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PERMACULTURE EXAMPLES IN OUR GARDEN
By: Mark Hoffman

Over the past few years we have integrated permaculture principles into our garden. Since a picture tells the story better than anything I might write, this page is comprised of photos with accompanying descriptions of how we have applied these principles.

Thank you so much for the great food and conversation! I feel like there is something magical and familiar about this place and the people here. Thank you for sharing that with me!
Sarah Indianapolis, IN

Permaculture design encompasses all aspects of living in one's environment. It touches the way we garden, how we construct our buildings, the placement of our buildings and plants, our transportation options, and even how we shape the land. Because our B&B property is flat and our buildings are already established, we have less flexibility in fully utilizing the principles than if we were to start from scratch or have land that slopes or has natural water features. Therefore, we have worked primarily with the simple concept of harvesting maximum sunlight. Although we built our sunroom to 'harvest' sunlight and thus provide supplemental heat for our home, most of our permaculture ventures involve innovative means of raising plants. Many plants do not need full sun in order to be productive, and in fact, perform reasonably well in partial sun. See our shade plantings page for highlights of our experiments planting vegetables, flowers, and herbs in shade. By integrating plant systems into guilds, observing the cycles of nature, and experimenting with simple season extending structures, we have increased the productive capacity of our gardens. Read on....

Click on each photo below to expand the view.

The photo on the left is of horseradish growing at the base of a sour cherry tree. For 17 years, this cherry tree had never produced well, and birds normally ate its few cherries before we could harvest them. In 2004, one year after planting the horseradish, this tree produced an abundant crop of cherries that the birds did not eat. For the first time, we were able to harvest and preserve all the cherries we wanted. The large cherry crop may have been coincidental with the planting of the horseradish, however, abundant crops have continued from this tree over the subsequent three years. There are other advantages to planting the horseradish in this location. For example:

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The area under this tree previously required regular weeding. This is no longer necessary since the horseradish chokes out almost all weeds.

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Horseradish is more compatible with trees than is grass because grass exudes chemicals intended to suppress tree growth. Having horseradish in this location keeps grass further from the tree roots.

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We now have a horseradish crop that can be harvested at any time, and it requires virtually no maintenance.

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In early summer the horseradish produces an attractive white flower that can be used for flower arrangements.

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The young horseradish leaves add a tangy flavor to a green salad when used in moderation.

As you can see from the photo, horseradish is a broad-leaf plant. Broad-leaf plants generally tolerate shade or partial shade since their leaves allow the plant to harvest more sunlight. Therefore, it is not surprising that horseradish grows well under this cherry tree. In fact, this horseradish was transplanted from a full sun location and its growth is at least as hardy, if not hardier, than in its earlier full sun location - while utilizing a heavily shaded location that was previously unproductive.  Note the dark leaf color.  This allows the leaf to absorb more sunlight.  The leaves were a much lighter green when the horseradish was planted in full sun.

The photo on the right (above) displays a similar situation. In this photo, cannas are growing under a half-grown persimmon tree. Cannas are tropical plants with wide, dark leaves and colorful flowers at their top. The cannas grown in this location far outperformed those grown in full sun and did not seem to have any negative impact on the persimmon tree. The only disadvantage to this location was that the leaves of the persimmon tree hid the canna blossoms.

These two examples illustrate how the area beneath trees can be utilized for food or flower production. The next two photos are similar applications of this principle.

 

The photo on the left demonstrates a plant guild. Under this young 10' persimmon tree grows a bed of oregano (lavender colored flowers). Interspersed within the oregano, four eggplants are growing. All members of this guild experienced healthy growth, and much fruit was produced by the eggplants (the persimmon is not yet in production as of taking this photo.) Not only do these plants perform well together, but the combination is attractive (click here for a close up of the oregano and eggplant).

