Week 10: Pollinators

The majority of flowering plants require animal pollinators such as bees, butterflies, birds, and bats to produce fruit and reproduce. Having stable pollinator populations helps support biological diversity in a garden and has been shown to improve fruit quality and production. However, numbers of these pollinators have been decreasing due to habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide use, threatening the survival of many crops. By designing the garden to create habitat and fulfill the needs of pollinating animals we can help to attract populations and the ecosystem services they bring.

Although honey bees are the most well-known pollinating insects and tend to attract the most attention, native bees like bumblebees, mason bees, and sweat bees are also very important for agriculture. There are over 800 native bee species in Canada, and unlike honey bees most are solitary and nest in the ground. The large diversity in size and shape of native bees means that they pollinate a wide range of flowers and crops. Unlike social bees which are generalists, solitary bees tend to specialize on certain species that they have coevolved with. Because of this specificity, native bees are often more efficient at transferring pollen than honey bees. We can encourage them in the garden by providing the food, shelter, and water they need.

Food

Diversity of plants is the key to almost everything in permaculture, and feeding pollinators is no exception. Large monocultures that all flower at the same time and then leave bees with nothing are very harmful to bee populations. Having a wide range of canopy layers, heights, colours, scents, and blooming period provides food for the greatest number of species over the longest period of time. We have also tried to include many perennial native flower species along the border of the garden, on the swale berm, and distributed within garden beds. Herbs and annuals vegetables are also good for pollinators and help attract bees to the garden, despite not being native for the most part. Some plants like borage and comfrey are typically seen as weeds, but are excellent for attracting bees and have many other uses.

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Calendula in Bloom!

Shelter

Native pollinators require shelter from weather and predators, and sites for nesting and roosting. Butterflies also need specific plants to host their caterpillars. The perennial flower border in the garden stretches the length of the site, creating a corridor from the food forest to the medicinal and vegetable gardens. Among the flowers, wild bergamot and Asclepias (butterfly milkweed) are butterfly hosts. We have also preserved a portion of the milkweed that was already present on the site and have started spotting some monarchs! Since each species requires slightly different habitat, having diversity in the landscape is also important. Although most of the garden is covered by layers of mulch, the bottom section has been left as untouched field, as the “wild zone” that is common in permaculture, and the area surrounding the garden is short grass, which some species also like. There is also the possibility of building an insect hotel and/or a bat house later on that will provide habitat and shelter.

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Swale Berm Cover Crop

Water

Accessing water is our biggest issue, not only for wildlife but for the plants as well! The hose from the nearest water source only goes as far as the entrance to the garden and we’ve been filling up barrels and watering cans to move it around. Any kind of running water or pool, pond, or small container of water for drinking and bathing is beneficial for pollinators, but may require a more complicated solution.

As we try to build this ecosystem and habitat, it is important to constantly be observing and adjusting. Now that things are starting to grow and bloom, I’m excited to see what will come with it. Not everything we do will be perfect, but by keeping a critical eye and our goals in mind, we can keep making it better, for ourselves and the organisms we share it with.

Sources:

Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “Native Pollinators and Agriculture in Canada”. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2014. Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2014/aac-aafc/A59-12-2014-eng.pdf. Accessed 23 July 2017.

Engels, Jonathan. “Attracting Bees to the Garden and Keeping Them There Without a Hive”. Permaculture Research Institute. 17 Feb. 2017, https://permaculturenews.org/2017/02/17/attracting-bees-garden-keeping-without-hive/. Accessed 23 July 2017.

Lyon, Briana. “How to Attract Beneficial Predators & Pollinators”. Permaculture Research Institute. 7 Aug. 2012, https://permaculturenews.org/2012/08/07/how-to-attract-beneficial-predators-pollinators/. Accessed 23 July 2017.

Wojcik, Victoria and Amber Barnes. “Selecting Plants for Pollinators: A Guide for Gardeners, Farmers, and Land Managers in the St. Lawrence Lowlands Ecoregion”. Pollinator Partnership Canada, http://www.pollinator.org/PDFs/Guides/Quebec-Planting-Guides/StLawrence-2016.pdf. Accessed 23 July 2017.

