I wish I could leap in the air and truly proclaim "SPRING!" but... it's Minnesota.
And still, that anxious, niggling, obsessive desire to plant something is brewing deep within the pit of my being. Are you feeling it, too?
But where to start? How can you set yourself up for a great growing season? And most importantly, will this be the year you try something completely different? I'm talking permaculture; employing even one permaculture practice into your current garden. Why? Because I know that from there, you will take it a step further the next time. And the next.
First, let us briefly define permaculture:
Permaculture is a design system that is both ethical and in harmony with the natural world.
It gives out more energy than it takes in. It is stable and lasting. It promotes integration rather than segregation. It values diversity. And yes, it most certainly sounds like a perfect model for life in this world, does it not? Permaculture and its ideals may sound big. And they are. But it doesn't need to be complicated. HERE ARE A FEW IDEAS HOW YOU CAN GET STARTED IN THE PERMACULTURE DIRECTION THIS VERY GROWING SEASON:
1. Observation. The first thing you should do- especially if you haven't yet chosen a garden spot- is observe. South-facing spaces will receive the most light. Is there any natural wind protection available? Is there a natural slope that could provide the advantage of water shed? Location is key and the better location you have gets you that much further ahead right from the start.
2. Composting. If you don't have a compost pile, start one today. As in now. I would suggest your pile being in close proximity to your garden. Food scraps, newspaper, cardboard, dryer lint, coffee filters, leaves, grass clippings, etc. - compost them all! Turn regularly.
3. Commit to Mulch. If you haven't been mulching your garden in the past, start this year. A good mulch routine will vastly cut down on the need to weed, retains soil moisture, and feeds your soil as it breaks down.
4. Preparing the Garden. Have you in previous seasons been tilling up your garden plot every spring? Not only does it cost money to rent or buy a tiller, but it requires energy and disturbs the soil structure that is so vital to a healthy, permaculture-supported soil environment. This year, try something different. The day before you plan to prepare your garden, water the plot really well. The next day, layer cardboard over your space, overlapping the sheets to make sure the weeds can't get through. Then lay down alternate layers of compost and mulch until you have a depth of 8-12" thick. Water thoroughly. You can plant directly into this. The cardboard will eventually break down and the composting weeds beneath will provide food for your plants. No digging necessary.
5. Plan Before You Plant. Which plants require the most attention from you? Those should be planted near the main entrance of your garden, to both cut down on your energy output and to make sure that you can stay on top of their harvest. Plants that have a longer growing period (such as pumpkins) that require less of your attention should be placed at the back of your garden.
6. Companion Planting. As mentioned, permaculture promotes integration and diversity. Rather than planting crops in single file of like plants, do some good research on which plants should be grown together to both deter pests and aid in one another's growth. Let's take the garden favorite, tomatoes. Basil is a popular companion for tomatoes as they not only repel pests but improve growth and flavor. Other great choices include chives, onions, parsley, mint, and garlic. Just as important as understanding companion planting is knowing what NOT to plant together. Members of the brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) will stunt the growth of tomato plants. Fellow nightshade family members such as potatoes and peppers can encourage blight amongst themselves.
7. Succession Planting. A good plan before you plant should involve some succession planting to ensure a steady harvest and to give you the best use of your space. Crops that grow quickly and can be grown early such as lettuce, spinach, and radishes will be tapering off or finished by the time you are putting in your later season crops such as corn. Additionally, planting in intervals (as in not planting all of your beans at once, but rather at 10-day intervals) will allow you to harvest steadily through the season rather than all at once and done.
8. Grow in Harmony With Your Location. Here in the north, I had to learn the hard way that I would not be able to grow a 90-day Brandywine in our short growing season. I had to do some research and start growing 70-day varieties to ensure that I got tomatoes before the frost. If you're new to gardening, talk to some local gardeners or your county extension office. Find what thrives in your area. Don't waste unnecessary energy on growing plants that are not conducive to your location.
9. Encourage Beneficial Predators. Chemical pest control is not only damaging to the environment, but to your soil health. Finding natural ways to fight pests include some previously mentioned suggestions such as companion planting and good soil health which support strong plants more able to defend themselves. Another way is to encourage natural predators such as frogs, toads, and snakes, which can help control your mice, slug, and bug population. Keep a rock pile near your garden for snakes to make a home in. A clay pot set into the soil with a little bit of water can encourage frogs, while a clay pot upside down propped up on some rocks can create a nice little shelter for toads.
These are just nine simple ideas on how you can start integrating permaculture concepts into your home garden. Choose one. Choose them all. And start enjoying a more harmonious approach to growing your own food today.