Creating an edible landscape
Home gardeners are often experimenters by nature, trying new plant varieties, techniques, and approaches year after year. Many start as conventional gardeners, using chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, then move on to organic gardening, where the focus is on building the soil and using chemical-free products to manage pests and disease.
Have you tried new varieties of your favorite veggies or read up on crop rotation and season extension? Consider learning about and incorporating the principles of permaculture, which combines the best of edible gardening and natural landscaping, into your garden. A design system that employs nature’s patterns and provides a path toward reproducing them in your own yard or garden, permaculture emphasizes building up your garden so that it is self-sustaining, requiring less energy from external sources such as the town water supply.
Learning a new system of gardening can be daunting. Happily, it’s possible to adopt as much or as little of the permaculture world as you want. Yes, you may take a weekend design course and go all in, or you may start smaller and add in a few changes this fall to help with next year’s garden.
A seasonal permaculture-practice favorite actually allows you to save time and energy—leave those dead leaves alone this fall. Don’t rake! Leaves act as a cover to protect the ground from snow and to create a microenvironment for insects and worms that will feed on the nutrient-dense leaves. The combination of nitrogen-rich waste from the insects and the leaves’ carbon-rich decomposition creates a natural compost to feed the soil in time for spring. However, common sense steps in to say that the leaves shouldn’t be left in very deep piles, as rodents may take up housekeeping and become a problem in the spring, so it’s best to let the leaves stay where they’ve fallen.
As you harvest your fall vegetables and begin to envision putting your garden to bed for the winter, consider the following permaculture ideas:
Did you have a dry spot in your garden this year? Build a permaculture swale, which is a shallow trench dug along the contour of your garden with a berm on the downhill side to catch and hold the rainwater. By creating a swale, you efficiently irrigate and improve your soil quality at the same time.
If your garden is not on a slope, consider an infiltration trench. Shallow and filled with gravel and rocks, this trench holds rainwater until it can soak into, or infiltrate, the ground.
Add a rain garden for the really rainy times. A rain garden is a bowl-shaped garden that’s generally 12 inches to 18 inches deep and includes native plants with deep roots. Plant echinacea, bee balm, lobelia, and other wildflowers and they’ll store and slowly release rainwater into your garden.
And, as usual, be sure to maintain a deep layer of mulch for water retention and weed control.
Now, what are some of the more common plants that permaculturists grow? Perennial fruits and vegetables, including American persimmon, pawpaw, chestnuts, Asian pear, and hardy kiwifruit, are a few, as well as herbaceous species like Good King Henry spinach, strawberries, and perennial ground cherries.
It might work for you to start with one to get a feel for perennial vegetables. If you’re a spinach lover, try growing Good King Henry, which you can find at Fedco Seeds. They describe this perennial spinach, also known as Chenopodium bonus-henricus, Lincolnshire Spinach, and Fat Hen, as being an open-pollinated perennial used as a potherb, one of the first greens of spring and one of the last of fall. Good King Henry is an ancient plant used in festive meals, meat dishes, and as a side dish, and was very popular in Europe before it was supplanted by spinach, according to Fedco.
Hardy kiwi is another favorite among those employing permaculture principles in Maine. Be aware that this plant gets very tall and heavy and needs a substantial support structure; it also takes a few years to get established. Just think, though, how much you’ll enjoy picking those grape-sized, smooth-skinned cousins of the kiwi.
If permaculture appeals to you or at least piques your interest, there are resources right here in Maine to help you get started. Get in touch with the folks at The Resilience Hub in Portland, which has been at this for many years. They host classes and events and you can sign up for one of their many meet-ups for some hands-on practice. A Maine nonprofit, the Hub says on their Facebook page that their mission is to build resilience at the personal, household, and community levels while creating thriving examples of abundance based on ecological wisdom.
Start large, or start small. It’s your garden and as always, it must fit into the rhythm of your life. As you adjust to changing weather patterns, new pests and garden diseases, and new gardening techniques, it makes sense to look at your garden and your surrounding ecosystem as a working whole and learn how to move into the ecological patterns around you. Dip your toe in the permaculture waters and ask a family member or gardening friend to join you for one workshop or meet-up. You might just find that it’s right for you.
To weed or not to weed?
- Nettle, a commonly avoided herb because of its stinging properties, is actually rich in vitamins A, B, C, E, F, K, and P, as well as zinc, iron, magnesium, calcium, and 16 amino acids. This plant can be sautéed in a bit of oil, salt, and garlic, dried for tea, or incorporated into soup stocks and broths. Be sure to wear gloves when harvesting.
- Comfrey, another plant that might have a poor reputation because it spreads quickly, enriches the soil through its long-reaching roots that create a nutrient-packed mulch. Comfrey also serves a healing purpose, particularly for external use on cuts, scrapes, and burns. Its genus, Symphytum, fittingly means to “unite or knit together.”
- Plantain, common in and around yards and gardens, is very high in vitamins A and C, along with calcium, and can be added to salads. Use plantain leaves to relieve the pain of bee stings and insect bites, stop the itching of poison ivy and other allergic rashes, and promote healing in sores and bruises. Plantain tea can be used as a mouthwash to help heal and prevent sores in the mouth, and as an expectorant.
- Chickweed provides many health benefits including aiding with digestion and weight management, acting as an expectorant, easing inflammation, and helping wounds heal. Chickweed may be eaten raw like plantain and is tasty in a summer salad.
- Lambsquarter is a rock star in the garden, providing amino acids essential to our bodies. The roots, stems, and leaves are edible. A savory plant, dried lambsquarter makes a tasty replacement for salt.
Debbie Atwood gardens in Brunswick, Maine, and graduated with the Cumberland County Master Gardener Class of 2004.