Week 9: Windbreak Design

The last large section of the garden left to complete is the windbreak in the South-Western corner. Upon visiting the site for the first time one of the first things we noticed there was the strong wind coming in from that direction by the angle on the serviceberry trees. It was made even clearer when our cardboard sheet mulch kept having to be reinforced due to the intense gales of wind. Wind is an extremely erosive force, and can put stress on growing plants, so we designed the windbreak to protect the plants and soil and stabilize the temperature in the garden.

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The angled serviceberry trees indicating strong winds. 

Our windbreak consists of three staggered rows of trees, with the tallest in the middle so the canopies form a triangle shape. This configuration guides wind upwards and over the garden, sheltering what is left behind it. Since the windbreak takes up a significant amount of space, it is important that it is multifunctional, so the species were selected to perform a variety of functions on top of sheltering the garden. We used this space as an opportunity to showcase some other interesting trees and shrubs that are a bit more unusual in a traditional garden, but that still are fast growing and strong enough to resist the wind.

We kept the four serviceberry trees that were already on the site that provide berries for harvesting and for sharing with the birds in the area. This ties in with the third ethic of permaculture: “Fair Share”. It is important to include plants and habitat that birds and the local wildlife will enjoy to really create a functioning ecosystem, in return they will provide ecosystem services like controlling pest and insect populations, and fertilizing the soil.

Added to the serviceberries are a pair of hazelnut trees that produce edible nuts, as well as food and shelter for wildlife. They can also be coppiced (cut to create a thicket of smaller branches) and the wood cut down can be used as stakes, fencing, building, etc…

Another edible berry producer we included is the Saskatoon Berry, which is really a fairly tall shrub. Its ornamental flowers attract bees, and its berries are similar to blueberries and are good food for birds or can be eaten fresh, baked, dried, or preserved in jams and jellies.

A good example of a very multi-purpose plant we included in the windbreak is the Siberian Pea Shrub. It is a pioneer species that grows very quickly in disturbed areas, to the point of earning the ‘invasive’ label. This large shrub produces seed pods that are edible, as well as the seeds within them (although they were used as a food source much more in the past rather than now).  It is also a legume that fixes Nitrogen in the soil, provides nectar to pollinating insects and wildlife, and acts as a shelter for birds. Its large root system also helps to stabilize the soil and control erosion.

Finally, another fast-growing Nitrogen Fixer in the windbreak is an Alder tree. Like the Pea Shrub, it is also a pioneer species that is good for transforming farmland back into woodland by replenishing the soil with nitrogen and covering it with leaf litter. Although it doesn’t produce any food, it does provide wood from coppicing, shelter for wildlife, erosion control from the roots, and can be used as a living trellis for climbing species.

The final row is berry bushes on the berm of a second swale that separates the windbreak from the squash garden and food forest.

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The plan for the windbreak design. 

Although we still have not received our trees due to complications in the ordering process, we have planned out and dug all of the holes, so all that is left to do is actually plant them! There is also the possibility of planting other canopy layers beneath the trees that will likely come at a slightly later phase in the design execution. Since the trees are placed quite close together there will not be a lot of light or space between them, but groundcover or vines could be an interesting addition.

Sources:

 

“Functions of Windbreaks”. Regenerative.com. Regenerative Leadership Institute, Inc., https://www.regenerative.com/magazine/functions-of-windbreak. Accessed 15 July 2017.

Joy, R.J. ” Windbreaks for Agroforestry Fresh Ideas With Multi-Use Species”. USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Center, 16 May 2006, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/hipmssy6712.pdf. Accessed 15 July 2017.

Kitsteiner, John. “Windbreak Plants for a Temperate Climate”. Temperate Climate Permaculture, 26 July 2012, http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2012/07/windbreak-plants-for-temperate-climate.html. Accessed 15 July 2017.

“Windbreaks”. A Permaculture Design Course Handbook. TreeYo Permaculture. https://treeyopermacultureedu.wordpress.com/chapter-6-trees/windbreaks/. Accessed 15 July 2017.

 

Week 8: Food Forest Design

Food forests are generally one of the first things that come to mind at the word ‘permaculture’. They truly represent what it means to create high-diversity edible ecosystems by combining plants of different functions and canopy layers together in high concentrations. Designing and creating one in a way that made sense ecologically, conceptually, aesthetically, and functionally was a fairly intimidating challenge.

