot, and can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. Once established, they are extremely drought tolerant. I never water my mulberry trees.
Stocking the freezer (note the stems, which run through the core of the berry. In smoothies, no one can tell they were ever there.)

Site-Specific Design

One of the beautiful things about permaculture design is that it is site-specific. This means you tailor your design to your needs, your yard, your community. Mulberries are not the right choice for every garden design. As I mentioned earlier, the trees can get quite large. If I were not committed to yearly pollarding, Illinois Everybearing would not have been an appropriate tree for my yard.

Mulberry juice stains. Everything. Hands, clothes, concrete, roof tiles. When deciding if this tree is right for your design, plan accordingly. Don’t plant over a driveway, for instance. I pick berries wearing dark-colored clothes so they aren’t ruined by any falling fruit or the juice that gets all over my hands.

In permaculture we design with stacking functions in mind. This concept means we try to have every element in our garden do as many “jobs” as possible. We looke for the connections in different elements in our system to increase resilience. In order to address the issue of stainy, fallen fruit, prevent fruit flies, and keep the area under the tree tidier, I planted my largest mulberry in my poultry run. Ducks and chickens relish mulberry fruit and quickly clean up every fruit that hits the ground. So my mulberry tree feeds not only our family, but also provides weeks of snacks for the poultry with zero effort on my part. And it stacks another function in nicely: The birds enjoy the shade the tree provides as it effectively cools the chicken run in summer.

When planning your permaculture system or homestead, perhaps a mulberry might be a tree worth planting. Understanding the pluses and minuses of this tree, how would it work into your design to increase your food security when other crops might fail? Consider the mulberry, a tree that has served our family well and is a crucial component of my resilient garden design.

Late May in the Garden Part I

Front yard perennial bed, a mix of edibles and beneficial flowering plants.
Front yard perennial bed, a mix of edibles and beneficial flowering plants.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve done a garden update.  Many things have changed as a succession of new plants have been added, and ten yards of wood chips spread about.   Nitrogen fixers and annual veggies have given way to a maturing system full of edible perennials and low-maintenance food cultivation.  So, let’s take a quick tour of the front yard and shade gardens, shall we?

IMG_9322[1]I consider the front beds adjacent to the street to be my “good neighbor” beds.  I try to keep them as aesthetically pleasing as possible, and let them serve as an advertisement for the beauty as well as the functionality of permaculture.  The beds are full of spring bulbs, lilacs, and a steady succession of summer flowers such as yarrow (red, above left), salvias, columbine, and many, many others.  The fact that these lovely plants all have medicinal or edible uses, or provide a benefit to edible plants here, is entirely on purpose.

In this bed, (clockwise from bottom left) yarrow, honeyberries, comfrey (background), love-in-a-mist, leeks, nasturtium, and a young peony all coexist quite happily, providing a mix of texture and color, and of course, food.

IMG_9326[1]IMG_9327[1]We have five honeyberry bushes (two early and three late), all planted last year.  This year, we will get perhaps four quarts of berries of off these edible members of the honeysuckle family.  The early varieties are nearly ripe, and it is only May!  Although they are a bit acidic, their flavor is similar to a blueberry mixed with a blackberry, and their extremely early ripening time, compact size and handsome shape make them a good plant for the small-scale permaculturist or home gardener.

IMG_9330[1]I love lush, closely packed groupings of plants of varying textures.  When these plants are collected around a fruit tree, and all somehow benefit each other, we call this grouping of plants a “guild”.  Here I have an Italian prune plum guild: Russian Bocking comfrey (dynamic accumulator and fantastic bumblebee food source), bronze fennel, which hosts beneficial insects (as do the love-in-a-mist, columbine and yarrow planted close by).  Honeyberries, pink and white currants provide additional fruit crops at varying times.  Rhubarb provides an early food crop, but its large leaves collect and funnel rain down to the base of the tree and its large roots help break up dense soil.

Perhaps you noticed the rocks hanging from the plum tree?  What are they?

IMG_9315[1]Here is a better example on another plum tree.  When fruit branches grow at a narrow angle (less than 45 degrees), they can easily split once loaded with fruit.  Some varieties are more prone to narrow branching than others.  In order to prevent damage to a tree you have spent many years caring for, it is best to help stretch young branches to a stronger angle.  One way to do this is to tie rocks to young flexible branches until they are pulled down to a wider angle.  By training the tree this way when it is young, it will not split under the weight of its own fruit in a few years.

IMG_9338[1]I am a sucker for oriental poppies.  They have a large root and attract insects, so I think they serve a purpose in the permaculture garden.  The way they lift the mood and make me smile means they deserve a space even if they have no other function.  (However, the moles in the garden have taken to digging them up and killing them.  Perhaps there are tasty grubs congregating at their roots?  I have lost three this spring.)

