Growing food that doesn’t need planted again saves time, effort, and money.
The Snarky Gardener was tasked with writing a paper for his permaculture class. This is part 1 of several written about perennial food crops from a permaculture perspective.
Perennial versus Annual Food Crops
With our current agricultural systems, annual monoculture plants rule with corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat being the primary crops. Every year, lots of money and non-renewable energy is used to till the soil, plant the seeds, remove the weeds, protect the crops from insects, and fertilize. Perennial food crops, when planted in a polyculture (ie with many other plants), help to mitigate much of these costs while providing a long term answer to growing our food. This is not to say that annual crops don’t have a place in a permaculture future, but their dominance will need to be reduced for designed systems to work to their full capacity and potential. Biologically, most annual plants are weeds, needing disturbed ground to thrive (thus all the tilling). This churning of the soil is very destructive to the web of life that exists under the surface. Earthworms, fungi, bacteria, and other organisms work in harmony to break down dead plant material and create the conditions plants need to survive and thrive. Perennials reduce the havoc tilling causes as they don’t need to be planted over and over. There are also some annual no-till systems that achieve some of the same goals, like the use of cover crops and special equipment to punch planting holes for corn and soybeans, but unfortunately they have been slow to be adopted.
Conventional Garden Perennials
Some perennials are commonly utilized by gardeners. Many perennial herbs (like mint, sage, thyme, oregano, chives, horseradish, and lemon balm) are easy to grow (sometimes too easy as mint and horseradish can be invasive). Living up to 15 years, asparagus is one of the first plants to be eaten the spring. Its spears can be grilled or baked with olive oil and parmesan cheese. Strawberries come back year after year, spreading by the use of runners. Rhubarb (which was planted next to the strawberries by my grandmother) produces reddish stems which can be used in desserts (strawberry rhubarb pie anyone?) or soups. Note: the leaves and roots are poisonous.
Lesser Known Garden Perennials
Perennials unknown by many people can also be used in the garden. Ramps (aka Wild Leeks) are found wild in the eastern United States and grow in shady and/or wet areas. Also a native of the eastern US, the groundnut (a nitrogen-fixer) grows in 6 foot vines and produces tubers that taste like nutty-flavored potatoes. Sunchokes (or Jerusalem Artichokes) are a North American native related to the sunflower. They grow from 6 to 12 foot tall and have crisp, sweet tubers. Egyptian walking onions get 3 foot tall, set bulbs on their tops, and then fall over to spread to others parts of a garden. Crosnes (or Chinese Artichoke) is a mint relative that spreads using runners and and have crisp, sweet small white tubers. Good King Henry is a traditional European leafy green spinach relative. French Sorrel has lance-shaped leaves good for salads.
Fresh clean water is an important component to life. Americans take it for granted, though other parts of the world aren’t so lucky. The average U.S. household uses 100 to 160 gallons a day (versus 2 to 5 gallons for the rest of the world) with agriculture using the most. In my bioregion (Northeastern Ohio), I’m less than 50 miles away from the Great Lakes, one of the biggest freshwater bodies in the world. Because of this abundance, other parts of the country are eyeing this grand resource (like California, which is in the middle of a deep drought).
One of the tenets of permaculture is the conserving and storing of resources, including water. Household water has several categories , including fresh, grey, and black. Fresh is obviously used for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Grey is water that was previously used for cleaning (think shower or kitchen) that can be repurposed (like flushing toilets or watering non-edible plants). Black water is fecal matter, though urine can be considered grey (though it’s yellow) as it’s used as crop fertilizer in some countries like China. Separating water use instead of putting it into one system like current conventional engineering is a big step towards having enough water for everyone in the future.
Permaculture design works to store and release water so it’s available when it’s needed. Soil building helps by adding water holding compost and biomatter. Drip irrigation puts crop water where it’s needed, right at the plant roots. Maintaining leaky old infrastructure (pipes, etc) reduces waste to a minimum. Reforestation of barren land keeps water from running off unprotected soils, saving both water and topsoil. Swales (water harvesting ditches on contour) slow water down, allowing it to seep into to ground instead of running quickly over sloped land. Keyline plowing (first perfected in Australia) uses deeply plowed groves on the contours of a agricultural field to accomplish the same goal as swales.
Permaculture design uses patterns in nature to achieve its goals. We discussed the “Flower of Life“, “a geometrical shape composed of multiple evenly-spaced, overlapping circles arranged in a flower like pattern with six fold symmetry like a hexagon.” Many of the patterns that form here are also seen in nature.
Observation of nature’s patterns is important to permaculture, especially edges. Many of the techniques employed are about maximizing edges such as the herb spiral, forest gardening, intercropping, chinampas, and edge gardening.
The Snarky Gardener saw a Facebook posting for a 12 week permaculture college class and decided to just jump in. The course costs $10 for materials and will have “get your hands dirty” training. It’s being held in Oberlin (about an hour or so from my house) at a local farm. Not a bad drive unless it’s snowing (which it has been a lot this winter). The SG is probably the oldest person in the class (including the instructor) but what I lack in youth I gain in snarkiness. It’s nice to see a room full of undergrads so excited about such a transformative subject as permaculture.
In case you are wondering what permaculture is, I’ll give it the old college try (pun intended) to explain it. Permaculture is an ecological design framework that strives to use natural processes to produce human needed resources. The question I ask myself to get into right frame of mind is “What would society look like if gasoline cost double, triple, or even quadruple of today’s prices?” Shipping anything would be a lot more expensive so we would need to have systems that were local and sustainable without much (if any) oil. So we’d want to be able to provide for our needs from our own area as much as possible (think fruit trees, perennial gardens, chickens, and bicycles for example).
What really attracts me to this discipline is its systems design approach. Professionally I’m a software developer, so I think of systems and design every day. I’ve tried to incorporate some permaculture concepts into my garden and yard (like perennial food plants, no tilling, rain barrels, and using my dog River to dig planting holes) but I want to understand it on a deeper level. I’ve read quite a few books on the subject, but nothing beats instructor-lead hands-on learning.
So every week over the next few months, I will be writing about my experiences at this permaculture farm. Hopefully I don’t pull a back muscle or fall on my face (I’m not the most graceful person).