Everyone loves permaculture. Many budding young as well as experienced permaculturalists have visited my garden to see what I’ve been doing here for the last 25 years. Yes, I have integrated edibles right into the landscape, as do permaculturalists. And, again like permaculturalists, I try to maximize use of the three-dimensional space in my garden, with, for example, my shade-loving black currants growing beneath my pawpaw trees. I am also permaculturalistic in maintaining the integrity of my soil by never tilling it, and by utilizing mulches. And we all try to grow plants adapted to the setting so as to minimize pest problems. And…I could go on.
Yet I am not a permaculturalist. I part ways with permaculturalists by growing my vegetables rectilinearly: in straight rows within rectangular three-foot-wide beds. Ah, yes, the idea of organically shaped beds and keyhole-shaped beds is so appealing – on paper. Same goes for the idea of tucking lettuce plants beneath fruiting shrubs and trees. But I eat a lot of vegetables, and there’s nothing like straight rows running down straight beds for packing a lot of vegetables into a given area and making it quicker and easier to plant, weed and harvest. When I go out to pick some vegetables for a meal, I don’t want to have to remember where I tucked the lettuce and then crawl beneath some shrub to get at it.
Permaculture originated and thrives in the dry climates of Australia and our Southwest. Over much of the country, and especially here in the Northeast, rainfall coaxes abundant growth of both crop plants and weeds. Growth is quite exuberant here even in a dry summer such as we’ve had this year; rains eventually come. Too many permaculturalists are liable to spend their first few permaculture years admiring their efficient and attractive use of space and all the years thence cursing all the cutting and weeding needed to keep growth of various plants in balance. What I need are some straight lines and a little elbow room.
“Forest gardening” – growing and eating from your planted forest – is receiving growing interest within permaculture circles. As you might guess, I’m also not a forest gardener, despite my integration of fruiting trees (which do come from forests somewhere), as well as chestnuts, English walnuts, black walnuts, buartnuts and other nutty things, into my landscape. But a forest I have not. And the ground beneath my trees is not planted with herbs and vegetables on which I can nibble; it’s mowed grass or mulch.
I grow my own fruits and vegetables because I want quality: quality in flavor and quality in nutrition. I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I think that it’s not environmentally sound to grow these foods on distant farms, often in monocultures, and then ship them to stores where they sit before being purchased and eaten. I grow my own fruits and vegetables so that I can eat them fresh – very fresh. (Lettuce left over from dinner? Into the compost pile it goes.) I don’t even want to have to drive to a local farm for my produce. I want to grow enough to be able to heap my plate; I don’t want to grow a nibble here and there.
So what could I call my method of gardening? “Pitchfork gardening?” A large part of what I do begins with my soil, and the secret to good soil is plenty of organic materials, such as compost, straw, leaves and kitchen scraps. These materials, and the humus that they become, feed soil microorganisms, act like a sponge to cling to moisture, clump together soil particles to help aerate the soil, decompose to release nutrients to feed the plants, release compounds that release nutrients from native minerals to feed the plants and have other wondrous and beneficial effects known and unknown.
Some people like to use compost tea and various “liquid humus” products. Fuhget about it! Much of the benefits of organic materials comes from their bulk, and the way to move these materials – on a garden scale, at least – is with a pitchfork. Now, if only “pitchfork gardening” were more euphonious and didn’t sound like work. Suggestions for other names are welcomed.
@ Lee Reich
Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try answering them directly or in this Alm@nac column. Check out my garden’s blog at www.leereich.blogspot.com.