As part of the ongoing maintenance of the permaculture design for my back garden, I made a list of the issues highlighted in my successes and problems posts:
- Lack of time for maintenance; this led to no blueberry fruit (lack of netting and fertiliser) and a poor strawberry harvest (lack of watering).
- Lack of time? inclination? for harvesting.
- Snails eating seedlings (and the grape vine).
- Some under-utilised space.
- More of an observation than an issue: the things that have done best are the things which require the least input, and are the least vulnerable. (eg tomatoes, which largely look after themselves once the seedlings are robust enough to go outside, especially with the self-watering containers.)
After thinking about it for a few days, I concluded that the maintenance and harvesting problems actually break down into three factors:
- Real actual lack of time.
- Not spending enough time out in the garden. ("The best fertiliser is the gardener's shadow"). This is largely because it is so very hot out there in good weather.
- Watering is a big faff: the watering can is slow to fill from the butt, and heavy to fill from the tap, and one watering can isn't much for a whole garden.
I took a look at the permaculture principles while thinking about designing a solution. (The whole design maintenance process is about principle 4, "Accept self-regulation and feedback".) (Italics are conclusions or things I need to add to my to-do list.)
Living with the snails
My very first conclusion was that however many solutions there are to snail and slug problems, my preferred solution was to learn to live together with the snails. (Principle 1, "Observe and interact; beauty is in the eye of the beholder.") As a vegan, I can't really justify killing the snails, who are after all only trying to feed themselves, the same way I am. Observing the plants that struggled, the ones most at risk are small annual seedlings (carrots and turnips, courgette, basil), and that grape vine. This suggests a multi-layer approach (principle 10: "Use and value diversity"):
- Just give up growing carrots and turnips. They're not a great crop for a small space, I've always struggled to germinate carrots, and I've never been that impressed by the taste of my home-grown ones.
- Work on getting plants big enough to resist snail attacks. That means protecting my annual seedlings (bean, courgette, basil) better (starting in the already planned mini-greenhouse, perhaps also using copper tape for the basil pot), and planting more perennial veg, which are better able to resist attack.
- For the grape vine, which I really want to try again: a mechanical solution. An anti-snail fence did seem to work this year, but the plant was already too damaged. Next year I can use it from the start.
Lack of time, and lack of time in the garden
My next problem was the lack of time, combined with the lack of time spent in the garden. The obvious solution to a lack of time is to grow plants that need less attention, which broadly speaking again points to perennials. (Snail-resistant and easier to grow! Principle 5: "Use and value renewable resources and services".) A second solution is to plan what maintenance I do need (eg checking the soil pH of the blueberries, fertilising fruit trees) a bit better over the winter, ready for summer. (Principle 2: "Catch and store energy"; that is, use my winter energy to better direct my summer energy.) Making comfrey and nettle tea is also on my agenda.
The lack of time in the garden is strongly related to our excessively warm south-facing patio. We have a patio umbrella, but it doesn't provide much shade, and it doesn't shade the wall of the house which then radiates heat back out. It's actually a difficult space to shade, because it is so very south-facing! One solution might be an awning with a 'curtain' falling a couple of feet around it. However, my preferred solution is another grape vine, trained over the patio. This will produce a grape crop, provide all-day shading for the house wall, and the transpiration of the green leaves will cool the space under them. I thought we would need a pergola for this (difficult to install on our concrete patio), but in fact installing strong wires should do the trick at least initially. (Principle 9: "Use small and slow solutions", principle 3: "Obtain a yield" (of both shade and grapes!), principle 2: "Catch and store energy" (grapes store sun energy), and principle 8: "Integrate rather than segregate" (two functions, one solution).
There were other awkwardnesses in the patio space which I've already fixed and which are already meaning I spend more time out there and water a bit more, as the weather cools:
- The table and chairs are an awkward shape for the space -- the table is too big and the chairs are in the way. However, it turns out that the chairs hang quite neatly on the otherwise-unused tall patio fence, which meant I could move the table out. It's now much easier to navigate.
- Leon's paddling pool was similarly awkwardly sized. Ebay provided a smaller, easier to manage second-hand pool.
Watering and harvesting
I'm currently working on watering and wicking solutions to make watering required less often, and easier when it is required. I'd like something in all the annual beds and anywhere else (eg the blueberry and cherry pots) it's needed. I also need to add a longer hose to the tap for when I need to use that, to make the watering can easier to fill.
The planned perennial beds, with full ground cover, will also help retain moisture in the earth, as will adding more compost as it becomes available. I'm going to abandon the strawberry tower which doesn't work at all well, and use the strawberries as perennial ground cover.
Harvesting: we don't use as much rocket as we have; but as a self-seeded low-maintenance plant which gets eaten sometimes and is nice to nibble on while gardening, I'm happy to just let it keep on keeping on. I'm going to stop planting annual lettuce, but might plant a salad-type perennial leaf (low-maintenance, available if wanted).
I am going to put sticky notes on the herb jars which are for things we have outside, to remind cooks that the fresh herbs are there!
Finally, in terms of under-utilised space (principle 6: "Produce no waste"), a handful of different solutions:
- Two small and slow solutions (principle 9): a cherry tree to replace the satsuma in the big pot (principle 3: "Obtain a yield"), and a couple of raspberry canes to go into the wild east border. The raspberries should need little maintenance once established, the cherry might need netting once it starts bearing fruit. It will also help shade the patio a little.
- A mini-greenhouse for the sunny south wall by the door. (Principle 2: "Catch and store energy"). As above, this will also provide a safe place for seedlings to grow big enough to resist snails.
- Perennial plants in both west beds, using forest-garden-style stacking underneath tall plants against the sunny fence. (Principle 11: "Use edges and value the marginal".) This also, as above, helps to solve the watering, time, and snails problems.
- Moving some of the herbs (thyme and oregano, most notably) into the north-east raised bed next to the herb garden, where I think they will do better and will also act as ground cover. This is really part of the perennial bed planting and reduces my outlay on new plants in favour of ones we use.
- An autumn olive in the far south-west corner, above the rhubarb, for fruit, beautiful berries, and nitrogen-fixing. (Principle 11: "Use edges and value the marginal", and principle 8: "Integrate rather than segregate".)
Generally, my aim is to set things up so that, as much as possible, they manage themselves. It's going to require a certain amount of work over the winter to set things up, and over the first year or two to help them get going, but in the long run this should significantly improve the way the garden works, heading towards the "harvesting as maintenance" goal.
The big part of the plan is forest-garden style planting in the two western raised beds. I've worked out my plan for that and will write about it in my next post.