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The canopy layer is the tallest of the food forest, and is usually a large fruit or nut tree. Due to the relatively small size of our garden, we opted for smaller species so that the entire area wasn’t eventually shaded out. The allocated space we had for the food forest only gave us enough room for two trees, and for most species at least two varieties were required two give fruit. To increase diversity, we decided to get around this by choosing cherry and apple trees with several varieties grafted onto a single root stalk. This way, each tree can pollinate itself, and will produce 4 or 5 varieties of fruit while taking up the space of only one tree.

Our subcanopy layer consists of a couple of small trees/ large shrubs that go around the trees in the center. We chose an elderberry, a goji berry, and two seabuckthorns, all of which produce edible berries. Because the plot was an irregular shape, they fit well into the corners that would be too small to fit a full tree.

Our tree order was delayed due to complications with ordering, so we haven’t been able to plant them yet, but the holes are dug and we are ready when they are!

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Chris digging holes for the trees

Once the placement for the trees was figured out, we could plan and plant the herbaceous and groundcover layers around them. This was trickier than in the vegetable garden because the tree layers will cast greater shade. All of the remaining plants were carefully placed according to height and growing conditions, with the taller plants closer to the trees, and the ones requiring more sunlight on the outer edges. We also had to make sure that we had plants that played different roles- some attracted pollinators, some repelled pests, others that fixed Nitrogen or produced mulch, etc. to recreate a complete system that would be self-sufficient.

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Food Forest Planting Guide

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Lavender is part of the shrub layer around the subcanopy

Spacing was one issue, because planting to create a ‘forest’ is very different from planting in a cultivated garden bed. We started planting the herbaceous layer only a couple of meters from where the central tree will be planted so that the plants aren’t directly beneath the canopy, but will be close to the edge once the tree is fully grown. We planted in staggered rows circling around the trees in decreasing order of height to maintain accessibility. We also had to leave space for paths to enter, exit, and move through the food forest.

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Thyme and Oregano planted on the edges as groundcover

In this exercise, the permaculture principle “Use edges and value the marginal” was important to keep in mind. The edges of ecosystems are usually the most diverse, because they incorporate aspects of what’s on both sides. Creating a small ‘forest’ is essentially all edge- this is where the different canopy layers come into play, and the many different microclimates become an opportunity for diversity and abundance rather than a hindrance.

Food Forest Diagram (Original from Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison)

Week 7: Garden Design & Companion Planting

Now we had our concept plan and the beds outlined, but that was really only the beginning of the garden’s creation. It was finally time to get into the details.

We essentially had 4 different vegetable garden beds of different shapes and sizes that would each have a unique design that would fit the needs of the plants as well as showcase different permaculture design techniques.

Bed 1: Cantaloupe- Tobacco Sun Trap

The cantaloupe garden was the most basic design. Since cantaloupes are large, sprawling, and require full sunlight, our options for companion planting were fairly limited. We opted instead to stick to traditional rows of cantaloupes, but with thin rows of pole beans planted in between the rows, inspired by the well-known Native American “Three Sisters” triad. The beans will be able to grow upwards along a trellis without being shaded out or shading out the cantaloupes, while fixing nitrogen into the soil. Surrounding this bed, we chose to create a sun trap with tobacco plants- a tall-growing plant that accumulates potassium, repels insect pests, and attracts pollinators. We planted them along the northern border and partly on the sides so that instead of casting shade, sun reflecting off the tall plants would concentrate on the cantaloupe beds. Around the southern border we planted a few lower companion plants, like comfrey and calendulas that will also deter pests and attract pollinators.

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The concept map for the cantaloupe bed

 

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Planted cantaloupe seedling amidst the cardboard

Bed 2: Tomato- Asparagus Network

Our second bed was more complex in terms of plants and arrangement. Both tomatoes and asparagus grow well together, and with a long list of herbs and companion plants. Asparagus is said to repel harmful nematodes from tomatoes, while the tomatoes protect from the asparagus beetle. We threw in basil, parsley, chives, borage, marjoram, and nasturtiums for added protection against insect pests. Not only do aromatic herbs help to ward them off, but the high diversity makes target plants harder to locate.

After helping to build the herb spiral, PDC-classmate and star volunteer, Evan, suggested that each of our garden beds represent a different permaculture pattern. While that didn’t completely work out, this bed does manage to integrate TWO patterns: Lobes and a Network. We decided to separate each tomato into individual systems surrounded by their own collection of companions. Each of these patches became a ‘lobe’ in the garden bed.

