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How permaculture can change the way you think about gardening

If I were to try to describe the way we grow at Unity Gardens and the way I like to think about my daily life, “permaculture” would be a fair definition.

The term permaculture (permanent agriculture) became popular in the early ’70s as a way to garden or farm using the resources you have. It was based on the 12 Principles of Permaculture.

More recently, it has been applied to all aspects of life. My simple description of permaculture is using common sense in planning and in the decisions you make. That is why it also fits the Unity Gardens mission of free healthy food for everyone, which then also builds a strong community.

So how do you use permaculture in your home garden? I will not bore you by going through all 12 principles, but rather touch on some of the easiest principles to apply, allowing you to expand your mind and rethink the way you garden.

Observe and Interact: By taking time to engage with nature, we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

This is my favorite principle. Every morning and evening I walk our large garden out at LaSalle Square. Of course it’s relaxing, but it also has a purpose. I see things like how the sun falls on the plants, or if any pests are in the garden.

Gardens take on a variety of shapes and forms throughout the seasons. You may notice areas where plants are not as dark green or low-lying areas that succumb to the first frost, for instance.

I grew up learning to dig up a plot and plant food with some fertilizer and then all the rest would take care of itself. With permaculture, it’s so much more.

Catch and Store Energy: Make hay while the sun shines.

This principle makes me think of rain barrels, greenhouses and cold frames. Collecting rain water to use in your garden, or using the sun’s energy to warm a greenhouse and grow early and late crops to extend your harvest are all good examples of using what you have available.

Use and Value Diversity: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Building a diversity of plants into your garden will ensure a continual harvest, protect plants from predators and increase pollinators. The diversity refers to growing different crops and flowers, and also creating diversity within a particular vegetable.

An example: different types of tomatoes have resistance to different diseases and do well under different weather conditions. Growing a variety of types ensures that something will not take down your whole crop. This is the lesson from Ireland’s great potato famine!

Last year I took a permaculture certificate course at Ivy Tech taught by Dr. Katherine Kent. That course made me want to explore even more.

For my final class project, I created a mini food forest using some of the layering techniques like edible ground-covers. It was fun to test new ideas. That was during the spring and summer of 2014 — so far, it’s doing well.

There is so much to think about in the world of permaculture. If you want to get an introduction, check out the Unity Gardens classes on permaculture and companion planting — both happen next on Jan. 31.

Also, a few books out there I have enjoyed include:

For more tips and stories about backyard gardening from Mitchel Yaciw, subscribe to the Growing With Unity email newsletter.

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