These days my wife and I are the stereotypical Permaculture “lazy gardeners” that it’s become very fashionable to call “IMPOSSIBLE!”. Growing a large percentage of our food on a few hours a week with no digging, almost no weeding, no watering, no fertiliser, and not a lot of worry. I’m such a stereotype I even do most of my “gardening” with bare feet!
But I wasn’t always that mythical sort of gardener.
I grew up around the toil of farming, following the harrow around, carrying fire wood, doing weeding, hiding in the attic when the tractor got stuck in the mud – and honestly, I’d had my fill of it!
Looking around, our modern agricultural system didn’t seem to work for anybody. It left some unfed, others undernourished and sick, and farmers filing bankruptcies (or worse) at a higher rate than any other profession.
Driving deforestation, atmospheric greenhouse gasses, ocean dead zones, soil loss, and mass extinction, plastic pollution – it certainly isn’t working for the earth, either.
And it seems it works the worst of all for the small farmers committed to raising healthy food while responsibly stewarding their land. In the competition against industrial agriculture, with its heavy government subsidy, greedy corporate middle-men, and willingness to exploit people, animals and the earth, there’s just no winning.
But when I first heard of Permaculture, it was an instant epiphany. I was struck by the story of Bill Mollison experimenting with forest restoration when he had the thought that we could create agro-ecosystems that were as abundant and sustainable as natural forests.
Yes! Why not!?
It seemed this sort of production could be THE major leverage point for a better world and a better food system. Balancing out the competition against Industrial Agriculture by raising the Return on Investment of garden and farm labour, while simultaneously sequestering carbon, stewarding the land, infiltrating water, reducing resource consumption and protecting biodiversity.
The Lazy Gardner!
I was enthralled by the videos of Mollison lazying around his garden, hiding in his potato patch, calling the hammock his most important garden tool and getting off to his nap with the words: “Permaculture, where the designer becomes the recliner.”
And there’s Geoff Lawton’s famous story of speaking with some Permaculture farmers and they contritely admitted that they watched a midday movie every day. Only working a couple hours per day to grow all their own food! After that, the words “midday movie” became our code for our own Permaculture dreams.
When we went looking for teachers, we found many organic farms that were caring for the earth well, but mostly it was long hard hours of work for little pay. And none really believed that low-work agro-ecologies were possible. Mostly, everyone believed Mollison and Permaculture dramatically oversold its “easy gardening” claim. That growing food was necessarily hard work, and that the kind of low-work systems he was talking about were “impossible” or at best “couldn’t scale.”
One day, after a hard morning of toil maintaining a raspberry patch, we stopped for a walk along a wooded bike trail, and saw tons of black raspberries coming in. We stopped at home and grabbed three, 3-gallon buckets, which we then filled with black raspberries. Down the trail, there was a second couple harvesting their own patch.
Suddenly, it dawned on us. Here it is! Here is the teacher we’ve been looking for! Nobody was toiling to maintain this system. Nobody was weeding, or pruning, watering, or fertilising it, except for perhaps the deer. Yet, it seemed nearly as productive as our patch on the farm, and the shade-grown fruit was amazingly juicy and rich.
We went back to that same system all season long over the next few years and harvested walnuts, hickory nuts, blackberries, wild onions, asparagus, milkweed pods, pears, grapes, elderberries, mulberries, highbush cranberries, black cherries, pin cherries, wild millet, garlic mustard, strawberries, and quite a few other lovely fruits and vegetables from this naturally occurring food forest garden that had almost no direct maintenance labour. There were often others there foraging next to us. You can see an in-depth case study of this natural food forest garden and why it works, here.
So, following Mollison’s concept, we used that system as the model for a linear food forest hedgerow system at our project. Only we substituted in higher value species like selected varieties and locally-adapted crops like Asian pears.
Guess what: It works just as well as its wild model.
Since then, I’ve made it a personal hobby to document such naturally-occurring food ecosystems, and I’ve found them everywhere I’ve travelled.
I’ve documented long-term stable wild ecologies where a wide variety of productive grocery store crops were persisting and quite productive for many years with no maintenance, even including common fruits and nuts, and even annual vegetables like tomatoes, garlic, onions, celery. And using those systems as models, we grow nearly 300 species of edible and medicinal plants in our food forest, as we move towards our dream of the midday movie.
While these might not be the most productive gardens per square foot, they can often have the highest value and highest return on investment, promising to increase the hourly rate we pay ourselves for garden work.
And while some say that “lazy” gardeners like me give people unrealistic expectations, I’ve come to believe that those “hard work” gardeners are giving people unrealistic expectations. As I learned as a kid, that style of gardening is almost never worth the work over the long term. Realistically speaking, while the “profitable farmers” I know working intensive veg systems typically make US$3/hour working 12 hour days, the economically most successful “farmers” I know make their living walking around extensive systems like these, foraging what comes naturally with little work, and turning some of it into high-value products with all their free time!
Here are a few other long-term stable no-work food systems I’ve documented that can provide models and lessons for smart designers. (For more examples of naturally occurring edible ecosystems, follow Lillie House on Facebook, or at TransformativeAdventures.org.
The Garlic Fruit Forest
This roadside system in Southern Michigan grows several fruits including autumn olive, elderberries, cornelian cherry, and an old apple tree. But the most spectacular feature is the abundance of harvestable large hardneck garlic that’s persisted there for a decade since I discovered it with absolutely maintenance free. Also present in patches are tuberous sweet pea, and milkweed, which makes a lovely vegetable. Asparagus grows throughout.
Remnant Old Growth Food Forest
This is an old growth forest I documented in Southern Indiana with an over-story of entirely edible trees including hickory, pecans, beech, and walnut, dense with paw paws (asimina triloba) as an understory tree. The ground layer is filled densely with specialty vegetables and medicinal herbs so valuable I’m reluctant to name them here! Such systems where they persist are perhaps one of our best blueprints for agroforestry systems.
Strawberry Fields Forever:
This field in Northern Michigan has been untouched for 50 years according to the owner, and the shade and soil means succession has moved very slowly here. This system has a dense polyculture ground-cover under the perennial rye grass consisting of native Canadian mint, sheep sorrel, ground cherries and of course native strawberries. In other patches, strawberries ramble underneath polycultures of raspberry and edible ostrich fern. We harvested nuts from the nearby over-story of beech and sugar maples, and underneath that is abundant sweet cicely now, and ramps, solomon’s seal and may apple in the Spring. Such a system could be adapted with high value additions.
The Abandoned Orchard
While apples are nearly impossible to grow clean in many regions, in the central range of Michigan’s lower peninsula there’s an area where apples grow very clean, abundantly and easily! I’ve visited many old abandoned orchards in the region that are filled with antique apple varieties, just rotting in abundance on the ground. Some of these orchards haven’t had maintenance of any kind in 50 years. Now they share space with autumn olive and other productive “weed trees.” In the understory we found salad burnet, mints, sorrel, and mustards, and along the road some asparagus.