Saturday, May 9, 2015

How Much Work is a Permaculture Garden?

"Boy, that garden must take a lot of work!" 

"I see you out here working on this all the time!" 

"I wish I had time for a garden like that!"

We get comments like this all the time from people, and they never seem to believe me when I tell them that our garden actually saves us time. Sure, people see us out in our garden a lot, especially compared to how often you see people out "enjoying" their lawns, but that's because our garden is one of our favorite places to be and we enjoy spending time there. How many people can say that about their lawn?

Yes, we'll bend over and "harvest" a weed and use it to mulch one of our favorite plants, and yes, we are hard at work "observing" our garden, and YES, we do spend a lot of time on our favorite garden task: eating a bunch of incredible food! So, in that way, our garden takes "work," but most of it sure doesn't feel like working. 

And yes, it certainly does take a considerable effort to dream up, plan and install a Permaculture garden. 

But, how much work do our estabilshed gardens actually take? Let me tell you:

A Tale of Two Slopes

Above, is Slope One, the bane of my existence. This is what all of our lawn looked like when we moved in, weedy, dying, and difficult to mow, because our yard is one big slope. 

And here is Slope Two:

"Boy, that must take a lot of work to maintain!" 

Well, we installed this garden in one morning on the weekend, and then planted it over a few hours in the fall. So, maybe a total of 6 hours of work. 

Since that time, we haven't done a single thing to maintain it, other than appreciate the beauty of the plants.  

Meanwhile, I mowed and weedwacked Slope One 6 times last year after installing this garden. Each time was a massive pain in the butt, struggling to run the lawn mower over this slope and getting numb hands on the weed wacker. 

This spring, I've already mown it twice more, while the flowers on Slope Two bloomed without me. Not to mention the time I spend getting gas, doing maintenance and repairs on the mower. 

At this point, we've reached the "break even point," and from here on, Slope Two will begin saving me hours of difficult work every summer. 

Which isn't to say Slope Two has had 0 interaction. Some neighbors have stopped to pick some chives and thyme as they passed. And I've had to spend some time discussing how much better this slope looks now with a few neighbors. 

But all in all, it has already started saving me time. 

Here's another example of a guild we planted that has required very little maintenance since planting. 

And another:

This Spring, K spent an enjoyable hour casually weeding both of these two forest guilds. This was just to keep our front yard looking well-manicured, and not really necessary for the health of the garden. And I spent a half-hour doing chop and drop to remulch some of the paths, which was again not really necessary, just aesthetic. Already, I have spent more time mowing the paths between these garden areas than I have maintaining the gardens themselves, probably by about 5 times! 

In the meantime, there probaby hasn't been a day since the snow melted that we weren't eating something out of one of these guilds: onions, garlic, oregano, chives, salad greens, sunchokes, root vegetables....

And the costs? 

So far, we've probably spent around $1,000 on about an acre of gardens, and literally thousands of plants, with the biggest expense being a few grafted trees. We've grown the vast majority of our plants from seed and used recycled and "found" materials for most of our garden features and hardscaping. We've used no imported fertilizers and sheet mulched largely with recycled free materials. And becuase so many of the vegetables we grow are high value and very expensive at the store (if you can even find them!) we certianly more than broke even in the first year, and have saved additional money on groceries every year since. And the REAL valuable things--perennial vegetables, asian pears, gourmet plums, rare heirloom apples, exotic fruits like paw paws and kiwis--have only just begun to produce!

I can honestly say that for someone who enjoys studying plants and wants a closer connection with nature, a well-designed (that's the caveat!) Permaculture garden can fit into any time or budgetary restraints, and even save you time and money, if that's your goal. 

If that IS your goal, my recommendation is to start small, spend time learning about plants and garden guilds, use lots of mulch, and always plan for things to take more time than you think they will. 

And plan to spend more time simply enjoying your Permaculture garden than you though you would!

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