In their fun book, The Urban Homestead, Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen encourage our gardening efforts by telling us that “Nature is standing by, ready to help.” Just as often, though, I resonate with Michael Pollan who, in his literate meditation Second Nature, writes, “Nature abhors a garden.”
Permaculture offers a gardening philosophy and practice that combines both notions, inviting us to work with the natural state of our landscape, even on a small backyard scale, to grow gardens that require less grappling. In the current “victory garden” movement, it seems the impulse is to construct a few rectangular wooden raised beds, then fill them with soil and rows of plants. Permaculture asks us to approach gardening with more heart, to first take a step back, and ask two questions. What is is that we, the human inhabitants, require of our bit of land (food, a place to play, herbs, peace for the soul…)? And then, what does the land, and the region, need from us (soil rejuvenation, removal of invasive plants/grass, space for native plants, varied dimensions to provide habitat for birds…)?
We are still a long way from a full permacultural landscape, but in an homage to the vision, we’ve deployed one of the classic permaculture projects–the Herb Spiral. Instead of a long path, or an unimaginative straight-edged bed for herbs, the herb spiral wraps nearly 30 linear feed of planting space into a five foot labyrinth. The earth is mounded to three feet in the center, and slopes downward on the sides, terraced by a winding circle of stones. Plants requiring less water, such as rosemary and dill, are planted near the center; those at the bottom edge of the spiral, such as coriander and parsley, will get more water as it makes its way down the slope. The mounded bed also provides directional variation–the herbs that thrive in hot, dry climates (oregano, rosemary, thyme) can be planted on the sunny south side, while those that prefer cooler climes (parsley, chives) go on the north. Cilantro, with its tendency to bolt, can be settled on the east side, out of the way of the hottest afternoon sun.
The spiral saves space, while it works with the elements of wild nature to allow our plants to flourish. And I believe on some level we benefit from the cross-cultural symbolism of the labyrinth that ties in so well with our gardening efforts–a simultaneous turning to center, and back out to the wider earth.
Yes, it’s a little hippie. I love it.
You can find more information on this project and many others in Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, my favorite book on home-scale permaculture, just out in a shiny new edition with color photos and an expanded section on urban gardening. It’s super accessible–nicely written, filled with inspirational ideas, and the wild-ranging thoughts of a true permaculture activist.