DesignEducationFoodWhy Permaculture?

A Basic Introduction to Zone One Garden Theory

Recently, my wife Emma and I were asked to introduce zone one permaculture to women in about 15 or so indigenous villages around Rio Dulce, in southeastern Guatemala. Seeing as we had only a couple of weeks to get the project completed, my initial reaction was one of panic. Suddenly, the DRAs (daily recommended allowances) of these women’s families were on our shoulders, and somehow we were supposed to visit and share our techniques—the presumed answer to their nutritional lacking—in more villages than we had days. Successful projects take more time.

Leaving the notion of practical application, we decided to compile a quick and easy-to-follow set of ideas for the NGO (and hopefully others) to take to each village. Frankly, we’re accustomed to being the ones with dirt in our nails, but we realized we wouldn’t have time to properly observe, design and build gardens in each or even one of the locations. In fact, the program being young, there was no designated spot for us to make a garden even if we had the time required.

Ironically, this meant making a course about zone one gardening without any specific home or kitchen from which to work. First things first, we wanted to establish that this is going to be different than making a couple of raised beds somewhere, so we came up with a simple theoretical overview from which projects might be approached.

A Founding Ethic and Worthwhile Goal

Certainly, when undertaking a permaculture project, it’s important to understand some of the more abstract tenets of what’s going on. The ethics—earth care, people care, fair share—were establish for easy explaining. The idea of ethically growing a myriad of food to feed ourselves, as opposed to monocrops for foreign export or the local market, is a key idea to get across. While income may be important, the ability to provide our own healthy diet (and homes) solves most of the problems a lack of income causes and without funding being used as a real solution to the problems. The beneficiaries of the course must realize their own worth and ability to take care of themselves without being exploited by the dark parts of capitalism.

In short, the zone one garden is growing food for our own kitchen in an environmentally friendly way, and we can either share our abundant seeds, experiential knowledge or extra produce to further empower others within our community.

An Efficient Approach to Gardening

In this case, though, we are not merely putting in a garden. Rather, we are designing a passively productive and intelligent permaculture system to benefit our home and make use of the advantages our environment provides us, all without destroying said environment. We build gardens in a way that requires less watering, walking, and weeding but with higher, more nutritious yields. This is accomplished through appropriate garden placement (near the kitchen) instead inconvenient spaces, soil building as opposed to tilling, simple rain harvesting in lieu of manual watering, and utilizing perennial plants instead of annual varieties. This will also all be done making the most of the materials at hand, so it will also be efficient cost-wise.

The garden will no longer be a plot of land here or there, but it will become an interactive part of the home, giving us more because we adapt to how nature works, as well as how we can utilize it more efficiently, rather than imposing our will upon it.

Lots of Food for the Family (Irene Kightley)
Lots of Food for the Family (Irene Kightley)

A Thoughtful Arrangement of the Garden

Part of the efficiency of our gardens comes from the idea of zoning what we grow. Zone one gardens are near to the house, along the most trodden routes. They are what we typically build first, and they provide daily kitchen additions like greens, herbs, and vegetables. In the next zones, slightly further away, we cultivate food forests of fruit and nut trees, as well as staple crops and grains. These items require less attention and less frequent harvesting, which means we won’t need to tend them as often as the plants in our closer, zone one garden. Beyond that, we allow minimally managed natural systems to thrive and provide by sustainably utilizing them. We keep the higher maintenance crops nearby so that looking after them is convenient.

Our zone one kitchen garden will focus on perennial greens, vitamin-rich vegetables and medicinal/culinary herbs, whose inclusion in all of our meals will equate to a healthier family.

An Observable Forecast for Foraging

With appropriate sun, soil, and water, plants are poised to provide great harvests. To make the most of this situation, it’s important for us, as garden designers, to see how these elements exist within our zone one space and then cultivate appropriately. It makes no sense to plant sun-loving basil in a shady place or thirsty mint on the driest piece of land. Instead, we observe where the sun shines most, we note (and extend) drainage lines to provide water throughout the garden instead of flowing right out of the garden, and we utilize the soil we have by choosing appropriate plants and using mulch to build better soil life. Instead of fertilizers and chemicals, we use the landscape and surroundings to help our plants behave productively.

Our gardens are designed more with our brains than our brawn because we take the time to observe the garden area and plant where and what nature directs us to.

A Proven Plethora of Plants

Within our adaptation to nature, we also choose appropriate plants for our environment. Rhubarb doesn’t like the tropical heat, while okra isn’t so crazy about the cold, so we won’t grow them where they don’t belong. Firstly, we grow native edible species, as well as others well-suited to our climate. (When our food production system is established, we can afford to experiment with fringe species.) Secondly, we seek to have a large portion of our gardens be perennial plants, as they require less work from us and resources from the environment, and they often give larger yields. We also companion plant, such as with corn, beans and squash or tomato, garlic and basil, and cycle our annual beds because it’s a natural way of preventing pest problems and utilizing symbiotic relationships between plants.

Choosing productive perennial plants, as opposed to what we find in the supermarket, provides us with year-round food and helps to establish a stronger ecosystem for the annuals that are cultivated within the mix.

A Meaningful Integration of Systems

The Path to the Chicken Coop as Part of the Garden Design (Irene Kightley)
The Path to the Chicken Coop as Part of the Garden Design (Irene Kightley)

Lastly, we are not merely using the garden for food, but we are actually incorporating it into our daily lives in many other useful ways. But, first off, we must eat what we grow, especially in the kitchen garden, on a daily basis. Greens, vegetables and herbs are great for our health and provide nutrients that other, typically more prominent parts of a diet do not. We can also use our gardens for waste management, composting our kitchen and paper waste (even animal manure) to feed our plants, reusing materials like plastic bottles or cans for walls and planters, making practical use of our yard and garden debris via mulching, and rerouting erosive drainage lines into simple life-giving irrigation systems.

Gardens are also places for more than working; they are great for leisure time, too. We can install seats, benches, tables, hammocks and more so that they are pleasantly beautiful places to relax, maybe even have meals with the family. Winding paths amongst curvy garden beds are perfect for contemplative walks or a way to enjoy the cool breeze of evening coming in. The more used the garden is, the more likely we are to care for, harvest from, and maintain it, so if we are to eat from it daily, it makes sense to incorporate it into our daily lives in as many ways as possible.

A zone one permaculture garden is meant to be much more than a place to grow vegetables, and we should design accordingly, incorporating spaces for growing, relaxing, composting and rerouting natural drainage lines for passive irrigation.

What Isn’t Path Is Growing Food (Emma Gallagher)
What Isn’t Path Is Growing Food (Emma Gallagher)

Feature Photo: What Isn’t Path Is Growing Food (Emma Gallagher)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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