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A beginners take on Permaculture - National Allotments Week - Plotting for the future

Talked about here:

- Permaculture - (Permanent Agriculture) - plant once eat forever and do as little as possible, a systems thinking approach to ecosystems

- No Dig gardening - seriously the clue is in the title

- Mycelium explained - the world wide web of plants but more altruistic

- Some practical tips on how we can think globally and act not just locally but individually, taking stewardship of the land we influence be it a garden, an allotment or a window box.

- Keyhole Mandala garden design

My friend Paul asked me what is the purpose of my blog, and who is it for? As a coach I like good questions. So in transparency it is really for me to capture my learning as a first time allotmenteer and for anyone who likes to follow a journey. There is no selling here, there is also no big ego, just sharing what I’m learning as I go along; so there will be some theory (and links to where I am learning from), some practical application (what I am trying), some reflection and lots of lessons learning.

Who knew allotments had a week? Not me, but then I didn’t know much about allotmenting either - can it be a verb?

The theme for the week this year is ‘Plotting for the future - celebrating the contribution that allotments make to a sustainable future.’ For me, this really resonates with the research and learning that I’ve been doing as a first time allotmenteer around Permaculture. Now, along with my learning about the allotment in the first year, I know very little about Permaculture but what I am learning feels fascinating. There is a lot to learn and most of my learning is what I’ve found on the glorious university of YouTube along with a few books and articles so I am coming from a place of learning not knowledge or expertise. But in this week of Allotments I think the permaculture principles (yes it has principles) give us a lot to think about when we manage our land - whether it is an allotment, a garden, a window box, a community garden or big agriculture.

Developed in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgen in Australia Permaculture is a whole systems thinking approach to ecosystems. It takes some of its inspiration from Indigenous knowledge in caring for the earth in sharp contrast to Western industrialised methods which are harming our soil health, ecosystems and the planet. There is a marvellous Wikipedia page [1] which I’ve put a link to at the bottom rather than re-writing a well written article which gives a good overview and background.

As a former leadership and management trainer I am a real sucker for some sound ethics and principles (which is what I want to explore in my initial steps in this article around Permaculture).

The three foundational ethics of permaculture are:

  • Earth care: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.

  • People care: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.

  • Fair share: Setting limits to population and consumption so that people do not take more than what is needed. By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles.[1]

For me at my allotment I am concentrating on Earth Care which is particularly relevant I feel for the ‘Plotting for the future' theme.

Earth Care - looking after the soil first. In starting my research about the allotment I discovered ‘No Dig’ developed by the prolific grower and generous teacher Charles Dowding [2]. Simply put this is the concept that by not digging the soil we preserve the mycelium [3] which is a bit like the world wide web for plants. - their organic way of communicating, sharing nutrients, and managing the breaking down of materials to create food for plants. Maybe it is the ‘mother’ in mother earth.

In practical terms how you do no dig is covering the earth with a natural weed suppressor (I’ve used cardboard and cardboarding is now a verb to me), which when topped with compost suppresses light and so kills off the less pernicious weeds and gives you time to root out the more tricky ones over time like bindweed and couch grass. The beds are then topped with organic compost about 15 cm in year one which can be planted in straight away and then mulched every year after. The theory being that you are feeding the soil first which then feeds the plants, and in turn you rarely need to add plant food. Anecdotally (and from what I’ve also noticed is) it also means much less watering than conventional double digging in manure.

Permaculture takes this much further with food forests, permanent agriculture (plant once eat forever) and zoning. Very briefly if it was your house then zone 1 would be the nearest to outside your door so stuff that you would want to just nip out and harvest so includes things like herbs and immediate food stuffs that you eat regularly. The further away from your property you then start considering fruit trees, things you harvest less often and replicating a natural forrest floor approach where plants support each other - but that is an entire other set of learning in itself (and I am finding that quite exciting too) [4]. I am treating the allotment as a zone 1 (as it is only half a plot)

with a little bit of zone 2 (AKA for me - Rhubarb which does not get visited much, as though from Yorkshire I was never a fan which could be considered sacrilege in ‘God’s own county’ as a Yorkshire woman that is so a big oops). What evs.

