by Lichen June
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
Plants are active participants in the vibrant and diverse community of soil life. There are more than 50 million genera of bacteria in the soil, and more than 50 million genera of fungi. Humans haven't named more than a small percentage, and we know very little about those which we have named. Thus, the vast majority of life in the soil, along with their relationships and functions, are unnamed and unknown.
By some accounts, humans have destroyed 50-80% of earth's topsoil. I find this so troubling, I almost don't know what to write next. However, this is a very clear case of, “the problem is the solution.” There is so much land devoid of life, so many layers and niches just waiting to be filled with diversity, life cycles, and carbon. Soil is an incredible and established reservoir that is ready to hold carbon, if only we nurture it back to life.
One method for improving the health of your soil is adding compost. Your food is only as healthy as the soil that it was grown in, so you'll want to give your soil biota something good to eat. In this mini class I will show you how to create your own compost.
How to Create Your Own Compost
This recipe is a variation of the, 18 day Berkley method, and can teach you the basics. As you gain more experience, you can change the recipe. The greater variety of matter you put into your compost, the richer your soils become. You'll need 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Some examples:
Sawdust is 500 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.
Fish is 7 to 1.
Urine 1 to 1.
Chicken manure 12 to 1.
Rabbit manure 8 to 1.
Horse manure 20 to 1.
Green weeds 25 to 1.
If you can increase surface area by chopping or shredding, it will speed up decomposition. You will need a lot of materials. Don't go over 4 feet high or it will squeeze the air out. You can use a gravity fall pile, or a piece of wire fence. You'll need a long handled pitch fork with 3-5 prongs, a rake, and a cover to maintain moisture.
You need 1/3 of your materials to be manure, 1/3 high carbon material, or browns, and 1/3 fresh greens. Pitch them all together and mix them up. Then water the hill until it starts to leak water. If you have food scraps, those can be incorporated into the layers and covered. Make sure to avoid: meat, bones, grease, and dairy products. Avoid materials that have come into contact with: Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotic medications, and anything that will take your pH to one extreme or another.
Once you’re more familiar with this recipe, you can put an activator in the middle when you start the pile. These could include: Dead animal, fish, chopped comfrey, yarrow, nettle, or old compost. You have to be certain that you know your recipe, so your pile will cook and not go putrid. Some people urinate on their compost piles to increase the nitrogen. Some add menstrual blood as an activator.
Other common activators, by % of Nitrogen:
Alfalfa meal 2.4%.
Blood meal 15%.
Bone meal 4%.
Chicken manure (dry) 8%.
Coffee grounds 2.1%.
Rabbit manure (fresh) 2.4%.
Rabbit manure (dry) 12%.
Once you have built your pile, you will want to cover it if you are expecting rain. Place branches on top of the pile to hold the cover off the surface, allowing air to pass through. You can also build the pile inside to heat a greenhouse. If conditions are very hot, place your pile in the shade.
If you want to look at your compost activity under a microscope, put a handful of compost in a jar with water and shake for 10 minutes. Then get a pipette and drop one drop on a slide, under a cover sheet, to view under the microscope. Take five minutes to look at this and you will see thousands of organisms every second.
Carbon is more of a fungal food. Nitrogen is more of a bacterial food. Non-woody plants and pasture prefer bacteria rich soil. Trees prefer fungal/carbon rich soil. Flour, paper, cardboard are all fungal food. If you want more fungi in your compost, you can add something like oat flour on every turn.
You can test the temperature of your pile with a good quality compost thermometer. If the pile is hotter on the inside than the outside, then your pile is too dry. If your pile is hotter on the outside than the inside, then your pile is too wet. Compost kept between 131 – 140 degrees for 15 days will kill pathogens, parasites and weed seeds.
If you want to speed up the compost turning process, you can turn your pile every day for 10 to 12 days and get it done faster, but it will be more work. Make sure you put the outer layer in the center when turning your pile, and the inner layer on the surface.
How to Create Your Own Compost: A step-by-step guide to fast composting:
Day one: Create the pile.
Day four: turn it over, ideally putting the outer layers in the middle and the center on the surface, as you move and rebuild the pile. Replace branches and cover.
Day six: turn.
Day eight: Turn every two days.
How do you know if the moisture in your pile is adequate? Squeeze a handful of the matter from the compost pile. If one drop falls, it is perfect. More water than that, and the pile is too wet. No drops, and it is too dry.
The pile should also be very warm. If you put a glove on and push your arm into the pile up to your elbow, it shouldn't be so hot that you say, “Ow”.
Turn the pile on day ten, day twelve, day fourteen, day sixteen and by day eighteen it should be done. When it is just warm, dark brown, fine with only a few chunks, and an earthy smell, not putrid, then it is done.
How do you fix problems with your compost recipe? If you get to day 6 or 8 and your compost is not hot enough, ask yourself:
If the pile is too wet, you've got to put a hole in the center with your pitchfork handle and place a chimney in the middle to let it steam off. If it is too dry, just water it.
If you have too much nitrogen it will loose volume fast and smell very bad. Carbon is your sponge and carbon will slow it down.
If your compost goes a little anaerobic in places for lack of air, it will present a white moldy looking powder. That is the first indicator that you've gone over the line in temperature or moisture and need to make an adjustment.
You want 10 compost heaps to an acre if you want to kick off an organic crop garden system.
Your soil will hold more water at the end of this process.