Lobes are a pattern used to maximize surface area. They can be found in clouds, buds, petals, even the lobes of the brain. In this case, the result was 14 semi-circular or circular garden beds. We designed these patches to be ‘double reach’ beds, meaning the radius was no more than an arm’s length, so the entire patch was accessible from the path around it, but there was still a large unbroken planted area in the middle. A single continuous path in a network pattern interconnects all the patches. Networks are of course, for connections. Social networks, synapses in the brain, and spiderwebs are all examples found in the world. Here it creates and organic and easy to move through space in between the circular garden patches.

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Concept map for the Tomato-Asparagus garden

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Semi-circular garden patch with planted seedlings

Bed 3: Kale – Arugula Keyholes

This bed holds all of the greens, like kale, sea kale, arugula, winter purslane, along with some companions like mint, nasturtium and good king henry. In terms of organization it is essentially the inverse of the tomato bed: all of the plants are congregated together in the middle, with semi-circular keyholes lining along the edges for access. The keyholes are spaced so that all of the garden is reachable, and the garden is arranged with the smaller plants on the outside and the taller ones in the center for easier harvest. We picked perennial sea kale and arugula to make this bed more self-sustaining.

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Original Concept Design for the Kale bed

Bed 4: “Three Sisters”

This bed is the three sisters in heavy quotations, since we are replacing the corn with extra tomato plants and not following the traditional pyramid structure to take more advantage of space and sunlight. The setup is similar to the cantaloupe bed, except with the beans acting as a suntrap, while also providing shade for the introduction presentation area behind it. Tomatoes are planted in between the beans also on the North side. Amaranth lines the eastern edge, serving as a pretty purple border between the squash and the food forest next to it. 8 different types of squash and 1 type of pumpkin fill the space in the middle.

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Squash Bed design

That is what has been planted up to now. The cantaloupe and squash still need a few more companions, currently they are more like proximate monocultures than true polycultures, that will be put in soon. Now just to wait and see how everything adjusts and grows! While it is exciting to create and implement a design, the true test is how well it actually works in practice. It will be interesting to see what succeeds and what doesn’t, and if it really makes a difference. Either way, there will be sure to be much more evaluating and re-designing over the next few years as the garden grows and develops, and that is all part of the process.

 

Next step: FOOD FOREST DESIGN!

Week 6: Design

A good design is the essential foundation of a successful permaculture project. The design is where all of the principles, concepts, and techniques come together to transform an area into a productive and resilient system.

Our design process began at the end of April, and is still not completely finished, nor will it likely ever be completely. From brainstorms to simplified concept maps, to the detailed designs, it has been a long journey to their actual execution!

The first step was the observation of the land and brainstorming ideas. We invited students taking the Permaculture Design Certification with P3 Permaculture to come for an extra curricular design exercise, and together broke into groups to create three rough, preliminary concept maps. These were not in scale, and basically only showed ideas of  elements to include and their possible placement. It was interesting to see what all three had in common and what was different; how each group could come up with unique responses to the same area. Most included the iconic elements like swales and herb spirals, but some emphasized annual gardens, others more food forests. Some included entirely new elements, like a pergola or bird and bat houses.

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One of the first rough design sketches

We then consulted the experts/ our teachers from P3 who combined all of our ideas into one concept design. It was still very generalized but gave us a clearer sense of the space and what should be placed in each area. It outlined distinct sections of food forest, annual vegetable gardens, medicinal plant garden, windbreak, and a teaching/presentation area in the middle. These sections became the basis of all future designs.

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Concept Map by P3 Permaculture

We then took this design and adjusted it slightly to fit our situation. We decided against having three swales in the food forest because of time constraints and the awkwardly curving contour of the land that would have thrown off the design, choosing instead to keep just one further down where the contour lines straightened out. This swale could also then serve as a second entrance from the side. The medicinal garden in the corner was designed as a windbreak, but had to be reimagined without any tall plants since it borders on the Student-Run Ecological Garden’s plots.

Using this design we could begin making lists of plants and designing guilds and companions for each section. This map shows our basic plan with each section listed and ideas of possible plants for each one.

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Once the concept was finalized the next step was to create a more detailed plan that could be actually executed. We realized quickly that there was a discrepancy between the concept maps and the actual shape of the site. This was because of several changes that had occurred since our first observation. MSEG next-door had expanded their mandala garden, and then we were told not to plant on the lawn area around the trees bordering the site, decreasing our area from both sides. The result is a new slightly pinched version of the design, with the three vegetable gardens rearranged, and the medicinal garden much reduced.

