I never thought I’d buy another gardening book. I have a bazillion in boxes in my mother’s basement and barn, tempting squirrels and harboring stinkbugs.
Then I got an email from a fellow Lemont Farmers Market seller and Master Gardener. She was starting a reading group to discuss Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. I’m not one to join a discussion group without reading the book, so I bought a copy.
The first discussion circle was intriguing and humbling. So much I don’t know. Herb spiral, bio-swale, hugelkultur—a whole new language. I came away with a good lesson that first night: Try something. In mid-May I settled on Ianto Evan’s Polyculture. I reserved a section of my dad’s old four-square vegetable garden and went wild.
First I took a small handful of Green Fortune Pak Choi seeds. Then another couple pinches of Dark Orange Calendula, Pot of Gold Chard and Flamingo Chard seeds, sprinkling them about. More seeds—Minicor and Cooke’s Blend Carrots, Pink Beauty and French breakfast radishes, Broccoli Raab, and Zefa Fino Fennel—all casually strewn. The only “rule” is to sow each variety of seed separately, not mix them all in a bowl and sow them, or else the heavier seeds might fall in one area and the lighter ones in another. The idea is randomness, not rows. Now I don’t know about you, but this shook my gardening roots to the core. Yet it did make sense to combine deep-rooted vegetables with shallow-rooted ones, slow growers with fast growers, and give every plant its fair shake to grow to edible deliciousness.
Here are the lessons I learned from that 5’x10’ patch of soil:
- Don’t try this if you can’t identify weed seedlings from vegetable seedlings. You must know the difference between inch-high purslane, Lamb’s quarters or pigweed and tiny carrots, chard or radishes.
- Even if you know the difference, if it rains too much and your soil has too much clay, you will often pull up a clump of weeds that are intertwined with a darling Flamingo chard seedling, and sticking it back in the ground usually doesn’t work. It breaks your heart.
- You have to be on top of your game. Harvest frequently. Radishes can hide under foliage and erupt into bitter bulbs, Pak choi and broccoli raab set yellow flowers (and turn bitter) in the blink of a tired gardener’s eye.
- Despite the chaos, you are going to be eating a lot of fresh vegetables!
Permaculture is all about ecology, plant communities and plant diversity; mimicking, not masterminding, nature. Those lessons were repeated at the state Master Gardener Conference. There were discussions on “practicing neglect”—letting borders of grass grow long and dead wood rot; leaving areas for nesting sites and burrowing edges. Speakers talked about the role of trees in transpiration—giant oaks or sycamores with leafy canopies that pump moisture into the atmosphere. There were lectures on the failure of our man-made “grey infrastructure” of gutters, curbs, drains and sewers to handle what the green infrastructure does so well. The lessons meshed into a pattern of hope.
At the conference we learned that since 1990 Pennsylvania has been getting wetter. “Fifty-year storms” are coming every three years. These flood events are not part of climate change. Instead, they are a result of the Joni Mitchell forecast: We’ve paved paradise, and put up too many parking lots, driveways, and manicured, but impervious, lawns.
The good news is that we can become part of the solution. Laurie Lynch
- Install a rain barrel and use the rainwater that you capture.
- Reduce the size of your mowed lawn.
- Plant a rain garden.
- Plant trees, shrubs and perennials, especially natives, which provide food for pollinators and birds.
- Support the use of garden roofs and redesigned parking lots that incorporate infiltration planters.
Written on Slate: “Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby.” –Langston Hughes
Watery Delight: We’ve had 90-degree days and nothing quenches the thirst like a few leaves of fresh mint crushed below a tower of ice cubes and drowned in cold water.