Guest post by Anne Boyer
I planned my first garden for ten years. I fell asleep fantasizing about what I would do with land when I finally owned some: there would be the blue room, exploding with morning glories and delphiniums, the fruit room surrounded by a thick patch of brambles, the grandmother room full of zinnias, potato plants, four o’clocks and poppies. I read everything I could about flowers and fruit. I read 1950s extension pamphlets, my mother’s 1970s Rodale organic guides, and my Better Homes and Garden New Garden Book from 1961.
Organic gardening seemed like a natural choice. My mother never sprayed; my grandmother never sprayed. But was organic “organic” enough for me, or was it just a comforting label accompanied by a discomforting price tag? Would organic alone turn my small city lot, my very first garden, into a heaven of food and flowers?
The purchase of my little city house coincided with my discovery of permaculture. The word permaculture suggested to me something heady and wild, a step beyond organic. It is a philosophy of observing and working with nature. Permaculture provided me with a big picture; organic methods became a narrow slice of it. When I finally settled into my first garden, permaculture helped me accommodate those ten years of flora fantasies in one small, stressed out city space.
One of the keys to permaculture landscape planning is the “zone system.” The first winter in my city house, I looked out at my small yard and struggled to divide it into proper permaculture zones. Zone one would comprise the most visited and intensively used areas. Zone two would be a semi-intensively cultivated area. Zone three would be the farm zone, four would be a forest or pond, and five would be altogether wild.
The problem with this zone approach was a problem of proportion. I found myself struggling to find space for more than the first and second zones.
Furthermore, permaculture suggests growing intensely cultivated food right up next to the house, and the soil next to my house, as is common with houses built before 1950, was likely contaminated with lead paint dust. I couldn’t just poison my family for the sake of an ultra-permacultural landscape plan.
At this point I stepped back from my paint-by-zone-numbers approached to permaculture, took a deep yoga breath, and decided to observe what was going on rather than impose my will. A flexible approach proved very practical.
In a city, zones do not just radiate from every individual dwelling like orbits in so many solar systems. While we can create tiny pockets of wildness among the urban cultivation, those of us who aren’t large landowners have to see beyond our individual properties to find the other zones. The farms we support through our membership in CSAs become our zone three. Parks and publicly owned wild spaces become our zones four and five.
Indeed, for a small city lot with contaminated soil close to the house, a slight inversion of the zones is common sense. A bit of wildness up close to the house can rebuild and soothe the soil. A more traditional, cultivated landscaping approach can exist on the borders between neighbor and neighbor as a gesture of community good will.
The loveliness of the soil became a strong motivation to proceed mindfully in my garden work. “Multiple use” has become my mantra for any gardening decision. I have to be a frugal gardener in more ways than one: if a plant is going to come live at my house it should feed me, provide me materials for crafts or other activities, feed wildlife, provide shelter, and look good as well. Perennials and self-sowing annuals beat high-maintenance plants hands down. Domestic animals face the same test. We are planning for the arrival of three pullets (young hens) this spring only because the will feed us, entertain us, eat bad bugs, fertilize our soil, and look nifty. This is not just a cruel, human-centered philosophy, because I, too, am required to have multiple uses in my landscape. I am not just a consumer, but a producer and a recycler.
One of the sweetest aspects of permaculture is its philosophy of easy labor. In a permaculture garden, one composts in place through trenches and sheet mulches, one eats from perennial food sources rather than planting annual crops year after year, one plants in “guilds” of inter-related plants rather than in destructive (and high-maintenance) monocultures, and one is as water wise as possible. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for turning beautiful soil beastly, and by layering and careful planting I knew I could keep the cycle of fertility going and save myself a great deal of labor in the long run.
My garden is not Eden. I’ve been here two growing seasons, and one could never tell this place was once just lawn and four trees. Yet one still can’t tell that it is on its way to sustainable. I know that I compost less in a bin and more in place, that I water less and less, that I ate more the second year than I did the first, and will probably do less labor this third year than I did the second.
I once had a tai-chi instructor, a retired librarian named Ruth, inform me that I couldn’t just do tai-chi, I had to be tai-chi. In the same way, I’m trying to be permaculture, to move it from an intellectual realm to an emotional and behavioral one.
For example, my backyard trees (a Chinese elm and a maple) provide too much shade for me to grow much food in the back yard, so I’m moving the food production to the front and finding other uses for the shady backside of the house. I’m reading about forest gardens, thinking about ways to use the tiny slices of light between the leaves. This spring I plan to walk through the woods more, to see what is growing, and perhaps cultivate some woodland herbs and fruits (like may apple) instead of forcing my refined sunny space ideal on the land.
This year I have elderberries and currants in mind, and perennial Maxmillan sunflowers to feed my big flower cravings and the birds. I also want grape vines and hippy roses for teas.
The trick is to work through all my wants (the hippy roses, the currants) without an exhausting input of resources (nursery raised plants, commercial mulches and compost). Permaculture suggests that the faraway zones (3, 4, and5) are resources for the up-close, cultivated ones. I’ve applied my personal permacultural approach to this problem and plan to organize an exchange among my gardening acquaintances this spring.
A city garden is not a separate thing, but part of a larger community of land use. As we work together to replace the monoculture of lawn with the polyculture of multiple use plants, we are turning our private yards into stamps of a shared ecosystem. Permaculture extends beyond what we do as private individuals on private land. It reflects not just a philosophy of gardening but of life and community. It is larger than organic, an enthusiastic acceptance of nature and humanity in all our shared complexity.
Hillary Rosner, a freelance journalist and lifelong New Yorker, recently moved to Boulder, Colorado. Until last year, her only experience with gardening was studying botany in the fifth grade. She has written for many national publications and is currently working on a master’s degree in environmental studies.