Design

My Permaculture Design Mistakes

Wrong Turns in the Right Direction

Like anyone, I find it much more inspiring to talk about gardening and building successes. That rhubarb we planted last year has gone nuts!  Emma and I have probably foraged 15 kilos of chanterelle mushrooms so far this summer, so much that we are having to give them away despite the fact that I eat mushrooms on toast just about every morning (unless I’m having tofu scramble with chanterelles). We just passed our framing inspection for the cabin we are building! Good things are happening, no doubt, but life isn’t always beautifully blooming roses.

 

In short, in permaculture, we are all fallible (even the fabled Geoff Lawton, as you will learn by the end of this). Of course, for the most part, we share our successes, and for the most part, that’s also what we want to read about: successes. We want to know what works! But, like any good craft, sometimes it’s the lessons that we learn from our slip-ups that make us wiser in the long-run. At least, at the beginning of this list, that is what I’m going to say. Believe me, this is no exhaustive catalogue of minuscule catastrophes but rather a brief accounting of the ones that are currently unfixed and on my mind.

I want to share them because sometimes, when things go awry, we feel like no one else struggles, as if all other permaculturalists are out there making the right moves, relaxed supine atop a stack of butternut squash. Well, that just isn’t so. To grow a garden, to build a home, to manage water, to raise animals, to live off-grid… they are all replete with repairs, reconfigurations, and re-imagining. Part of the process is often not getting it right. At least, that’s what I like to tell myself, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Here goes:

 

 

Sheet Mulching With Cardboard For Places That Aren’t Gardens

Fire Ring
Photos Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

Sheet mulching just feels right to me. It’s an idea I understand and one that I’ve used often and with a good deal of success. Of course, for every sheet mulched garden bed and garden path I’ve made, there follows a garden bed or garden path that eventually gives way to weeds. That should come as no great surprise: Half the point is to attract those earthworms with the cardboard and so the cardboard gets eaten. In the garden, that just means sheet mulching over it again next year: more nutrient for the plants!

I have no idea why this eventual revival of weeds didn’t occur to me when putting down some free gravel around a fire pit. By the mid-summer it was a half covered in greenery with all the potential to completely disappear by fall. At this point, I’ve scooped back up all the gravel and piled it on an old cotton bedsheets from the thrift store, which in theory will last longer as weed barrier and is still organic. We’ll see if this method works a little better than the cardboard. Fingers crossed.

 

 

Paths Too Narrow For Wheelbarrow

Narrow Paths
Photos Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

I am ever in the battle of garden space, specifically pathways versus beds. I want to maximise the beds, but I seem to do so at the peril of my own sanity. This year, giddy with a pile of pond bottom to build garden rows with, I stacked the soil 45 cm high (a foot and a half) and 90 cm wide (three feet) with paths about a 30 cm (one foot) wide running between them. The bottom of the wheelbarrow scraps and catches constantly on the sides of the rows. Once vegetation started sweeping down the sides of the raised rows the wheelbarrow was hopeless endeavour.

Of course, I know (and knew) better than to do this, but it’s a temptation that’s hard for me to resist. The bright side is that these beds were largely used for staple crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and carrots, so they were getting dug up anyhow. The whole thing will be reconfigured for next season: wider beds (120 cm/4 ft) and wider paths (60 cm/2 ft). We were in a rush to get early spring vegetables planted…

 

 

Early Expansion

Garden in Place
Photos Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

Another recurring mistake for me, one that explains the mistake above, is expanding too quickly. This year we thought we were going to be able to move into our cabin by late spring, so we planted our primary gardens there in preparation. But, as building stuff tends to go, delays here and there, we’ll be lucky to make it in by autumn. That has meant that our garden isn’t in the back corner of the yard, too far to walk to; it’s a 35-minute drive away. Consequently, there have been some weeding marathons and quite a bit of produce lost to pests, time and weather.

It was excitement, really, and it hasn’t been all that devastating. We make it to the garden about twice a week, on the days we have time to work on building our cabin, which often turns into days in which we tend to the garden’s needs. Nevertheless, we’ve got a fridge full of summer squash and cucumbers. We’re eating fresh salads, rhubarb crumble, sautéed greens, green beans, and just pulled up a good box of Yukon gold potatoes. Nevertheless, it’d be a lot better to have a big garden where we spend our day-to-day.

