Pop quiz: What’s wrong with this picture?

Bucolic backyard setting

If you’re like most of us out there your answer is probably “Nothing.” It’s a beautiful, peaceful  setting, shady in spots, tranquil, how can there be anything wrong with it?

If you’re involved with the small but growing Permaculture movement, however, everything is wrong with this backyard. This is the backyard of Katherine and Willy and their two young children. In fact, they’ve recently moved from downtown Montreal to the town of Très-Saint-Rédempteur, Quebec’s first Transition Town. Permaculture and Transition Towns go together; Permaculture represents a more holistic approach to gardening. Over the years permaculture enthusiasts and experts have used the philosophy as a new way of looking at different man-made systems from manufacturing to the ways cities function. Transition towns are about communities that are building a resilience to both peak oil and climate change. These may seem like scary, far out there ideas, but, as one transition town advocate pointed out to me, it’s absolutely not about reverting to pioneer days or the stone age. It’s definitely about embracing technology and using it to our benefit, while fitting it into a better, more sustainable, lower impact way of living. Permaculture is the foundation for Transition Towns.

Permaculture is a way to live where you develop outdoor spaces to create sustainable, productive landscapes. You work with nature instead of imposing on it. In order to develop the right permaculture landscape for your land, you need to observe your surroundings for a year or so, noting rain patterns, how the water travels, the sun’s path in summer and winter, how the winds hit your property during different times of the year while you plan your garden and surrounding area. The long-term goal is to create a mini-ecosystem that regenerates itself every year with very little input from humans. It also can provide plenty of food for its inhabitants, both animals and humans.

Katherine and her husband are already planning what will go where, including a rainwater harvesting system which will include a swimmable pond and an additional swale for better drainage, a vegetable garden, fruit orchard, honey bees, and a chicken coop. Apiaries (the equivalent of a chicken coop, only for bees) are becoming increasingly important given the rapid decline of bee populations globally, as well as providing local pollination within any permaculture project. Katherine figures the entire property will be completely “developed” with a sustainable system in about 10 years time.

The (mostly) negative impact of lawns: While a lawn serves a general purpose of providing a gathering space and  play space, it is unnecessary to have as much lawn as we in North America do. In order to maintain what we all imagine as a “perfect” lawn, a lot of energy and water go into maintaining it. The typical grass lawn requires petroleum-based fertilizer, weekly cutting, and watering twice or more per week. In a permaculture setting, lawns are minimized — if used at all, and the rest of the land becomes productive, providing food for humans and animals. Different types of trees and their specific placement provide wind breakers year round, heat barriers in summer and food in summer and fall. In Katherine’s case, she plans on taking down the random trees planted throughout the property that serve little or no purpose, and replanting with very specific goals in mind, the lawn will be turned into productive areas.

In permaculture settings, land is divided into five different zones.

  • Zone one represents the area where the most intensive work is necessary and is therefore located closest to the living quarters. In this area will be the kitchen garden and vegetables, as well very small animals such as chickens, that may be incorporated into the mix.
  • Zone two is usually a “food forest” where trees are planted that produce fruit either for humans or animals or both. Some smaller animals, such as sheep or goats, might graze here as well.
  • Zone three is where larger scale (commercial) agriculture might take place such as growing wood for fuel, cereal crops, pastures for grazing.
  • Zone four is managed forests, rangelands and wetlands.
  • zone five is the wild forest with no human intervention.Katherine and Willy’s project  will stop at zone two, as Only those projects with a lot of land and agricultural zoning / commercial plans will do steps 3, 4 and 5.

The permaculture system largely takes care of itself without the need for additional pesticides or chemical-based fertilizers and only occasional shaping from the gardener. So for instance, there would no longer be a fear of wasps around fruit trees, a problem when we had with two pear trees in our backyard a few years ago. Introducing trees and plants that provide the habitat for wasp predators, such as orioles or bats, will help control the wasp population. If you think about the system, it makes sense; in high school biology we learned about ecosystems and how each part of the ecosystem provides food for each of the different parts of the chain forming a pretty much perfect system — until we humans get involved and start messing up everything. (If you don’t remember your high school biology, there’s also “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King.)  For example, if you leave some dead wood lying around, this will provide perfect habitat not only for useful fungi but insects such as earwigs that control your slug population!

There are 12 principles of permaculture, but in a nutshell, the three most important seem to be that a permaculture system produces no waste– what is waste from one plant or animal can be an input for another. Permaculture embraces biodiversity, because a diverse ecosystem is one that can resist diseases and pests.The design of a food forest will make it much more resistant to drought, flooding and other extreme weather events we are seeing these days. Finally, a system must produce a yield which we and any animals in the system can use. Permaculture makes use of nature’s patterns and layers, so not only does the design expand outwards from the centre, it also is integrated vertically. The upper canopy of the forest may provide fruit, the lower canopy shade-grown fruit and the underlayer provides plants which will be mulch and ground cover to keep moisture in the ground, including some edible coversuch as comfrey and other herbs. Also, integrating slope into a plan, and using gravity for water feeding is an  important consideration for permaculture projects. Katherine and her family envision their current quiet backyard as one that will one day be a vibrant, dynamic system, producing some of the food they can use to live on, as well as providing a better and way more interesting place for the kids to play and learn about permaculture.

BEC Green

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