When you get skilled at turning your pile, you can do it in 20 minutes. That's 3 hours of work total for this 18 day recipe. One compost heap this size, spread around a garden, will grow vegetables for one year, for one person.
How to create slow compost
Turning a pile every two days is not for everyone. If you are too busy, you can turn your pile once every 7-10 days. At that rate your compost will be finished in 1-3 months.
If you need to go more slowly, that's okay. You can always assess what your compost needs are when you turn it, and add accordingly.
Alternately, you can make an add as you go pile. This requires even less effort, as there is no need to separate your kitchen waste, yard debris, and clippings. Unfortunately, it decomposes at a slower rate of 3-8 months. It is prone to odor problems because the lack of turning allows it to go anaerobic. It doesn't heat up well, which means it does not kill weed seeds and pathogens. It will be less nutrient dense. It might attract pests if uncovered.
If you mix your sieved compost with sharp river sand from the inside bends of creeks or rivers, you can make your own potting mix. The smaller the seed the more sand you want in the mix, for example, carrot seeds, etc. With large seeds you can use 50/50 compost and sand.
You can also extend your compost by making compost tea.
One way that you can measure the success of your compost is to use a refractometer.
The refractometer measures refracted light through plant fluid. Inside is a gauge, and in that gauge is a blue line. It is used to measure the starch and sugars in fruit. If the starch goes up, the plant is probably feeding and happily using your compost. This shows an increase in the nutrient density in food. Caution: If you use this to measure the nutrient density of food from the supermarket, you won't find it easy to spend money on commercially grown produce ever again.
Now that you’ve seen different methods of how to create your own compost all that’s left is to choose the method that is right for you and to do it! However, if you want to be energy efficient, make your compost near where you are going to use it! Have fun!
This material is excerpted from the Soil Basics module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Lichen June.
Lichen June is a writer, speaker, educator and stuntwoman. Raised on a dairy goat farm by a naturalist mother and gardening father, Lichen was given a profound sense of ethics and relationship with the natural world. As an activist Lichen has been producing educational events and doing publicity on environmental issues for over 20 years. Teaching communication and ethics since 2008, and permaculture since 2013, Lichen studied permaculture with Geoff Lawton and Toby Hemenway, and received her certificate from PRI Australia. Lichen is the Executive Director of the NW Permaculture Institute, and co-founder of Elephant Head Educational Designs, creators of regenerative learning materials.
Further reading on this topic:
Darwish, Leila. Earth Repair: a Grassroots Guide to Healing Toxic and Damaged Landscapes. New Society Publishers, 2013.
Hosking, Rebecca. Building Soil with Regenerative Agriculture. Permaculture.co.uk: Permaculture People/Permaculture Magazine, 2015.
#howtocreateyourowncompost #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #foodnotlawns
By Heather Jo Flores
In a forest, the plants collaborate. They take turns blooming, share space, distribute different nutrients and succeed each other over generations. In our home gardens, we can create diverse, low-maintenance food forests by mimicking these patterns. In its most basic form, this is called companion planting, and gardeners have been doing it for millennia.
You probably know the classic "Three Sisters" example. Native Americans grew corn, beans and squash in a shared space because together they repelled pests and provided a successional yield. I have heard from some old-timers that there was actually a fourth Sister: lupine, a self-seeding, nitrogen-fixing biennial that was planted all around the corn patch to repair the soil.
Ironically, as much as I am a true believer in perennial polyculture gardening, I don't grow the Sisters. I like to hill my corn (like potatoes) and that disrupts the baby beans and squash. I also find that the corn patch needs more than just the beans (and/or lupine) to repair the soil. So I plant the corn, let it get a few inches high, then plant potatoes in between the stalks. Every week or so, I hill up the dirt around the corn and potatoes with a hoe. I do plant squash, but only on the ends of the rows, so that they can sprawl out away from the patch.
Then, after harvesting corn and potatoes, I cover crop the whole thing with fava beans over the winter to repair and hold the soil for the next rotation.
How to Grow a Permaculture Food Forest
In permaculture, we use food forests to grow as much as possible on a small piece of land. Using those principles, we design garden beds with a collection of complementary perennial trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, roots and annual vegetables called "guilds" that are placed in a microclimate landscape best suited for the group. The idea is to group plants together for specific reasons, encourage them to spread into permanent, self-managing landscapes, and thus reduce the amount of effort it takes to grow food.
You don't have to plant a whole food forest at once. You can carve out niches and build one guild at a time. As they grow, these plantings will attract birds, pollinators, microorganisms and fungi. Over time, as you add more and more guilds, your entire space will yield to nature, becoming your own handcrafted Eden.
How to Build a Guild
So exactly which plants do we group with which other plants? It takes a lifetime to learn all the differing functions, get familiar with the size of plants at maturity, with their growing patterns and individual needs. There are some great books on the topic, and any search for "companion planting," "food forests" or "perennial polycultures" will keep you busy reading and designing all winter.
For now, I offer you a handful of my personal favorites from years of experiments with hundreds of plant combinations that yielded mixed results. These are the guilds that I continue to plant in every food forest I design.
Blueberries, strawberries, valerian, yarrow, spinach/lettuce/orach
Blueberries are slow-growing, water-thirsty and thrive in an acidic mulch like sawdust. Strawberries also enjoy the acidic mulch, and can get well established as a ground cover before the mature blueberries shade them out. Valerian and yarrow are clumping, blooming medicinal perennials that attract beneficial insects and help build soil for the berries. Together they look great and share space without much intervention. Sow the spinach between the spaces and alternate with patches of lettuce and orach.