(I haven’t even mentioned the terraced food forest that we are struggling to maintain. After all, the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago! Who said that!)

 

 

Accounting For Mulch

Mulch Gone Wild
Photos Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

The other issue with expanding rapidly is the realisation of just how much mulch it takes to cover the gardens (spent hay and/or leaves) and the garden paths (free wood chips from tree trimmers). The positive of it all is that the organic mulch is doing its thing, decomposing into richness for the plants. Worms are thick through the soil. The negative is that it’s a bit like painting the golden gate bridge: Every time everything has been mulched, it’s time to start mulching again.

I’m fortunate in that I have great, i.e. free, supply sources for this these things: acquaintances with hay barns that need cleaning, a job where I have to rake up lots of leaves in the autumn, and a connection with an ever-growing mound of wood chips from local tree trimmers. Nevertheless, something always needs mulching. I don’t know how other gardeners manage. I keep a bedding fork in the bed of the truck so that any opportunity to gather mulch won’t be missed.

 

 

Underestimating Sediment

Sediment Pond
Photos Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

One of the big projects we took on last year was reviving an old, empty dam. When we struggled (about a year) to find an earthmover who would show up, Emma and I finally decide to hand dig a sediment pond in front of our dam so that we could wash up, cool off, and such in the meantime. Mistake one: we dug it in July, the hottest month of the year. That was two weekends of muddy, humid, horrible work. Mistake two: Though we remove the poison ivy vines, the poison ivy roots gave me the worse rash I’ve had since I was a child. My eyes nearly swelled shut.

Mistake three, the big and unsettled one: We had no idea how fast it would fill up. Nearly a meter deep, a couple meters wide, three meters long, and we are already having to dig the sediment out of it to make more room. It’s nearly impossible to do by hand because the sediment is so soft and deep that I can’t move around in it to clear it out. It’s looking like it’s going to fill up every year. I was hoping for somewhere in the three-to-five-year range. Next problem: What to do with all that sediment? We were happy for some, but it’s going to be a lot.

 

 

The Rice Paddy Gone Wrong

The next part of our dam restoration that hasn’t quite gone as planned was a rice paddy. Between the sediment pond and the dam, I had designed in an area to function as a rice paddy. The idea being to use some of the removed silt from the bottom of the old dam to create thick berms with paddies inside that could be flooded from the higher (sediment pond) side and drained into the dam. The berms, being on the upslope side of the pond, wouldn’t have much pressure on them. Theoretically.

The plan went awry almost immediately. The slop from the bottom of the empty dam wouldn’t hold its shape to make berms, so the earthmover couldn’t fix the sunken paddies, instead just making flat pile where the paddies were meant to be. Furthermore, any depressions in the pile of slop immediately backfilled with water from the dam. Now, nearly a year later, the “paddies” remain a huge pile of sediment with pond weed growing all over it and permanent puddles in various places.

We are hoping the weed roots can help is with shaping it into something more chinampa-like, with “wild” rice growing in the canals and regular rice growing on the berms. All of the work will likely have to be done by hand now.

 

 

Geoff’s Swale Break

Some of these things, and definitely a collection of these things, can get a budding designer feeling down about it all, so I want to offer this up. Not long ago, I wrote the text for a YouTube video, “Not a Jail Break, a Swale Break”, and it was comforting to find footage of a waterlogged permaculture master, and swale master in a particular, calmly walking us through Zaytuna Farm to show us his swales busted by severe weather. It caused an absolute mess, and Geoff takes full responsibility.

“It’s okay,” he says with a smirk. “It’s all reparable.”

Well, I carry that with me. Of course, this is no excuse not to be very cautious, particularly when positioning dams and spillways, where serious damage could potentially occur with failures. It’s no justification for not building structures soundly or spraying chemicals on plants. But, for me, it’s what I need to dream a little, to push into areas that aren’t entirely safe but are interesting and fun. Without mistakes, without the idea that “it’s all reparable”, I would feel stifled. I want to be safe and I want to be successful, but I also love to play when doing it.

 

Earthen Spillway
Photos Courtesy of Emma Gallagher

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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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