The photo on the right shows eggplants surrounding a tall pear tree. This particular pear tree has been pruned to have minimal upper branches, therefore the area below it is relatively sunny. These eggplants produced very well and planting in this location did not require garden bed preparation since the soil was weed free due to years of prior weeding and mulching. Planting in this unused location, we were able to expand our eggplant production without the need to create new garden beds. An added benefit was that the tree trunk served as a pole in October to which a sheet was hung for frost protection, thus extending the growing season of the eggplants by a few weeks. This tree/vegetable guild produced both pears and eggplants for serving our guests as well as for our own consumption.

The concept of guild planting represents what in permaculture is called 'stacking functions'. 'Stacking' means to multiply the production of a location through integration of components, be they plants, animals, or structures. In these examples, the stacking is vertical. Stacking can also be time based, such as when planting early bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths under fruit trees. By the time the fruit trees produce full leaf structure, the bulbs are nearing the completion of their spring growth cycle, and their sunlight needs are significantly reduced.

 

This row of green beans had completed one cycle of mid-summer production when Guia cut back the tops of the plants. Since the roots were well established, removal of the old tops stimulated the plants to sprout new leaves, branches, and flowers. This led to a new crop of beans that produced well, although not as well as the first production cycle, and did so quicker than if we had grown new plants from seed. The beans on the right were harvested on Nov. 16. By covering the plants a few times to protect from frost, we were able to harvest green beans through Thanksgiving (2004). This approach to raising beans provides the advantages of minimizing the space needed to grow crops in succession, minimizing the amount of seed required, reducing the need for bed preparation, eliminating the need to weed a second bed, capitalizing on an established root system, and extending production later in the season. The second crop was just as tasty as the first. We attempted this same method in 2005 with poor results, largely due hot dry conditions in August and September. We may have also waited a little too long to cut back the tops in 2005.

 

Lettuce between garlic Carrots in August Carrots in February
 
These photos illustrate companion and succession planting. On the left is a row of lettuce  growing in between rows of garlic. The garlic is planted in mid-November and harvested in mid-July. The lettuce is planted in mid to late April and harvested in May and June, thus allowing harvest of two crops from the same bed.

More commonly, we plant carrots in between the garlic. We plant the carrots in mid to late May and they grow all summer and through the fall. After the garlic is harvested, mulch is added and the carrots are allowed to grow into the area previously occupied by the garlic. This is illustrated in the middle photo (taken in August), although this particular bed of carrots did not sprout completely. 

The carrots can be harvested at any time, but we prefer to leave them in the ground as long as possible. Carrots are biennial plants, which means they go to seed in their second year. To determine the best time to harvest carrots, it is helpful to study their lifecycle. In our climate, carrot seeds won't sprout until late April - early May after the soil has warmed somewhat. Since they are slow to grow, it is difficult to obtain large carrots early in the summer, however, they grow quite well during August - October if they have adequate moisture. In preparation for winter, carrots increase their sugar content. The sugar serves two purposes - one is to provide an energy source for the next spring when the carrot rapidly sprouts and produces seeds. This expends its stored sugar and hardens the root into inedible cellulose. The other purpose is to protect the carrot from freezing temperatures, since a sugar solution freezes at a lower temperature than pure water. Therefore, based on the carrot's lifecycle, it is apparent that the time to harvest the largest, sweetest carrots is during the winter months after the plant has gone dormant. In our cold winters, carrot roots will normally freeze and rot if unprotected. To protect them, we cover the plants with a foot or more of mulch. We use loose hay, but anything will do as long as it doesn't blow away. We then harvest carrots all winter long (as you can see in the photo above on the right taken at the end of February). They are normally sweet, and because they have grown for such a long period, they are oftentimes very large. I have harvested carrots up to 16" long and 3" in diameter that were sweet and crunchy throughout. There is one caveat, however - the carrots must be harvested before the warm spring weather arrives, otherwise they will sprout seed tops and quickly use up all their sugar. Also, the longer they stay in the ground into warm weather, the more likely they are to rot or be eaten by underground insects. Typically they will only rot if the top of the root has partially frozen. It is very easy to grow carrots in this manner - and a pleasure to dig under the snow for a healthy meal. Try it sometime. Click here to see the mulch covering the carrot row in late January.

