Permaculture – perm; Latin permanere, to remain

By: Hafoc Yates

April 17, 2015 I opened an email asking if I would like a hundred square food plot in the U Height’s Seattle P Patch community garden. Would I!

That Friday I was given my plot number, 1722, and I balanced my tablet with cellphone on my lap on my bus ride home as I planned my rows of chard, kale, and marigolds. I was challenged with finding what could grow in three inches of rocky dirt. Full-size tomatoes were out; cherry tomatoes were a possibility. Herbs were in; herbs liked rocky dirt. My Excel spreadsheet displayed tidy rows of veggies with straight paths neatly bordered by herbs and a few flowers. The seeds and bedding plants could be purchased within my $60 budget.

I popped off the bus three stops early to pick up books I had ordered from the library. One of the books was about to change how I garden, buy food, and my diet. The Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle is not a science /business book. I don’t read business articles, and science papers work better than Nyquil in sending me off to sleep. I read stories. I learn Climate Change from diaries and autobiographies. Stories are the soil of the human soul. This book destroyed my image of vegetable gardens and built a new, open understanding of being a curator of a plot of land. I was about to learn I could no longer plan my garden on an Excel spreadsheet.

Curator – Latin: curare, to take care of

My plot was on top of a hardpan of some ancient dirt alleyway. I googled topsoil and learned the beginning of a raised bed begins at ground level digging at least 24 inches (double dig) and mixing the dirt with peat and good soil as needed. It would take renting a small tractor to break through the hardpan, and I did not have the money for peat or new soil. Then a two-foot frame is set in and filled with topsoil. My frame was eight inches filled with three inches of rocky dirt.

For the first time I experienced the failure of the social network, library, and googling for help, I was on my own.  What I had on hand was several construction building projects close by (free white rocks, old bricks and wood); weeds (free mulch and compost); and, after digging the paths and a two-square-foot compost area, another half -inch of dirt.

This first year, I needed to heal the soil. I was going to garden soil, and build homes for bugs. I watered bacteria and microorganisms. If I was lucky, I may get a few salads of chard and kale; leeks grow in any summer condition. My main focus was to grow a couple of inches of rich topsoil for 2016. To accomplish this, I watched and listened to the weeds and created Bee Baths.

The weeds flowered first, attracting the bees. I was shocked that the bees do need a constant source of water. Within a few weeks, I could hear the buzz of a variety of bee species in my garden from the sidewalk. I learned how to identify the good weeds, feverfew, and the dangerous weeds, binding vine. I found Love in the Mist, and Bee Balm as volunteers. I compromised with my neighbors that if I can buy a produce (dandelion leaves for $8/pound) then I can grow it but will deadhead the flowers before they go to seed. I fought to keep my little compost corner by ‘hiding’ any the materials under a layer of dirt. I planted beans, kale, chard, leeks, lettuce, tomatoes, in bunches scattered between herbs and flowers. I had a garden with as many flowers as ‘food’ plants. The odd reality was my food plants were growing faster and producing more than plants in a traditional garden. I feasted on fresh produce seasoned with my herbs and all I could drink of plant and herb infusions. This little 100-sq-foot entity was bursting with life.

As Seattle’s hottest spring rolled into a record-breaking hottest summer, I arrived one afternoon to harvest dinner. With the temperature threatening to break into the hundreds, I sat on my rocky path and breathed…. success. Ground level was cooler and had that rich, old forest aroma of deep mulch. Spiders were scurrying about while the bees and hornets were patrolling the upper canopy. In two months, I had raised the soil level by three inches! Even though I filled the Bee Baths daily I only had to water three times a week. When I dug a hole I was greeted with a trowel full of squirming, slimy life of healthy soil.

Cons – Middle English: to examine carefully

The cons of permaculture cannot be expressed in simple cause and effect blogs. Why did the beans grow here but not 5 inches there? I love my spiders but… I will also work another part of the garden when one is using the sunflower leaf. I had two weeks of chatting with our migrating rats (Seattle IS the rat city) while closing the rat doorways with water then stamping them down. They are welcome to harvest what they need but not build doorways. On the rats’ part of the agreement, they have dug well over a foot into the hardpan beneath my plot mixing that dirt with my soil. I am now able to grow root produce like carrots, beets, and onions and my plot is the only plot without rat doors.

Autumn mornings are dark and chilly but my garden is still filling my basket with flowers, tomatoes, beans, salads, and herbs. I miss the bees, but the spiders are still active. I’ve learned if I want winter plants I need to plant seeds in the warm soil of July/August. The P Patch has been chosen as the winter layover for a swarm of Japanese beetles. Three scouts checked out my plot but left after I decorated with jars half full of peppermint castile soap and water. Best of all, we have migratory hawks harvesting the rats.

The best I’ve learned from my experiment into permaculture gardening is as I finish with the days’ gardening and get ready to head home I can breathe in and sigh “all is good.”


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