ORNAMENTAL & EDIBLE This garden in Napa, Calif., includes a prune plum tree, a currant bush, borage, bronze fennel, perennial kale, and a ground cover of sweet woodruff with coral bells. With careful design, you can have an ornamental garden and eat it too. Photo by Jonathan Bates.
Sustainable Landscaping
How to create a vibrant garden that nourishes the body, spirit...and itself.

The typical suburban yard, with its large areas of grass, a handful of landscaping beds, perhaps a few trees, and a plot of vegetables, is a tightly controlled setting that does not remotely exist in nature. And it sure does take some controlling. Attempting to maintain a yard as though it were made of inert construction materials, which will stay as we arrange them, is asking for lot of work.

But every spring I, like many others, resolve to do just that. As a harsh wind jostles winter-bleached corn stalks and other plant skeletons in the vegetable garden, and the snowmelt exposes rhododendron and raspberry clippings that I left on the lawn last fall, I promise myself I will not succumb to yard-maintenance burnout this summer.

No, this year the vegetable garden will be properly structured and under control: plant rows straight, paths delineated, weeds out, soil tilled, tomatoes propped on store-bought supports, end-of-season plant skeletons cleared away before winter sets in. And I'll make ever more progress in paring away at the lawn with aerobic shoveling workouts, converting it little by little to landscaping beds. And those beds will be kept neatly delineated from the constantly encroaching grass, and weeds removed from them before sprawling nets of vines come out of nowhere again to enshroud the yew shrubs (badly in need of trimming).

But what if there were another way, a better way, a way to design outdoor spaces that produce food, are lovely to look at, and are thriving ecosystems that nature co-creates with you? The system known as permaculture promises that and more, and invites us to make landscaping choices very differently.

Redefining Landscaping

In its fullest expression, permaculture is a sustainable way of organizing many things, not just a way of gardening or agriculture. It seeks to create an interconnected community that works for all the participants. Everything is seen as a positive resource if we can work out how to utilize it. A "problem" is also a solution for something.

NECTARY GARDEN This beautiful collection of flowers, growing within Jonathan Bates's urban forest garden in Holyoke, Mass., was planted to provide nectar for birds and insects. The flowers include fennel, echinacea, and wild bergamot. Photo by Jonathan Bates. (Bates welcomes visitors. Contact him at JBates@RiseUp.net.)
The father of permaculture is Bill Mollison, an Australian who in the 1970s started applying his extensive observations and analyses of natural communities to human endeavors. He coined the word permaculture from a combination of "permanent culture" and "permanent agriculture," emphasizing that people could provide for their needs by creating self-sustaining relationships among humans, plants, and animals that benefited all. Mollison and collaborator David Holmgren formulated permaculture's principles and practices on this ethical foundation: We must care for the earth, care for people, and share surplus resources.

In the yard, this translates into creating a vibrant ecosystem that provides food and fuel, recycles waste, reuses water—and does so in cooperation with wild animals and plants, not in antagonism to them. Permaculture is not about relinquishing your yard to whatever happens, though. Instead, it brings you back into the webwork of nature's community.

A yard or garden designed with permaculture in mind requires little or no outside inputs like purchased mulch or fertilizer; takes care of its own yard "waste," like leaves, plus kitchen scraps; retains its own water and survives in low-rain periods; improves the quality of its own soil, water, and air; takes less and less work from you over time; and benefits the region's wildlife.

That doesn't sound like your yard? Surely not mine. But I was ecstatic to learn that to officially adopt permaculture practices I would need to stop tilling the garden beds and let useful native plants come up between the veggies. Done! I could leave the drifts of fall leaves that collect in the landscaping beds to recycle their nutrients. Done! I could put cardboard or newspaper over parts of the lawn and toss on plant debris to create new planting beds, instead of shoveling up the sod or rototilling. Done!

Nature's Ultimate Intelligence

Landscape designer Ethan Zickler, of Eden Design in Kerhonkson, has been using permaculture in his work with clients for years. "The main goal is to make things practical and yet functional, with simplicity, and in a low-tech way. Everything is geared toward seeing the solutions, turning perceived problems to the positive. It's about more than gardening—it's a philosophy as well."

Careful observation of a site before doing anything is a foundation of permaculture. Doing so allows for wise use of the property's existing physical features. That includes the obvious, like planting sun-loving things on the sunny side of the house, choosing moisture-happy plants for the areas that get soggy, and using plants that like shallow soil in the part of the yard you can never get the shovel into. An existing yard will give you clues about what's not working: If grass is slowly being replaced by moss in the moist shade of a sheltering tree, why not let it be moss? Perhaps add some stones and native ferns, and leave the wild purple asters that settle in on their own.

Tired of yard work? Imagine a yard that takes care of its own "waste"; improves its own soil; and benefits wildlife.

Many of permaculture's principles are also the foundation of "ecological gardening" or "ecological landscaping." (The latter is an aspect of permaculture's broader scope.) One principle is using native plants (though not exclusively). Native plants have a guaranteed climate hardiness, thrive in local soil without adding a ton of supplements, provide food and materials for wildlife, and can help save plant species that are endangered. (The only rose that survived in my yard after my caretaking enthusiasm ran dry is the native wild rose. It doesn't have huge blossoms like the hybrid roses that succumbed, but its smaller flowers are fragrant nonetheless, and catbirds use it each summer as safe hiding from cats.)

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