The planting once eating forever is something that very much appeals as it reduces outlay on seed costs every year, whilst weeding is still involved there is much less work in taking care of an established plant rather than the whole sowing, pricking out, potting on, planting out process (but there is also a place for this). For me at the allotment this year I have planted an asparagus bed (takes 4 years to establish but then the plants last for 20 years!), herbs, raspberries and fruits.

There is also quite a foraging approach in Permaculture discovering old varieties which were permanent versions (learning from our Indigenous peoples). This year I will be experimenting with Poireau Leeks [6], and there are also so many other permanent options. One Permaculture author and Vlogger who I am particularly enjoying learning from is Vera Greutink in the Netherlands [6]. I just noticed a great blog by Liz Zorab (someone else whose videos I gobble up) this week on perennials - how to grow and how to use for Permaculture Magazine [7].

The Principles of Permaculture

David Holmgren articulated twelve permaculture design principles in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. In italics below is my rather flippant and sometimes irreverent take on this - but I like my learning to be a bit left field so that I remember it.

Observe and interact: Take time to engage with nature to design solutions that suit a particular situation.

Looking at stuff - and investing time at looking at stuff before you start anything. As an aside I can’t remember where the quote came from but it is ‘cast a long shadow but have a small footprint’. So look at stuff and make small changes gradually. Respond to the land in respecting that it knows how to grow stuff better than you do.

Catch and store energy: Develop systems that collect resources at peak abundance for use in times of need.

Note to self get water buts, also wish I had got my compost bins going much much earlier.

Obtain a yield: Emphasise projects that generate meaningful rewards.

Grow stuff to eat. Remember to harvest it!!

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems function well.

Notice plants and learn how to read their signs - they certainly have told me when I’ve fried them in the poly tunnel, forgotten to water them and not potted them on soon enough. Plants can be very direct in their communication methods.

Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance: reduce consumption and dependence on non-renewable resources.

Recycle and repurpose stuff rather than buying new stuff.

Produce no waste: Value and employ all available resources: waste nothing.

Don’t create stuff to go into landfill.

Design from patterns to details: Observe patterns in nature and society and use them to inform designs, later adding details.

Nature doesn’t do straight lines. Next year the allotment is going to be two key hole mandalas.

Note if this picture doesn't make sense then the video at the end from School of Permaculture [8] will help.

Integrate rather than segregate: Proper designs allow relationships to develop between design elements, allowing them to work together to support each other.

This is a real lesson learning as Permaculture has some fascinating concepts about planting so that every plant in the team has a job. The real word in permaculture is Guilds. Like individuals in a team plants have different jobs, some are about feeding the soil (beans for nitrogen, comfrey for bringing nutrients up from deep in the earth and putting them into their leaves for chop and drop mulching), some are about bringing water in like the big leaves of rhubarb, some are about providing shade (like trees), some are about repelling pests (onions next to carrots to distract carrot fly) or attracting beneficial insects (marigolds with tomatoes to attract pollinators). This approach kinda takes companion planting and ramps it up to a whole new level of complexity and curiously simplicity, but there is a real brain ache of complexity before you get there.

Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain, make better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.

Don’t do everything at once. Slow down, solve one problem at a time and the one that will have the maximum benefit and often with the smaller effort.

Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces system-level vulnerability to threats and fully exploits its environment.

Mix the plants up - a lot.

Use edges and value the marginal: The border between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the system's most valuable, diverse and productive elements.

Put the stuff you need to tend least in the difficult to reach places.

Creatively use and respond to change: A positive impact on inevitable change comes from careful observation, followed by well-timed intervention.

Shit happens - learn from it.

In my first year there are some that I unconsciously adopted and some that I am learning more about. Going back to the theme of ‘Plotting for the future’, these principles can also provide a process to more sustainable and earth serving practices for those of us who are custodians of the land no matter how small.

Here are the links which can give you a far more informed approach than my beginning explorations.

7. Liz Zorab Perennial and Permanent Planting | Veg Garden Tour - Permaculture Magazine

8. Permaculture Tip of the Day - Keyhole Mandala Garden



- This includes how I cardboarded my allotment and created my no dig allotment.


One book that I am particularly enjoying at the moment is The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Perma-Culture - Creating an edible ecosystem by Christopher Shein with Julie Thompson.


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