Apples, horseradish, clary sage, kale
Apples cast deep shade and only a handful of plants will thrive under them. Horseradish repels diseases common to apples, and the two are a classic pair. Because I often use it in my apothecary, and because it doesn't mind a bit of shade, I add clary sage. The fuzzy, aromatic biennial, which grows up to 6 feet tall, glimmers throughout year two with huge plumes of purple flowers. Interplant a few different kinds of kale and you will have a rainbow of foliage.
Figs, seaberry, canna, comfrey, squash
If you have space, this guild is epic in every way: year-round harvest, giant flowers, mulch crops and vegetables. Visually, it's Jurassic. Figs can get quite large at maturity and tend to sprawl. Between those sprawling shoots you can plant comfrey, which will fill the space with fuzzy foliage and tubular flowers that pollinators love. Seaberry fixes nitrogen and also produces a tart, seedy fruit that can be dried or added fresh to a wide array of dishes. The canna has edible roots (similar to tapioca) and needs a bit more sun, so plant it on the southern edge. Poke in your squashes around the border to give the tendrils room to run.
Peaches, rosemary, marigolds, arugula, zinnias, cucumber
Peaches don't cast a ton of shade. They tend to be sparse with skinny leaves. This means that companions that wouldn't do well under other fruit trees will do just fine under a peach. I like the way rosemary looks, especially when joined with annual plantings of marigolds, arugula, zinnias, and other tall, showy annual flowers. Cucumbers do enjoy full sun, but smaller varieties can thrive in mottled shade, and I have grown some beauties as a ground cover in this guild.
Pears, echinacea, beets, poppies
There is something about a pear tree in bloom that always reminds me of the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe image that I grew up with. To me, the way a pear tree holds its blooms looks like an angel. As a sort of tribute to that beauty, I plant echinacea with pears. Echinacea is a clumping perennial with fancy daisy-like coneflowers in purple, green, white and pink. It's medicinal and beneficial to gardens, with a network of thick roots that help to break up the soil and increase nutrient distribution. Beets fit perfectly in the spaces between, and the foliage is visually splendid in this combination. If you want to make it really beautiful, add some poppies, but keep in mind that poppies are heavy feeders, so you'll need to compensate the soil.
Generally speaking, as a nitrogen fixer, I habitually sprinkle white subterranean clover seed, both as a cover crop and as a living mulch in beds and paths. It makes an awesome cover, attracts pollinators, and can be easily removed when you decide to plant something new. For best results, mix organic clover seed — coated in bacterial inoculant — with fluffy, finished compost and keep it in a bucket for easy access. If there's a spot with bare soil, sprinkle the seeded compost around and make sure it gets evenly watered until the clover is established.
Finally, please remember that just because plants in a guild support each other, that doesn't mean they don't need your support. You need to weed, prune, mulch and clear. You need to harvest the food, save the seeds and participate in the cycles and seasons. A food forest is an ecosystem, and the gardener should be a part of that. In fact, for the first three years, your newly planted guilds might need some extra attention. Think of the baby plants like little puppies — you have to train them, nurture them, and raise them, but if you do a good job, they will be your best friends for many years to come!
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
#foodforest #guilds #howtogrowapermaculturefoodforest
Using Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit to as a tool to design my journey to Andalucía
The meaning of spirituality I connect with is one which is Earth based and includes being guided by, grounding in and celebrating the different moon and sun cycles, which in turn determine our patterns of days, months, and seasons. Central to this form of spiritual experience are the 5 elements — Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit. These aspects are deeply linked to my permaculture life, work and activism.
This year I have undergone a big life change from being a hill farmer and palliative care nurse in a remote part of the Yorkshire Dales, to moving to the hills of Andalucía, Spain with my partner, dogs and cats, to a house with just under 2 acres of land. This post shows how I have used the 5 Elements to explore how my knowledge and practice of permaculture can be transferred and adapted to my next life chapter design.
The 5 Elements as a Permaculture Design Tool
In the Dales I spent years using permaculture tools to improve the health of the soil on the farm. Carefully designed grazing systems with a wide diversity of agricultural animals made big differences to the biodiversity in the grazing land and the edge with forestry land. I used animal manure combined with structures such as raised beds, hot beds, polytunnels, and then lots of successional planting. This greatly improved the fertility of the soil and also generated extra heat to be able to grow a range of species and variety of both annual and perennial plants I never thought possible.
Here in Andalucía, the soil is dry, rocky, dusty and steep. I won't be farming any agricultural animals so I need to design how I am going to create and maintain the highest level of soil fertility as I can. Many different perennial and annual plants grow here that I have no experience in growing, so there is much learning to be done.
The Earth Element is also about ensuring life force and motivation is given to other aspects of life, and I intend to use the specific qualities from this element to design and carry out some of the ideas and projects on my ‘to do list for my move here. This will include looking at what I will do in terms of my right livelihood, creativity and taking responsibility for my own health. Designing for this diversity should help to ensure that my life here is as resilient as possible.
Winters were long and cold in the Dales. Soon after we arrived there we invested in a heating system that heated the cottage there well, provided hot water, and allowed us to be able to cook slow stews and soups through burning local wood. We often needed to keep one stove lit for most of the year, so we needed a constant supply of dry wood. We also designed a storage system for the large amounts of wood needed, to be as effective of human energy and time as possible. Our outdoors fireplace was also a really core part of our lives, providing a focus to cook outdoors and celebrate events.
