Posted by: terrapraeta | April 30, 2009

Gaiea’s Garden

I’m gonna keep on moving baby
I’m gonna keep on moving on in a world that has gone crazy
you’ll probably never get it
just jealous cause i said it
woke up out of leather but i wont live to regret it
feeling ooooh
Well im just out of school like I’m really really cool
gotta dance like a fool
i got the message
gonna be a… WILD ONE wild one (yeah, yeah, yeah)

I’m a wild one (yeah, yeah, yeah) wild one (yeah, yeah, yeah)
I’m a wild one (yeah, yeah, yeah) wild one (yeah, yeah, yeah)
I’m a wild one (yeah, yeah, yeah) Oooooh
I’m a real wild one

Wakefield, Wild One**

I’m a big fan of Permaculture, both for the gardening techniques and the general idea of systemic design for people, plants, animals and communities. For those that are not familiar with permaculture, here is what wikipedia has to say about it:

Today permaculture can best be described as a moral and ethical design system applicable to food production and land use, as well as community design. It seeks the creation of productive and sustainable ways of living by integrating ecology, landscape, organic gardening, architecture, agroforestry, green or ecological economics, and social systems. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather on the relationships created among them by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture is also about careful and contemplative observation of nature and natural systems, and of recognizing universal patterns and principles, then learning to apply these ‘ecological truisms’ to one’s own circumstances in all realms of human activity. There is substantial, but scattered evidence that many pre-Columbian New World cultures used techniques comparable to permaculture in the Amazon basin, in much of Central America, and in some parts of eastern South America. (link)

I am nothing like an expert, but I have been a gardener for some years and I find that the more I learn about permaculture, the more intrigued I get. It is the ecological equivalent of the general philosophy that I espouse: systems thinking, organic complexity and efficiency through ‘natural’ dynamic interactions. I am a big fan. There is one component of permaculture that I have been less pleased with: although I see it as an unsurprising weakness, born of our massive linear-thinking culture, and a weakness easily overcome in deed, if not in thought. This weakness, in my opinion, is the emphasis (sometimes built in, sometimes added later) on control. From kitchen gardens and herb spirals through the general structure of the zone system, I feel that sometimes they put too much thought and too much intentionality into what could otherwise by a nearly perfect system for ‘redesigning’ our world. Perhaps I should step back a little and start at the beginning. One of the primary tenants of permaculture, as I have come to understand it, involves the implementation of a zone system:

Zone 0 The house, or home centre. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, and generally creating a harmonious sustainable environment in which to live, work and relax.
Zone 1 Is the zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often.
Zone 2 The vegetable garden, larger scale compost bins and maybe beehives.
Zone 3 Is the area where crops are grown, both for domestic and trading purposes. Would include orchards. After establishment, care and maintenance requirements are fairly minimal providing mulches, etc. are used. Watering or weed control is once a week or so.
Zone 4 Is semi-wild. Used for timber production from coppice managed woodland and the placement of aquaculture ponds.
Zone 5 The wilderness. There is no human intervention here apart from the observation of natural eco-systems and cycles. Here is where we learn the most important lessons of the first permaculture principle of working with nature, not against it.(link)

In premise, this makes a lot of sense and works for well insofar as it maximizes human efficiency, provides a design structure that makes good, intuitive sense, and reinforces the assumption that our habitations and communities are (or can be) an integral part of a fundamentally wild world. On these levels, it is a great idea.

Unfortunately, I still have a couple problems with it, that really boil down to one, singular, ethical dilemma: the great wild world does not work this way, and so trying to create a zone system means, on some levels, working against the great wild world.

One of the most important ecological understandings of permaculture is that, in natural systems, most growth and ‘productivity’ occurs at the edges. A prairie can be lush, a forest can hold masses of biomass, but both are relatively simple compared to the boundary between them. So permaculture encourages the development of edges as much as possible to take advantage of the natural layering that occurs at these boundaries.

So I look at the zone system, and the idea of building and maintaining one or more annual gardens and, really, I feel a bit uncomfortable with it all. A lot of discussion has occurred in recent years about the nature of the North American continent before the Europeans arrived. It was always assumed that the continent was ‘wild’, ‘untouched’, ‘natural’ — but now that view is starting to change, its becoming apparent that there is a good chance that Native Americans in some (or many) parts of the continent were active ‘gardeners’: tending the forests, the prairies, the swampy meadows; encouraging favorite foods, discouraging invasive or intrusive species, adding their energy and intent to help regeneration after forest fires and so forth. Imagine that: the entire continent, one big, healthy garden and our ancestors could not begin to recognize it.

If the natives had been working with zones, I bet the Europeans would have at least stopped and considered: but who’s to say for sure.

So far, I’ve done a fair amount of criticizing and not really offered any alternatives: so let’s focus on those alternatives now. Let’s start with tools that permaculture offers that I find massively useful:

Guilding: In the natural world, each micro-ecology has certain species that tend to grow together successfully. By looking at these natural plant relationships, permaculture gardens can be designed to take advantage of these relationships, even if we do not fully understand the intricacy of how those individual relationships work.
Composting: One of the biggest challenges for gardeners in our modern world is the extreme degradation of our soils by traditional agriculture and environmental pollutants. Through composting, we can begin to redress this by increasing humus and mycological activity in the soil.
Perennials and Poly Culture: Perennial plants, shrubs and trees form the backbone of permaculture gardens. Semi-permanent planting allows the soil integrity to increase over time, while poly culture (inter-planting many species together) helps to develop a healthy nutrient balance (especially when proper guilding has been incorporated)
Animals: By incorporating animals into the total design, once more we are mimicing the natural systems of the forest or prairie. It is neither necessary, nor preferable to separate plants and animals when both have evolved together to provide symbiotic benefits to each other. (ie: natural ‘weed’ control, fertilization, animal ‘feed’, soil disturbance, seed dispersal)

Taking all of these components and putting them together, I would like to add the concept of ‘re-wilding.’ Introducing perennial plants and trees, then adding useful annuals: both wild plants and cultivars, all based upon existing guilds, then allowing the system as a whole to evolve from there. Ideally, some of both the wild and cultivated plants would be successful enough to self seed and establish themselves permanently.

This requires a couple of not-so-intuitive (for the gardener) behaviors: allowing some of the fruits to rot on the vine, leaving some tubers in the ground, allowing plants to ‘bolt’, and resisting the urge to continuously replant annuals that fail to reseed. So far, I have been toying with this for a couple of years with only minimal success. However, I do have a tomato plant that has returned for three years now — and I have to say, it produces some of the best tomatoes I have ever eaten without fertilizer, pesticides, weeding or herbicides and without watering. The biggest problem I have with it is forgetting to go out and pick the tomatoes regularly!

As to zones, I imagine that what I will be attempting to do is to create small enclaves of highly productive ‘edges’ throughout the property. Edges that require little or no maintenance once they are established. I would also like to incorporate animals into the design: animals that, like their plant companions, are somewhat feral: grazing and feeding off of living plants rather than plants that I grow, process and then feed to them.

For now, I am only experimenting on a small scale, as I live in town, with a fairly small property and therefore have limited space for fully developed forest gardening. But I am continuing to experiment so that once we leave town for a larger, undeveloped property, I will have the experience to create what I imagine as the perfect re-wilded property.

* Gaia’s Garden: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway ** The classic, Iggy Pop “Wild Child” — the relevant lyrics do not appear in the original, thus the citation for Wakefield.

(Originally Posted January 2, 2007)


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