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The front yard contains more beds with apples and lowbush blueberries, aronia berries, and high bush blueberries.  It also contains lots of annual beds, which volunteers helped me plant with tomatillos, summer squash, tomatoes, kale, beets and Cape Gooseberries this week.  But those photos are for another day, later in the summer.

On the way to the side shade garden, you must enter through a gate, over which the hops have gotten a bit rambunctious this year.  Only May, and they are sprawling up and over everything.  They emit a delicious herbal smell as you brush past them.

IMG_9347[1]The shade garden has a large collection of natives, including salal and evergreen huckleberry.  It also contains non-native edibles such as goji berry, jostaberry, lingonberries, Angelica, anise hyssop, spearmint, and white currants.

It is suddenly getting a burst of sunshine this year since our neighbor removed a large holly tree, and I am tempted to put in a sun-loving plant right where that bolt of sunlight streams in, because the salal there is not enjoying 8 hours of bright sun.

IMG_9361[1]The thimbleberries – a thornless native raspberry relative which slowly spreads by rhizomes – are absolutely alive with the buzz of honeybees and bumblebees.  While the fruit is not spectacular, it is a good addition to other jams and jellies, and the good it does the bees means it needs a place in every shady garden in the Northwest.

IMG_9354[1]We anticipate a bumper crop of elderberries in the shade garden.  The two planted here get less than four hours of sun a day, but seem perfectly content.  This enormous beast is a “York”, which has grown much taller than the catalog suggested it would.  This year we will remove the oldest trunks (technically stems) which promotes the growth of new, more productive shoots from the base of the shrub.

IMG_9357[1]Before all the flowers are pollinated, I will harvest some this week for a batch of elderflower cordial.

Hope you enjoyed the quick tour of a small part of farmette.  Please stop back later this week with an update on the orchard, back and sideyard gardens.

Blessings on the rest of your week, and hope you have the same gorgeous spring weather we have been having here in Portland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Care of the Raspberry Patch

The raspberries have yet to drop all their leaves, but with plenty of rain in the forecast, now was the time to get the patches cleaned up for winter.  What better way to do it than in the last blush of sunshine before the return of fall rains?

We have two raspberry patches.  The one above is for the children of volunteers to snack on.  It resides in the side yard, next to a strawberry bed that serves the same purpose.

The other, larger patch is in front of the chicken coop in the backyard (half shown here).  It is currently one and a half rows of summer-bearing raspberries, and a half-row of “Fall Gold” raspberries, which produce August through October (still picking those!).  I am beginning to add a third row of marionberries and other brambleberries, which will all be trellised.  I also have a dwarf Mulberry on order to plant in this part of the yard come spring.

The first step to cleaning up the raspberry bed (and keeping it healthy and productive) is to weed all around the base.  Raspberries to NOT like weed competition.  I pulled up all the weeds, cut back the mint and sweet alyssum growing around the edges.

Next comes thinning – Raspberry plants are perennial, but the canes themselves are biennial.  Berries are produced on second year canes.  At the end of the first year, the canes produced that year (called “primocanes”) are topped and tied up, because they will produce next year’s fruit.   All spindly, diseased, wonky primocanes are removed at the base with sharp hand pruners (George is “helping” me here with a very old, very dull pair). The large, healthy

 Floricanes, which are the old, spent 2nd-year canes that fruited this year are also removed at the ground.  They are easy to spot, because they are clearly dead at the base, and look “woodier” and may have some unpicked shriveled fruit remaining.

Canes sent up by the plant  far outside your patch (sometimes three feet!) also need to removed, or after a few years you will find your berry patch has walked all over your yard.

Those healthy primocanes remaining are bundled and tied to the wires or strings ringing the patch.  (Some folks who grow their berries against a fence skip this step).  There are different ways to train the canes, and I use the topped-method, instead of the bent method.

Someone asked me this year why I use heavy-duty cotton yarn instead of wires.  The answer is simple – we had a large cone of cotton twine donated to the garden, and there wasn’t money in the budget for wire trellises.

Eventually, I would love to put in a more permanent wire system, but for now, cotton twine works just fine, and I can chuck it in the compost when it deteriorates.  You don’t need to wait until you can afford a spendy wire trellis system before starting your raspberry patch.  Work with what you have. 

A quick note about fall-bearing varieties like the delicate and superior “Fall Gold”, and ever-bearing varieties pruned to produce a large fall crop: These plants are trained differently.  They have more delicate canes, and are often shorter.  They are not topped in the fall.  Instead, I cut out the small, weak canes, and continue to harvest beautiful sweet berries through October from the tops of the larger canes.  Then, in March of the following spring, I will cut the plant to the ground, and it will produce berries on primocanes that August.