Sun hours in our remote part of the Dales were very few and we designed food growing, animal care and our own holistic health to maximize the use of the available sunlight.
We need to heat our house for the coldest months of the year here in Spain and are already planning a wood burning system and accessing local wood to burn. Wild fires are also a very real danger in the summer months and how to avoid them and then protect our home and animals if they do occur, is something that is really key to our future life here.
The sun shines for about 340 days of the year at our new home which is a really big change for us. Yields we can obtain from that amazing energy include growing a much more diverse and abundant range of food and the potential for heating water and generating electricity for power. The strength of the sun can also be damaging in the hottest part of summer, and creating shade for both our food growing and outdoor living spaces will be part of the design.
Energy and action are also inspired by the element of Fire and I am in the process of using this inspiration to explore how I am going to take my permaculture work (lots of energy and action!) forward from here. I plan to finish my Diploma soon, but then what? And how will it integrate and balance with the other aspects of my life to make sure my energies are used as efficiently as possible?
It rained a lot at our North Yorkshire home, with the yearly average being over 100 inches. Improving the compacted soil, and planting trees, (especially willow) helped to improve the impact of excess water on the grazing land. The raised beds and a human made drainage channel (which used a wide water pipe, perennial plant growth and a mesh outlet, to avoid soil erosion) had a really positive impact in avoiding plants being damaged by excess water.
Water here in the hills of Andalucía is precious. There is virtually no rain between April and September, and the winter rains are often short and very heavy, with potential for damage to land through flooding and erosion. Systems such as capturing and dispersing rainwater, utilizing grey water, optimizing organic matter in the soil, mulching and growing drought tolerant edible plants are already being considered as part of our design.
Water in the non-physical aspect guides our emotional selves. Water flows, as do our emotions. Healthy emotional health can mean working on aspects of our mental heal that we are ‘stuck’ in, so that positive flow can take place. How can I use permaculture principles and tools to promote my emotional well being during this transition time? Starhawk talks a lot about the connections of grief and the water element, (‘the well of grief’). Being mindful of the loss I have experienced over recent months and years will also feature in this part of my people care/self care designing.
The exposed location and height of the farm meant that there could be damaging winds throughout the year. Restoring many of the barns and dry stone walls on the farm and planting trees along field edges improved the shelter and then health and welfare of our agricultural animals. Also choosing native hardy breeds of sheep, cows, pigs and poultry ensured they would thrive well despite the weather conditions that the strong gales brought with them.
Where we chose to site the various edible gardens, raised beds, polytunnel, planting further windbreaks and then choosing type and variety of edible plants designed for short growing seasons, meant we could protect our growing spaces from winds that contributed towards limits to maximum potential.
The winds at our new home can also be strong, and especially so in the winter. Designing our food growing areas to include shelter against strong winds will make a huge difference to the varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs we can grow and the length of the growing season they will have.
Communication and connecting is the inner strength from Element of Air, and here in Andalucía there is an abundance of different factors emerging for this — making beneficial connections with new friends, community and neighbours. Sharing permaculture knowledge and experience with them: Finding systems to have positive communication with friends and family now many miles away, and engaging further with parts of the global permaculture community, particularly those who are undertaking permaculture work in the local area or in similar geographic and climatic locations.
Glennie Kindred describes the Fifth Element, Spirit, as ‘the force that unites all the actions of the elements together, so that there is no separation….’ Back in the Yorkshire my spiritual practice mainly focused around celebrating the Wheel of the Year sun festivals, alongside the cycles of the moon, in connection with patterns the farming seasons. My nursing work and interest in using permaculture in designing how we die, also links deeply to spirit and that same cycle flow of life an death. In addition I spent time on a daily basis appreciating my spiritual connectedness with the land I worked on and grounding myself in the present, while honouring the power and energies of the five elements.
It feels reassuring and comforting to know that in Spirit, the patterns and practices that have given me so much meaning and peace in the past will transfer to my future. There will be changes of course, open outdoor fires will be saved for winter months for example, and I can already see that the arrival of rain will be a time for celebration and gratitude…but fundamentally the wheel will keep turning just as it has done, and within it there is much here to connect to.
Using the five Elements has been a really useful tool in my move here to Spain. As well as exploring the differences in using permaculture principles and ethics in our two homes, its also really helped me to identify some really beneficial connects between the knowledge and practice I feel confident about in my life in the Dales and my design for our resilient future here in Spain.
The following resources have helped with this post
The Earth Path — Starhawk
Sacred Earth Celebrations — Glennie Kindred
Earth Pathways Diary 2015
Earth Activist Training PDC, California 2013 — Starhawk and Charles Williams
Growing food In a Hotter, Drier Land — Gary Paul Nabha
This article is also published on my blog at Kt Shepherd Permaculture
The text from this post is published as an article “Permaculture and The Five Elements” in Permaculture Magazine Winter 2015 No 86
#spirituality #ecofeminism #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #5elementsasapermaculturedesigntool
The following article was originally published in Permaculture Design Magazine’s Issue #102 Plants & Propagation. November 2016.