This is our working design currently, we have begun marking out the different sections on the field and can start to get a sense of how the garden will look once it’s established. More detailed plans are in the works for how each section will be planted, but it is exciting to be able to commit to a plan after months of designing and re-designing!

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Week 5: Herb Spiral

This week was a historic one: we officially began planting! We planted our inaugural seedlings in a classic permaculture element called the Herb Spiral.

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Planting the very first plant in the herb spiral!

This is essentially a raised garden bed made out of bricks or stones constructed in the shape of a spiral. It combines two important concepts: Pattern and Microclimates.

Patterns are at the base of permaculture design. By observing and finding universal patterns in nature and society we can then integrate them into designs to reproduce their effects. This is expressed in the permaculture principle, “Design from patterns to details”.

Spiral patterns are ubiquitous in nature: from snail shells to petal and leaf arrangement to hurricanes. Generally, they represent a concentration or dissipation of energy or material. In herb spiral design, it maximizes space, and is used to guide the flow of water from the top to the bottom of the structure.

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Finished Herb Spiral

The differences in height and orientation create a variety of microclimates. These are environmental conditions, such as the amount of sun, wind, water, and heat at one site, and can vary greatly within general climactic zones. Within a herb spiral, the southern and higher parts will receive greater sunlight, and water will flow downwards and accumulate at the bottom. This means that not only can there be many plants in a single structure, but there can be a variety of plants that each require different growing conditions.

We built our herb spiral out of found bricks for the base, and supplemented with rocks found on site. We orientated it so that most of the spiral was facing South, where it would get the most sunlight, besides at the very bottom which would be cool and moist. We filled the spiral with soil as we built it upwards to support the rocks at the higher levels.

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Volunteer Alice balancing stones to form the wall. 

Once the structure was finished, it was time to plant! After a week of hardening off outside, the seedlings we had started at the very beginning of the project were ready to be planted, and we selected a variety of herbs to go in the spiral.

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Seedling trays now fully sprouted!

From top (where it is hottest and driest) to bottom (cool and wet) we planted: Thyme, Oregano, Cilantro, Dill, Chives, Parsley, Sage, Lemon Balm, Basil, Mint, and Watercress. Now to see how they (and the spiral) fare after a rainy weekend!

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Evan and Alice with the spiral in our cardboard field. 

 

Sources:

“Principle 7: Design from patterns to details”. permacultureprinciples.com, https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_7/. Accessed June 16, 2017.

Roberts, Tobias. “Pattern in the Natural World and Nature as Measure”. Permaculture Research Institute, June 9, 2017, https://permaculturenews.org/2017/06/09/patterns-natural-world-nature-measure/. Accessed June 16, 2017.

Week 4: Cardboard

Sheet Mulching is a method of creating no-dig garden beds by layering compost materials to suppress weeds and grasses and improve the soil. It is especially useful when converting a relatively large grassy area, like we had, into cultivable land with little equipment or machinery.

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The grassy field we started with. 

Mulching is extremely important in permaculture. It insulates roots and the soil, retains moisture and nutrients, provides a habitat for life, and increases organic matter that improves soils structure and biology. Tilling and disturbing the soil does the complete opposite, leading to soil degradation and erosion over time if done too intensively. In this process we want to build the soil up instead of removing material.

Sheet Mulching is an example of the Permaculture Principle “Observe and Interact”. This is fundamental to permaculture: observing how ecosystems behave and replicating it in your own design. In this case, the layers of mulch are meant to mimic the natural litter on a forest floor. It begins with cut or flattened weeds and grasses, then a concentrated compost layer (see last week), followed by a weed barrier (the only layer not present in Nature), and finally alternating nitrogen and carbon-rich mulch layers that represent newly fallen forest litter and will decompose into compost over time. Ideally this should be done in the fall so that the layers can break down over the winter, producing a medium that is easier to plant in.

This week was focused on the weed barrier: designed to prevent the germination and re-emergence of the weeds and grasses below it. We went with the typical method of using cardboard: an easily sourced material that is thick enough to block the light to the plants below, and a favourite of earthworms that will break down and till the cardboard into the soil.

