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Permaculture is a method of agriculture that results in gardens that function like natural systems such that they are sustainable over the long term, require minimal labor and inputs, and have a net-positive impact on the ecosystem where they are located. In this episode we talked a little about the concept of ‘efficiency’ in a garden, and how it might be defined in the context of permaculture, and we also talked about perennials, and how integral they are in permaculture design.
What is Efficiency?
For conventional gardeners, efficiency might be defined as the ratio of yield to area; that is to say, the garden is considered efficient if a lot of growth is produced from as little space as possible. While there is a certain logic to this way of thinking, it is somewhat lacking in terms of its view of the broader question of efficiency. For the permaculture gardener, efficiency is about the ratio of energy realized to energy spent; that is to say, we seek to maximize the amount food and other resources that we get from our garden, relative to what we put into it.
Whereas a conventional garden will require tilling, fertilization, weeding, etc., these requirements are greatly minimized, if not eliminated by a permaculture approach. Tilling requires energy (your energy and the energy in the gasoline). Fertilizing requires energy (the energy required to mine and/or process the materials, the energy required to ship it the store where you bought it, the energy required to drive to the store and back to buy it, and all the energy that you put into making the money that you spent on the fertilizer). Weeding can also be a pointless waste of energy. By contrast, a permaculture garden requires no tilling, is mulched instead of being fertilized, and due to the mulch and other aspects of good design, weeds are greatly minimized, or at least put to work in some productive way.
Why Perennials Are Efficient
Another aspect of design that makes permaculture gardens so efficient is their use of perennials. You will not find a more efficient means of producing food than through edible perennials. Whether it is an apple tree, a berry bush, a rhubarb plant, or culinary herbs – perennials take the sun and the rain and turn them into food, vitamins and minerals without any work on our part. They also benefit the soil because the soil is never tilled where they are, and also, whatever foliage they produce that is not used, goes back to the soil in the form of compost, a further net-positive benefit. In addition, they tend to get bigger every year, so not only do they give back more than you put in, they give more every year. I can’t think of a better investment in your time and money, than to increase the prevalence of perennials in your garden.
Instant Gratification is Rare with Perennials
One thing that is important to note about perennials is that many of them take years to really start producing, so you need to manage your expectations sometimes, but it is always worth the wait. Fruit trees, berry bushes, and vines like grapes all can take a number of years to start producing food in any meaningful way. The same can be said of plants like rhubarb and asparagus. These are all long term additions to your garden, and well worth it if you plan to stay where you are for a long time. Of course, some offer their bounty far sooner. Some varieties of strawberry – such as day-neutral varieties – will begin to yield strawberries within months of being planted. Perennial herbs also tend to offer instant gratification, and are well worth adding to your garden if they are going to be used in your cooking in some way.
If gardening in a way that uses the least amount of time, money and energy possible – while still achieving great yields – is appealing to you, I would recommend looking into converting your garden into a permaculture garden this season. There is a ridiculous amount of information on this topic online, and of course we will talk more about it in subsequent episodes. I switched to this approach in 2012, and every year my garden gets better, and I do less work.