There is nothing more life-affirming than witnessing a seed sprouting in the garden that you didn’t plant. An old gardener friend once told me, “Life wants to live, ” and I believe that cultivating self-seeding in the garden is one of the best practices in trusting Nature’s ability to self-organize and thrive.
Allowing and encouraging plants to self-seed is a practice of resilience for the permaculture garden farm, and offers many benefits in addition to many avenues to explore. Below, we will look at why cultivating self-seeding is a form of resilience, how to encourage it happening in the garden, and some edible and medicinal self-seeding plants with which to consider making an acquaintance.
Why Self-Seeding Plants?
There are so many reasons to cultivate self-seeding varieties of flowers, herbs and vegetables in the garden. In addition to getting to know the nature of the plant in its fullest expression, you can save tremendous amount of time by working with nature, as opposed to against it.
Perhaps I am a lazy gardener, but this is one of my top reasons for cultivating self-seeding varieties. I also enjoy the surprise, and play of chance; as what emerges is a dynamic process outside of my control. Planning and maintenance are interlinked, and a cultivator of self-seeding varieties works with a design of the garden that is more free form allowing for plants to move around the garden at their own volition, as opposed to expecting plants to stay where we put them.
As authors Jonas Reif, Christian Kress, and Hank Gerritsen write in their book Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants(1), “seeding is a vital way in which plant communities thrive and survive … a way of the garden becoming an ecological system.”
Many people refer to self-seeded plants as “volunteers,” and that is because the self-seeding plants emerged because they have something to offer and the conditions were right for them to offer it. Take the self-seeding dandelion.
Dandelions growing in a vacant lot with hard, compacted soil demonstrate one of the highest benefits of “volunteers,” because they can provide a direct ecological function and service. The strong taproots of dandelions work hard to break up the compacted soil, draw water and minerals from soil sublayers, and work to restore and regenerate the land upon which it is growing.
Self-seeding dandelions also provide a hardy and nutritious, quick-turn-around pollen source for pollinators in an area of land where many other plant ecologies have not yet been established. In this way, I see self-seeding “volunteers” as offering to us some form of restoration, and renewal at a higher level of knowing than we might see at initial face value.
Self-seeding “volunteer” plants typically beat me out to the garden to plant seeds in the ground. In this way, “volunteers” save garden-farmers time by initiating the growing cycle when the conditions are right, as opposed to having to wait till the garden-farmer can get around to planting them. The self-seeding seed has an intelligence that waits for just the right conditions- just the right soil temperature, moisture, nutrients, and get the growing started. It never ceases to amaze me how borage is already a few inches high before I set out sowing in the Spring!
Self-seeding varieties that have early germination periods, and therefore an early on-set of flowering, can be a crucial pollen and nectar source for beneficial insects. The benefit of food and habitat for pollinators and birds continues throughout the life cycle, as many seeds left on the plants become forage for garden friends. Food and habitat for beneficial insects is a primary way in which self-seeding plants transform the garden-farm into an ecological system, and works with nature so that the garden-farm can create resilient ecological relationships.
Cultivating self-seeding is in direct opposition to the segregated model of agriculture which imports its seed, sows it when the farmer is ready rather than when the seed is ready to grow, harvests the plant for its crop, and then clears the field before the plant can set seed, and repeats.
In permaculture, a key principle is “integrate, not segregate” and cultivating self-seeding into the garden integrates the sowing, harvesting, designing and planning, as opposed to segregating those acts into isolated moments of human intervention.
Which brings me to a primary benefit of self-seeding varieties, and that is seeds! As seeds develop on a plant, they are adapting to the specific microclimate of your garden, and will produce more resilient off-spring for the next year. Barbara Pleasant in her article “Self-Seeding Crops You’ll Never Need to Replant”(3) says “one of the characteristics of a truly sustainable garden is that it produces at least some of its own seed.”
By cultivating self-seeding in the garden, you are allowing for your plants to produce more resilient future generations, as well as, producing more seeds in general. When I allow my greens to go to seed after I have harvested them, I end up with exponentially more green seeds, and in turn more potential plants than I started with.
Not only can the garden-farmer use these seeds in the garden, but also the wildlife, as mentioned above. While some farmers may view letting plants going to seed to be a waste, the permaculture garden-farmer sees the myriad of benefits to letting a plant live out its full life cycle, encouraging niches to the overall benefit of the ecosystem.
Finally, the cultivated chaos of self-seeding is extremely beautiful and life-affirming. While the garden-farmer plays a role in creating the garden plan, as a self-seeding cultivator, the interaction is primarily centered on observing Nature’s beautiful design layout, without constant intervention, and making choices to encourage what you find beautiful with the goal of encouraging more beauty. Could that be more life-affirming?
How Self-Seeding Works
The practice of cultivating self-seeding in the garden begins with observing a plant’s full life cycle of birth, death, and decay as it transitions from seed to germination to leaves to fruit to seed to dropping its seed, to wilting, and the forthcoming birth of the next generation. This observation process is a constant reminder, and a vital way to tune into the cycles of Nature.
The more you become aware of the plant’s life cycle, you also start to notice its habit and shape. Does it send out runners, form a mat, sprawl, clump or climb? It is possible to do some background research(2) into the habit and form of the self-seeders of interest, but what is most informative is the hyper-localized observation process of watching the growing patterns of self-seeding plants on the land where you are.