While I keep nearly all biomass in our system, and put few things in the yardwaste bins, raspberry canes are not “chopped and dropped” back onto the beds.  They are used as mulch elsewhere in the garden.  I place them around the base of other (unrelated) perennial plants, and mulch the raspberries with other chopped prunings.  This keeps disease cycles from setting up in the berry patch.

The berries here got a layer of chopped comfrey leaves, currant prunings, grass clippings, and apple leaves. Cleaning up the garden in fall needn’t mean wasting valuable biomass in the yardwaste bins, but it is important to utilize it in a way that does not promote pathogens in the garden.

I hope my walk-through of our fall routine for raspberry patch care is helpful.  If you would like free canes in the spring, please feel free to e-mail me come Feb or March.  I would love to help you start growing your own delicious, organic berries.

Blessings.

In the Bulb There is a Flower

Last week, we were at the plant nursery, looking for fruit trees on clearance (there’s always room for one more, right?), when the children begged me to buy some bulbs.

We picked out some more crocuses to go around the bases of the plum trees, jonquils and daffodils to ring our new honeyberry bushes, and tulips to peek out from around the winter savory on the edge of the herb beds (above).

I cannot tell you how much I wanted to pick up several more hyacinths, even more crocus bulbs, alliums, and loads of Fritillaria, but the budget didn’t permit.  What we did get was already quite an extravagance.  Next year, perhaps…

Harold was so excited about the tulips.  He chose a range of hues from palest pink to deep magenta.  While I prefer tulips in salmons and corals, I let him choose the colors he wished to see growing here.   After all, it’s the children’s garden, too!

George was fascinated with peeling bits of papery husk of the Narcissus bulbs.  The paperwhites will be forced indoors to give as Christmas gifts, and we will keep a few to enjoy ourselves at the holidays.   The smell of paperwhites always harkens of a fresh, clean start in the New Year.

I love planting bulbs in October, when we spent our effort digging in the dirt to bury little dormant things that will not bloom until April or later.  It is the delayed gratification that I love about it.   They are the promise of something beautiful yet to come, something good we must anticipate and I’m reminded of the hymn:

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Joining Wooly Moss Roots for her link-up on gratitude, because there are so many things here to be grateful for: sharing my love of gardening with the children, having a home and a yard -a place in which to plant bulbs, sharing time outdoors digging in the dirt with my sons, anticipation of beautiful blooms in the spring…

Cover Crops

This past weekend, we finally got around to planting cover crops in the front yard garden (and this coming weekend, after fencing off sections from marauding poultry, we’ll sow the backyard).

These are Austrian peas.  I’m trying them for the first time, along with several other cover crops we’ve used before.

It’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it?  Well, before sowing cover crops, we pulled up all existing annual food plants (the exception is a few Vulcan Chard plants that are producing well, and the tomatoes in the far right.  They will be removed this weekend when we plant garlic there).

Following permaculture principles, we strive to utilize everything in our system, so we “chop and drop” spent plants and throw them back on the beds to return their nutrients to the soil and build up the humus.  It hasn’t rained here in ages, so we watered afterward.

Then it was time to plant a mix of cereal rye, crimson clover, hairy vetch, red clover and field peas, and water them in well.  We purchased them in bulk at the feed store, and spent less than $3 for enough to cover all the front beds (except the future garlic bed).

Ordinarily, cover crops (like the rye above) are allowed to grow all fall and winter, and then are tilled into the soil in spring (before they set seed and essentially become weeds).  Well, the soil is a living, complex ecosystem, which we try not to disturb, so we do not till.   We build up the soil, always adding to the top, but not disturbing the mycelium and other organisms in the lower layers.  How do we finish off the cover crop and prepare for planting in the spring?

The answer: We let the poultry do it for us.  While the crops are germinating, we use temporary fencing to secure them from the ducks and chickens, but once they are mature, we remove sections of the fencing, and allow the poultry to feast.

In this way, we

1) reduce our personal energy output (we do not have to spend the time tilling in the vetch, rye and such)

2) reduce our winter poultry feed bill

3) minimize disturbance of the soil ecology

4)massively reduce the slug population as the ducks forage through the cover crops for their favorite treat.

5) enhance the aeration and fertility of the soil as the roots and inedible parts of the cover crops breakdown, and the birds contribute their rich manure.

In small areas of the garden we do not plant cover crops (mostly in the large backyard, not the little front yard shown here), but instead grow some winter produce for our family (chard, kale, cauliflower, etc) as well as many rows of garlic and shallots.  Those areas will receive an addition of well-composted chicken/ duck manure + straw from the coops before the spring planting.

More on garlic cultivation and our slow permie progression from annual to perennial crop cultivation in next week’s posts.

What are your fall and winter plans for your garden?