PERMACULTURE IS a design approach to meeting human needs while still supporting, in fact improving, ecological function. At its core, it means that when you take care of the earth, the earth takes care of you.
That’s the definition of permaculture in a new book out this month from Northwest authors Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein. Bloom runs an award-winning, landscape design-build firm. Boehnlein is education director at the Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island. The book is “Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community and the Whole Earth” (Timber Press, $29.95).
But what exactly does that definition mean for the home gardener? Is permaculture more than composting, building the soil, right plant, right place? I guess so. Bloom and Boehnlein include examples of thermal mass masonry walls, solar dehydrators and an earthen pizza oven. Plus lists of plants for nourishment, healing, shelter, fuel, fodder, fiber and attracting wildlife.
Most of us are starting out with lawn, ornamental plantings and disturbed, if not depleted, soils. The geography where we live has been seriously altered over many decades. We need a road map to understand how permaculture applies to smallish plots in cities and suburbs.
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Bloom and Boehnlein stress that if you start with a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to gardening, you’ll make different, more earth-nourishing choices every step of the way. It’s all about ethics. “Permaculture is about building resilience and using only what we need and what we have access to — in other words, living within our ecological means.” The authors stress that permaculture makes us look at a bigger picture. It teaches the skills we need to take care of ourselves while connecting us to the place where we live.
Food production is the main focus of most permaculture designs, and the book emphasizes perennial crops. Did you know that hosta shoots are edible? And that you can use plants for weed barriers, mulch makers, nitrogen fixers, windbreak, pest repellents and insectaries, as well as for fragrance, food and cutting?
The authors advise choosing native plants for areas where your garden offers suitable environmental conditions. Well-placed natives need less maintenance than ornamental plants while supporting a host of native birds and bugs we want in our gardens. The book goes far beyond raised beds, although there are plenty of those, complete with season-extending row covers. How about espaliering peach trees along sunny walls, and planting forest gardens with layers of apple trees, blueberries and turnips?
But it all gets back to the question of where to start in your own garden. I asked Bloom about her route toward putting permaculture into practice. “It’s impossible to do all at once,” she says. She started by growing food and studying horticulture to become more self-sufficient. She suggests looking for loops you can close, as in composting not only leaves but also food scraps. “Look at all of your waste as a food source, and soon you’ll know where all your garden compost is coming from,” she says. Bloom is especially proud of the book’s chapter on water, which offers a variety of strategies for conserving, catchment and reuse.
Bloom suggests another good starting point is to analyze all that you buy to bring into your garden. Use compost rather than purchased fertilizer. Start letting plants go to seed, which you can collect and save to start more plants. Learn grafting and propagation techniques. “It’s the journey from being a consumer to being a creator, a regenerator,” says Bloom. “It’s a lifelong learning process.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.