Whatever you learn about growing you are learning about growing where you are. This is true because of microclimates, and the fact that each piece of land has slightly different soil, wind, water, and sun exposure. So what might thrive in one place, doesn’t in another, and visa versa. The best bet of someone who wants to cultivate self-seeding in the garden is to dive right into it. One encouraging thing about the practice- there’s no such thing as failing! Whatever grows grows, and lessons can be learned!
There are different elements in self-seeding plant communities of which are worth paying attention that will support the cultivation of a desired design outcome. For example, what is the population density of the “volunteers” like: is it thick, sparse, or sporadic? How quickly after germinating do they set seed (note: many varieties will set seed quicker when the temperature rises, or they are grown in very close proximity to other seeds)? What is the dispersal pattern of the seeds (do the seeds drop straight to the ground, are they moved by animals or the wind?)?
Having a sense of how specific self-seeding plants grow in your garden allows you to make more informed decisions when intervening. Intervention in the self-seeding garden farm, including select weeding and thinning plants you don’t want to make more space for those you do, and supporting the spreading of plant communities by dropping the seeds yourself in weeded soil. If you are cultivating self-seeding flowers versus self-seeding greens, you may have different approaches. For example, with self-seeding greens I may start by seeding them heavy like a carpet in a bed in the Spring.
After harvesting baby greens for a few yields I will allow them to go to seed (the stress from space competition increases the speed at which most greens will go to seed). By end of summer, I will have another round of greens sprouting up with little to no work.
On the other hand, if I was cultivating self-seeding flowers like calendula or borage, I may thin or transplant “volunteers” to their suggested growing space to allow each plant to reach their maximum growing expression. It is really up to the garden-farmer as to what is your highest priority: is it leaves, greens, seed, color, or something else? With those design goals in mind, intervention is simply a curated process.
It is important to understand that there are self-seeding annuals, self-seeding biennials, and self-seeding perennials. What this means is that how long the individual plant lives depends on its life cycle. For example, a self-seeding annual will grow its full life out, flower and set-seed in one year, and that’s it; that exact parent plant will not grow back the following year. So a self-seeding annual has brand new plants that come up every year.
The general growing location of that plant variety may be in a similar location, but they are new plants. Self-seeding biennial varieties take two years to reach their full maturity and set seed. Depending on what you want to use the plant for, self-seeding biennials may require a little more patience with one year not being as productive as others.
Self-seeding perennials are plants that will continue to grow every year, going through their full flowering & seed cycle every year, and also set seeds for new plants to grow. Self-seeding perennials may require more thinning or transplanting in the Spring, but also not necessarily. Different plants grow at different rates. Also, some plants may be a perennial, but in colder climates they are treated as an annual. It helps to understand if they are self-seeding annuals, biennials or perennials, as each one requires slightly different care.
Finally, the only way that self-seeding works is if you let plants live their full life cycle all the way through the wilting. While many gardeners feel it is a necessity to “clean up” the garden at the end of the season, leaving many plants standing in the garden-farm long after they set fruit can be the most important moment when self-seeding happens.
Again, this is why it is so important to understand how the self-seeding plants you want to encourage seed themselves. For example, I always leave the sunflower stalks standing in the garden through the snowy months. Typically the seeds are gone by late Fall, but I leave it to the birds to eat and distribute the seeds for next year’s sunflower crop. Leaving sunflowers to stand in their wilted state supports their self-seeding.
Where to Start with Self-Seeding Plants
Below are a few of my favorite edible and medicinal self-seeding varieties, with a little about how they can be used in the various parts of their cycle.
There are so many herbs that will happily self-seed in your garden-farm. Calendula, chamomile, chives, fennel, borage, oregano, basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, and horseradish to name a few. Some are self-seeding annuals, other self-seeding perennials, and it is useful to know the difference. Either way, herbs are often times the big heavy hitters for attracting and supporting pollinators. Some self-seeding herbs is a must in any garden-farm.
Perhaps one of my favorite, because they seem so happy to sow themselves. With edible seeds for humans and birds alike, immense beauty, cutting flowers, healthy oil producing potential, edible baby sprouts, and consistent food for beneficial insects, sunflowers can’t be beat!
Once you start growing potatoes, it can be hard to stop growing them, unless you find every single little potato that was growing in that soil. Forgotten potatoes are one of the best ways to start next year’s crop early. It is important to watch for blight, and not let any potatoes stay in the ground if they show any signs. Also, in order to get optimal growth of each plant, I occasionaly will transplant them in early Spring to give them a little more space, and get their growing more aligned. This great source of Vitamin C is one of my favorite!
Unless you keep an immaculately clean garden, and pick up every single fallen vegetable and weed, you probably have encountered the “volunteer” tomato. One thing that makes for an interesting self-seeding tomato plant is that it already has done the work for you of saving some its most viable seed from the year before; so in theory, your self-seeding tomato is going to be produce some of your most resilient varieties for your particular climate. Another note about self-seeding tomatoes is that since self-seeding borage is such a great companion plant with tomatoes, the two plants can continue to re-seed themselves in partnership.
There are so many tasty and nutritious greens that are self-seeding. Arugula, chard, collards, kale, lettuce, mustards, spinach, and sorrel are just a few of the awesome options of self-seeding greens. I like to add self-seeding radish and turnip into my bed of baby greens as well.
Seeding a bed early in the Spring, taking a few harvests before letting them go to seed, will provide a fresh bed of baby greens come late Summer/Fall. And depending on how densely you seed the initial bunch, you may be able to eat some of the spicy flower heads. For the ones that set flower, you will see many beneficial insects coming to share in a harvest while you admire and wait for the next crop.