We had begun collecting about a month ago, sourcing cardboard from bicycle shops (bike boxes are a perfect size), grocery stores, and the recycling bins of Macdonald Campus (Thank you to all of the centrifuge tube/wine/office chair purchasers).  Now that the compost layer was completed, we were finally able to start laying it down. With the help of wonderful volunteers Siri, Evan, and Olivia, we covered most of our planting area before exhausting our cardboard supplies. The rest will have to wait until next recycling day!

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Taking a break from the sun to remove staples and tape from the boxes.

We also covered the cardboard with some heavy clay topsoil donated by the Mac Farm to prevent it from flying away.

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Holding the cardboard down with topsoil.

Although the point of the weed barrier is to kill the plants beneath it, there were a few that we wanted to keep. The field was littered with milkweed, and important plant for monarch butterflies, that we came up with some creative ways to avoid crushing.

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Being strategic with hole placement

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Spot the milkweed!

Sources

Elevitch, Craig and Kim Wilkinson. “Sheet Mulching”. Agroforestry. Agroforestry Net, Inc, 1998, http://www.agroforestry.org/free-publications/sheet-mulching. Accessed 9 Jun. 2017.

“No-Dig Garden Beds”. IFAS Extension. University of Florida, http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/hot_topics/sustainable_living/no_dig_garden.shtml. Accessed 9 Jun. 2017.

“Sheet Mulching-Lasagna Composting”. Extension Service Lane County. Oregon State University, Jan. 2013, http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lane/sites/default/files/documents/lc731sheetmulchmay2015_0.pdf. Accessed 9 Jun. 2017.

 

 

Week 3: Compost

To prepare the land for planting, we decided from the beginning to follow the same process as UMass Amherst Permaculture (our inspiration), and sheet mulch the entire area. The first layer would be compost to add organic matter and beneficial soil biology to the system. We were lucky that the Horticulture Centre at McGill had generously donated a literal mountain (about 100 cubic meters) of compost to us, which was more than enough for what we needed to do. The only downfall was that it was all the way on the other side of the overpass, and it seemed like an impossible task to move it all.

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The Pile

That has been our main task since we started this project three weeks ago, and there has been a lot of trial and error in completing it.

Method 1: Bags

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Project Leader Audrey moving a bag of compost

Our first attempt was to shovel the compost into plastic garbage bags, which we could then drive over and distribute around the field. Flaws in this plan quickly arose when we realized that in order for the bags to be movable they could only be filled about halfway, and even then, the bags often weren’t strong enough and developed holes when we tried to move them. One box of bags was justifiable, but using hundreds of plastic bags that could not be reused afterwards seemed far too wasteful and not in line with the permaculture spirit.

Method 2: Truck

In an effort to cut out bags, we rented a truck for the day, thinking we could fill it directly with compost and then empty it at the site. Unfortunately, this ended up being much more labour intensive than we had predicted. Not only did we have to spend hours moving compost into the truck, with three people shovelling and one person raking the compost to the back, we then had to spend almost an equal amount of time shovelling it out on the other side. We then had to clean out the compost from all the nooks and crannies in the truck before we returned it. After a whole day we had only moved a fraction of the pile, and were daunted by the prospect of moving the rest.

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Volunteer Clémentine with the truckload of compost

Method 3: Front Loader

I have never felt so relieved as when Mike Bleho from the Horticulture Centre showed up at the garden site one morning and announced that he would have someone move the compost for us. A weight was lifted off our shoulders, but it was almost too good to be true. After a weekend of rain the compost was too wet to be moved without sticking to the truck, and after a couple of loads, the deliveries stopped.

Method 4: Bins and Bags

In the end, we went back to the bags. We salvaged the bags that were still intact from our first try, and supplemented them with woven bags that were much more durable, reusable, and easier to move than the garbage bags. We also were given a collection of second hand bins that we could put the bags in, making them much easier to transport without tearing or dirtying a car. In five trips we had the compost we needed to fill the field.

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Spreading the compost piles

An important Permaculture Principle for this week is “Use and Value Renewable Resources”. Renewable resources are usually associated energy production, but can be much more than that. For us, it was trying to stay away from single-use solutions, and finding something that we can repeat as many times as we need to without exhausting our supplies, our budget, or ourselves. People can also be renewable resources. Valuing and not overworking our volunteers, the people who help us, and ourselves is extremely important for the sustainability of a project, even if it means going a little slower.

