Notes From the Field Station: Permaculture In Practice

18 Nov

This week I will be translating some of the core permaculture principles identified in my last post into their true design and functional applications.

1. “Every element is placed in relationship to another so that they assist each other”

This guiding concept is constantly exemplified in permaculture design, ranging in scale from the patterning of species in a garden bed to the location of rainwater harvesting tanks. For example, unlike in many traditional gardens or agriculture practices, permaculture makes use of every square inch of soil space available by layering shade-tolerant species under the canopies of taller plants. As you can see in the picture below, by utilizing a combination of specific species niches (such as root vegetables, ground covers, vines, and herbaceous) plantings are able to achieve incredibly higher densities, producing double or triple the amount of food seen in traditional layouts. From an aesthetic perspective, although sometimes considered “messy”, these designs tend to be highly engaging, as they also combine a rich palate of colors, textures, and fragrances.

1. “Each element performs many functions (stacking functions)”

In permaculture designers strive to produce as many yields (outputs) as possible from each element in a system. In many cases additional functions can be derived via careful selection of species or materials, as well as its calculated placement within the overall site. For example, a compost pile can performs a multitude of functions:

– Breaks down garden wastes

– Creates nutrient-rich soil additives and liquid fertilizer (“compost tea”)

– Breeding habitat for worms and other small animals

– Provides food for secondary consumers (birds, lizards)

– Surrounding frame supports climbing plants

By using wire mesh or structurally similar substrates, as well as planting suitable vines around the exterior of a compost pile, you can successful eliminate the need for additional support structures or compost applications for this plant (see picture below).

Compost Bin Serving as Support for Cardinal Climber Vines

4. “Efficient energy planning for house and settlement (zones based on intensity of use)”

A truly logical concept that is often dismissed in design is the intensity and frequency of use, and how this should inform spatial configurations within a site plan. Within permaculture design, this concept has inspired the formation of four planting “zones’ to use as a framework when designing a site. Although typically depicted as concentric circles, this is not how this concept truly manifests itself. Instead, consider how often you visit specific areas (daily, monthly, etc.), and let that dictate the zones on your site.

Zone 0: The house or building on site, and from there you count outwards towards the sites boundaries.

Zone 1: Located closest to the building and it contains all of the most visited aspects of the garden. Plants here need the most attention or must be visited frequently: such as seedlings, herbs, salad greens, vegetables, and your composting center. By placing in highly convenient and obvious locations, they will be better maintained and more frequently made use of.

Zone 2: Still receives a high amount of attention, but doesn’t need to be checked ever day. Plantings here include smaller fruit trees, shrubs and trellised fruit, brambleberries, less-used perennial herbs and spices, low-maintenance vegetables (picked once, long time to mature), hedges, ponds, and windbreaks.

Zone 3: Not visited on a regular basis, including large fruit or nut trees, as well as the main crop area and large pastures for grazing animals.

Zone 4: A semi-managed area, used mainly for gathering wild foods and growing timber.

Zone 5: Completely unmanaged space, reserved for native plants and wildlife only.

I know I wasn’t able to touch upon all of them, but I hoped this helped to clarify the principles and frameworks which guide permaculture, and how those concept are exemplified in garden designs.

Thanks for reading and be sure to check in next week when I will be introducing the work of Smith student Tia Novak (’13). Tia is a highly motivated and talented individual who is taking advantage of her background in the fine arts and natural sciences to pursue an independent project designing the student-maintained deciduous orchard for the Bechtel Environmental Classroom site.

Jessa Finch (’12)

CEEDS MacLeish Intern

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