Anyone with a compost pile who has put the remains of a squash in it have probably experienced the awesome self-seeding potential of the squash. I have seen many a compost pile that just leave the squash plant growing right out of the pile all season. I have also experienced building a lasagna bed using some 80% finished compost where squash came up in the beds. I’ve left it’s sprawling vines as a ground cover to keep out the weeds till the other things I’ve planted get more established and able to shade out the weeds.
I’ve also eaten self-seeding squash. The trick about self-seeding squash is that the fruit that grows very well may be a hybrid of different squash if their parent plant was grown within a close proximity to a different variety of squash, causing for cross-pollination. Check out seed-saving distance requirements to get a full-bred variety so that you can plan for how to best space and cultivate your self-seeding squash patch.
7. Wild Edibles
And where would we be without the wild ones? The wild self-seeding plants are some of my favorite because they are so incredibly informative about the needs of the soil and what the next stage of ecological succession looks like. Wild edibles are often medicinal or provide high nutrient levels. Good examples of self-seeding wild edibles that you may consider cultivating in your garden-farm are dandelion, burdock, wild lettuce, lambs quarter, purslane, and plantain to name a few.
The above list is just a selection of self-seeding possibilities and by no means exhaustive. There are so many more flowers, vegetables and herbs that will make a happy home in your garden-farm if you let them. Once you get started you can experiment with more and more. Nature is abundant, and life wants to live! Growing self-seeding varieties will keep your garden going long after you are sowing, and with a little cultivation and attention, it can be one of the most resilient and productive gardens possible. Happy self-seeding!
1. Reif, Jonas, Christian Kress., and Hank Gerritsen Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants. Timber Press. 2015.
2. Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s book, Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture. 2005 is a great resource for gaining additional insights into plant’s ecological behavior, and consider how best to cultivate their nature. See the “Architecture” (Appendix 1) and “Form & Habit” (Appendix 3) sections of the tables included for more insight on this matter.
3. Pleasant, Barbara. “Self-seeding Crops You’ll Never Need to Replant.” Mother Earth News, August/September 2010.
Diana Sette is a visionary leader with a diverse range of experience from designing home ecologies to leading expansive community-oriented permaculture projects. Diana is Certified Arborist through the International Society of Arboriculture as well as a Certified Permaculture Teacher and Designer. She is the co-founder of an intentional community in Cleveland, OH, works as an educator, a green infrastructure consultant, and is a published writer covering ecological design and the intersection of art and politics. She is currently working towards a certificate in Ecopsychology and is a practicing interspecies communicator, mother, artist, musician, poet and speaker who enjoys sharing the magic of the plant and animal world with others.
Diana is a part of an international team of more than 40 women from 13 countries who recently launched an online Permaculture Design Certification Course with Advanced Training in Social, Emotional and Cultural Transformation.
#beneficialinsects #seeds #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #selfseedingplants
By Heather Jo Flores
"Weeds are weeds only from our human egotistical point of view, because they grow where we do not want them. In nature, however, they play an important and interesting role. They resist conditions that cultivated plants cannot resist, such as drought, acid soil, lack of humus, mineral deficiencies, as well as a one-sidedness of minerals, etc. They are witness of man's failure to master the soil, and they grow abundantly wherever man has 'missed the train' — they only indicate our errors and nature's corrections. Weeds want to tell a story — they are nature's means of teaching humanity, and their story is interesting. If we would only listen to it we could apprehend a great deal of the inner forces through which nature helps and heals and balances and, sometimes, also has fun with us."
— Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, Weeds and What They Tell.
I once asked a mentor to name his 10 favorite plants. He laughed and told me it was like asking him to name his favorite finger. He reminded me that our own attachment to the idea that one plant is better than another stalls the creative cycle that builds and maintains fertility of thought and action. The primary emphasis should always be on biodiversity: Use diverse strategies, experiment with diverse plant material, and work with a diversity of people. Do this, and your projects, both in and out of the garden, will undoubtedly thrive.
The best way to improve our garden soil is to diversify the living community within it. How to diversify it depends on what is already there, and what the soil needs to achieve optimum balance and fertility. There are a number of good ways to help determine these needs, from simple pH kits to expensive laboratory soil analysis. These store-bought solutions are effective in some settings, but unnecessary for most home gardeners.
Before you spend money on soil testing, go out into your garden and look at what's already growing there. For centuries, organic gardeners have relied on the plants to indicate soil conditions, and common weeds provide excellent clues for how to improve your soil. By learning to recognize weeds (and what they tell) we can learn about our specific soil conditions and take action accordingly. We can also plant relatives of the wild plants that will thrive in the same soil conditions, or replace unwanted weeds with our preferred cultivars.
Here is a quick-reference guide to a few common weeds.
Unsurprisingly, most of these plants are also edible and/or medicinal, but for now we will focus on what they tell you about your soil. If you don't know what these plants look like, take some time to find out. As a rule, I never pull a plant I don't recognize, and neither should you.
What Weeds Indicate About the Condition of Your Soil
Yellow dock & horsetail.
Soil is acidic or increasing in acidity. Plant cover crops, improve drainage, add non-acidic organic matter like straw and lime (but not wood chips.)
Morning glory/bindweed, wild mustard & pennycress.