 

 

 

Week 2: Swales

Water is one of the most important resources in an ecosystem: everything depends on it, but it can also be extremely damaging. When creating a permaculture design, it is the first thing that needs to be considered. In order to properly manage and use water to its full potential, following the Permaculture Principle “Catch and store energy”, one of the most common and valuable tools is the swale.

A swale is a method of shaping the landscape to increase water catchment and storage, allow greater and slower water distribution, and prevent runoff and erosion. Swales are iconic elements of permaculture, so we felt having one was essential for our Showcase Permaculture Garden. Since the site is slightly sloping as well, it would be important for stopping and slowing the water (and all the organic matter, nutrients, and soil it carries) running through.

Swales consist of a shallow trench dug along a contour line where the base of the bowl is completely level. That way, water that enters will distribute evenly along the swale instead of accumulating in one area. It then seeps into the ground and percolates through the landscape underground. The soil removed from the bowl is piled on the downhill side to form the berm of the swale. This is seeded with plants – either naturally with seeds transported by the flowing water, or by hand. The plants are often deep-rooted, usually trees, and increase the water catchment action of the swale, as well as stabilizing the landscape and preventing oversaturation.

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Swale Diagram

The first step to building a swale is to decide its placement and map the contour. We placed ours near the top of our landscape where it will be the most efficient. We were very lucky that day to have the help of a friend from our Permaculture Design Certificate: Mathieu, a perfectionist engineer with a laser level that we could use to measure contours quickly and easily.

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The swale with the marked contour line and the topsoil removed

The next step is to remove the topsoil and place it grass-side down on the down-hill side; this forms the beginning of the berm. Then, we dug downward to form the base of the swale. Once we had one area dug to an adequate depth, we could create reference points of the same depth all along the rest of the swale using the level, so that the entire base is even. Next, the sides were dug down at an angle to prevent erosion, and the soil piled onto the berm.

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The completed swale!

Once the swale was built, we planted the berm with a mix of different seeds we had left over and mulched. It isn’t complete yet, the bowl still has to be filled with bark chips and will serve as a path, and we want to eventually have trees and shrubs planted on the berm, but garden construction is officially underway! This is the first major change we have made to the site and being able to see progress is exciting.

Next step: Sheet Mulching.

Sources

Engels, Jonathan. “Why We Use Swales and How To Do It Appropriately.” Permaculture Research Institute, 31 Mar. 2017. http://www.permaculturenews.org/2017/03/31/use-swales-appropriately. Accessed 26 May 2017.

Swale Diagram Image Source: https://www.odicis.org/water/water-infiltration-diagram

Week 1: Preparation

Last week we officially began working on the garden. Our first step was unfortunately destructive: our future garden site was littered with several small trees, and some dead milkweed and burdock that had to be removed so that the soil could be prepared. We learned quickly that digging out trees was much more difficult than planting trees. Although we had originally intended to preserve and transplant them to a corner of the site, we quickly realized that for many it would be near impossible to extract them without destroying the roots with a reasonable amount of time and effort.

trees

The unfortunate sacrifices.

Although using what is already on the land is generally a good idea, these trees were not well placed and interfered with design elements that would maximize use of the land. However, we realized that if we just removed them we would be removing nutrients from the site. So, in the spirit of the permaculture principle of “Produce No Waste”, they will instead be given new purpose as either mulch or compost, decomposing and returning to the soil where their nutrients will be used to grow new plants.

We did end up keeping 4 trees that we think are Serviceberries, since they had conveniently been planted in an area that will likely become a food forest already. A couple of them had been very affected by the wind and were leaning at an almost 45° angle, but they are still young and small enough to be helped back upright and then protected by windbreaks. In the meantime, they served as excellent indicators of a strong wind in that direction that we couldn’t feel but were able to recognize when we went to do the preliminary design observation.

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The newly cleared site with the 4 survivors

Our next step was the complete opposite: after spending the afternoon digging up trees, it was now time to plant some! We had ordered a wide variety of seeds including herbs, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and trees that it was now time to start germinating. In permaculture and in ecology, diversity is the key to creating an abundant, resilient system. We chose plants that perform different functions and require slightly different conditions to establish a self-maintaining polyculture.  For now, however, they are organized in trays in the greenhouse, until they are ready to be transplanted. Hopefully these 864 new plant lives make up for the few we had to take away.

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Freshly planted seeds!

The next steps are to begin sheet mulching and of course finalizing the design. There remains a lot of work to do, and this is only the beginning!