One final note on the photos above: You will notice an unusual plant in between the carrots in the middle photo.  This plant, Euphorbia Lathyrus L. - a.k.a. 'Gopher Purge', which is in the milkweed family, exudes a sap that is distasteful to voles. We have occasional challenges with voles eating our crops. It seems they have a sweet tooth preferential to carrots, sweet potatoes, and strawberries. Including this milkweed plant in our garden has significantly reduced crop loss due to voles. Interestingly, we still have voles in our yard, however, they now generally stay out of the garden. The Gopher Purge reseeds itself, so rather than replant, we simply allow it to go to seed, then while weeding, leave enough of these plants in strategic locations to keep the voles out of the garden. This method of 'vole prevention' sure beats trapping and poisoning.

 

Unlike what I described in the garlic and carrot examples above, the true permaculture approach, would not annually replant if the plant could reseed itself. With some plants in our northeastern Illinois climate, the reseeding approach works well. For example, we never plant dill anymore. It faithfully reseeds itself every year. We seldom replant sunflowers, and we have let our parsnips (photo above left of parsnip seeds ripening) reseed themselves too. If plants seed to thickly using this approach, we simply thin them as desired while performing normal weeding. Garlic can also 'reseed' if bulbs are left in the ground instead of being harvested. The photo in the middle above show garlic bulbs that were not harvested from the year before. These plants are crowded but looking healthy already in mid February. In theory, they will fill in the entire space around the fruit tree at the middle of the photo. Once established in this manner, fresh garlic can be harvested when needed. The advantage of this approach is that, once established, the only work required is to harvest. The disadvantage is that the cloves tend to be much smaller than if the cloves had been planted individually. Planting the individual cloves 4-5 inches apart in November results in fully developed bulbs without the crowding observed here. With continued spreading, this garlic can become very thick, and in this example serve to crowd grass from the base of this fruit tree.

A similar plant that provides better results when planted in this manner is the winter, or 'Egyptian' onion seen in the photo above at right. This onion variety is very hardy and requires virtually no care. It begins to grow in early February and by June goes to seed. It's green shoots as well as its white base can be harvested from February till April, after which, the onion becomes hard and very strong tasting. This onion is a great option for harvesting onions when practically nothing else is available in the garden. It spreads readily when its seed heads fall the the ground in July and August. It will readily take over a garden area if allowed.

 

 

The photo on the left is of an 'upo' vine growing in a plum tree. Upo is a tropical gourd that produces a 2 foot long edible fruit (seen in photo). Guia planted one of these vines below this plum tree and another vine below a 15 foot tall maple tree. By end of summer, both of these trees were covered by the vine and together produced over a bushel of gourds. Using this method, we eliminated the need to build a trellis; however, there is some risk to the growth of the trees since their leaves were largely covered by vines for about two months in late summer. The photo on the right is of a muskmelon vine growing in our red raspberry patch. Spring raspberry production was complete before the melon vine began vigorous growth. In late summer this patch produced a second crop - this time it was muskmelons instead of raspberries, while causing no growth reduction to the raspberries since the raspberry leaves remained above the muskmelon vine.


 

These two photos are of tomato vines that we planted directly under a 20 foot pin oak next to our house. Tomatoes are vines that in nature grow under the forest canopy. Apparently, these tomatoes received enough light because they produced some beautiful yellow tomatoes (looking out our kitchen window, there appeared to be oranges growing in our oak tree!). These tomatoes had no insect or sun damage, and the tasty fruits were the size of tangerines. These vines had morning sun exposure for ~ 4 hours, and apparently that was enough for them to produce a healthy crop. An added bonus was that, because of protection by the tree, these vines did not need to be covered for frost protection. As a result, they produced later into the season than our other unprotected tomatoes. To learn of an even more successful season extending innovation, check out the page describing our solar pod.

It was great to finally visit the Greenhouse and to see the wonderful oasis you have created here. After hearing about Guia for ~25 years, it was a pleasure to finally meet you! Your cooking was fabulous and your hospitality unmatched. Mark it was good to see you again and to reconnect again. I was glad we were able to stop and see you. Max enjoyed the visit as well.
Dave and Angie L. Bay City, TX