Formation of surface crust or hardpan. Plant deep-rooted cover crops such as ryegrass and daikon. Allow dandelions, burdock and other tap-rooted weeds to remain, as hey will help break up the compacted subsoil. Add thick mulch and consider tilling/digging less often.
Lamb's quarters, buttercup, pigweed, teasel & thistle.
Too much tilling and cultivation. Gardens that need a break will put out a lot of spiky and aggressive weeds. If it feels like you are constantly battling thistles and losing, consider letting that section of your garden fallow for a year or two. Sheet mulch with cardboard, straw and wood chips, and plant a cover crop of fava beans, vetch or ryegrass. Or, if you have the space, replant the area to perennial herbs, berries and trees, and start up a new veggie patch in a spot that isn't so overworked.
Sweet peas, clover & vetch.
Sandy or alkaline soil, needs nitrogen. These weeds are an excellent cover crop. Leave them alone and let nature do the work for you. When they start to bloom, cut them down and mulch over, then plant your veggies on top.
Wild lettuce, lemon balm, self-heal, cleavers, chickweed & plantain.
Soil pH is balanced and/or ever-so-slightly acidic, soil is well-drained and fertile. Congratulations! These are the green-light weeds in your garden! This spot is ready for a fresh crop of vegetables. But be careful not to overwork, over-till, over-fertilize or add too much acidic material. Consider a careful rotation of crops to give your soil a chance to recover and re-adjust to the varied things you grow, and above all, enjoy yourself!
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
#foodforest #wisdomofweeds #weedsandsoilconditions
By Heather Jo Flores
If you're anything like me, this is the time of year you live for. The garden is popping, flowers are blooming, and there's more zucchini than you know what to do with. I could make this a very short column and just say: Relax! Take a nap in the sunshine and eat some berries. You earned it.
But there are still some important things to accomplish this time of year. You probably know this. In fact, you might be totally overwhelmed. I thought it would be nice to share my midsummer checklist: the stuff I do every year at this time to increase yields, beautify the garden and help resist disease and insect infestations later in the season.
Weeding. Maybe this is obvious. Weeding needs to happen most of the time anyway. But right now, it might be more crucial. If you have let the weeds go and they are starting to crowd out your veggies, now is your chance to get them out of there before they really start to inhibit air circulation, causing squash and tomatoes to rot, and encouraging aphids and mold. So get out there early in the morning before the heat sets in and take care of the weeds.
Deadheading. Sunflowers, calendula, nasturtiums, zinnias and most other garden flowers will bloom much longer if you go through and remove the spent flowers. If your timing is right, and depending on which plants you're dealing with, this can double as an herb or seed harvest.
Harvesting. This connects to deadheading. Even if you can't eat all of those zukes, pick them anyway. You'll get more zukes, for longer. Pick rotten strawberries and tomatoes. Get that slimy stuff out of the garden to remove the breeding ground for pests and to make space for fresh, healthy fruits. This is also a perfect time to harvest herbs, like rosemary and oregano, when vegetative growth is at its prime but flowers haven't fully matured. Harvest, bundle and hang them in the kitchen to dry.
Cut the Guards. If you have wild blackberries that you enjoy, now is the time to "cut the guards." Look at the hedge. Do you see how the clusters of flowers have thick, spiny, non-fruiting brambles that grow in front of them? Cut those off and the berries to come will get better sun for ripening.
Thin Fruit Trees. Apples, pears, plums, peaches ... all of these will yield larger, healthier fruits if you go through and remove 20 to 50 percent of the unripe ones. Anywhere you see two fruits sashed together, they are competing for light, water and nutrients. Carefully pinch off the smaller one.
Clean Up. Go through and get rid of junk, discarded pots, old piles of weeds and compost. These piles harbor slugs, mold spores and a plethora of other organisms that can cause harm to your garden. Remember that air circulation is just as important as soil, water and sun. Aphids, powdery mildew, black mold — these can be more easily avoided in a garden with plenty of breathing room. By cleaning up the space and eliminating junky air-traps, you protect your plants and also make the space more beautiful for those afternoon yard-naps.
Sow Fall Crops. Now is the time to get your next succession in the ground. As you clear space from weeding, harvesting and cleaning up, filling the ground with new seed helps prevent more weeds from coming in. Direct-sow sunflowers, lettuce, spinach, kale, green beans, peas, squash, beets, amaranth, nasturtium — pretty much anything you planted in early spring is good to go again. Just make sure to keep the beds evenly watered while the seeds are germinating. You can also sow in pots and transplant later when there is more room in the garden, after summer crops are finished.
Check Water. As we move into our driest season, it is important to make sure your automatic watering systems are working properly. Check for leaks, clogs and anything that needs to be repaired so you don't have any unpleasant surprises later.
Mulch and Fertilize. Once you've cleaned it all up, give everything a fresh feeding of fertile compost (or organic fertilizer) and cover with a nice neutral mulch to hold in moisture and keep out weeds. See my article, "Mulch Much," from last year for more information about which mulches to choose and why.
Relax! Honestly, this is just as important as the rest of it. When you take time to "do nothing" in the space you have worked so hard to create, your subconscious mind remembers why you love to garden. Your nervous system settles down. Sometimes I have to stop, lay down, and make sure that all of my garden time isn't spent hunching over, killing stuff, whacking stuff around ... working. This is your Eden — enjoy it.
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
#foodforest #midsummergardening #gardeninginjulyandaugust
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